By Darren Held

I would like to say I’m one of those people who doesn’t complain about things, but a) I don’t actually believe “those” people exist and b) who are we kidding? I have a list of pet peeves as long as my arm. Some of those pet peeves are improv-related, some simply have to do with people who annoy the crap out of me. None of whom are you, lovely readers.

What I honestly try NOT to complain about are things that I choose to do to improve myself or my life in some way. Sure, there are some exercises in improv class that are not my favorites, for whatever reason. Maybe some push me way far out of my comfort zone, while some just aren’t as fun to me as others. We all have our personal preferences. If asked, I’ll be honest whether or not I like a particular game or exercise, but I won’t complain about doing them because I see the value in all the exercises we do.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Thank You! No, Thank You!

I wasn’t planning to write anything today, for a couple reasons. First of all, I’m behind because of the GoDaddy issues I had over the weekend. Second, I’m suffering from Post-Show Letdown Disorder (PSLD). And third, I’m trying to get through about 77 loads of laundry. But something happened that made me change my mind about writing a blog post, and since the one thing I’m good at in life is improvising, here we are.

I’ve talked about PSLD before; it’s basically the sadness that hits when all the work that goes into a big show is done and there’s a huge gaping hole where all the fun and camaraderie and inappropriateness used to be. It hit me today, after yesterday’s big long form show, even though I will see everyone who I did that show with sometime in the next few days. Sheesh. It’s not like they moved to the moon or have suddenly become appropriate. (As an aside, I just cracked myself up with the thought of Richard B attempting to be appropriate.)

So I was mopey this morning while I did my work and 77 loads of laundry. And then I got an email that changed everything. It literally turned my frown upside down. Yeah. Now I’m that girl. A student who has become a friend took the time to thank me for introducing him to improv and to tell me, completely unsolicitedly, that by teaching improv the way I do, I have a “huge impact on so many other people’s lives.”

I’m not gonna lie; that made my friggin’ day. Sometimes it’s easy to get into the mindset that improv is a luxury. Maybe nice to have, but completely unnecessary. But when I remember (or when somebody kindly reminds me) that improv – especially the “improv for life” way we do it at Held2gether – makes life better, then I realize that what I do has value and actually makes the world a better place. I’m not a rocket scientist, I’m not curing cancer… but I’m helping people discover the magic of improv and, through it, the magic that they’ve locked up inside themselves for a very long time (or forever). It may not be the most important job on the planet, but I’m damn proud of it and so so SOOOO happy when I hear from people that improv for life has changed their lives in the same profound ways it changed mine.

So since it appears to be a thank you kind of day, I want to pay it forward by thanking Darren Held for introducing me to improv and for believing in me and for giving me the opportunity to teach and help others discover their own love of improv. And I want to thank each and every student I’ve ever had for trusting me (even if it was just a little tiny bit at first) and for being willing to go for it and let improv work its magic on your lives.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a less mushy post. In the meantime, yaaaaaaayyyyy!!

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Mirror, Mirror

When you do improv for any length of time, you can’t help becoming aware of how other people see you. Sometimes we do “against type” exercises, where the instructor asks the class what they’d like to see from from you that’s unlike what you normally do. Sometimes, especially with people you haven’t really worked with much, you’ll get a string of labels that are similar. Sometimes people send you this picture:

Yeah. That’s subtle.

The thing is, there is nothing wrong with how people see you. Maybe it’s the same as what you see in the mirror, maybe not. But for whatever reason – accurate or not – people have an impression of you. What that means in terms of your improv is entirely up to you. You can play to that image, and it will likely work pretty well because the audience is apt to see you the same way and it will be easy for them to accept you as a character close to the one they already think you are. You can also play against it, and that can work just as well because there’s something funny about seeing a big, macho guy play an insecure dweeb or a librarian-looking girl play a raunchy barmaid. The strongest approach is to mix it up – play to your type sometimes and against it sometimes. Be well-rounded.

People see me as a soccer mom, everybody’s big sister or the ever popular Den Mother. There’s value in real life in knowing how others see you, because we get so used to thinking we’re a certain way that we assume everyone sees us that way. If people aren’t seeing us the way we want to be seen, we can change our appearance or behavior to more accurately reflect who we feel like inside – but we only know to do that when we learn that others aren’t seeing us the way we see ourselves.

I’m not saying you should change yourself to match the world’s perceptions; I’m just saying it’s interesting to understand how those perceptions differ from your own. I have railed against the Den Mother label, but when all is said and done, I’m a pretty helpful person who knows how to figure shit out and get stuff done and encourage others along the way… kinda like a Den Mother. It’s not really so terrible.

Still, I wouldn’t mind being everybody’s younger sister sometimes…

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Definitions of Improv

A beginning improv student asked me last night what the definition of improv is. She said a friend asked her, and she couldn’t really explain it. So I said, “Improv is 2 or more people spontaneously creating a scene right in the moment, based entirely on the audience’s suggestion.” I’m pretty proud of that definition, as I came up with it myself and I thought it explained improv in a completely unambiguous way. Evidently I was wrong because the student then asked, “So is it like standup?”

No. No, people, improv is not like standup. Not even a little bit. I’ve talked about the differences before, so I won’t belabor them here. But I do have another definition I invented, so I’ma share that one.

Improv isn’t about forcing funny to happen; it’s about playing by the rules and structure of improv and thereby allowing funny to happen. In improv, the more you chase the holy grail of laughter, the more you’re working against the grain and the less likely you are to find what you’re looking for. Instead of worrying about being funny, it’s a stronger choice to look your scene partner in the eye and really listen to what they’re saying. And then respond. You know, like when you have a normal conversation with an actual person.

Maybe that sounds dull. I know many of my normal conversations with actual humans are not all that interesting. But when you do that and combine it with the rules of improv, funny stuff happens. Just like in life, in improv most of the time we’re our own worst enemies. If you can just get out of your own way and stop trying to MAKE something happen, I can pretty much guarantee something WILL happen. It’ll be something you never even conceived of and you’ll be like, “I have no idea where that even came from!”

They (whoever the hell “they” are) say we only utilize 10% of our brain power. I think the other 90% is where great improv comes from. You have great improv in you, but it doesn’t come out when you demand it. It comes out when you stop staring at and calling it and bossing it around.

So just chill and forget about trying to be funny. Get out of your head and out of your own way. Do your best to play by the rules and sit back and enjoy the ride. Because the bottom line is, improv is fun.

That’s another definition I invented. I’m on a roll.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Let Go or Be Dragged

There is a natural tendency in improv, especially at the beginning of ones improv education, to try to pre-plan things. To a very limited extent, that’s fine. For example, if you think to yourself, Ya know what? I’ma do a spinster-y character in class tonight! or I WILL have a huge emotional reaction tonight, no matter what information I’m given, that’s fantastic and you should stick to your determination. With practice, you’ll learn how to make those choices instantly in the moment, but it’s fine to pick a skill to focus on in any given class and, uh, focus on it.

But any kind of pre-planning beyond that is bad. According to the interwebs, which are never wrong,

improvise [ˈɪmprəˌvaɪz]
1. to perform or make quickly from materials and sources available, without previous planning
2. to perform (a poem, play, piece of music, etc.), composing as one goes along

The heart of improvisation is that it happens without previous planning. Which means you cannot have an agenda. You can have an idea… but you can’t be committed to your idea (it’s the one thing in improv you don’t want to commit to). You still have to listen to your scene partner(s) and let the group idea emerge. You can’t insist, “I’m going to be his wife, and I’m going to be making stew for dinner.” You can’t insist, “I’m an astronaut and she’s an alien and I’m going to kidnap her.” You can’t insist anything if you want your scene to work.

Agendas are hard to let go of sometimes. Of course, we like our ideas. And why not? We have awesome ideas! But when you are married to your idea, you choke out the literally infinite number of other possibilities that could emerge over the course of your scene. When you force that agenda, your scene will strangle and drag you (and everyone else) down with it. If you don’t want to get dragged, LET GO. You don’t know everything; I don’t know everything. But consider the possibility that when we come together and let go of our pre-conceived notions, what results is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s easier said than done, I know. But to be perfectly honest, if you are driving any kind of agenda, you aren’t really doing improv. You’re acting in a play in which only you have the script. That’s not just a bad play, it’s downright unsportsmanlike.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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