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By Darren Held

A Little Photoshop Couldn’t Hurt

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, your friend emails you and asks you to photoshop her ex-boyfriend out of a photo. You would, of course, oblige because you are, hypothetically speaking, a nice person. And then, voilá! Your friend would have a wonderful photo for her mantle.

Sweet baby Zeus, what is wrong with her today? No, don’t deny it – I know that’s what you’re thinking.

I’m getting there. See, my point is just that there are many ways to fix a mistake, whether in improv or in life. In improv, things happen all the time that, strictly speaking, would be considered mistakes. Somebody will call somebody else the wrong name, or forget important facts, or accidentally throw out crazy-ass information, or whatever. But as long as all of the players remain calm and remember to stick together, you can explain, justify or correct just about anything.

In real life, I think we tend to forget that as well. Sometimes there are mistakes (or problems of whatever ilk) that seem catastrophic, at least to you personally. But if you can remember your improv skills and stay calm and don’t bail on your teammates in the situation by starting to throw blame around or look for a scapegoat, there’s an excellent chance you can explain, justify or correct just about anything. The trick is to stay in the moment and don’t spin out into “what-if” world, which always makes things so much worse.

And if you can’t fix a mistake, you can always Photoshop it away. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Your Shoes Are Ugly

One of the reasons I like improv is that everything is S-P-E-L-L-E-D     O-U-T. Nothing is left up to interpretation or guesswork. Subtleties and innuendoes aren’t allowed. The facts are the facts, and the characters’ feelings about the facts are their feelings, and that’s that.

That’s not the case in real life. In real life, everything is up for interpretation. Reading between the lines is necessary, and attempting to suss out what people really mean takes up a fair portion of every day.

There’s something to be said for the honesty of improv. I don’t mean going around making confessions and telling every person you meet exactly what you think of them, good OR bad. But it would be nice in real life if we didn’t have to guess what was behind people’s behavior all the time. I think it would eliminate a lot of misunderstandings. For example, instead of this:

Girl says, “So what do you think of my new shoes?” while secretly thinking, “I never know what to buy and I’m terrified of looking like a dork.”

Girl’s friend says, “Um, they are an interesting shade of mauve,” while secretly thinking, “Even my grandma wouldn’t buy something so friggin’ hideous.”

we could try the improv equivalent:

Girl says, “I got these shoes, but I’m not good with fashion so I was hoping you’d help me out,” while not secretly thinking anything.

Girl’s friend says, “Those suck. Let’s go to the mall.”

Now we’re all on the same page, there’s no guessing or manipulating and we can skip across the park holding hands and have a picnic.

After buying the shoes, of course. Priorities, people.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

What DOES That Mean, Anyway?

There’s an exercise we do in the Held2gether Level 1 Improv class that we call What That Means. I love this exercise, for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s easy for me, and
  2. It helps students get to relationship faster

We’ll focus on #2, since #1 is kind of obnoxious. There’s a tendency, especially for people relatively new to improv (“new” = people who have been doing improv for less than 20 years or so), to make scenes about “stuff.” To be clear, audiences aren’t particularly interested in pancakes or lava lamps or carburetors. They are interested in what’s happening between the characters. And yes, “stuff” is important, in terms of setting the scene and establishing a location and giving the characters a catalyst for what’s happening between them today. But “stuff” should never have more than a supporting role. “Stuff” never gets to be the star.

So anyway, What That Means simply turns a series of statements into labels about one participant or the other. If I say, “You’re wearing black,” you might say, “I’m wearing black. What that means is, I’m depressed.” Then I’d say, “You’re depressed. What that means is, you’re dissatisfied with our relationship.” They you’d say, “I’m dissatisfied with our relationship. What that means is, you never make time for me.” And I’d say, “I never make time for you. What that means is, I’m totally self-absorbed.”

Based on a simple statement of fact (someone wears black), we get a series of labels that let everyone know one person is depressed and dissatisfied with the relationship and the other person is self-absorbed and doesn’t value the partner. Tada! Now we’re getting somewhere, and we can figure out why today’s the big day in this couple’s life. Maybe Self-absorbed gets her come-uppance. Maybe Depressed & Dissatisfied gets dumped on even more. Either way, we’re not stuck talking about laundry or mowing the lawn or whatever.

The exercise is brilliant, but you can apply the principles in any improv scene. Just label personality traits or behaviors, as opposed to simply labeling looks or physicality. Saying someone is blonde doesn’t tell us anything about your relationship. Saying someone thinks she’s better than everyone else because she’s blonde gives her – and the scene – a huge gift and gets the ball rolling on what the dynamic is between you.

And before I get tons of hate mail from brunettes, I don’t think I’m better than everyone else because I’m blonde. That was just an example, people.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Comparisons Are Dumb. Just Sayin’.

Lisa, et al went to see an improv show at The Groundlings on Saturday, while I was out of town for a wedding. I know, right? Of all the Saturdays they could see a show, they pick the ONE Saturday I’m out of town for a friggin’ wedding.

Anyway, my friends’ loyalty is the subject for a whole different kind of blog. The subject of this blog will simply be: don’t compare yourself to others unless you want to quit everything you do and perhaps spend the rest of your days in the basement muttering to yourself.

Lisa mentioned how freaking amazing the sketches were at the show Saturday night, and went on to say that, while inspiring, the bar was set WAY too high for us to hope to hit in our upcoming sketch writing class.

That’s kinda how we all felt after seeing the Crazy Uncle Joe show, too. But then I got to thinking – yeah, it happens once in awhile – that a) those people have literally decades more experience than we do, b) they’ve worked together as a group longer than we’ve even been around and c) they do several shows a week. Given that most of us at H2G have done improv around 2 – 4 hours a week for at most 3 years, it’s amazing what we’ve accomplished through desire and sheer determination.

Of course, being as good as [insert favorite unrealistic goal here] is never a great objective anyway. It’s a much healthier goal to strive to be as good as you can be, rather than striving to be the next Tina Fey, for example. There’s already a pretty damn good Tina Fey out there, so I should stop beating my head against the wall and just try to be a pretty damn good Sonnjea Blackwell instead.

So yeah, Lisa’s right – our very first sketch writing class ever is probably not going to turn out Groundlings-level material. Oh well. I hope we all just do the best we can and have a blast doing it. That would make it a huge success in my book.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Fishbowl Magic

I noticed something interesting in justification night at H2G Level 2 class last night. Besides the fact that Sam is great at zip, zap, zop, I mean.

We were doing fishbowl when I had this epiphany. Fishbowl is a 2-person scene we do where we get a suggestion for a location and periodically throughout the scene, the improvisers pull from the fishbowl a sentence that audience members have written on slips of paper. They say this sentence as part of their dialogue, and then they have to justify why they said something like, “I’d like to put hot sauce on that.”

Fishbowl is inherently funny, because seeing people in a situation suddenly say these random lines is funny. Once. But if you don’t justify the lines, it just becomes crazy people spewing nonsense, which quickly loses its charm. Darren has emphasized over and over the importance of saying these random lines with emotion, as if the character is dying to tell the other “I love you” or “I hate you” or whatever, but substituting the fishbowl line for that big piece of emotionally-charged news.

When I watch these scenes, I can see that the ones where the improvisers remember that advice work much better. If the scene is too casual, then even though the justifications may happen, it seems like it’s forced somehow.

So my epiphany last night was this: When the improvisers say ALL their lines like they matter, something happens so that the lines drawn from the fishbowl actually seem to make sense. It’s not like the players magically start attracting just the right slips of paper to their fingers. But by having this emotional investment in everything that’s said, any random line can be justified within the context of the scene so that it seems logical to have said that. Or, if not logical, at least believable and funny. Which is pretty much what we’re going for. So the emotion takes the game from the level of simply justifying the lines to the level of truly integrating the lines. So when Walt and I are getting flirty at the prospect of his parents’ visit ending soon, “I’d like to put hot sauce on that” totally fits as part of our sexy banter. But if we are just kinda okay with his parents’ imminent departure, “I’d like to put hot sauce on that” is a weird line that, while justifiable, is never really going to feel like it was the line that was supposed to go there.

In real life, I’m pretty emotional about my justifications. For example, it’s absolutely, perfectly legitimate to mow through two orders of In-N-Out fries if you order the double-double protein style (no bun). Not that I would personally do such a thing. But I am very emotional about your right to do so.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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