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By Darren Held

What Improv Scenes Are About

by Sonnjea Blackwell

There is a lot of confusion in the early stages of one’s improv education about what a scene should be about. My friend and student Nick Oh got me thinking about that, and here is what we came up with…

There are many reasons for this confusion. First off, we start by doing exercises and games, and those have a built-in structure, goal or arc, and so developing a “scene” isn’t really part of that. So when we make the leap to doing two-person scenes, there’s a lot of fear and confusion – there’s no game to play! There’s no exercise to hide in! What the hell do I do?!!

It’s also confusing because we talk about having a “big what” – something that makes this day different from all the other 292 times these two characters have been together. Is the “big what” what the scene is about?

It’s also confusing because of what we watch on TV. Sitcoms are about situational comedy; hence their name. The funny comes from the situation. Or maybe you like to watch crime dramas and are used to the arc of a story being based on procedures. Or maybe you watch the FoodNetwork and you are totally immersed in the “stuff” – the ingredients, the recipes, the techniques. Or maybe you watch porn and… well, you watch porn. Moving on…

It’s also confusing because people tend to think a “relationship” is the title these two characters have: husband and wife, sisters, nuns, kidnapper and victim, whatever. It would be less confusing to refer to these as “character pairings,” because the actual relationship isn’t defined by those titles. Husband and wife… happily married? unhappily? newlyweds? arranged marriage? both cheating? one cheating? mail-order bride? “Husband and wife” tells us the legal status of these two characters and nothing else. Their relationship is how they relate to each other. In other words, it’s the energy that exists between them.

I would say that the scene is about this energy, and the change the energy undergoes as a result of the “big what” being revealed. It’s like a mathematical equation: We start with X energy, we apply the force of Big What, and that creates Y energy. (For you FoodNetwork people: take one relationship, stir in some Big What, bake at 325 degrees for 3 minutes, and voila! New relationship!)

In the universe, nothing is static. The same is true of our own lives. Improv is a tiny little microcosm of life and the universe, and so it should reflect that.

By Darren Held

That’s Profound, Bro

A little improv wisdom from Darren Held:

A new word crept into my improv vocabulary this week – “profound”. Isn’t that… er, profound? I actually use the word quite a bit – mostly in a spiritual sense. Like when I am reading a Buddhist quote and discover the cereal bowl I’m eating of and I are deeply interconnected. As a student of life, I have profound conversations with people often. I love to dig deep into the meaning of things.

Sometimes I can use the word so much, that what was once profound is no longer so. However, last night I had a profound discovery: Being profoundly affected in a scene is powerful.

We were doing two-person in scenes called “Chance Encounters”: these two had a major incident years ago (e.g. they stole a dolphin from the zoo), and they run into each other somewhere today (e.g. the library). The idea is their lives have changed drastically since the incident and it has affected them – profoundly. By making that choice, the big day came automatically and with great detail. They were characters who’d experienced a fear of birds, a determination to return to Uganda, regret of motherhood, inability to have sex, and on and on. Fully realized and beautifully flawed characters.

I’ve always been a proponent of cranking up the emotion to make things matter in an improv scene. I feel like this was a shortcut to that, as well as an invite to drive fantastic character labeling. By choosing to be profoundly affected by this situation in their lives, their stakes raised from the beginning. When you only have 3-5 minutes on stage, finding that early can release you to play more and create some desperately funny scenes. I also now want a dolphin.

Isn’t that profound?

By Andy Araujo

The Performer I Want To Be

Thoughts from Andy Araujo:

I am very fortunate to perform in improv shows. It is an opportunity to entertain people and spread joy. Hopefully, I accomplish that more often than not. I take classes with the hope of getting better. I discuss the art of improv with my wonderful wife Tracy, with my fellow troupe mates, with our director, and with our musical director. And just like everyone else, I want to leave a performance knowing that the audience really enjoyed themselves.

There are many ways in which I measure whether I am satisfied with my performance. Let me list a few.

I want to be creative and humorous by just “letting go” . . . like Robin Williams.

I want to be able to deliver witty lines that are perfect in that moment . . . like Robin Williams.

I want to perform with an energy that, just by itself, makes the entire performance more exhilarating . . . like Robin Williams.

I want to end a performance knowing everyone is happy and really, truly enjoyed themselves . . . like Robin Williams.

I don’t necessarily aspire to be just like Robin Williams. That would be like aspiring to fly by flapping my arms really fast – it just ain’t happening. Needless to say, as a performer who gave me so much joy in my lifetime, I will always be grateful to Robin Williams for those hours of joy. But I will also be forever grateful for the lessons he taught me on how to perform, lessons I had no idea were being handed down to me.

Thank you, Mr. Williams.