By Darren Held

I Know Everything. No, Really. I Totally Do.

Okay, okay. Enough with the Justin-Bieber-mocking. How ’bout I actually give you some information on information instead?

The whole instant expert thing in improv can be really fun or a total nightmare, depending on how you feel about spouting nonsense. I am a big proponent of it, so I like being an instant expert. But there is a difference between spouting instant expert nonsense and just vomiting bizarro information, and it’s kinda important to know the difference.

First of all, experts all have one thing in common, and that’s that they love to share their knowledge about their area of expertise. So be bold and sound absolutely sure of your “facts.” Then make sure the information is about the thing you are an expert in. If you’ve been labeled a surgeon and you’re all bold and everything, but you just start talking (boldly) about the nanoscepter intersecting the hypotenuse, we don’t know what that means or what that information has to do with anything in your scene. But if you tell your nurse or the other doctor, or even the patient, “We’re going to have to use the nanoscepter to intersect the hypotenuse in order to stop the patellar hemorrhage,” we still don’t know what it means, but we know that the patient is seriously f*ed up, and you are just the person to fix him.

Another hint to giving good instant expert information is to use specifics. Throw out statistics: “The nanoscepter procedure has restored lateral brain function to 43.2% of patients.” “Over 16,457 people work at Target world-wide, and of those, 87% are functionally color-blind.” “Valentine’s day began in 1527 a.d. in Egypt, when Pharaoh Tentwilo left his mummified heart to his queen after his untimely death.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what happened in 1205 b.c. or what the atmosphere of Venus is or how to cook beef wellington. If you commit to your expert character and your information, we’ll believe it.

Finally, remember that not all experts are scientists or doctors or engineers. If you’re labeled a hillbilly, porch-dwelling redneck, you are still an expert! Every character, in fact, is an expert in his or her own way. The hillbilly, porch-dwelling redneck may know everything there is to know about chiggers, or moonshine or the mating habits of bayou crawfish, and some of those details should come out in the scene to help define the location, the characters and even the characters’ relationship (crawfishing buddies, for example). The scene isn’t about those details, but the details add necessary background to the scene.

The real trick to being an instant expert in any field is trust. Just trust yourself and don’t judge the information that pops into your brain and comes out of your mouth. Easier said than done when it comes to knowing how to prepare for an arctic expedition or a Justin Bieber concert, I realize. But that’s where Held2gether improv classes come in. H2G classes have helped 99.87% of students achieve total improvisational stellardom with a statistically insignificant incidence of judgeocity and three orders of magnitude more giggledom.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Would You Lie to Me?

Here’s a little known fact: improv can help you lie better.

Okay, look. I’m not advocating lying. And in most ways, improv promotes more virtuous traits, such as honesty, listening and teamwork. But there is a time and a place for everything, and sometimes you gotta make shit up.

Let’s say, hypothetical speaking, that you told your friend you couldn’t go to the Justin Bieber concert with him because you were feeling ill. (Just the prospect of going to a Justin Bieber concert makes me feel a little queasy, but that’s another blog post.) Then, instead of tucking yourself into bed with Nyquil and The Breakfast Club, you go to your favorite bar with some non-Bieber-fever-peeps. Naturally, as Murphy’s Law would have it, the Bieberite shows up after the show to find you, not sick at all and downing martinis with abandon.

We’ll ignore the fact that there’s a good chance you’re not concerned about maintaining a friendship with a legal adult who attends Justin Bieber concerts, and pretend that you do want to keep this relationship. WTF do you say to redeem yourself?

You could go with the obvious – and not at all believable – miraculous recovery story. “Dude. I took the Nyquil, and I felt better. But by then you had already left for the concert and there was no way to meet up with you.” Um, lame.

Or you could use the skills you learned in H2G improv classes and become an instant expert: “Oh, Bieberite, I’m so glad you’re here so you can tell us all about the show! You know, I was so devastated to miss it that I was determined to get better in time to join you. So I went on the internet and Googled typhoid fever remedies, because that’s what I had. Anyway, it’s often fatal but one thing that seems to put typhoid into remission is the combination of dim lighting and distilled potatoes. I didn’t have any potatoes at home, but since vodka is made from potatoes, I figured a martini would work. Anyway, it’s because the low light causes your corneas to constrict, while the vodka increases endorphin exoplasmic recession, which results in the spontaneous introspection of the typhus virus.”

At this point, the Bieber-peeper will start to wonder if this might be true. There is so much factual-sounding information, that it seems unlikely you could make it up. But don’t take any chances. Make sure to finish strong. “I felt better almost immediately and could have met you in time for the show, but unfortunately, typhoid fever is highly contagious for 7.75 hours after it has gone into remission. The only way not to start an epidemic like Typhoid Mary is to remain in a dimly lit area with plenty of distilled potatoes so that everyone who comes into contact with the carrier will have the necessary immunity to stave off the disease. As much as I wanted to see Justin sing, I couldn’t in good conscience subject him – or you – to the grim possibility of death by typhoid fever.”

Thanks to your improv skills, your friend is now thanking you for being so considerate in thinking of Justin’s well-being instead of being mad that you bailed on the show.

Of course, on the off chance that you don’t have friends who try to drag you to pop concerts, you can always use your instant expert skills to impress a date, convince the boss that you’re smarter than the other guy who’s going up for the same promotion or explain to your neighbor why mowing your lawn every week is actually bad for the environment, the economy and U.S-China relations.

You’re welcome.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Committed to Commitment

Along with information and agreement, commitment is one of the three pillars of improv. On any given day, I could argue that any of those is the most important. Today I say that commitment is the most important.

Yes, I’ll tell you why. Cuz that’s just how I roll.

Let’s say you have a 2-person scene. If one person denies something, it stops the momentum and the scene basically has to start over. But as long as both people aren’t in denial mode, it’s still possible to make a scene work. Same with information: if only one person goes to Crazyville, the other person can still justify the weirdness. If both people are spewing randomness, then you’re screwed.

With commitment, it only takes one person to eff up a scene. As soon as one person bails, you have no scene – because you can’t do improv alone.

I was in a non-H2G class recently, and we were doing an exercise involving relative status in the scene. After connecting with my partner and getting a hoity-toity vibe from her, I inferred that I was the low-status person in the scene so I became very small and meek and said, “I’m sorry we ran out of gas, Donna. I know I was supposed to fill the tank, but I forgot. I’m really sorry.” Perhaps not a brilliant start to an improv scene, but at least I gave her a name and some clear information. She looked at me for a second, then spun around to the non-Darren teacher and said, “What is she doing? I don’t know who has the higher status!”

I was beyond startled, because as we learn from the very first Held2gether improv class, you don’t bail. Like Jester told Maverick, “You never, never leave your wingman.” Sure it’s a class, and class is about learning, but by staying in the scene and working it out herself, “Donna” woulda learned more than she did from the non-Darren teacher telling her, “Well, she’s acting very meek and apologetic, so it seems like she’s given you the status in the scene. And by the way, don’t ever bail like that again.”

To be fair, abandoning a scene outright is very rare, even in a classroom setting. But there are other ways of bailing. Like making it clear to the audience you think your scene partner’s information is idiotic. Or starting an argument with your scene partner because you don’t like where their information is going. Or just having no energy or enthusiasm for the scene, or your character, or the information. Any of these forms of bailing also make it impossible for the committed partner to make the scene work because, essentially, you’ve forced your partner to try to do improv alone. You’re mocking the scene, or you’re trying to steer the scene, but you’re not playing with them in the scene.

I actually think commitment may be the easiest of the pillars to adhere to, once you make up your mind. Agreement and information both rely to a certain extent on your brain functioning properly while you’re in a scene – and sometimes brains have a mind of their own. But commitment only requires, um, commitment. Just decide that, no matter what, you’re not gonna leave your wingman. Then don’t leave. Period.

Sorry, I have to leave. It’s time to go watch Top Gun.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Great Improv Show!

By all accounts, Last Laugh Saturday last Saturday was “the best show H2G’s ever done,” “decent,” “funny, but not as funny as Snow Globes,” “f*ing brilliant,” and/or “meh.”

So what I’m saying is there is no such thing as “by all accounts” in improv.

What constitutes a great show, anyway? Is it a show in which the performers are funny and don’t break any improv rules? (Good luck with that, by the way). Is it a show in which the performers are funny in spite of breaking the rules? Is it a show that the audience is into, regardless of the funniness and/or rule-breaking-ness of the performers?

These are not rhetorical questions, by the way. I really want to know.

A teacher once told me that you can’t trust the audience because sometimes you can give ’em total crap and they love it, while other times you could do the best improv ever done and they’ll be bored and Face Booking on their iPhones the whole time. That’s because audiences, like other groups, have a mass mentality which occasionally has nothing to do with what’s going on around them – like f*ing brilliant improv, for example.

So, what’s an improvisor to do? First of all, have the intention to give the audience the best show you can. Then do improv the way you’ve been taught – and the way you know you can – to the best of your ability. When a scene works, enjoy it, but don’t dwell on it because you have to be in the moment for your next scene. When a scene tanks, enjoy it, but don’t dwell on it because you have to be in the moment for your next scene.

Yes, I said enjoy it when your scene tanks. Don’t try to tank it, obviously. But when one does tank, just enjoy the badness of it. Enjoy the fact that, even though this scene sucks, you get to do improv. In front of an audience. Which may just be the awesomest thing ever. And as nearly as I can tell, what makes a good show is one in which the performers do their best not to break the rules, where they commit even (or perhaps especially) in scenes no one can save, and when they are so obviously having the time of their lives that the audience can’t help but be drawn into the joy.

At least I think so.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Turn Off the Spew-o-Meter

Sorry for my absence. If you’ve been to the Held2gether website, you can see I’ve been busy posting new classes for 2012 and the last couple shows for 2011. So it’s not as if I’ve just been sitting around twirling my hair or worrying about my fantasy football league or whatever it is you think I do.

Excuse me, but does anyone else find it disturbing that there are constantly Groupons for stuff like Botox and liposuction now?

Oh, and FYI, I so know who Howie Long is.

This gloom is making me feel gloomy myself. Like maybe I should dye my hair black and do my makeup like Elvira or something.

Right. I’m trying to make a point, and that point is not that I’m certifiably insane, thank you very much. My point is, only three-year-olds and stoners spew random information stream-of-consciousness style like this. As we learn social skills, which takes some of us much, much longer than others, we learn to filter our thoughts and exercise give-and-take in our conversations. We listen to people, and then we respond to what they said – with a logical rejoinder, not some random factoid that no one really cares about in this particular context.

I’m always yammering on about how improv classes can help in real-life situations. But this is a case where real life can help your improv. I’ve seen eleventy gazillion scenes where one person says something like, “Dammit, Frank, you’re judging my potato-peeling skills again! I want a divorce.” And for some reason, that information doesn’t register in the other person’s head and they say, “I’m thinking of getting liposuction on my knees, Jane.”

Um, what?

Often the spew-o-meter keeps on spewing, too, adding random fact after random fact: “Besides liposuction, I’m also suffering from depression because I like to saw people in half and today I ate a jack-o-lantern.”

It’s virtually impossible to build a scene this way, because nothing relates to anything else, so nothing sticks and you essentially have two people spewing random stuff. Spewing randomness is typically a result of feeling panic in the scene. Luckily, there is a sure-fire cure for spewing, and that is to listen.

Just pretend that you and your scene partner are actual human beings having an actual conversation. If that were the case, you would listen to what they said and then reply to it. You might reply calmly, or you might have a big ol’ emotional reaction to what they said, but it would be in response to what they said.

“Well, that’s just fine, Jane! I can’t be married to a woman who treats potatoes so sloppily anyway. I just wish I hadn’t wasted the last 15 years with you and your lumpy mashed potatoes.” Or, “What! No, you can’t leave me! You’re the only person who’s worse than me at anything. Without you, I’ll be the bottom of the barrel.” Now your scene partner, who will also be pretending you are an actual human being, can listen and respond and the information will get layered nicely and a scene will develop.

I hope this has been helpful. I don’t look like Celine Dion. For one thing, I’m blonde. Evidently my arms are not weirdly long. I want a cheesecake.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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