By Darren Held

Shut Up and Kiss Me. Or, You Know – Grunt.

Today I’m cleaning up my office. I know you’re probably thinking, “Well, gosh, Sonnjea, there’s a fascinating topic that’s clearly all about improv. Please. Tell us more.”

To which I reply, “Sarcasm doesn’t work in improv, peeps. Don’t make me tell you again.”

Here’s the thing. When I was busy with writing and rehearsals for Sketchy People, I started using my office as a dumping ground. Since I work at home, it’s easy for that to happen anyway – clothes I don’t feel like folding get tossed on the sofa, paper work piles up on the coffee table and work I am busily not doing accumulates on my desk. Add to that all the props and clothes and just general junk that seemed to multiply for the show and that I needed to find a home for, and you have the makings of an episode of Hoarders.

The worse it gets, the less able I am to work in there (I’m currently working on a laptop in my dining room, snarfing up a box of Cheez-It’s, if you must know). The clutter just gets to me.

And it occurred to me that improv scenes are kind of the same way. Wait, hold on – you know I can justify this. Pffft. This one’s not even a stretch for me, kids.

When there is too much going on in a scene, it makes it harder and harder for the players to get the scene going. That’s because if there’s just a shitload of random information, it’s too hard to filter through it and know what to react to and what should matter. It’s a much better situation to gradually layer information so that each person in the scene has a chance to truly listen to it, and then react logically and appropriately. Then everybody’s information comes out in manageable doses, like brick after brick in the building of a scene. Instead of, you know, a big dumptruck of building materials hurled in the general direction of a building site.

It’s also important to give information in small soundbite-sized morsels to help you avoid driving an agenda. Yes, you must label each other and add information. But you don’t need to do it in a War and Peace way. Think in terms of Tweets, maybe Facebook posts (in terms of length, I mean; not in terms of sarcasm or vagueness). Your partner can’t possibly remember everything you say and all the information you add if you ramble on and on and on and… Give them one or two small bits of information and then SHUT UP. Give ’em a chance to listen and respond with their own one or two bits of information. Then it’ll be your turn again.

If your strength happens to be adding information (guilty as charged), you may be laboring under the delusion that somehow that means your information is all that and a bag o’ chips. Whatever. Get over it. Your information, no matter how brilliant, is useless if it’s heaped up in a pile of other brilliant information that nobody can sort through in a single lifetime. Remember, dialog is only ONE way of adding information (and it’s the most overused way, fyi). You can add information by having a huge emotional reaction, discovering something onstage, changing the stage picture, doing some new spacework, kissing and/or slapping your partner, grunting, etc.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go clean my office. If you hear grunting, you’ll know why.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv and Mom’s Pie

I try to explain why sarcasm and/or going for the joke don’t work in improv, but there are a couple problems with my explanation:

  1. By the time we get to that part of class, everyone knows how sarcastic I can be in real life, and they’re not sure I’m serious, and
  2. People tend not to believe how badly sarcasm/jokiness can derail a scene until they see it happen.

The other night, however, students got a brilliant example of that very thing. In a plain ol’ 2-person location scene at a bowling alley, the characters were each dissing the other one’s mom’s cooking when one of them said something about pie. He turned it into a jokey comment about his friend’s mom’s “hairy pie” and from that moment on, he was doing a scene about his friend’s mom’s, uh, let’s say private parts, shall we? The other person kept doing the original scene about cooking. There were literally two different scenes happening.

The rest of the class thought the jokey part was funny at first, but quickly became totally confused when they realized the players weren’t on the same page. Soon it became awkward, as one player played it real and the other continued to add one mom’s private parts joke or sarcastic comment after another.

The player who went for the joke explained afterwards that, once he went there, he didn’t know how to get out of it and so he decided to commit to the choice. Argh – that’s a tough moment as a teacher, because I so want people to commit. But I want them to commit to character and emotion, not to a bad joke gone awry.

There are ways to fix anything, of course: The player playing it real could have had a huge emotional reaction at the very first mention of his mom’s privates, making the scene about him finding out his best friend was having sex with his mom. Or the jokey player could have called himself out with something like, “Look, I know I shouldn’t talk about your mom that way, but the truth is she’s hot and I’m in love with her!” Or something. Then both players know what scene they’re doing, and they can make it about their relationship and it’s all good.

But it’s a stronger choice, naturally, not to get into that situation in the first place and just avoid the jokes and sarcasm. Of course, I never make that mistake because improv is totally easy and effortless for me.

Oh. Wait.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv and Pizza: What’s Not to Love?

Okay, I’m on a sappy roll. Yesterday I was all sentimental about Sketchy People. Today, I’m mushy about my students. Might as well get it all out of my system now so I can go back to being the sarcastic, um, person you all expect.

Look! I didn’t swear. Woo hoo, Darren will be so proud.

Anyhoo, someone was asking me the other day what I like most about teaching beginning improv classes. That’s kinda like asking what I like most about pizza: only everything!

I’m not saying that because a lot of students read this, either. I really, truly love everything about teaching beginning improv classes. Sometimes my favorite thing is seeing a bunch of people leave class 10x happier than when they arrived. Sometimes my favorite thing is watching people fall in love with improv. Sometimes my favorite thing is when people tell me how improv applies and helps them in their real life. Sometimes my favorite thing is seeing the huge strides people make, both in their improv skills and with personal struggles like shyness. Sometimes my favorite thing is when a student struggles and struggles and struggles with a skill or concept – and keeps working on it without giving up. Sometimes my favorite thing is when that student finally overcomes that obstacle and takes their game to a whole new level. Sometimes my favorite thing is when a class bonds and the students become new best friends. Clearly, I can go on and on.

Another nice thing about teaching improv, as opposed to teaching, say, math is that even when it’s struggly, it’s fun. And funny. The fact that there’s laughter happening most of the time makes the learning (and teaching) process more enjoyable, if not any easier.

But the thing I didn’t expect about teaching improv was how much I would learn from my students. Teaching is maybe the most humbling activity I’ve ever experienced. I mean, I know about improv – the rules, how to do it, how to teach it. But what makes my jaw drop in every single class is when students push themselves way, WAY past the boundaries of where they’re comfortable. When you can just see the “You know what? Fuck it, I’m going for it!” expression on their face as they take the stage. That kind of commitment inspires me to push harder in my own life – in improv, and in everything else.

So thank you to everyone who has taken a Level 1 class from me! For all the reasons I listed above, I honestly believe I have the best job in the world. Thanks for playing with me!

(And yes, I got around to swearing. I mean c’mon, peeps – it’s me after all. Darren’s used to it.)

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Post-Show Letdown Disorder Sucks

We had an awesome sketch comedy show over the weekend and I for one could not be sadder.

The first time I experienced “post-show letdown disorder” (PSLD) (what? it’s a real thing) was after our 2010 show Overexposed. That show was a killer in terms of pushing everyone (even Darren) WAY far out of their comfort zone with character monologues in costume and improv scenes. The next day, I couldn’t drag my ass out of bed. I kept crying for no reason. I called one of the girls who’d been in the show with me and she felt the same way, so I deduced that it was a sort of post-partum thing.

I’ve had PSLD to some extent after every big show since. Regular shows are fine, because there’s no real build-up before hand. But all the long form shows and now this sketch show have spawned an attack of PSLD.

It makes sense. Not to piss off the “I’m a mom and it’s the only job that matters” crowd, but whether your creation comes from your loins or your heart or your head, letting go of it hurts. For Sketchy People we had 6 weeks of writing, rehearsing and performing. Classes were running from 5:30 or 6 until 10:30 or so. Rehearsals went till midnight. People got together outside of class to rehearse. Darren worked with groups for hours. Basically, our lives revolved, if not entirely, then at least largely around preparing for the show.

Working that hard with folks is a bonding experience. It’s not like being at war with someone, but you do have to trust your partners. Everyone knows that for any scene (and the show as a whole) to work, each person has to do their job. So everyone pushes themselves to be the best they can be, and everyone learns to trust everyone else and step up and help each other out. You learn to rely on each other.

During the show, the 10 of us were crammed into a 6 foot by 8 foot space with no a/c. We ate pounds of Sweet Tarts and Bottle Caps and Cheez-its and drank a 12 pack of PBR from tiny, shot-glass-sized dixie cups. We were hot and exhausted and completely inappropriate, and it was maybe the most fun EVER.

And then, it’s just over. Done. The shows were huge hits, and it was great fun making people laugh with what we created, but it was somewhat anticlimactic after all that went into it. And now these people who have been your constant companions for the past few weeks go back to their regular lives and there’s just a big hole where they and your joint creation used to be.

But we have our inside jokes, and our new and/or improved friendships, and the great memories of starting with not even ONE WORD of dialogue and creating 11 friggin’ awesome sketches that entertained the hell out of folks. And we know that there’ll always be another show.

As much as we might want it to be just like this one, it won’t. But that’s okay, because it will generate its own inside jokes, friendships and memories… and its own bout of PSLD.

To Aimee, Beth, Bob, Darren, Kendra, Lisa, Richard B, Richard M, Viet and Walt: Thank you for being funny, inappropriate and amazing. I love you all. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ma listen to the show soundtrack and weep.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Thankful for Things to be Thankful for

If you spend more than 30 seconds a week on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the November thankfulness posts people have been writing. You know, “12: today I’m thankful for soft ear fur on doggies” or the ones from your deeper FB friends that go more like, “12: today I’m thankful for the ability to be thankful for things that seem horrible but somehow make me a better person, capable of feeling thankfulness for unthankful things.” Or something.

Anyway, I’m not doing that. Not because I’m not thankful for stuff, but because nobody gives a crap about what I’m thankful for and I don’t want to burden folks with excessive posts they don’t give a crap about. Hey! Maybe that’s what you can be thankful for today. “12: I’m thankful Sonnjea didn’t post what she’s thankful for.”

Holy shit, she’s lost it. Don’t even try to pretend that’s not what you’re thinking. It’s just that, I don’t want to seem unthankful by not jumping on the FB thankfulness bandwagon, so I’ma tell you ONE thing I’m thankful for, rather than torturing you with 30 things.

In case you couldn’t guess, I’m thankful for improv. I didn’t start taking improv classes to improve my acting ability (I have none), or to begin a new career (careers are overrated) or anything, really. I just wanted to do something that would push me out of my comfort zone and challenge my complacence. It did, and then some.

My life is completely different as a result of improv, and the changes are 100% positive. I’m less shy, I have more (and better) friends, I’m more confident, my writing is better. Oh, and I have a whole new career. Whatever, you gotta make a living, right?

So if you’re low on things for your November thankful posts, I suggest signing up for a Held2gether improv class. We’re booked up through the end of the year, but new classes start the first week of January. You know, just in time for those New Year’s resolutions you’re going to make in order to give yourself something to be thankful for next November.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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