By Darren Held

Take the Easy Way

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That’s helpful to know in geometry and figuring out how to get from your house to the nearest Cold Stone, obviously, but you might wonder what the heck I’m talking about in terms of improv.

I’d argue that the shortest distance between two points in improv (say from “action” to “laughter”) is also a straight line – in other words, a simple, easy premise. Sometimes we get caught up trying to be clever or think of something interesting or entertaining, and we overlook the obvious choice. Just because something seems easy doesn’t mean it can’t be funny. And oftentimes the very easiest thing to do is simply to “yes, and” the first line out and make that the big deal.

A lot of times we look at those first couple lines as nothing more than getting out the foundation and setting up the scene so that THEN we can get to the big what. But if we embrace the notion that there are no throw-away lines in improv, there’s no reason to wait for a big what to come along… sometime… down the line… after we’ve said all the stuff about who and what and where.

Of course, like everything else in a good improv scene, this relies on listening to each bit of information. And then choosing to make every bit of information important. Easier said than done, I realize, but if you challenge yourself to listen closely and make whatever the very first thing that’s said THE thing, you’ll get in the habit of not missing those first few foundation lines. And you’ll get to your “what” – and, consequently, the laughter – that much more quickly.

Hope this was helpful. Oh, and please don’t trudge through strangers’ yards on your way to Cold Stone. A straight line isn’t always the best way to go, even if it is the shortest.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

No Agenda = Good Improv = Laughter and Applause

I apologize for the seemingly inappropriate photo, but I actually used it on purpose to prove a point… which is that we see what we want to see (or at least what we expect to see).

Our brains are adept at translating sensory input, whether visual or auditory or whatever, into information we expect. It’s some kind of efficiency thing, evidently. We see a red octagon, and our brains expect the word on it to say stop. It’s why proofreading is so difficult – our brains know what the word is supposed to be, and they often don’t catch the trasnposition error. See?

In improv, the effect is evident in listening. If an improvisor is truly in the moment and not holding onto any agenda, they will be able to listen to their scene partner and respond appropriately. But if he or she has an idea in their head, some agenda they are attached to in even a small way, their listening will be compromised. Their brain will hear the words they want or expect to hear; they’ll hear words that justify the agenda they are determined to drive. And they won’t hear the rest.

Then they’ll add their information that they’ve been dying to add, and it won’t quite jive with the rest. It won’t necessarily be out of left field, but it won’t really work, either.

Your brain works by matching up patterns, so the best way not to get trapped hearing incorrectly is not to have any loop running in your brain. If you have an agenda, your brain will match the information it hears to that agenda and literally discard or fail to hear anything that doesn’t “fit.” If you have no agenda, your brain has no pattern to match, so it takes in ALL the information.

I know it’s scary to let go of your agenda and resist the urge to pre-plan, but I assure you your scenes will go better if you do. Then, as you let go of your agenda more and more and have better and better scenes, your brain will start to recognize the “pattern” of no agenda = good improv = laughter and applause and it will gradually stop trying to force its ideas on you and everybody else.

I hope you that read right.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Not That Shallow

Somebody said to me after last week’s show, “Great show! You must get tired of hearing that.”

Um, what? No. No, people. Those of us who have the incredible privilege of performing improv showsin front of real, live human beings never get tired of hearing “great show!” For most of us, there is nothing we can do (in public) that even comes close to the thrill we get from doing a great improv show. The fact that you think it’s great is what makes it great for us. We can guess from the applause and laughter that you liked it; you taking the time to tell us you liked it confirms the fact.

This is not to say we expect you to validate us or feed our egos. We’re really not that shallow… not even me. No one should feel obligated to tell performers… anything, actually. I’m just sayin’ that if you feel like it, it doesn’t come across as weird to us.

It’s late on Friday, and I don’t have any deep thoughts to back this up. So just have a nice weekend and stuff.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

You Can’t See Me…

Part of commitment in improv is being fully in your scene from the minute it starts until blackout, not judging, not seeking approval, not glancing at the audience to see if they “get” it, not looking at the instructor.

This is often a hard thing for brand new students. I understand. We all want approval, to some extent. We’ve all seen (and been) that kid doing something goofy at the park and yelling, “Mom! Hey, mom! Watch this!” The flip side of the showing off is the fear of falling… We want to learn to ride a bike, but we don’t want dad to let go of the seat too soon.

I see it in improv classes when students are doing an exercise that is a little (or maybe a lot) outside their comfort zone. A student will say their line of dialogue, then look at me. Or they’ll do a tiny bit of spacework, then look at me. Or they’ll have a glimmer of an emotion, then look at me. The problem is, I’m not in the scene with them. The person they SHOULD be looking at is their scene partner. By looking at me, they are pulling themselves out of the made-up reality of the scene and making it difficult or impossible for their scene partner to connect with them. When people are brand new, I avoid referring to this as “bailing on your scene partner” because that’s a harsh definition and I don’t want people to feel stressed out on top of their inability to commit. But it’s an accurate definition, and since bailing on your scene partner is one of the worst things you can do in improv, I can’t just let it go, either.

The best thing to do in class is to pretend the instructor isn’t there. It’s not appropriate to be showing off like in the “hey, mom, look at me!” scenario, and there’s no need to be afraid since it’s all about the learning anyway. And it’s not like you’re gonna crash your bike if you say something “wrong.” The instructor will guide you through the exercise if you’re really floundering, but ultimately you will learn SO MUCH more if you just commit and struggle through the scene with your partner. The critique at the end will help you discover why certain things worked or didn’t, and it’ll help you understand what you might do differently next time.

Since improv is all about being in the moment and learning to trust your instincts, I’m not helping you if I let you lean on me through your entire scene. And you don’t need to look at me for approval constantly, either – you have my approval just for showing up and going for it! I’m totally on your side and I want the exercise or scene to work every bit as much as you do. So just focus on your partner, let go of any judgement whatsoever and go for it!

Trust me. I learned to do it, which means you can too.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Competitive Improv

Somebody asked me recently if Held2gether would ever do those improv competition-type shows that you see at certain places in Hollywood and the O.C. They also asked if I was going to finish my drink.

Uh, boundaries, people.

We’ll start with the question that’s actually appropriate. While I can’t say for certain that we’ll never do a competition show, the likelihood is extremely small. Teeny, even. We’ve been invited to do competition shows with other troupes over the years, and we’ve always politely declined. Not because we don’t play well with others, but because when your whole business model revolves around the concept of “improv for life,” it’s antithetical to have losers.

Our premise is that anyone can do improv and benefit from the skills it teaches. Our goal is to help each student become the best they can be by fostering an environment of support and encouragement in our classes. We don’t want to then do shows where one team has to “win” and another team has to “lose” because the point is that, when you do improv, you automatically win. Our shows consist of everybody on the same team, working together to make everybody look as amazing as possible. That’s what makes us happy.

There’s nothing wrong with competitive improv. It’s just not how we roll at H2G.

Oh, and it’s safe to assume that if I have an alcoholic beverage in my hand, I fully intend to finish it. That’s what makes me happy.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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