Following a recent post in an Improv forum recent, I’ve had a few people from the International community asking for tips with running successful drop-in workshops so I thought it might be useful to write a blog and share my experience.
For context, I co-run a very successful weekly drop-in for the past 2 years with a fellow Dublin improviser, Quinton O’Reilly, called “The Playground”. Popularity with the drop-in grew from the start, and we now have on average 35 people turning up per drop-in which has meant we have 2 consecutive workshops running with 2 facilitators each week. We have had a number of mainstream media outlets feature The Playground.
The popularity of the drop-ins didn’t come over night however, and anyone familiar with my theatre history will know The Playground might sound similar to a previous passion project I co-founded and chaired for 5 years, No Drama Theatre. Here’s some insights on what helped us find success in Dublin, a city where improv is still very much a mostly underground art form.
Why a Drop-in?
One of the reasons I wanted to create No Drama Theatre was to make theatre more accessible for adults. Demand was there, people just took some time to find out where they could go. Improv is likely the same. People’s motivations for taking improv classes can be different than taking an acting class though. Without providing an exhaustive list, here are some popular reasons that people join a drop-in class.
- Casual and convenient way to learn improv
- Social outlet
- Quick and fast way to learn some improv skills
- Social outlet
- An opportunity to keep in practice between courses or in the absence of being part of the troupe
- Social outlet
- Cost efficient
- Social outlet
Noticing a trend? I have had regulars of the improv drop in tell me they don’t have the time to commit to a weekly improv course, yet they turn up for the drop-in every week. Clearly what they are getting from the drop-in goes beyond just the improv.
This might seem counter intuitive to the very nature of a casual drop-in class, but it’s at its fundamental core. Community creates its own identity. Community done right should be accessible and welcoming. Often in improv when I hear the word community used, it’s being weaponised to distinguish one group from another. Community needs to be looked at as an open door collective. The building of community needs nurturing hands. As organisers, if a sustainable model is what you are after, some work needs to be done to lay the foundations of community and create a safe space. Theatres, festivals, and improv nights can rarely build a sustainable community in the same way, and this is where drop-ins have an advantage. Drop-ins aren’t trying to cast the next big show, fill theatre seats by producing the the best shows or make profit above all else.
I’ve come up with a simple model to help get you started. I call it “C.A.S.T.”
C – Consistency
A – Accessibility
S – Socialise
T – Tools
When starting out, you’re going to have drop-ins with low numbers, and this may fluctuate for sometime. This leads to the most important part of the community building process. Be consistent. Run those drop-ins as advertised, every week. Give it the same love you do any other class you run. You may not have 20 participants in your early classes, but you will have people who feel a connection and will tell others.
Drop-ins should be an accessible space for improvisers at any level, including absolute beginners, unless you have a different focus. That means creating a safe space for everyone. At every single drop-in we run, we have a safety announcement at the start. It gets repetitive sure, but even if your participants are the same faces as last week, its important to lay out the ground rules for safety, boundaries and everyone’s enjoyment etc. Everyone needs to be on the same page. And participants need to know you take this seriously.
Accessibility also means making the classes accessible to all. Think hard about pricing and not making the cost a barrier for communities who may not have access to improv or the arts. Reach out to organisations or people that can help connect with with minority groups.
The Playground model has a simple fee system. Pay per drop-in, or avail of a monthly fee. The monthly fee is cheaper than paying the weekly fee. We have some other perks with it, and there’s no catch. It also helps create a sense of belonging as participants proudly say, “I’m a monthly member this time!”.
Another factor to consider in getting people involved with helping out. We have guest teachers, many of which are encouraged from within the group. We coach and prepare people to run a drop-in. Drop-ins are sometimes more about facilitating than teaching. Given the mix of experience levels, and people’s reasons for being there, not everyone will want to have a workshop where a chunk of time is spend on theory and notes. Perhaps save that for your courses and structured programmes.
The social element of the drop-in is important to many. The venue we use has a bar/lounge and many participants head up for a drink after workshop. As facilitators, we will also join the group at times. If doing this, it’s important not to have favourites. Spend time with everyone. Welcome everyone. Save the beer with your mates till after. Remember though, the socialising afterward is an extension of the workshop. Treat it professionally. That goes for your behaviour, and the behaviours of others.
Assuming you have consent, I recommend taking, at a minimum, a workshop photo each drop-in. (We actually create an Instagram Reel after each drop-in, but remember consent from people is important)
As your group grows, so will the desire to move beyond just drop-ins. We run 2-3 “Improv Variety” nights a year. (We have cooler names than that!) It’s an excellent opportunity to get stage time in a safe way. We ask participants to pitch a show idea (no existing troupes allowed). Everyone gets a 10 to 15 minute slot and full support from the facilitators. We encourage people to rehearse, have a director and mostly importantly, cast their show from within the community. Dont forget the social element to celebrate afterward, we always recommend karaoke!
I probably should have start here but TCAS doesn’t have the same ring to it! Tools is everything that helps you run things before and afterward. Here’s some of the tools we use.
- Meetup.com: While the Meetup group came before the drop-in, the relationship with Meetup was interesting. I originally used it as a place to advertise courses and shows. Over time the membership grew but the turnout rates from Meetup for shows and courses was low. People on Meetup are more interested in community events. Once we started purposefully using Meetup for The Playground, many of the Playground regulars were people who casually came across us on Meetup. Meetup has an annual fee, but it’s an incredibly useful way to help build an audience. Our Meetup group now has over 1,800 members. We post the weekly drop in events there, well in advance too. Make it easy for people to find out.
- Social Media: You might expect me to say this, but it’s obviously important. Instagram, Facebook whatever. Don’t bother with Facebook groups though, Facebook makes it difficult to use their platform for community building. Our Facebook page gets little traction but Instagram gets a lot more visibility. Especially with consistent posting and the use of hashtags.
- WhatsApp: WhatsApp is incredibly popular in Europe. No one uses iMessage or SMS as much here. WhatsApp groups and the Communities features make it easy to form a group on your phone. Set the ground rules and let people use it for chat and community discussion. But don’t add people to the group without their consent. We usually tell new faces at The Playground about it and if they’d like to join to let us know. Let people know too that it’s ok to mute the group!
Running an improv-drop in can be one of the best ways to build a community and build audiences. One of the busiest non-festival show/non TJ & Dave show I hosted this year was a Playground Improv Variety night. We had over 110 people in attendance which is quite sizeable for Dublin.
Success and community takes time. Be patient, encouraging, supportive and consistent. Be also aware of your own boundaries. Between Quinton and I, we are making sure that we take breaks from Playground when other life stuff takes over and having adequate back up when it happens. We support one another. We also take the summer off. Communication is key and boundaries should be healthy.
If I can be of any help if you are building a community, feel free to get in touch.