By Darren Held

I love an improv exercise we do called Eyewitness. I’ve seen it (and performed it, actually) in shows and I personally don’t think it works that well for an audience. But it’s a great exercise for class.

It involves two people reporting an incredibly petty crime to the police… something like taking 2 newspapers from the dispenser or littering or jaywalking. The perpetrator is typically a celeb of some sort. The point of the exercise is for the improvisors to take their sweet time getting to the actual crime, while instead spewing mountains of minutiae that really is all about themselves.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Zombies Need Not Apply

I’m sorry for the sporadic posting lately. I have a few other jobs, which occasionally makes time for blogging scarce. And the truth is, I sometimes feel like I’m just rehashing the same ol’ themes over and over, and I’m afraid I’m boring you and you might need a break from me.

But now we have a new round of Level 1 improv classes set to start in the next week or so, and I feel like talking about who should take improv and why, and maybe a bit about my favorite kind of student.

If you are a living, breathing human being, you should take improv. So that pretty much only leaves out zombies. If you think you have to have performing skills or a drama background, let that go – we approach improv from a different perspective at Held2gether, and that is that everyone can do improv, not just performers (although actors are as welcome as everyone else). I am the poster child for “improv for life.” I took my first improv class from Darren Held just about exactly 4 years ago; I had never been on stage before and my goals were to get out of my shell, overcome shyness and deal with some serious writer’s block. I didn’t know exactly what improv was when I signed up for that first parks and rec class, but at the end of that 4-week class, I was completely hooked. I’ve never NOT been in an improv class since. It did help with shyness and writer’s block, for sure.

Oh, and it completely changed my life. There’s that.

The thing about improv is that the skills needed to build a successful improv scene are the same as the skills needed to live a successful life: listening, being in the moment, working well with others, not judging yourself, giving your all, accepting people and their ideas, and did I mention listening? So if you want to get better at playing baseball, improv can help. If you want to get better at being a banker, improv can help. If you want to get better at being a firefighter, improv can help. If you want to be a better dictator, improv will probably be counter-productive. But other than that, whatever you want to improve at, improv really can help. In fact, most of the word “improve” is made up of the word “improv.” Coincidence? Pshaw.

Oh, and my favorite students? Those are the folks who see the magic of improv and how it brings out the magic in themselves. They accept the struggly times as part of the process, but continue to strive to overcome those struggles. They appreciate their classmates and do their best to make everyone look good. They love that improv is fun, but understand that it’s more than just playtime. In short, they respect the game.

If you’ve been waiting to try improv, now is your chance, peeps! Beginning improv classes start the first part of April. Hope to see you there.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

To Be or To Be for a Little While

My friend Lorna is taking a Spanish language improv class, which is apropos of nothing, except it made me think of some Spanish words. In Spanish, there are two different verbs for “to be” – ser and estar – and they are used in different situations. When you are describing the essential character of a person or thing (in other words, its permanent state), you use ser. When you are describing the current state of being or condition of a person or thing, you use estar.

No, this isn’t a Spanish lesson, and yes, it’s about improv. I swear.

My point is that I sometimes hear people (okay, sometimes “people” includes “me”) describe themselves thusly: “Man, I am terrible at improv,” or “I am bad at [insert improv weakness here]” or something along those lines. In English, unfortunately, there is only one verb for “to be” and it sort of implies a permanent state (or the essential character) of the person.

When it comes to being bad at improv, the verb estar would be a much better choice. Maybe you’re not that good at improv YET. Maybe you had a terrible class last night and you are bad at creating a pattern RIGHT NOW. It’s not your permanent state of being, people.

Look, everybody has an off night or a stumbling block or a hurdle on the learning curve to contend with. Barry Bonds struck out a lot. Abraham Lincoln got fired a lot. Liam Neeson… well, bad example. Liam’s essential state is awesome sauce. But you see my point, I think – pick any hero in any field, and you’ll see times when they were bad at what they do best. But they didn’t STAY bad forever. It seems to be human nature to identify and then HOLD ON TO our weaknesses, while brushing aside our strengths and successes as flukes or temporary states.

From now on, when you’re describing what you’re good at in improv, think of those things as your permanent state and essential character. Ser. And when you’re describing what you’re bad at, think of those things as simply your current condition, subject to change at any moment. Estar.

Because really, ALL of us have the essential state of awesome sauce. We just have temporary setbacks of suckiness now and then. No big.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

If You Want Something Done Right…

Some people (who shall remain nameless) who knew me back in the day have trouble believing I can do improv. It’s true. You know who you are.

It’s not so much about the humor thing, because I’ve been a smartass my entire life. It has to do with the teamwork aspect of improv, which has actually turned out to be the thing I love most about improv.

To say I wasn’t a team player would be a ginormous understatement. Let’s review, shall we?

  1. The only sport I did in high school was swimming – which is technically a “team,” but it’s really made up of individuals doing their own events. Needless to say, I didn’t do relays.
  2. My friends did drama and/or debate… but I didn’t want my “success” to depend on other people doing their job. So I didn’t do drama. Or debate.
  3. I abhorred any type of “group project” assignments in high school and college. The ONE time I trusted everyone on the team to do their job, somebody didn’t. It was a mock election, and my team would’ve won by a LANDSLIDE, except one lame mofo didn’t do his part. So we lost. From then on, I did all the work in any group projects myself, guaranteeing all the people on my team an A… and guaranteeing that everyone knew what a major control freak, pain in the ass bitch I was.

So I get why people might have trouble believing I can be a team player. To be honest, if I’d known that improv was a total team sport, I might not have taken my first class. No, seriously. I really, really didn’t trust people to carry their own weight, and I wouldn’t have wanted to show new people my control freak, pain in the ass bitch self too soon.

But as I’ve said countless times, improv is magical. The brilliant thing is that it’s FUN, so you want to do it well. And the only way to do it well is just to friggin’ trust people. No, people aren’t perfect and yes, sometimes your teammates aren’t successful. But except in very rare instances, everyone is on the same page and trying their best to make the scene work, and that’s what teammates do. Not only that, but a control freak, pain in the ass bitch is NOT someone anybody would want on a team. Who wants to play/work/whatever with someone so in love with their own agenda that they force it on everyone else? Um, not me.

When you grasp how amazing working together as part of a team can be, you realize that it’s very lonely doing everything yourself. When you let go of your notion that everything has to be “perfect” (which is impossible anyway), you discover how fun it is to figure out how to make a “mistake” work. When an audience tells you you guys are all amazing!, you discover that your biggest win comes not from YOU looking good, but from you contributing to the TEAM looking good.

You probably won’t believe me, but when you start to love the teamwork in improv, it will carry over into real life. Seriously, most people I’ve met since I started improv don’t think of me as a control freak, pain in the ass bitch. Well, not all the time, anyway.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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