By Darren Held

My big computer is broken, which means I’ve been doing all my work on the laptop – including writing this blog, which is one of the easier things to accomplish on the laptop. Other things, like design-y things, are difficult because a) I like to look at stuff on the big monitor, and b) much of what I need in order to do my work is not loaded on the laptop and even though the data is networked, the applications are not…

Holy crap, is she still yammering about her computer issues? Hello? Improv, please.

I have a point. You see, I’m not overly adaptable. There is absolutely no reason I can’t load my Adobe products on the laptop and access my files. There is also no reason I can’t run the diagnostics on the desktop and/or take it to the Apple Store for fixin’. Except those things are all take a lot of time and they’re outside my comfort zone and they’re confusing to me… and I’m not a big fan of feeling stupid. (I know, I know… you’d think I was in LOVE with feeling stupid, as much as I do stupid stuff.)

In improv, you have to be adaptable. You have to let go of your agenda. You have to agree with the information your scene partner says, even if it’s not what you wanted.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Do Improv, Eat Bread

I know it comes as no surprise that I think improv is the best thing since sliced bread. And that’s saying something, given my penchant for bread.

I also know I throw around the improv for life phrase pretty freely. But it’s our slogan for a reason, peeps.

See, one of the reasons I think improv is so friggin’ amazing is that every time you go on stage, you get to start over. It’s a fresh start, because it’s a whole new scenario and you get a whole new opportunity to be brilliant. Maybe you forgot to label your scene partner, or have an emotional reaction or be a character the last time you were on stage… so what? Since improv is all about being in the moment, nobody is holding you to what you did the last time around – ALL there is, is what you do right now.

And guess what? It works the other way, too. Maybe you did the best scene ever last week (or even 5 minutes ago)… yay you! But it means nothing now, in this scene.

If your goal is to do the best improv you can, you can neither beat yourself up over past mistakes nor rest on your laurels. Look at those failures and successes and learn from them, by all means. But then move on. Wallowing or gloating or whatever puts you in the past, and that is by definition, uh, not the present.

And as for the improv for life part: why not look at every day as a fresh start? Yesterday’s gone, and with it the day’s successes and failures. Today’s a whole new opportunity to be brilliant. I dunno about you, but I think I’ma take that opportunity. Right after I eat this bread.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv: Do It With a Stranger

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy hanging out with my friends. It’s easier and more comfortable than spending time with strangers, who have weird quirks and strange mannerisms and don’t automatically laugh at all your jokes or find it amusing when you fall asleep half way through a party. Oh. Perhaps that’s just me.

Anyhoo. That same comfort is present when you do improv with your friends. Not that all scenes you do with your friends will work, of course – that’s wishful thinking. But there is definitely a greater level of comfort working with someone you already know and trust. It’s easier to connect, because you do already trust them. Eye contact is easier. You can get on the same page quicker because you each know how the other thinks. You can consciously play to each other’s strengths.

And that’s all well and good if you’re just playing around, or doing drunk improv, or performing in a show. But if you’re in an improv class, playing with your pals all the time will stunt your growth. My grandmother was into ballroom dancing and once, when I was anxious before a 7th grade dance, she told me the best thing to do was to “dance with anybody who asks.” She clearly hadn’t seen some of the 7th grade boys, but still, it’s a valid point.

The best way to improve at improv is to do exercises and scenes with as many different people as possible. When I do a scene with Viet, I can tend to get lazy and do the scene on autopilot because we know each other so well. FYI, autopilot in improv is the best way to crash into the mountains in a giant fireball of unfunny destruction. But if I do a scene with a stranger (or relative stranger), I have to be totally present and in the moment – which is, after all, the point of improv. And that’s the only way to be able to listen and react and do good improv.

So if you’re in a class with some pals, challenge yourself to do your scenes with anyone OTHER than them. You’ll learn a lot more in a shorter amount of time, and in the process you’ll make new pals to add to your collection.

And new pals means more people who find you amusing, which comes in handy for that falling asleep thing.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv and Motorcycles

I’ve been watching Sons of Anarchy lately, and this is what I have learned:

  1. Where I grew up (maybe 30 miles from where SOA is set) is even more redneck than I previously thought; and
  2. these guys know how to commit.

Not to women, of course. That would be silly. But the members’ commitment to their motorcycle club really is “till death do us part.” It’s a white trash, redneck version of the mafia, basically. If the club needs you to do something, you do it, and the penalties for failing to commit range from creatively disgusting to lethal.

Oh, right. Improv.

I’ve mentioned commitment once or three hundred times before, but it’s so important it bears repeating: commitment is everything in improv. You can overcome a denial; you can justify bizarro information; you can correct an attack of sarcasm. But if one person doesn’t commit, you’re done. You can’t do improv alone, so everybody in the scene has to be IN THE SCENE.

There are different aspects of commitment… There is commitment to the character, the voice, the emotion, the genre, the suggestion, the moment. But you can simplify by just thinking about being 100% committed to the scene – then everything it entails will be included. That means you keep going until blackout or until the instructor ends the scene – without glancing over and asking, “Keep going?” It means you give your all to the character, the voice, the emotion, the genre and the suggestion – whatever each of those things means to you – without worrying if you’re going to look silly. It means not judging the scene as it unfolds, but truly being in the moment – listening to your scene partner and having big emotional reactions to their information.

It’s hard at the beginning because nobody wants to look silly, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone means there’s a good chance you’re not going to succeed 100% of the time. And there’s something comforting about stepping out of the scene, perhaps to comment on the suggestion or apologize for an accent or seek approval from the instructor; it’s a way of letting everyone know that you think the scene’s a little wonky and, since you’re aware of that fact, you shouldn’t be judged for it.

I get it. Really. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with a wonky scene. Especially in class – I mean, the whole point of class is to learn stuff. If you already knew everything there is to know about improv and never had a bad scene, why would you take a class? What there IS something wrong with is bailing. You don’t learn what you need to learn if you bail on a difficult scene. Darren and I can watch and critique wonky scenes all day long… because if the players have committed, and the scene goes weird, we can help them understand what to do differently. But if somebody bails, the scene doesn’t really happen, which means we can’t help. We have no idea what MIGHT have happened if they hadn’t bailed, so we can’t see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Look, I’m not that creative, so nothing disgusting or lethal will happen to you if you don’t commit in improv class. But you won’t learn what you set out to learn, and that’s a bummer.

By the way, how do you think I’d look on a motorcycle?

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Listening vs. Garden Gnomes

Listening comes in handy, people. I’m just sayin’. If you listen to people, they feel like you’re respecting them and what they have to say. If you don’t, they feel like you’re dissing them or, quite possibly, that you’re a moron.

Yeah, yeah, this has to do with improv. Improv is all about listening. Before you can agree, add information or commit, you have to listen. I’ve seen plenty of scenes that didn’t work because one or more of the players didn’t listen to the others. Like this:

“I’m filing for divorce, Minnie. I can’t take another night of your snoring!”
“Look, Mickey, garden gnomes! Let’s get some for our garden!”

It’s bad enough not to have a sufficiently big reaction to something because you’re too casual in your scene; it’s even worse to have NO reaction because you didn’t bother to listen. And while I think garden gnomes are quite funny in and of themselves, they are not the logical response to the “you-snore-I-want-a-divorce” situation at hand.

In real life, listening is a skill that many people could improve upon. I had an encounter at a caffeine establishment this morning that left me convinced the order-taking-woman had an IQ of 8. In reality, she’s probably sporting average intelligence, but it’s masked by her nearly prodigious inability to process any information given her.

Listening is one of those skills that can improve your performance in virtually any job, even those not directly involved with customer service. Honestly, just feeling heard makes most people so happy, they’re instantly inclined to like the person who bothered to really hear them. It’s the easiest way to win friends and influence people… and the bonus is, when you listen to people, they start to listen to you.

Even if you already listen pretty well, improv class can still help you listen better. Plus, it’s totally fun! And I’m told many people enjoy “fun” so you might wanna check it out!

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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