3 Improv Classes in LA You May Not Know About
In 2023 I drive by restaurants I used to like, only to discover they now have boarded windows. I'm still surprised when I stumble across places I thought had made it through the pandemic, but actually didn't. Theaters had an especially hard time (RIP Second City Hollywood). But don't worry, this post is not an obituary for all the comedy homes we lost during the panny. Instead, it's a promising look toward the future.
When LA began its rebound, even some of the bigger theaters took an unexpectedly long time to reopen. While UCB and Groundlings were still closed, independent operations sprouted up. Gritty shows in the back of dive bars grew out of necessity, and some have stuck it out. A few now even have their own classes. In my opinion, LA has had a bit of an indie improv renaissance. So, does that make improv cool again? Well, no, not really. But if that doesn't bother you, welcome to the club. If you want to try out some of the lesser known improv schools in LA, here are some places you can start.
1. WE Improv
Cost: $23 - $24/hour
Class size: 9
Accessibility: The Clubhouse has street level access, a stage ramp, & two accessible bathrooms. Some online classes.
WE Improv was started by a very good friend of mine named Jake Jabbour. He's a UCB improvisor and long time nice guy. If you mention Jake's name around most improvisors, the usual response will be, "Oh, Jake? He's so nice!" The main thing that separates Jake, and therefore his classes, is that he has a teaching credential. Jake got a Master's Degree in Special Education and did Teach for America in 2010. I don't think anyone will disagree with me when I say that the average improv instructor (myself included) has zero formal teacher training. In my experience, the average improv instructor is a "good performer" with no degree in education, no credential, and certainly no experience teaching at all, outside of improv. (Hey, at least I was a TA at SDSU!) And while improv students have certainly been making do with this model, it's refreshing to be taught by someone with expertise in the field of, well, teaching. I would say it took me a solid five years of instruction experience before I knew what I was doing. My early students wouldn't recognize the teacher I am today. (I make them run fewer laps. Just kidding. They run more.)
Two other things that give you bang for your buck at WE are the notably small class size (only 9 students) and the equal ratio of shows to classes. Instead of having one show at the end of a six-week class, for example, WE gives you four classes and four shows, which I've never seen before. Jake has also made it a point to never hold auditions for house teams. Instead, they're self-assembled. This eliminates one of the most stressful and competitive parts of what is otherwise a collaborative art form. If you want to check the vibe before committing, WE shows are free to attend. And to be transparent, when he needs a hand, Jake lets me teach a class or two. So if you sign up for a WE class expecting Jake but get me, you can swap classes and I won't be offended. But you will miss out on a some laps. See the website at weimprov.org.
2. World's Greatest Improv School (WGIS)
Cost: $16 - $20/hour
Online class size: 9
In-person class size: 14
Accessibility: The Clubhouse has street level access, a stage ramp, & two accessible bathrooms. One classroom is inaccessible. Online classes & shows.
World's Greatest Improv School (WGIS) was started by Will Hines, a long time staple in the local comedy community. He's a UCB teacher and has been performing since the 1950's (just kidding, Will). I believe you get six two-hour classes and one show per class. Will gets points for accessibility here, since his school seems to have the widest variety of class types: in-person, online, single-day online, and single-day in-person. The ground floor of the building where classes and shows take place, called The Clubhouse, is accessible (WE Improv also operates here). But you should note that a few classes take place up one flight of stairs. Be sure to check which class you sign up for if you need to avoid stairs. If you don't live in LA, or taking online classes is easier for you, WGIS gives you plenty of options.
Slight detour here for a little story. Before the pandemic, I was in an improv class at a theater in LA that shall remain nameless. About half way through, I got hip surgery. I knew it was coming, so I had informed the school, and my teacher, beforehand. The issue was that my class was located upstairs, with no elevator in the building. They said it wouldn't be a problem. I got surgery, and walking was off the table. I asked the school what accommodations they would provide. I sh*t you not, their answer was, "We don't make accommodations." My only option was to retake the class from the beginning, once I could walk again. It would be months before that happened. More than that, what if I had been permanently disabled? Shamefully, I had never truly noticed that the school was inaccessible until it affected me. I filed a formal complaint and never went back. Six months later the pandemic started. Guess who suddenly put every class online? That's right! Those ding dongs. They refused to let me take my class online. But when their bottom line was affected, online classes appeared basically overnight. This is an extreme example, but you see my point. Every theater should be as accessible as humanly possible, which brings me back to WGIS.
For icing on the cake, you can watch WGIS shows on their Twitch channel, join discussion groups, or even jam online (a show where strangers perform together). Whether you're disabled, live in Kentucky, or just wanna sit on your couch, WGIS gives you access to a complete community from the comfort of your screen. And that can mean everything to those who really need it. See the WGIS website here: wgimprovschool.com.
3. The Pack
Cost: $14 - $19/hour
Online class size: 12
In-person class size: 14
Accessibility: Street level access, floor level stage, accessible bathrooms. Online classes & shows.
While I've never actually taken a class at The Pack, there's no denying its impact on the LA improv scene. Founded by veteran performer and local improv legend Miles Stroth, this theater used to be called the Miles Stroth Workshop. It's since evolved (and gotten a much cooler logo). Classes at The Pack don't always include performances, but they do have one of the lowest price points around. So if budget is your priority, this may be a good choice. Like WGIS, The Pack has online classes and its own Twitch channel. We love accessibility! You can watch shows and even jam from the comfort of your couch. For the thrifty and industrious, there are workarounds to getting onstage in-person, if your Pack class doesn't come with a show. If you're willing to put in a little work (and send a few emails) there are a myriad of independent improv shows across LA that have open submissions. I'll write about how to find and submit to those shows in a future post. Notably, The Pack does have its own improv and sketch teams, and anyone is able to audition. If you stick around long enough to sign up for the next round, you may get to perform regularly anyway.
Another quick story here: a few years ago I auditioned for an improvised longform show at the same inaccessible theater I described above (well before my surgery debacle). I hadn't taken any classes there yet, but the auditions were open to anyone, so I figured I had a chance. I wasn't cast; no big deal. It wasn't the first time that happened, and it won't be the last. After I enrolled in my first class, and I noticed my teacher was the same one who had run my audition. One day, he took me aside to mention how well I had done. His reason for not casting me back then was that he "didn't know me." I'm sure that was meant to make me feel better, but I found myself annoyed. I was polite in person, but my dude, come on. What's the point of having open auditions if you're not going to cast anyone you don't already know? My point isn't that I should have been cast. Maybe I sh*t the bed that day and he was just trying to be nice. My point is, I now coach a Pack house team, and they were assembled from open auditions. So I know for a fact that The Pack is very willing to cast people they've never seen before. And when you have open auditions, that's exactly how it should be.
Finally, you'll want to note that The Pack has moved from its original space at The Complex. It's now operating out of The Broadwater in Hollywood. But if you show up at the old place by accident, don't worry. It's just a four minute walk down Santa Monica Blvd. to get to the new spot. You would normally pass one of my favorite fried chicken spots on the way, but it closed during the pandemic. : / Check out The Pack's website here: packtheater.com
In your search, remember...
When you're looking at classes, most theaters list the total price up front, which can look intimidating ($200, $300, $500??). Always divide that price by a.) the number of classes, and b.) the number of hours in each class. That will give you a more accurate reflection of how much you're paying per hour. A lower total price may look enticing, but you could easily be paying more for class time than you'd like. And a $500 price tag may be hiding a better value when you break it down. Take UCB's current 101 improv class: right now it's $500. But with eight three-hour classes, it comes out to around $21 per hour. That's in the mid-price range for LA, even though it looks the most expensive. So if you want to see what the post-pandemic indie scene has for you, try dipping a toe. These are just a few!