By Darren Held

Hedge Your Bets

The rules of engagement exist for your safety and that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I. ~ Viper

Okay, okay. The rules of improv are not quite so inflexible as the rules of engagement at Top Gun. But they DO exist for a reason, and I’ma tell you why. Guess that’s just how I roll.

It’s really all about percentages. Plunking two or more people on a stage, giving them a random suggestion like “artichokes” and expecting hilarity is akin to going to a party at a trailer park and expecting Dom Perignon. I mean, it could happen, but it ain’t likely.

So the rules are there to help you hedge your bets. When you agree instead of denying, you improve your odds. When you add information, you improve your odds. When you commit, you improve your odds. Every time you play by the rules, the game gets stacked a little more in your favor.

But don’t get cocky – it doesn’t work like a savings account. You can play by the rules for 2/3 of the scene, then go for a joke or get sarcastic or ask a lame question or deny something, and now your odds of having a successful scene are right back in the “astronomical” range.

Not all rules carry equal weight in terms of improving your odds, of course. And sometimes the importance of the rules is mitigated by the experience of the players, their on-stage chemistry and how well they know each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Andy and I quite enjoy setting each other up in certain games and scenes, by either asking a question or being sarcastic – but we have the longest history together of anyone in our troupe and I know he’ll get what I’m going for and vice versa. Still, it’s not the strongest choice.

And don’t forget, when you ignore the rules, you’re risking the game for all your scene partners as well as yourself. That’s a big gamble, if you ask me.

Which, I realize, you didn’t. But it’s my blog.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv: Can I Say Penis?

A student asked an interesting question in the last session of the Level 1 improv class on Saturday. It had to do with saying words like “penis” and “vagina” in scenes, and the general improv attitude towards vulgarity.

I thought Viet was going to burst out laughing – not at the question, which was totally valid, but at ME attempting to answer it… because I’m not exactly the Queen of Propriety in improv or life, especially when it comes to language. Besides the usual 4-letter words I throw around with reckless abandon, I wrote an entire novel in which the protagonist’s unpleasant estranged husband is referred to exclusively as “Dickhead.” So I may not be the best judge of what’s “vulgar.” That being said, we got into an interesting discussion about self-censoring in improv.

My general belief is, if you’re in class, try it. Not the self-censoring, duh. I mean, if you wanna say something, just say it. I would insist on students respecting each others’ personal space and sense of decorum in terms of touchy-feely-ness (ie, don’t kiss your scene partner until you’ve gotten drunk with them, perhaps) but I don’t really worry about students saying inappropriate things. After all, you’re in class to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try things – not everything is gonna work, and that’s part of the learning process. But worrying in advance about what words you should/should not say is just one more way to lock you in your head. And nothing good comes from that.

If you’re performing, it’s a slightly different story.

  1. For one thing, I do believe in respecting your host. So if you’re invited to perform at a church, or a business event, or a family-friendly tea house, you should give them the clean show they want – both in terms of language AND content. If you can’t keep it clean, you shouldn’t take those gigs.
  2. Second, vulgarity isn’t funny if it doesn’t end. Raunchy is funny up to a point – but it quickly becomes too easy. I mean, if your humor primarily appeals to 7th grade boys, you’re not really pushing yourself OR engaging the majority of your audience.
  3. And third, as with moving around the stage, swearing and vulgarity should have some purpose: to heighten the emotion, perhaps, or because the straight-laced-librarian-looking-woman bursts out of her shell or the character you’re playing needs to speak this way. I actually swear a lot LESS in shows than I do in real life, because not all the characters I play would swear like a sailor the way real life Sonnjea does.

On a completely unrelated note, “penis” is a funny word.

There are still a couple spots left in the next Level 1 improv class, so sign up soon, gosh darnit.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Sketchy People

The H2G sketch class started last night – this is the performance class which means it ends with a, um, performance.

Class was awesome, and it was really fun to see how well improv complements sketch. We’d get a basic skeleton of an idea for a sketch, and then play around with improv to find the beats and really figure out where the funny was coming from, then get input from Darren and the rest of the class. Now we have a week to fine-tune a few of those that had a lot of potential, and we’ll see next week how they’re fleshing out.

There are plenty of scenes I could tell you about, but I won’t because I don’t know yet which ones are going to end up in the show and I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you. But the good news is, we could’ve just kept the scenes we created last night and made an awesome show from them – and yet, we still have 3 more writing sessions to come up with even more, better, funnier material. So be sure and get your tickets (they go on sale at the website on Sunday, October 14) or you will be sad. The show runs for 2 nights, and seating is limited.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Well, It Made Sense to Me

I don’t usually remember my dreams. I don’t know if that makes me a psychopath or what, but it is what it is. However, the dreams I do remember are the unpleasant ones. Not always nightmares; just not unicorns-and-sparkles happy.

What the heck does this have to do with improv? is the question I think you’re mouthing at this moment.

Okay, I’ma tell you. See, sometimes I have dreams involving my real friends, only in my dreams they are real jerks. Then I wake up in the morning and I’m real mad at my real friends… except they didn’t technically do anything wrong. So now I’m stuck being mad at people for reasons known only to me, which makes it hard for them to understand why I’m not acting like my usual cheery self. What? I’m cheery, dammit.

This happens all the time in improv. Not the sleeping and having bad dreams part, but the part where one person is happy/sad/angry/paranoid/admiring/flirtatious/whatever for reasons known only to them. We’re so used to cutting to the chase, that we often neglect to tell every step in the story. But in improv, you have to spell it all out.

I used the socks on the line story once before, but it’s a good example and it doesn’t make anybody look bad except me, so I’ll use it again. The scene was nursing home residents watching a woman hanging out laundry. Andy noted the lady was hanging up a single sock. Viet mentioned that I was mean and yet clung desperately to anyone I could find.

In my head, the lone sock was a perfect analogy for this bitter old woman who didn’t have a mate but who clung to people like socks without fabric softener. And I thought the bitter old woman would wonder why the sock had to be lonely, so I said, “What’s the deal with the one sock?” or something along those lines. The whole analogy about my life = a solitary sock with static cling got trapped in my head, so it looked like I wasn’t interested in those awesome labels of loneliness and bitterness and clingyness, and just wanted to talk about socks.

Much like Vegas, what happens in your head stays there. People you’ve dreamed about don’t know they left you at the restaurant and stuck you with the bill. People in improv scenes don’t know you’ve made eleven leaps of logic and are now stabbing them even though what they said was, “You’re always trying to make friends with people through food.”

That line or two it takes to justify the emotional change or the information you’re giving makes all the difference in terms of the scene making sense and your partner knowing what’s going on inside your noggin. So just spell it out.

As for Nate and Darren, you owe me lunch.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

No Robot Improv

I am so glad you are reading this blog, at your computers here in your living rooms on earth because you enjoy improv, my friends who are not strangers to me.

If you’ve done improv more than once, you know what I’m talking about. If not, I assure you I haven’t lost my marbles.

There’s something that happens to people when they do improv scenes (or exercises like add info lineup) that causes their brains to forget how actual humans converse. In an effort to get out the who/what/where/relationship information at the beginning of a scene – which I applaud and encourage wholeheartedly – the words sometimes become stilted, inorganic and downright robotic.

We did exercises in last week’s Level 3 classes that focused on getting out all that info in just two lines… while talking like fully functioning adult human beings. I noticed two interesting things while watching 25 or so attempts at this in add info lineup.

  1. First, the person who had the first line automatically took their time doing some spacework, getting into an emotional state and connecting with their scene partner while trying to figure out how to talk like a normal person. In that time, they were able to connect with their partners, and the audience got a chance to see something building (often something hilarious, just based on the physicality) before the dialogue started.
  2. And second, by getting out that information in an organic way, practically every pairing got to a “big what” by the end of the second line. I’ve watched and played in tons of scenes that NEVER got to a big what. So for the vast majority to get to the reason “today is the big day” in only two lines is amazing.

You know how I roll, so you have probably guessed that I have an opinion as to why this is so. And yes, I’ma share it with you now.

I think it’s because, instead of just blurting out facts in a robotic fashion, speaking organically by its very nature includes our feelings about things. Feelings about things = labels. Labels = stepping stones to the big what. So saying, “I appreciate you letting me move back home after I lost my job, mom. But it’s Friday night, and I’d really rather be out with my friends instead of washing dishes with you,” is chock full of both facts and feelings. And when the other person says, “Gosh, Donna, I thought this would be a good time for us to reconnect and relive all the great times we’ve had together in this kitchen,” we know that these two are NOT on the same page and this is the big day it’s all going down. Yay! Two lines, a big what, and all because they spoke like regular people.

The good news is, we can all do that because we’re all regular people and, uh, being regular people by definition requires no special skills.

You’re welcome.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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