By Darren Held

Let’s Talk About Shutting Up

My friend and troupemate Richard Bojorquez asked me to write about the art of shutting up, and I think shutting up is really something that can’t be talked about too much. So I’m happy to oblige.

In improv, there is a tendency to rush to fill every gap in dialogue with more dialogue. It’s natural; there is something inherently scary about dead air, and improvisers are often fearful of boring their audience with “nothingness.” But their mistake is in thinking that silence is “nothingness.”

Think of all the powerful things that can be conveyed in silence. Your expression, your body language, your anger/joy/despair/whatever all have a chance to emerge and percolate and grow if you aren’t rushing to speak. Stare down your opponent. Gaze at your partner with awe. Let your face crumple with grief. There is so much power in NOT speaking, and it gives the audience a chance to catch up with you and be with you in that moment of transition. It also gives YOU a chance to let something matter and to decide what to say and do next.

In real life, we don’t rush to fill those gaps. If we need to take a moment to formulate our thoughts, we do so without freaking out. Of course, in improv you need trust in order to be comfortable with silence: you have to trust that you will know what to say when it’s time to say it, you have to trust your scene partner to also be comfortable with the silence and not talk over it, and you have to trust the intelligence of the audience to be willing to let you play the scene for real.

Aimee and I did a scene in a show where I labeled her character as having trouble spitting out a sentence. She could’ve argued the point, and I could’ve belabored it. But instead, I said it and she listened and we waited – and that extra silence was hilarious AND proved my character’s point about her character’s inability to speak well.

By taking that time, you build the excitement and suspense, and the audience loves that intensity. Just blabbing constantly takes away the mystery and speeds everything up too much – so even when the scene is hilarious, it’s not as satisfying as it could have been (for the players OR for the audience.)

Like everything else in improv (and life), being comfortable with silence takes practice. But when you get the hang of it, you’ll see how cool it is and how much it adds to your scenes. Less really is more sometimes.

Except when it comes to food. Then less is just less, and I do not approve.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv Performance Anxiety

All right. If the handcuffs thing is any indication, I tell you all everything anyway, so I might as well share my latest reason for being all angsty: It’s performing in improv shows where the majority of the audience is students. You know. Improv students. Whom I teach.

That’s a lot of pressure. I mean, there’s pressure whenever I perform anyway because I always want to do the best improv I can and give the audience a great show. But when the audience is made up of students, there are different levels of pressure. Sure, I’ll enumerate them for you. Duh. That’s how I roll, people.

  1. Students who have been taking classes for awhile know the rules of improv by now. I don’t want to be one of those “do as I say, not as I do” people, so I’m extra conscious of the rules when I perform. That’s silly and puts undue pressure on myself because I’m not much of an improv rule breaker in the first place: I don’t ask questions or go for the joke, I’m not sarcastic (no, really), and I never deny. I’d be better off not worrying about the rules and just focusing on being in the moment and making everything matter. Duh.
  2. Students who are pretty new and don’t know the rules yet still have the notion that whoever gets the biggest laughs must have done the best improv. Not true, and yet when new students are present I feel pressure to “be funny.” That’s like, I dunno, death in an improv scene. My job as an improviser is to give my partner the best information and emotional reactions I can to build a scene. Someone has to be the straight person in a scene, and I happen to be a really good straight person. That means the other person often gets the bigger laughs. So what? Did the scene work? Then I did my job.
  3. Students who have signed up and haven’t had any classes yet sometimes watch the performers and assume whoever had the best show must be the best teacher. This is wrong on a couple fronts. First, any given night any of my troupemates may have the “best” show, because we’re all good improvisers (although when the show really works is when the audience can’t pinpoint who was the best because we all worked together seamlessly as a cohesive unit.) Second, teaching a skill is not the same as doing it. Whether or not I have an awesome show doesn’t alter the fact that I understand improv and how to teach it to others and help them get better at it. Third, none of my troupemates currently teaches improv classes, so that automatically gives me a leg up. LOL.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to perform, and I love that our students come out to see our shows. I just have a little performance anxiety at the moment is all. So, uh, thanks for letting me give myself a public pep talk here. Anyway, if I can remember what I tell my students (namely to be in the moment, let go of trying to be funny and just commit), then I will do awesome improv and have nothing to feel anxious about.

I hate it when I have to take my own advice.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

I Don’t Mind Handcuffs

This was labeling week in the Held2gether Level 1 improv classes, and we spent some time talking about the awesomeness of loser labels. Naturally, I explained that you want to embrace those labels rather than defend yourself against them, as you might in real life. In fact, any label that gives you specific character traits that you can run with is a HUGE gift and should be relished!

Later on, I was critiquing an exercise in which someone had labeled someone else as carrying handcuffs. The label didn’t quite work with what had preceded it, and I wanted to explain why. So I started my sentence with, “I don’t mind handcuffs…” then I trailed off a bit to formulate the rest of my thought.

The class didn’t wait to find out what the rest of the thought was. They got a huge kick out of my half-sentence and joked about me labeling myself and how popular I must be and whatever. I was embarrassed (complete with blushing), but I took my own improv advice and didn’t argue against the handcuffs label.

Obviously, in class I need to explain improv concepts intelligently and demonstrate skills clearly. But improv class is about doing stuff that pushes you out of your comfort zone and often that means students feel embarrassed when they try things – so why shouldn’t they get to see me be embarrassed once in awhile too?

There’s no real point to this post, except to say that embarrassing yourself with a bunch of awesome people in an H2G improv class is about the most fun you can have. You know, without handcuffs.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

It’s All Fun and Games till Someone Doesn’t Pick Up on the Sarcasm

Sometimes I have been known to be a wee bit sarcastic. No, really. I know that probably comes as a shock to three of you, but it’s true. It’s not a particularly great trait in real life, and it’s a downright bad trait in improv. Here’s why:

And there’s always a 99% chance that someone won’t pick up on the sarcasm. It’s not because they’re dumb, either. It’s because when you’re sarcastic, you are a) saying the opposite of what you mean, b) being subtle and/or c) being snarky to the person you’re talking to (or about).

In real life, it can be difficult to figure out if someone is being sarcastic or not when they say the opposite of what they mean. Add to that inherent difficulty the stress of trying to create a scene out of thin air with another person (or people) who have their own ideas, and there’s an excellent chance somebody will not pick up on the sarcasm. Then you have at least one person doing the scene based on what you literally said, and at least one person doing the scene based on the opposite of that. Ugh. Even if all the players “get it,” there’s still an excellent chance many people in the audience will have missed the sarcasm. So in improv, we don’t say the opposite of what we mean. We just say what we mean and call everything out in no uncertain terms.

In improv, we also don’t do subtle; there just isn’t time. You have a few short minutes to complete an entire scene, so you have to put everything right out there for the audience and your scene partner to see. Being coy or subtle often requires your scene partner to guess at what you mean and usually takes 3 or 4 lines to get out what could have been said in 1. Just get there! The other problem with subtle is it can frequently lead to casual, and casual is another thing that doesn’t work in improv. Everything has to matter. A LOT!! Big and bold is a much better choice than subtle and casual.

Finally, don’t waste effort being snarky. Be enraged, furious, devastated, homicidal, disgusted or downright hateful. Snarky is a “kinda” emotion (ie, kinda bitchy, kinda mad, kinda irritated) and there’s no kinda in improv.

If you’re always thinking in terms of making choices that GIVE your partner something solid to work with, you’ll see right away that sarcasm isn’t gonna be the optimal choice. In improv, I mean.

Oh, all right. In life, too.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv: What’s the Point?

Sometimes I have trouble figuring out what to write about for these posts. I mean, it’s not like improv, where a bunch of people shout out suggestions at me and I can just pick one and run with it. Nope. It’s just me and Koji, and although Koji occasionally comes into my office and stares at me, I don’t actually find that overly helpful.

And it’s not like it’s 2005 and blogs are the coolest thing EVER and people will read anything I write just because it’s a friggin’ blog.

So every once in a while, I think, “Eh. What’s the point?” Like this morning, for example.

Which reminds me. In the Level 1 improv class Saturday, we were doing a labeling exercise. After I described the exercise and demonstrated it and one group actually did it, a lady raised her hand and asked, “Uh, what’s the point of this exercise?”

She wasn’t being rude or suggesting the exercise was a waste of her time. She meant, “What are the broader implications of the labeling skills we are learning in this exercise as applied to improv scenes in general?”

I love that question. Although I give a short explanation before each exercise about the skill set it addresses, until students have done actual improv scenes, the importance of particular skills remains unclear. Without that frame of reference of performing a scene, the need for labels or agreement or not asking questions can seem mysterious. So asking what’s the point or WHY are we doing this lets me know they are thinking about the bigger picture and are ready to put the next piece of the puzzle into place. I could explain the why of every skill and every aspect of an exercise before the students do it, but often doing it is what gets their brains ready for understanding it.

So, uh, that’s the point of writing this blog, I guess. Just like performing an improv scene, teaching improv involves layering information rather than just vomiting all the information out at once. So sometimes I might write about agreement. Sometimes, about not being jokey. Other times, about my muscles. Because there’s always another layer of information that people will be able to take in when they’re ready.

Still, suggestions wouldn’t hurt. So if you have a topic you want me to elaborate on, ask me in the comments or on FB and I’ll do my best to address it. And if it’s about improv, even better.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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