By Darren Held

Basic Improv Rules

by Sonnjea Blackwell

A student asked me if I could make them a handout of “everything you tell us in improv class.” Well, that would be a long ass handout. But I’ve boiled it down to this. Use at your own risk.

  1. LISTEN. Let go of any agenda you may have and really listen to your scene partner, and then react in a realistic manner.
  2. Agree, agree, agree. Never deny!! Always say yes.
  3. Don’t forget the “and” in “yes, and…” Respond by adding new information, not by repeating what you or your partner have already said. Don’t forget, you’re an expert. So don’t ask questions… always choose to know!
  4. Play it “real.” Audiences relate to real-life situations they’ve experienced, and the funniest stuff comes from real situations and real characters…
  5. Which also means: DON’T GO FOR THE JOKE. Throwing out a funny one-liner will get you a laugh, but it won’t add information that builds your relationship or your scene.
  6. Start emotional and have emotional changes. Your car won’t go anywhere in neutral, and neither will your scene. If nothing is happening, there’s a good chance the scene lacks emotion.
  7. Commit. Be fully invested in the scene, don’t judge yourself, your partner, the suggestion, the audience or the director, and take your emotions and character traits to a 10! The audience is on your side – no matter how wonky a scene might go, if they see you’re committed, you’re more than halfway there.
  8. Make it about relationship. Who are you to each other, and why is today the big day? If this is just the same conversation these characters have every day, there’s nothing special about today and the audience has no reason to watch it.
  9. Create a COMPLETE character. An accent or funny voice means absolutely nothing unless the character has a strong point of view. Definitely use your voice and your physicality, but don’t let them become a crutch to avoid finding a point of view.
  10. Use your location. Really see where you are, as well as what you’re doing there. Spacework will help you ground the scene, remain active and inform your characters. Let your spacework enhance your relationship, but don’t fall into the trap of talking about “stuff.”
  11. There are no mistakes in improv. As long as everyone in the scene commits and makes the “mistake” an opportunity, it can often turn out to be the thing that makes the scene fun and funny.
  12. Keep your energy up, especially when playing “low energy” characters.
  13. Don’t be sarcastic. Sarcasm is saying the opposite of what you really mean. In improv, you have 2 minutes to create your entire scene – there is no time for misunderstandings caused by being sarcastic.
  14. Don’t create unnecessary problems for your characters. On the other hand, also don’t solve problems too quickly. Find the one thing that’s important to these characters today, then fan the flames.
  15. Make eye contact. Feed off your scene partner, and let them feed off you. Without eye contact, you are simply two people who happen to be onstage at the same time. With eye contact, you are a team and you’re in it together.
  16. When in doubt, cry, fall in love or pour a drink. Basically this boils down to: make sure you have an emotion, know what your relationship is, and are using your location.
  17. Never, ever, EVER throw your scene partner under the bus by making them look foolish. Intentionally ignoring or throwing out a scene partner’s information because you don’t like it, calling attention to a “mistake” in a way that is not designed to integrate it into the scene, going for jokes to get yourself laughs instead of playing WITH your partner… these are all ways to ensure that no one will trust you or want to play with you.

By Darren Held

Improv Road Trip

by Sonnjea Blackwell

I’m in that annoying improv place called Plateauville. That’s the place that you come to after you pass through Upswing Alley, and before you venture briefly into Downhill Slide.

I’ve been doing improv long enough to know that there are times where I seem to make marked improvement and finally nail concepts, ideas, skills – whatever you want to call it – that I’ve struggled with for ages. Sometimes those periods are brief, other times they last longer… sometimes long enough to give me hope that Upswing Alley will continue, unabated, forever.

Silly Sonnjea. Nothing lasts forever. At some point, I can’t continue to improve at the same rate – or perhaps at ANY rate. My brain is all full, and it takes time for all that new stuff to sink in and truly be assimilated. That’s when I coast into Plateauville for an undetermined stay.

Plateaus aren’t bad; they’re sort of a rest stop where all that new knowledge gets sorted out and stored away. Sometimes, the sorting and storing is confusing, and while you are working at owning your new knowledge, some of your old knowledge seems to slip out of your grasp. Things you never struggle with are suddenly difficult. That’s the dip into Downhill Slide.

Downhill Slide is unsettling because it can affect your confidence, making you question whether you’ve ever actually TRULY learned anything. Once you’ve experienced Downhill Slide a couple times, however, you can train yourself not to let it get in your head. Accept where you are, and don’t beat yourself up for it. And don’t fret – your old knowledge doesn’t leave permanently!

Accepting where you are does NOT mean you aren’t working to get back to Upswing Alley, of course. You still need to work to apply your new knowledge and integrate it with your old knowledge. And if you can do that without getting frustrated with yourself and your teacher and your classmates, you will find yourself in Upswing Alley much more quickly.

And don’t let Plateauville get too comfortable, either. Sometimes after pushing yourself really hard, a little rest is necessary. But getting comfortable and complacent is no way to do good improv. Good improv depends on the edginess of being out of your comfort zone… So take a moment to catch your breath in Plateauville, but don’t dawdle there because Upswing Alley is just around the corner.

Enjoy your improv road trip!

By Darren Held

The Best Wedding EVER

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Okay, all you people who think I’m too in love with the “improv for life” concept… I’m not the only one.

This weekend I had the honor of attending the wedding of my dear friends and troupemates, Andy and Tracy Araujo, who included improv in their ceremony in a number of ways.

They talked about their love of improv, and how the skills they’ve learned in improv – notably listening and agreement – are cornerstones of their relationship. They played an improv game called Love Letters, which was technically scripted but at heart based on improv. They took suggestions from the audience. Tracy hesitated before turning to face Andy when they exchanged vows, commenting that facing each other directly wasn’t a good stage picture and that they should maybe cheat out. They included readings that were hilarious.

Improv even played a part in how they dealt with the inevitable wedding day mishap… 15 minutes before the wedding was supposed to begin, Tracy realized she’d left her vows in the hotel room – 25 minutes away, roundtrip. So while volunteers rushed to fetch the vows, Andy and Tracy chilled, drank some wine and enjoyed a few extra minutes with their guests at the pre-ceremony reception. In improv, we go with the flow.

It was the only wedding I’ve ever been to where people laughed, cried, clapped, hollered suggestions and yelled “Yay!!” It truly was the best wedding EVER.

To Tracy and Andy: I love you both, and I wish you a lifetime of health, happiness, love and, of course, improv for life.

By Darren Held

Keep Your Pervy Spacework to Yourself, Please

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Some people think spacework isn’t that important in your improv scenes. I would argue that those people have not seen good spacework OR bad spacework and are basing their opinion on so-so spacework.

When improvisors do amazing spacework, it helps the audience really visualize their location and what they’re doing there. It also helps the people in the scene: good, clear spacework is unambiguous and leaves less chance for confusion. If you do vague spacework, you might think you’re washing dishes, but your scene partner might think you are throwing a Frisbee. Solid spacework helps you get on the same page.

Bad spacework can be funny, but not for the right reasons. Watching somebody “eat” a mountain of mashed potatoes by shoveling their arm mindlessly and repeatedly in the general direction of their ear soon becomes what the scene is about to the audience, because they can’t focus on anything else.

The trick with spacework is that your scene should never be ABOUT it; your scene should always be about why today is the big day between you and your scene partner. Talking about stuff will lead you nowhere, and it’s not interesting. In real life, we rarely have long conversations about doing the dishes. We might have a conversation while we’re doing the dishes, but it usually doesn’t go like this:

“Wow, this is the 12th plate I’ve washed so far, Elena.”
“Good for you, Frank! I’m enjoying the hand-softening qualities of this dish soap.”
“This fork has a lovely pattern in the handle.”
“Look how absorbent this sponge is!”

ARGH! Nobody wants to watch a scene that’s about stuff. On the other hand, Nate and I did a dishwashing scene recently where we did make mention of doing dishes IN THE CONTEXT OF OUR RELATIONSHIP. I evidently had this notion that doing dishes would get us in the mood for sexy time, and of course it went horribly awry. We used our location and our spacework to further what was happening between us. I’m not saying it was the best scene ever, but it was a good example of the spacework adding to the scene, while not making the scene about the spacework.

And the good news about spacework is, you can practice on your own at home. Do some activity and pay attention to how your hands move, how they hold the object, how the object feels, etc. – and then put the object down and do the same activity as spacework.

And please, all you people whose minds just went somewhere dirty, keep your pervy spacework at home, mmmmkay? Thanks!

By Darren Held

Short Form Performance Class

by Sonnjea Blackwell

I’m super excited because the H2G Short Form Performance Class kicked off last night. And while I technically have nothing to do with this class or the improv show they’ll be putting on October 5, I’m always thrilled when a new group of H2G students moves up the ranks and starts performing.

Why? Well, I’ma tell you. Cause that’s just how I do.

First of all, I’m just really proud because most of the students in this class started out as my Level 1 students. I’m so delighted that they fell in love with improv and continued taking classes and are ready to show off for their families and friends. I have stories about all of them – the first time we met, the first scene they did, the time they realized they could do awesome improv and helped a newbie have a great scene, the first time they dropped an F-bomb in class…

The other reason is because some of the students have never had the chance to perform before, and I’m happy they finally get to experience it. Doing an improv show is both easier and harder than it looks, and no amount of my explaining that can make somebody understand it until they’ve done it. It’s like trying to explain sex. I can tell you the mechanics, but until you try it yourself, you won’t actually know what it feels like. Not that an improv show is like sex. Never mind. You know what I mean.

Anyway, to all my students: I’m so proud of you all, and so happy that I didn’t do anything to make you hate improv or run screaming from the theatre on your first day. Can’t wait to see you all strut your stuff on the 5th. Yay!!

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