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By Darren Held

Synchronized Swimming vs. Improv

Back in the day, I did synchronized swimming. It’s not that this is a deep, dark secret of mine, but it’s not usually the topic of conversation and, to be honest, it’s not something I really think about. Ever.

But since it came up at the Held2gether troupe shindig last Sunday, I figured I might as well run with it. Or, uh, swim with it, as the case may be.

According to Wikipedia, “Synchronized swimming demands advanced water skills, and requires great strength, endurance, flexibility, grace, artistry and precise timing, as well as exceptional breath control when upside down underwater.” I don’t care what they say, I still can’t believe it’s a friggin’ Olympic sport. Mainly cuz it’s not a sport. But I digress.

The main reason I liked synchronized swimming is because I grew up in a place with average summer temperatures akin to Hell, and the pool was the best place to be. Some other reasons included:

  1. I could hold my breath for a couple minutes, and I liked to show off.
  2. From the bleachers, nobody in the audience can distinguish the swimmers, so if you screw up, they can’t prove it was you.
  3. Since you can’t hear the music underwater, you just have to count to keep in sync. I can’t follow music to save my life, but I am pretty proficient in counting.
  4. Did I mention I grew up in Hell?

The only thing synchronized swimming and improv have in common, as far as I can tell, is that they’re both group activities that rely on all the players being in sync. (Hence the “synchronized” part of “synchronized swimming.”) Let’s compare, shall we?

Synchro Improv
Totally pre-planned and choreographed Created in the moment
Matching costumes Regular clothes
In a swimming pool On a stage or in a coffee house, bar or living room
Everyone does the same thing Everyone creates a different character
No speaking Speaking
Holding your breath is important Holding your breath is bad
Mildly entertaining to do, boring to watch Incredibly challenging and fun to do, hilarious to watch

And now you know the differences between synchronized swimming and improv. You’re welcome.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv: Don’t Be Judgy

Sometimes in improv classes, a student’s brain will lock up and they’ll freak out, panic, flap their hands and shake their head while wailing in distress, “But I can’t think of anything!”

I totally understand. As a matter of fact, I’m flapping my hands right now.

I have two things to say on this subject. LOL! As if. I never have only two things to say on any subject. But we’ll start with two and see where this goes…

First of all, improv is just like any other muscle. At first, you may be weak and out of shape and unable to think of anything. But the more you work out, the stronger your improv muscles become and soon you are able to think of something almost all the time. Yay you!

And b: You can think of something, even when you think you can’t. It’s your brain’s built-in mechanism for self-preservation that makes you think you can’t think of anything. It’s your defense against feeling foolish, actually, the self-censoring part of yourself that judges things before it lets them come out of your mouth.

Probably most people have a desire NOT to look stupid or make a fool of themselves, to some degree or other. Some people have learned that the only way to really get better at stuff in life is to be willing to look foolish. I mean, we weren’t born knowing everything, and sometimes in the process of learning stuff we end up looking foolish. Um, so what?

In improv, as in life, you absolutely must be willing to look foolish if you want to improve. That means you have to tell your inner censor to shut the hell up, and then just say whatever pops into your head. Sure, sometimes you know nothing about the suggestion you get. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m completely clueless when it comes to rebuilding carburetors. But in my imagination, they have screws and valves and gaskets and grommets, and that’s what I’m gonna say, totally unabashedly. The judgy part of my brain is already arguing that grommets aren’t part of carburetors, but I DON’T CARE. That part of my brain isn’t the part that’s good at improv, or learning new stuff of any kind, and all it does is take the fun out of things.

Since I’m all about getting better at improv and life, and having as much fun as possible doing it, the judgy part of my brain doesn’t get a vote. It took some (okay, a LOT) of effort at the beginning to let go of that part. I have a very strong desire not to look foolish, if you wanna know the truth. But I learned that I almost never look as foolish as I feared I would look, and on the rare occasions I really do look that silly… nothing bad happens. I feel silly for a few minutes, I get embarrassed, I might blush, once in a while I may cry. For pete’s sake, NOBODY DIES.

I can virtually guarantee that you will not die if you say something that makes no sense in improv. And when you learn to let go of that judgy, self-censoring inner critic that keeps you from trying new things for fear of failure and/or looking foolish, you will discover a whole world of cool stuff to try, people to get to know and successes just waiting to be had. Please don’t miss out just because you’re too busy judging yourself. That would totally suck. Just sayin’.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv Ingredient Labels

Tonight’s level 1 improv class is going to focus on spacework and labeling, one of which is my favorite thing to do.

Yeah, if you’ve seen me do spacework, it’s clear that labeling is my favorite thing to do. Whatev.

You know the ingredient labels on food? Well, you have to have those labels to know what you’re eating, right? Same with improv labels: you have to have labels to know what you’re doing!

Once the foundations are out – who, what, where and relationships – it’s crucial to add labels. Just because we’re brother and sister, doesn’t mean we really know anything about these people. But when you add labels, you not only learn more about the characters, but you give yourselves information that you can build a scene on. Without labels, you’re just ordinary people, and nobody wants to watch ordinary people.

Labels can be descriptions of anything from what you or your scene partner are wearing, to how you behave, to what your point of view is. If I wear overalls all the time, and my brother wears 3 piece suits, you can probably assume we’re going to differ on other important issues as well – and it’s fun to discover what those are.

Remember when you’re giving labels, it’s best to give specific labels about behavior or point of view or appearance. “You’re a loser” is a judgement and besides that, it’s vague. “Loser” means too many things to people, so being specific is a much stronger choice. “You’ve never held a job for longer than 3 months” or “You have chronic BO and only 3 teeth” or “You think relationships will cut into your model-boat-building time” give a person something to work with, and help them develop their character’s point of view.

When you get a label, take that characteristic on to the best of your ability! Always try to use your labels to help develop your point of view. Just being generally ugly is okay, but it doesn’t make a character. However, if your point of view is that you know you’re ugly, so you overcompensate by always trying to help your friends find great bargains, that can be a funny character.

Point of view confuses a lot of people, but it is essentially how does this character see the world and their place in it? Think about what this character would want, and how they would go about getting it. A hoity-toity princess will acquire what she wants in a totally different way than a socially awkward computer geek… and if for some reason they are together in a scene, even better!

Now, since I’m a socially awkward improv geek, I have to go and practice yes, anding myself in the mirror. What? You know that’s how I roll, peeps.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

3 Levels of Funny

Last night was the first class of a new Improv Comedy Level 1 class brought to you by the nice folks at Held2gether. What? Darren’s very nice. I’m frequently nice. Anyway, one of the things I tell people the first night is to let go of any preconceived notions about the need to be funny, or worry about not being funny, or trying to prove how funny they really are. Because believe it or not, improv class is not about being funny.

I have a theory on funny, in case you wondered. I’m sure you didn’t, because by now you realize I have a theory on nearly everything. You also realize I’m inclined to share my theories. Because that’s how I roll.

My theory is this: There are three levels of funny or sense of humor. Like the 5 stages of grief only, you know, completely different. The first level is Funny People. These are people with a sense of humor and an ability to see and share humor with others, who can generally make others laugh. I’m not implying this is the best level – some funny people are obnoxious and always have to be “on” and never take anything seriously, ever, at all. So please understand I’m not judging. I save my judgeyness for puppets. Of course, some funny people are funny in a totally not-obnoxious way, and you want to be around them 24/7 because they make you laugh – at yourself, at them, at the world in general.

The second level is Funny Appreciators. These people are not generally funny themselves, but they do appreciate the humor others create and they are as willing as anybody to have a good laugh. Not everyone who loves to read is a great writer; similarly, not everyone who loves to laugh can create humor themselves. Some can create humor and just choose not to for whatever reason. Maybe their always “on” friend drives them crazy, and they are determined not to be that guy so they don’t try to be funny themselves. I dunno. It’s just a theory, peeps. It’s not like I’ve done studies. In any event, Funny Appreciators are awesome people to have around, in life and in an audience.

The third level is Funny Deficient. These people wouldn’t know funny if it bit them on the ass. I get that we all have a different sense of WHAT is funny, and Dumb and Dumber ain’t it for me. But if NOTHING falls into the category of funny, and a person is the exact opposite of the always “on” guy, that person is devoid of a sense of humor. I know people like this, though not intentionally.

My point, however, is that anyone can learn to do improv. My guess is that Funny Deficient people wouldn’t be drawn to an improv class, and I’ve never encountered such a person in any class so far. But I believe they can still learn improv, because there are specific rules to improv that create a structure in which funny shit just happens. And once they learn to play by the rules, and experience funny firsthand, and discover the joy of making people laugh, I think the Funny Deficient People can graduate to Funny Appreciators and even Funny People.

So if you know any Funny Deficient people, give them a gift certificate for an H2G improv class and test my theory. It can’t hurt.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv: Make It Matter!

In my non-improv life, I write content for websites. I know, pretty friggin’ glamorous, right? And sometimes I have to write biographical information for the people whose websites I’m writing for. Like “I’m the world’s foremost expert on hair plugs, and here’s why…”

It’s not a bad gig, actually. I mean, people in general like to talk about themselves, so when I interview them about their background and why they do what they do, they’re usually really happy and animated and eager to share their wonderfulness.

Except I talked to a guy last week who was not happy or animated or eager to share his wonderfulness. I can’t even swear that he was awake, to be honest. He talked in the most monotonous tone imaginable, and said the most blah things imaginable. He doesn’t like his profession (but he doesn’t hate it), he doesn’t love his clients (but they’re okay), he figures he’s pretty good at what he does (but it doesn’t actually matter to him or anyone else), he doesn’t think of himself as having a family because he’s divorced and his kids don’t live with him (but he’s not angry at his ex) and he thinks the best that can be said of him is that clients don’t think he’s an asshole (which is more than can be said of some). His words, not mine.

The whole time I was on the phone with him, I was looking for razor blades and screaming inside my head, MAKE IT MATTER. I don’t care what, just make ANYTHING matter.

Usually when I encounter unusual people in the real world, I think of them as good improv characters. Or at least as possessing traits I can use to create a good improv character. But this guy would be a terrible improv character. You can be a low energy, life’s-got-me-down character, but something has to matter. And you have to have a change of emotion for the scene to work – so that means at least two emotions: the one you start with, and the one you change to. He doesn’t even have one to start with.

Look, I’m glad the guy isn’t as depressed as he made me. I’m just upset I didn’t even get a good character out of the whole mind-numbing 47 minutes. Not that I was counting.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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