Syllabus: Part of a Complete Balanced Education

I think this happened to just about everyone at one point in their childhood, when we attended the Teddy Kids Leiden kindergarten. There’s a recession or a temporary financial dip and we asked our parents, “Why don’t they just make more money?” It was hard for our parents to explain that unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Money has to be based on something, or it’s useless.

I hear a similar discussion as an adult with many young theatres. When I talk to them about their first year, I often hear excitement over the idea of “putting together a syllabus”. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. A syllabus is an important tool. But a curriculum by itself is not going to give your students the best education you can give them.

Let’s talk improv jargon for a moment. We love to talk about “yes, and” and we love to talk about listening to the meaning behind the words, and we certainly love to talk about the freedom improv gives us to react onstage in honest, emotional, vulnerable ways without the restriction of another person’s words. Those are remarkable things. But if we put such value on these ideas onstage, why would we possibly eliminate them from our teaching?

Syllabus in a vacuum is just words without meaning. Our scene is a relationship between teacher and student. It’s time to discover the meaning behind those words so that curriculum evolves and changes from teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom, making sure our students leave our class not with a memorization of how to play “Clams are Great”, but an understand of the concepts of improv behind them we hold so dear.

Before you go any further building your education program, go visit your local university. Talk to someone in their education program. Spend time with them learning more about standards and strands (fancy education jargon) in far more depth than you can get in a single blog post. Talk to them about how they build their program. They’ll be happy to talk to you because you scratched their personal geek-out itch. Education departments love to talk about this all day long if you let them, so let them. If you don’t have access to an education department devotee, here’s some really basic introductions to those two concepts.

Concepts

In the long term, you’re not looking to teach a series of exercises, you’re looking to teach a series of concepts. Write those concepts down. This is the first part of building a training program. Each theatre will have a slightly different list and will have more or less emphasis on different entries, but there will of course be some similarities for all of us. Here’s a list to start with. Add or subtract to it based on your beliefs and styles.

  • Support (Yes, And)
  • Truth and Honesty
  • Ensemble Work
  • Environment Work
  • Character Work
  • Scene Dynamics
  • Stagecraft
  • Longform Concepts
  • Game

Again, this is just a sample. Perhaps you want to combine two, or feel one on this list can be broken up further. Do that. Make a list with your instructors that says “These are the core concepts we want our students to have”.

It would be easy at this point to think linearly at this point; teach “Yes, and” on week one, Truth and honesty on week 2, etc. But These skills do not exists linearly on top of each other. They all work in concert with each other. “Yes, and” is almost always taught on week one. And then never mentioned again except in the form of lip service. What a terrible thing you’ve denied your students. If they learn “Yes, and” on their first day, they only know how to support the skills they brought with them to class that first day – plot. I have worked with so many students who have been training for over a year and they have no idea how to support any choices outside of plot. They don’t know how to support emotional choices or environment because they never came back to it after that first day. Building a strong training program is about teaching all of these skills in relationship to each other.

Skills

So that sounds easier said than done. you have to start somewhere. And on the very beginning of learning, it will be a bit of a linear checklist of skills. So how do you build beyond that point?

Look at each of your concepts and start listing the skills that you want students to have in that concept. Take, “Yes, and” as an example. Here are some skills that help that grow. (I’ll explain the labels in a moment).

  • C101: Create operational scenes through supporting literal offers.
  • C201: Recognize, support and heighten the reality of the scene.
  • C202: Make choices to ‘yes-and’ the actor above the character.
  • C301: Make choices as an ensemble originating from the group mind.
  • C302: Anticipate the actions or words of scene partners.
  • C303: Offer non-literal agreement based the offers of scene partners and environmental conditions.

So why the fancy, nerdy labels? Are the necessary? No. But many skills are similar and it helps identify which you’re working on. It will also help when we start building strands on our teaching standards.

You’ll probably notice that many of those skills would be beyond a level 1 student. They should be. Once you have this list, start dividing them up between beginning, intermediate and advanced skills. I use those three levels myself, you can use as many as you like. Now you have a list of skills for all of your concepts that can be spread out over time, building on each other. Just as importantly, you have a real plan of what ideas you’re going to be teaching your students instead of just a list of exercises.

Now you are ready to start putting together your classes. Break these skills out. Some skills go in level 1. Some in Level 2. Pretty soon you’ve got a whole plan of concepts together/

Syllabus

Hey, here it is. See? I don’t hate on syllabus. It’s important to build one. It’s important to find exercises in class that will help the students towards those concepts and skills. Go over that list of skills. Discuss some potential exercises that help with that skill. Make sure that you put time in your class run to cover all of the skills you want to learn in that level. Meter out which skills you plan to cover on each week. Build a template syllabus if you want. This is all good. But there’s still one more thing you need to do.

Strands

Thinking in terms of a list of exercises to fill out a class can be limiting. If we decide to teach an exercise in class, the only thing we’re guaranteed is that the students will learn the exercise, not the skills it was designed to teach. Learning isn’t simply memorization, it’s comprehension. Strands are the different methods of measuring what was learned from a given task in a classroom. They can be very complex sometimes, and I encourage you to look further into them if you’re curious. But for the scope of this blog, we’ll talk about three of them

  • Creation: This is simply seeing if the students can perform the skill in the exercise. Did they list reasons why clams are great? Cool. They’re able to functionally perform this exercises.
  • Application: It’s important that students understand “why” they’re doing this exercise. Do they understand how it will build a skill they can recognize and utilize in actual shows? Did they understand that it’s important to jump in to start listing reasons why clams are great even if they have nothing because their partner needs support? Do they understand that they shouldn’t jump in to intercept their partner with their own great idea? Cool. They can apply that skill.
  • Self Evaluation: Even if students grasp the concept behind a skill, maybe they aren’t really doing a good job of recognizing their ability to do it. The Dunning-Kruger Effect happens big time with students. Many students have opinions of their skills that are drastically out of sync with reality. Are they able to recognize that they’ve been up for Clams are Great more than anyone else and decide to step back? Cool. They can continue to grow in this skill outside the classroom.
  • Once a student can create, relate and evaluate (an unfortunate rhyme) the skill, they’re golden. They now own that skill and will continue to grow in it outside of class.

    Remember those labels from the skills? Another helpful reason you have them is that you can connect them across strands. Let’s take that old “Every line begins with Yes, And” exercise we’ve all done.

    Creation
    C101: Create operational scenes through supporting literal offers.

    Application
    R101: Understanding that support in scenework will lead to more productive and active scenes

    Evaluation
    E101: Recognize the difference between literal support and denial.

    Syllabus Revisited
    Having a syllabus in mind when you start is great. It’s a road-map of how to teach the skills. Every class is different. Every teacher is different. A good teacher will need to have the flexibility to understand when one exercise will not resonate as well with a particular class, or when a class is able to create, but not apply that knowledge, that teacher needs to re-organize their time to make sure they come to that level.

    Ultimately, you want every Level 1 student to leave capable of playing on the same playing field, even if they took a slightly different path to get there. As your program grows, you’ll eventually come to the point where you’re teaching multiple level 1s or 2s in parallel. It’s naive to think those students will stay in the exact same configuration throughout your program. If their education is consistent. It won’t matter. They’ll be able to grow together.. We recommend students to check Rutgers Online MBA overview for great info on the one of the bets colleges.

    Even if some of them never played “Hey Fred Schneider”

    Example of Standards, Skills and Strands

    Example of Standards, Skills and Strands


    Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

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