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By Darren Held

Doing Good Improv = Not Giving a F*ck

You’ll have to excuse my language today, but there’s an article that I refer back to periodically called The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fuck, and it’s kinda the point of my blog today.

Improv, as I may have mentioned, can be scary. I mean, it’s scary in a good way, not in an oh-my-god-there’s-a-scorpion-on-my-nose way. But it’s scary nonetheless. And in a really weird way, it can actually become scarier as time goes along. Yes, I’ma tell you why. How’s that for awesome sauce?

Assuming you start taking improv classes on your own and you don’t know a single person in class – that in itself can be scary. However, you don’t know these people, so there’s an excellent chance you don’t give the tiniest fuck what they think. Even the teacher, probably. You push yourself to whatever degree you’re capable of, and you go for it, and the opinion of the others in class probably factors very little into your mindset.

Only then you keep taking the class, and you get to know your classmates and pretty soon you’re friends with them and singing at karaoke bars with them after class or attending tea parties with them on the weekends or being decorated with Batgirl figurines by them when you fall asleep on your couch during your own party. Or, you know, so I’m told. And pretty soon, these are among the very most important people in your life.

And you realize you give very much of a fuck what they think.

And that, my friends, is no good in terms of improv.

As #3 of the aforementioned article states, “It’s Your People That Matter,” and they matter a lot. Their opinions matter, their friendships matter, they matter. And I don’t know about you, but I want the people I care about to like me. (Sometimes, as Lisa has kindly pointed out when I needed to be called on my bullshit, I want them to like me best. It’s true. I can be that shallow.)

When your people matter, and it causes you to rise up and be the best version of yourself, that’s awesome. But when you’re afraid of losing their good opinion, you can start to self-censor and judge yourself in an effort to avoid incurring their judgment. You might not want to look stupid or silly or ugly or gross or creepy or whatever on stage, for fear that they will not approve and no longer like you.

I’m not going to lie; it could happen. People have walked out of my life for less valid reasons than those, so I know it’s a possibility. But just think about how colossally stupid that even sounds: I’m afraid that if I do a creepy/sexy/stupid/gross/whatever character that you won’t like the character and, consequently, you will no longer like me.

If your friends are that lame, they don’t really qualify as “Your People That Matter.” No. They don’t. Anybody who would stop being your friend because you put it all out there in an improv scene with a character or emotion or information WAS NOT YOUR FRIEND IN THE FIRST PLACE.

You can’t be afraid AND do good improv at the same time, because you will always be holding something back. Naturally, that doesn’t mean you just flop around onstage and say whatever you want; there are still rules and structure to keep in mind if you want to do good improv and be a good scene partner. Feedback on your technique is still valid and appropriate, especially in a class setting – you can’t learn or improve without it. So it’s okay to care what people think of how the character/emotion/information WORKED in the scene, but it’s not okay to care what they think of you for attempting it. Your People That Matter will applaud you for pushing out of your comfort zone. And the others…

Well, who gives a fuck about the others, anyway.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Feats of Strength

Yesterday I did handstand pushups at the gym. Okay, so they were little tiny pushups, not down-to-the-floor-and-all-the-way-up pushups… But they WERE handstand pushups and I for one was pretty impressed with myself. (We’ll ignore the part where I couldn’t figure out how to step up and over a step. Uh. Right.)

The reason I’m telling you this is not to brag about my feats of strength, but rather to make an analogy between the gym and improv and life. See, I can keep going to the gym every day until I croak, and I might never gain one iota of strength or fitness, I might never add muscle mass or burn fat, I might never get any more coordinated (see the step thingy, above). I’d still laugh and have fun with Nate… but that’s not really the goal of working out. The only way I can get stronger and leaner and more coordinated is to keep pushing myself and keep trying to do things I couldn’t do last time.

The same principle applies in improv. You get out of improv class what you put into it. If you show up with the mindset of having fun, great. You will have fun, I can pretty much guarantee that. But if that’s your only goal, that’s the only result you will achieve. In order to get better, you have to put yourself out there every class and push further out of your comfort zone and keep trying to do things you couldn’t do last time. Just showing up gets you a huge round of applause the first time you show up. After that, just showing up is… uh… just showing up. Duh.

I guess I probably don’t have to point out that this is how life works, too… Give a half-assed effort in your work, relationships, school, hobbies, shaving, you name it, and you will get a commensurate result. That explains all those scraggly hipster beards…

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

I Wrote This Blog Post… Where’s My Applause?

I know some people have jobs where they don’t receive instantaneous feedback. Brain surgeons, for example – they don’t get a round of applause after drilling a hole in somebody’s skull. Firefighters don’t put out a fire, then stand out in front of the building and take bows while the neighborhood gives them an ovation. Most jobs, in fact, don’t involve a pat on the back after every single task. Although it would be cool if you typed a report, then got applause, then filed some receipts, then got applause, then handled a disgruntled customer, then got applause…

Improv is different from most other jobs in that regard. Usually. But sometimes, the audience is either not on board or they are on board, but they’re low-key about it, and they aren’t all fast and loose with the laughter and applause. It can happen when you do LBC humor for a largely Orange County crowd, or when the general mood of an audience is best described as “cranky pants” or when most of the audience is students watching with the intention of learning stuff.

There’s a tendency for that to happen in classes, as well as in shows. It’s not that we don’t think our classmates are funny – they are funny as hell, as a matter of fact. But when you’re watching a scene or exercise with the intention of learning from it, your brain is in a different place than when you’re watching it for escape or entertainment, and you might literally forget to laugh.

But guess what? Just like the neurosurgeon isn’t waiting for an ovation before he makes the next incision, improvisors can’t rely on feedback from the audience to keep them going. Sometimes you do a scene and it doesn’t get a lot of laughs… oh well. You can’t let that get to you, or you’ll get all heady and worried and you’ll start to throw out weirder and weirder information in a vain attempt to lure in the audience and then each succeeding scene will be worse and it’ll be a vicious circle ending with you doing crappy improv even if the only reason they didn’t clap at the first scene was because they all just woke up from their naps.

By the same token, you can’t let the audience laughing at something convince you that you just did good improv. Audiences are not skilled improv critics and they are notorious for laughing when they want, not necessarily at the moments of improvy brilliance. Your goal as an improvisor, should you choose to accept it, is to do the best improv you can in every scene or exercise, regardless of how the audience (or the rest of the class) responds.

A strong connection with your scene partner(s) will help you disregard the audience because at least you’ll feel like you’re in this together and you can help each other by sharing your energy when the audience is stingy with theirs. Make eye contact, listen intently, respond with big emotion and stay fully committed, and you will reap the reward of knowing that you did kickass improv. And no audience in the world can take that away from you.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

I’m Not Brave… Yet

Somebody complimented me recently on many of my improv blog entries, saying that I was “brave” for being so honest. Because Darren and Richard have given me a really hard time about not accepting compliments graciously, I smiled sweetly and said, “thank you.”

The thing is, I’m not brave. I am honest here, up to a point. Improv helps with that because, no matter what character you are or what point of view you have, the information in your scene is coming from YOUR brain, heart, memory, fantasy, whatever – it’s coming from you, which means you’re exposing yourself every time you go on stage. After a while, that becomes less and less frightening and more and more fun.

So I’ve gotten a bit better about revealing stuff. And the truth is, I feel as though being honest here in the blog is no big deal because my shortcomings are obvious for all to see whenever I get up onstage and do improv anyway. So all I’m really doing when I explain them here is acknowledging what everyone can see for themselves and then, hopefully, using my challenges as an example to help others overcome theirs.

What I don’t do here (or anywhere else) is express myself well, stand up for myself or tell people how I feel. To me, that would be brave. But I’m often terrified of upsetting the status quo, of living totally in the moment, of being honest, of risking people not liking me… essentially, I’m afraid of what might happen. That kind of boldness has always escaped me.

But I’m much better than I was 4 years ago, before I discovered improv and found the joy and freedom of being in the moment… even if I can only stay there for a moment or so. If you have trouble being “brave” enough to express yourself, try improv. It won’t instantly give you the courage to say anything to anyone in any situation, but it’s a start.

Kendra shared a quote with me that contains this: “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” You know I’m all about the magic, so I guess it’s time to throw this bullshit caution to the wind and be bold. Then I’ll believe it when people say I’m brave.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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