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By Darren Held

Improv in the Privacy of Your Own Life

Improv students frequently ask what they can do at home to “practice” improv between classes. I love that question! Honestly, two hours a week of improv isn’t really enough to build any momentum, and if there was a way to practice in between, that would be awesome. Unfortunately, most students don’t have my life… meaning that it’s unlikely that 100% of their friends are other improvisors who are always ready to play with them.

Fortunately, there are things you can do between classes to hone your improv skills. And the really fortunate thing is, by practicing your improv skills in real life, you’re getting better at regular stuff you do in real life. It’s win-win.

So what are the things you can do to practice improv when you’re not in an improv class? I’ma tell you right now. Sheesh. Patience, peeps.

  • Make eye contact – Really. Practice looking people in the eye, both when they are speaking and when you are. Notice what makes you flinch or look away and practice keeping your gaze steady even in those more difficult situations.
  • Listen – Actively pay attention when people are speaking to you. Don’t think about your response or your grocery list or anything. If it helps, switch from eye contact to watching their lips move. Sometimes watching the words helps you hear them, at least at first.
  • Accept others’ ideas – Our initial instinct is frequently to say, “No.” We can’t, the budget won’t allow, that’s ridiculous… there are a million ways to shoot down an idea, and we’re all super good at that. Try saying “yes” instead. Even if you can’t do whatever it is the other person is suggesting, accept their right to have the idea and acknowledge them for having it: “Yes, I totally see why you’d want to come to the office in your pajamas and it might increase productivity, as you suggest. We need to maintain a professional dress code on regular days, so I will see about instituting a ‘wear-what-you-want-day’ as a bonus or reward.” Unless you’re a stock broker or a fireman, it probably wouldn’t do much damage to work in pajamas once in a while.
  • Let go of your agenda – It’s tough, because we get used to thinking our way is the best way. In improv, you can’t force an agenda or you’ll tank your scene. Practice going with the flow in life. That doesn’t mean be a doormat; it simply means, maybe you don’t have to insist on Chipotle for lunch.
  • Don’t judge yourself (or others) – Don’t apologize for your opinions. Don’t apologize for the fact that you have opinions. Don’t second guess yourself. Don’t criticize everybody else, either.
  • Go big or go home – Don’t make half-assed attempts. Life’s short, and there is enough mediocrity in the world. If you want to do something, just fucking do it!

It’s difficult, I know. Improv will help with all of these skills… and practicing them outside, in the real world, will help with improv. There really is no difference between improv and real life, you know.

Except that in improv, everybody is always on your side. There’s that.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Trust Me

Last night was the first night of the Level 1 improv class, and I briefly mentioned the three main rules of improv: agreement, adding information and commitment. A little while later, a new student asked me if he could ask a quick question. I said sure. That’s how I roll.

He repeated the 3 rules and then said, “But wouldn’t trust be one of the rules of improv?”

Smart cookie! Of course there are more than just three rules of improv – there are also rules like don’t be sarcastic and don’t go for the joke and don’t ask questions and always have an emotion, yada yada yada. But is trust a rule of improv?

The thing is, I think the more you trust yourself and your scene partners, the better your improv will be. But unlike agreeing and adding information and committing, I cannot teach people to trust. I can make the environment as supportive and encouraging as possible; I can help people make friends quickly with their classmates; I can be super kind while at the same time giving honest feedback in critiques… and none of those things will make anybody trust anybody else if they’re not ready to.

I can tell when students have difficulty trusting, believe it or not. They’re the ones who won’t let go of their agenda. They’re defensive in critiques, no matter how positively I couch my feedback. They talk too much in their scenes, not letting their scene partners get a word in. I don’t know for sure if they don’t trust themselves or if they don’t trust their partners or if they had a bad childhood. I do know that they don’t trust in the moment.

The more you do improv, the more open you will become to being in the moment. I think that in itself is a kind of trust. If you’re not dwelling on the past or worried about the future, it implies a sense of trust that in this moment, you have everything you need. When you trust the moment, it will become easier to trust yourself and others. The more you trust yourself and others, the easier it is to be in the moment. Trust is a skill, for lack of a better word, that feeds on itself.

So to answer Arnold’s question: in improv, as in life, trust is invaluable. Can you get by without it? Yes. But why would you want to?

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv Onions

I tend to have my favorite topics and if you’ve read this blog more than a handful of times, you probably realize eye contact is one of them. And while I hate to beat a dead horse, I’ve had a new epiphany about eye contact in improv, and you know how I feel about my epiphanies…

Well, some of them are pretty decent.

I’ve mentioned before that eye contact didn’t come naturally to me, and I worked very hard to learn to make eye contact in scenes (and subsequently, in life). Once I experienced the benefits of making consistent eye contact (namely, getting you out of your head and onto the same page as your partner/s), I was eager to master that skill. And I did.

Or so I thought.

Recently, in classes where I’m a student, I notice I’ve been looking down a lot. I start with eye contact, but I’m not sticking with it consistently. I’m also very aware of when I make eye contact while I’m teaching and when I don’t. And the reason for NOT making eye contact is essentially the same in both situations: I am afraid to be wrong.

I’ve come a long way in the arena of confidence since I started taking improv classes; that’s one of the absolute best things about improv – its ability to help folks develop confidence in themselves and what they have to offer. And when I’m feeling confident, I have no trouble with eye contact, whether I’m performing or teaching or just having a conversation.

But the thing about getting better at stuff is that most things are like onions: there are layers.

Now that I’m a so-called “expert” on improv, I feel more pressure to be right about stuff. I don’t want to make a weak choice in a scene. I don’t want to explain something wrong in a class. Of course, I know the very fact that I’m worried about being “wrong” means I’m not totally in the moment and therefore I’m definitely not making the BEST choice possible.

Anyway, my epiphany was that when my confidence is shaky, I can’t maintain eye contact. But… (and here’s where the magic of improv comes into play) when I force myself to make eye contact and not look down or away, the fear of being wrong goes away and the power of being on the same page – whether it’s with a scene partner or a student – returns. It takes a conscious effort, but it works every time.

It makes sense, right? I mean, in real life people who can’t make or maintain eye contact are seen as shy at best and shifty no-goodnicks at worst. People are attracted to folks who are confident and self-assured, and eye contact is one of the best ways of conveying that. So why not give it a shot – even if you’re not feeling confident, you can look as if you are. And pretty soon the eye contact thing will work its magic and you’ll realize you’re not forcing it anymore… and you do feel confident.

Until the next layer. What? There’s always another layer…

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Improv vs. April Fool’s Day

I hate April Fool’s Day. Yes, I’ma tell you why.

It’s stupid. People go around all day making up elaborate lies to fool their friends and family, and to what end? To make their friends and family feel stupid. I don’t want to feel stupid. And I don’t want to make you feel stupid, either.

Improv is the opposite of April Fool’s Day. Whatever you say in your scene MUST be true; there is no lying or subterfuge or sarcasm in improv. You say exactly what you mean. I like that. Everybody’s on the same page, and nobody feels stupid.

Not only that, but improv is all about building trust. Sure it’s hard the first day of a new class, when nobody knows anybody else, and you’re suddenly thrust onstage with strangers and asked to do exercises that put you on the spot and make you uncomfortable. The only way people can do that is to trust each other, to whatever extent possible. We make the environment as encouraging and supportive as humanly possibly, but no matter how warm and fuzzy we make the class, we can’t force people to trust each other. You know how people learn to trust each other? By not making each other feel stupid, that’s how.

Of course, we do silly, ridiculous things in improv; that’s a large part of the fun. And yes, sometimes in the course of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, you end up doing something that you think must make you look stupid. Yay you! When you can start to feel comfortable feeling stupid, you are on the way to doing amazing improv… because that means you aren’t judging yourself and you’re ready to fully commit. It’s incredibly empowering to push yourself and allow yourself to feel stupid; the key is that you are making that choice and nobody else is forcing it on you.

So please don’t foist your April Fool’s Day pranks on me; if your goal is to see me look stupid, no worries – I can pretty much promise to do that all on my own, without any outside interference. Thanks.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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