By Darren Held

Don’t Ask Me!

Probably the phrase I hear Darren say the most in improv classes is, “Make it a statement.” That’s because making statements rather than asking questions doesn’t seem to come naturally to most students.

This is a hard skill for many of us because in real life, asking questions is polite. “How are you?” “Where would you like to go for dinner?” “Where did you get that amazing plastic surgery?”

In improv, on the other hand, asking questions is NOT polite. It’s actually putting the burden of coming up with information onto your scene partner, which could be considered rude. In improv, you want to choose to KNOW. Know everything. I’ve seen a bazillion instances where, when forced to change a question to a statement, students come up with the most amazing labels and information.

Students sometimes argue that their question was leading, and therefore added information. Like, “I think this dress makes my ass look fat – what do you think?” That’s a yes or no question, peeps, and all we learn when your scene partner answers it is that your ass looks fat, or it does not. Making it a statement, “Gosh, I’m really afraid that this dress makes my ass look fat,” tells us something about you: you are worried about your appearance. Maybe not the most exciting improv bombshell ever, but it’s still a character trait.

Students also frequently point out that their question was a rhetorical one, and they were not actually relying on their scene partner to answer it in order to add information. I see the point, and I don’t disagree with regard to the burdensome aspect of it. However, you have 3 minutes to do a whole entire scene in improv. You don’t have time to waste on throwaway lines. A rhetorical question doesn’t add anything, so even though it’s harmless, it’s also pointless. Much stronger choice to go with a statement.

There’s also the type of question that’s tacked onto the end of a statement, designed to elicit agreement. “I have always loved making scones with you, Reggie! Wouldn’t you agree?” That’s kind of the opposite of forcing your scene partner to come up with the information – it’s forcing them to accept your agenda. Just stick with the statement and perform a question-ectomy on the last part. Naturally, your scene partner will agree with the facts of your statement because they know they have to yes, and whatever you say. Reggie will therefore agree that YOU have loved making scones together. However, he may have hated every minute of it. Give him that freedom.

When you see performers ask questions in shows, it’s largely because they’ve been working together for a long time and know how to set one another up to give great information or to pimp out certain character traits or particular skills they know their scene partners possess. Even then, though, I’d argue that the same could be accomplished more quickly and directly with a statement.

But, you know, that’s just my opinion. Right?

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv Tip: Free Your Mind!

I noticed something in improv class on Saturday. We were doing an exercise where the students had to come up with tons of examples of spacework they could be doing in a specific location. Like, in a Starbucks, they could be making a latte, or cleaning children’s handprints off the display case, or refilling the half-and-half container.

Everybody did fine up to a point. Then their brains started to run out of things to do in Starbucks or wherever. At that point, they’d throw out a couple of repeats or examples that were only slightly different from the previous one. But then, after a couple of those, they started to come up with the more interesting ideas. And I realized that once you get to – and pass – the point of discomfort, something magical happens to free your mind.

A space shuttle scene had someone collecting tiny asteroids and storing them in a glass jar. A county fair scene had someone trying on clothes in the funhouse mirror. A bakery scene had someone giving cupcake tops to needy children. An auto repair shop had someone ripping the girly calendar off the wall. A beach scene had someone passing out seashells as gifts to passers-by.

That’s a great thing about improv. It forces you to use your brain in ways that don’t logically make sense to it. And, like a muscle, the more you exercise your brain the stronger it gets. So more and more things pop into your head as possibilities, and you don’t always have to work quite so hard to think of the next thing to say, do or be. But if you give up right when it gets difficult, it’s like only ever doing curls with a 3 pound weight. It’s not nothing, but you’re not going to gain strength by doing it.

Obviously, this kind of brain exercise helps with out-of-the-box thinking, brainstorming and problem-solving at work. But even more importantly, it helps you think of things to say to your busybody neighbor, ways to handle family get-togethers and, um, things to do at the beach now that throwing footballs and frisbees is illegal.

Want to exercise your brain muscle? We have just the ticket! A 4-hour Intro to Improv Intensive on March 11th. Come on out and play with us!

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Oscar Winning Moments

Thanks to everyone who came out to see awesome improv in Long Beach on Saturday night! We had a fantastic time, the crowd was incredible and the cake Hot Java served as our 2-year anniversary surprise was delish!

See, I told you you’d be sad if you missed it. There was cake, people! Free friggin’ cake!

One of the highlights of the night was Sean Fannon’s “Oscar Winning Moment.” This is a fun game, where at random points Darren shouts out Oscar Winning Moment and that player then delivers a short monologue that is his or her Oscar clip for this movie.

When Sean finished his monologue, the audience erupted in a spontaneous ovation. Not because of what he said so much, as how he said it. His monologue was filled with angst and drama, and he built it up to a fever pitch. It was a brilliant, textbook demonstration of how far commitment will take you in an improv scene.

Later, in spite of his somewhat, er, diminished capacity, Darren said to me, “I hope you learned something from Sean’s Oscar Winning Moment.” Being far less incapacitated, I responded with an always-appropriate finger gesture. But his point was well taken.

The audience is so much on your side when you do improv – they want to find you funny, and they will work pretty hard to find the funny in pretty much any scene… if they see that you are working just as hard to bring the funny. If you are totally committed, digging in when the scene gets struggly and giving your scene partners 100% and not laughing at your own lines and sticking with a character from start to finish, the audience will adore you. Even in scenes where nothing develops, the audience will love you because they will know you worked your ass off for them.

And, of course, part of giving it 100% is going BIG. HUGE, even. I know it’s hard, especially for people who have no performing background. Like, um, me. But the thunderous applause Sean got is a pretty good reward, if you ask me. Which, of course, you didn’t. But it is my blog, you know.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Free Improv Show In Long Beach TOMORROW!

Tomorrow night, peeps! It’s your chance to see INNY-nominated improv troupe Held2gether perform a free improv comedy show in Long Beach!

It’s our 2-year anniversary show at Hot Java, so if you miss it, you’ll be sad. We’ll be sad, too. So please don’t miss it!

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv Tip: You’re a Team

I have been in improv classes where students have argued with the teacher about their critique and even, occasionally, blamed their scene partner for whatever went wrong in their scene.

Just to clarify, that’s so not cool.

One time in class, I was totally off. (Right. It only happened once.) I couldn’t think clearly in my scenes and my initiations, which are usually strong and have an obvious point, were muddled. Eh, it is what it is. We all have nights like that.

Part of me is still annoyed with a scene partner who was in total denial mode all night. Denials are difficult enough to deal with when you are at the top of your game. When you’re having an off night, they’re impossible to overcome.

But the advantage of taking critiques without argument and without blaming or pointing out the shortcomings of others, is it forces you to take complete responsibility for the scene. Um, what? Why should I have to be responsible when the other person effed it up just as much?

Well, because. It’s improv. You’re a team. Pointing fingers at your teammates does nothing to build the strength of the team. Sucking it up and taking responsibility means you’ll work even harder in the future, and you’ll get the reward by becoming that much stronger of an improvisor. Sure, I know that a lot of the things that I got called out on after that scene wouldn’t have happened if my scene partner hadn’t denied every bit of information. But denials are going to happen sometimes – sometimes even in shows – and learning to deal with them in class will help me handle them gracefully when it matters.

I guess my point is, the critique is to help you become a better improvisor. Deflecting the critique is a denial of its own. It’s basically saying either, “You’re wrong,” or, “It’s okay. I’m cool. I don’t need your help because I’m as good as I want to be.” It’s not always fun or comfortable – nobody likes being told they aren’t quite perfect – but the only way to learn and improve is to listen to feedback and do your best to implement it.

If you have comments or feedback about this blog, I’d be happy to hear them. You know, over martinis. And a steak wouldn’t hurt. Thanks.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

1 2 3 4