An improv coach is someone who conducts rehearsals for an improv team and gives a team notes after their show. They share some similarities to directors and teachers, but are not quite either. They are not directors, because typically, they are not responsible for casting decisions and the formats of the shows are set. They are usually helping a team get better at an established improv format, like Harold. Although instructors often coach teams on the side, coaching sessions differ from classes in several respects. In some cases, a coach may be more experimental when coaching than when teaching, using less tried and true exercises both in an effort to stretch the performers and develop exercises for use. However, usually coaches are not expected to bring new exercises to each rehearsal in the same way a teacher is expected to bring in different exercises for each class. A coach is not necessarily expected to teach, but instead to reinforce what has already been taught.
The practice of a team having an improv coach may have begun at iO Theater in Chicago. In the 1980s, teams were put together by Charna Halpern from her current and former students. These teams performed in shows. At some point, these teams began getting notes from more experienced performers. Also, because of the competitive nature of iO, many of the teams began rehearsing regularly and coaches would run the rehearsals. Sometimes these coaches would be selected by Charna. Sometimes the teams themselves would select the coaches. These coaches were usually paid by the performers. The standard price in Chicago during the 1990s was $5 per team member for a two or three hour rehearsal. The practice of having coaches has continued to this day at iO.
When teams spun off from iO into other venues like the Playground, they often kept the practice of rehearsing with coaches. The UCBT in New York borrowed the coaching and rehearsal structure for it's own Harold teams in NYC. In addition to the official improv ensembles of various theaters in NYC, there are many independent practice and performance teams who also use coaches.
When a team and a coach first comes together (either by the team selecting the coach or by the coach being assigned), they should meet and the coach should clearly spell out his or her responsibilities, so that the team knows what to expect. If payment is required, the terms should also be laid out clearly. Here are some potential responsibilities for a coach:
- Run warm ups for rehearsals (some teams will run their own warm ups or not use warm ups).
- Run rehearsals, decide on exercises that the team will execute and give notes during and after the exercises as warranted.
- Attend performances and give notes. This may or may not be included in the cost of weekly rehearsals.
- Report progress and problems to theater management where they perform.