By Darren Held

Improv Rules Are Your Friends. No, Really.

I talk about the rules of improv all the time. Agreement, adding information, commitment, not asking questions, not being sarcastic, not bailing, you name it. Some of you know my improv-y pet peeves by now. And most of you know that I am BIG on playing by the rules… but you might not know why.

I’ma tell you. Cause, you know – that’s how I do.

It’s not because I’m so enamored of rules in general. I don’t like being constrained by rules and regulations any more than the next person. But there is a time and a place to rebel, and smack dab in the middle of your improv scene is neither.

Unlike not swimming for 30 minutes after you eat, the rules of improv are not designed to keep you from having fun. To the contrary, they are designed to help you have MORE fun. That’s because the rules (if we must call them that) define the structure of the game of improv, within which funny stuff is simply more likely to happen. To me, doing good improv is the goal and that’s what I want to have happen – and the rules are there to assist in that endeavor. I can be a rebel and deny my scene partner, or choose not to add information, opt not to commit, ask questions, be sarcastic, bail when I don’t like something… and what have I accomplished? I have created bad improv, which (unless you are doing bad improv on purpose at a party at my house) is not nearly as much fun as doing good improv.

When you roll your windows down and drive along PCH at 95 mph on a sunny day singing Life is a Highway at the top of your lungs, you get the rush of speed and the feeling of freedom – and breaking the rules makes sense. Or so I’m told. Not that I would ever break the law. Ahem.

But when you break the rules in improv, there’s no rush. There’s no feeling of freedom. There’s just the blech feeling in the pit of your stomach when your scene tanks and there’s no way to save it.

So try not to think of the rules as rules. Think of them as your friends. Your friends who really, really want you to succeed at this improv thing.

They’re nice friends.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

You Touch the Thermostat, You Die

In improv class, we frequently urge students to have a big ol’ emotional reaction to something – anything – in order to keep the scene moving. In fact, we often tell students they can have the reaction first and then worry about the justification. In other words, freak out, laugh uproariously or sob uncontrollably at ANYTHING your scene partner says, even if it’s just, “I’m going to turn on the air conditioner now.” Having the emotion will almost always lead to a justification for the emotion.

Occasionally students will argue that this feels forced or unnatural, and that there’s no reason for them to freak out about somebody turning on the A/C and, therefore, no reasonable justification could ensue.

Here’s something to ponder… You know how sometimes you can be sitting around, say with your mom or your neighbor or your cellmate, and you can be having a perfectly awesome afternoon with them, playing Yahtzee and drinking white wine spritzers or whatever? And then the other person says, “I’m going to turn on the air conditioner now,” and you’re like, “OH FUCK NO, YOU ARE TOUCHING THAT THERMOSTAT OVER MY DEAD BODY!!!!” And then your afternoon is ruined because, for the past 22+ years this person has always kept the house/trailer/cell as cold as a friggin’ meat locker and today is the day that you are just not going to freeze your ass off in order to keep the peace anymore, and you lose it.

That is honest. That’s what happens sometimes in real life because of the history you share with others. If your scene is not about relationship, you may have trouble justifying and making sense of a seemingly out of the blue emotional change. But if it’s about relationship, any outburst of emotion can be justified through your characters’ shared history. That history may not have come out yet, but once you have your emotional outburst, it’s an opportunity to get to that history, explain the “why” behind your outburst… and all of a sudden, you have a big what: Today is the day that I have had it up to HERE with your hotflashes and your selfishness when it comes to climate control.

Think about the ridiculously small things in real life that cause out-of-proportion reactions – it happens all the time (to other people, of course). Let those little things affect you in the same big, out-of-proportion way in improv!

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

Barry the Guard

Good gravy, I’ve been bad about posting! It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about improv, it’s just that I don’t always know what it is you’d like to read about improv. Well, technically, I don’t ever know what you’d like to read, but sometimes I don’t let that stop me. And other times I let that get in my head, and then – as it is wont to do when there’s a lot of stuff in there – my brain won’t spit anything out.

But I digress.

My troupey Kendra and I saw an improv show recently, and we were both struck by how simple the players kept everything. One person threw out a short line of dialogue. Another person yes,anded that by adding another short line of dialogue. Nothing about aliens or weird second-cousin-twice removed relationships or outlandish scenarios. It was somebody’s 40th birthday. The married couple had met in college. A kid down the street had a horrible mother. A lady whose husband was in prison was kinda slutty. Simple, relatable concepts, characters and relationships.

There’s nothing wrong with more complex concepts. My point is simply that “funny” is not directly proportional to “complexity.” And sometimes improv students think they have to over-complicate things in order to create something unique. Whatever YOU do is going to be unique because it’s coming from your point of view, and nobody else has your unique way of looking at things.

The players in the show we saw didn’t over think things when it came to justifications either. An unlikely event occurred in prison, and they justified it calmly and simply by saying that the guard was absent that day. That’s actually hilarious because of absurd simplicity… as if a guard at a prison wouldn’t have a backup or whatever. But they didn’t get bogged down in the logic or convoluted explanations of the guard taking a break and the other one being distracted by something he saw on a security monitor or whatever. Just one line, “Well, Barry the guard wasn’t there that day.” Period.

Because I was a writer first and an improvisor second, I can get VERY wordy and descriptive sometimes… the way I would in a novel, for example. But this simplicity thing is really appealing to me and I’m going to work on simplifying my improv and trusting the audience to find the humor in situations they don’t need me to explain for 10 minutes.

You can try it if you wanna.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

By Darren Held

You’re Such a ____________________!

It’s super important to label everything in improv. That’s because all the audience sees is a couple of ordinary folks on stage – there are no sets, no props, no costumes, no voice-over narrations… there’s nothing to tell them who you are, what you’re doing, where you’re doing it or why they should even give a crap about this scene. That’s your job.

It’s a big job, I know. And sometimes you can get in a rut and not be able to think of interesting ways of labeling yourself or your scene partner. That’s why I’m sharing this handy drawing that’s been making the rounds on FB this week.

Except for “the one with bad memory,” these are all labels that could totally work in an improv scene. If you label someone as “always getting hurt” or “swearing all the time” or “goodie two-shoes,” those are really awesome gifts that help them know what kind of character they are. And you can label yourself, too, don’t forget.

You’re welcome.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

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