By Darren Held

The African Sunrise is Large

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Judging by the encounters I have in the real world, a class in listening would benefit most humans. This is the conversation I had at the Coffee Bean yesterday:

Sonnjea: Hey, Coffee Bean Lady, I’d like a large African Sunrise iced tea to go please.
Coffee Bean Lady: What size iced tea would you like?

Now, either the name of the tea is Large African Sunrise, meaning that the sunrises in Africa are oversized, or Coffee Bean Lady wasn’t listening to me. I’ve never been to Africa, so I can’t comment on the relative size of their sunrises, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it was the lack of listening thing.

That’s not a big deal, but variations on the theme happen dozens of time each day. People just don’t really listen. I’ve never seen Listening 101 in any college catalogs, however, so I guess improv classes will have to suffice.

I know sometimes brand new students in my Level 1 classes think the “rules” of a particular exercise are unnecessary. Why should I have to say, “Yes, and I…” when “yeah, so…” means almost the same thing. Why on earth do I have to say, “I could be…” instead of “I’m an…” And so on.

Here’s the thing. Part of the learning process of improv involves learning to listen to instructions AND follow them. The exercises have layers of skill-building, and if you pick and choose which parts you want to do, you’re missing out on essential parts of the instruction.

I can tell, based on how people attempt the exercises, whether they’ve listened to me when I explained the exercise. Any given day, somebody might not hear everything, and that doesn’t mean much. But when, exercise after exercise, I have to re-explain things to someone, I know they are going to struggle in scenes because they simply do not listen.

If you notice that I’m having to re-explain things to you over and over, take a look at your listening skills. We all have shorter attention spans these days, so if your mind starts to wander, remind it that if it pays attention now, it will do hilarious improv later.

I s’pose better listening might help out in the real world as well, at least if you make iced tea for a living.

By Darren Held

Label Conscious

by Sonnjea Blackwell

This week is labeling week in the Level 1 improv classes, and that always leads to some, uh, interesting information. Students get a little drunk with power, enjoying the opportunity to say the biggest, macho-est guy is wearing a tutu or the calm school teacher is wearing pasties and a g-string, or somebody is in love with a fish, or another person’s arms are so weak she can’t lift a pencil.

I know the urge to give bizarro information is strong, and I don’t worry about it too much – once people learn they have to justify the crazy shit they throw out, they’ll be less inclined to say their scene partner is stealing cat poop from the neighbor’s litter boxes.

But what I love about the initial attempts at labeling is how specific people’s information is. The other night, somebody was wearing a biohazard suit because she cleaned up after elephants in the circus and she wanted to smell fresh for her date. Somebody else was wearing vintage Dior because she always wears Dior when she cries in Paris.

There are a couple reasons why being super specific will help you in your improv scene. First, and perhaps most obvious, is that the more clearly you call something out, the more likely your scene partner will understand your meaning and get on board with you. If you say, “I’m cold,” maybe that means you’re at the North Pole, or maybe it means you’re naked or maybe it means you’re unemotional. On the other hand, if you say, “This room is filling up with liquid nitrogen! I’m freezing to death!” there’s no room for misunderstanding.

The second reason is that really specific information tends to stick in our brains better, and you and your partner will be less likely to forget what you’ve set up. Once in 7th grade a boy told me, “You look like you traded legs with a chicken and lost your ass in the deal.” That’s pretty fucking specific and I still remember it.

Shut up, I’m not bitter.

A red dress is better than a dress. A short red dress is better than a red dress. A short red dress with a torn hem and moth holes in the sleeve is fantastic.

The more your label can help you, your partner and the audience actually see what you’re describing, the better. Just don’t tell somebody they have chicken legs. That’s just mean.

By Darren Held

Improv is Risky Business

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Sometimes (today is an excellent example) I suck at improv. You know what? I don’t care. I’m glad, even.

I know a lot about improv. Not everything, obviously, but enough that if I wanted to play it safe, I could do decent improv pretty much every time.

But, seriously… who the fuck wants to do decent improv? Improv is a terrifying, seat-of-your-pants, sink-or-swim endeavor. The stakes are huge! You have nothing: no sets, no props, no costumes, and you have to make some funny shit happen in 3 minutes or less based on a suggestion that probably came from a drunk guy who thinks penises are the funniest thing EVER.

When you’re taking that kind of risk every time you step on stage, you don’t want the payoff to be decent. You want it to be great. Hilarious. A home run. Which means you can’t play it safe. You have to pile more risks on top of the risk you already took by agreeing to play this magical, ridiculous game. You have to say stuff, trust your partner, trust yourself, be in the moment, respond, heighten, listen, agree, commit, have a character, say some more stuff and listen some more.

Guess what? Sometimes when you take risks, they don’t work out. Michael Jordan blew the game winning shot sometimes. But he made the game winning shot way more often, because he was always willing to go big and give the game everything he had. Or, you know, some kind of sportsy type analogy.

What I’m trying to say is, settling for decent improv is selling yourself short. You’ve pushed yourself out of your comfort zone just by trying… so you might as well push yourself a little farther and really go for it. I will guarantee you that sometimes it won’t work out, and you will do shitty, unfunny improv. I will also guarantee you that the world won’t end as a result, your friends won’t stop loving you, and nobody will die.

And I’ll also guarantee that the more you’re willing to accept the fact that you’ll suck sometimes and just push yourself anyway, the more often your risks WILL pay off and you’ll do awesome improv. Hey, that’s kinda like life, don’t you think? Weird.

By Darren Held

Nervous Nellie

by Sonnjea Blackwell

People ask me all the time if I get nervous before an improv show and, if so, what do I do to calm my fears.

The thing is, I don’t actually get nervous. I get excited. I can’t wait to go on stage and do improv and make people laugh. I’m not saying this to brag, or to in any way criticize people who DO get nervous. Everyone is different. I happen to test extremely well, and my grades in school did not always accurately reflect my knowledge in any given subject because I would always just rise to the occasion on test day. I guess my psyche views improv shows the same as tests.

All that being said, I don’t always do perfect improv. I know, weird. And when I do a bad scene, I’m keenly aware of what I’ve done wrong and how I’ve botched it, and if that happens in a show, it can start to mess with my confidence and then I might actually get nervous before my next scene, even though I didn’t start out nervous.

What I do then, to the best of my ability, is just be in the moment. Watch the other performers do their thing. Cheer them on wholeheartedly. What I do NOT do, is think about the scene I fucked up. Once I get home, there will be plenty of time to dissect it and rehash it and go down the “what if” road, if I so choose. But when I still have to go back on stage and attempt to do good improv, I can’t be stewing over the bad improv I did.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not even saying I succeed at it all the time. But I do think that, whether you are plagued with nerves before you go on stage (for class or a show), or whether you sometimes just lose confidence after a bad scene, your best bet is to be in THIS moment. Being nervous comes from worrying about what MIGHT happen and/or dwelling on something crappy that DID happen. Those things are in the future and the past. If you are right here NOW, neither of those things matter.

Obviously, this is true in life as well as improv. But you knew that already.

By Darren Held

Problems Are Buts

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Have you noticed that human beings have a tendency to make things more difficult than they need to be? Or is that just me? We seem to think that simple is not as good as complicated. That’s just crazy talk, people.

Improv is hard, I’m not gonna lie. It takes practice to learn the rules and get the fundamentals down so that you can get out of your own way and just play and let funny stuff happen. But it’s not complicated unless we make it that way.

The simplest thing is just to listen and respond. But almost inevitably, somebody introduces a problem into the scene… to make it “interesting,” I suppose, or because they just don’t trust that a simple scene can work. The thing is, problems are just a complicated way of saying “but.”

You might have a nice scene going where you’re arranging flowers, and we might have learned that you and your scene partner are both secretly in love with each other (like how it always happens in real life, right?) Only then one of you says, “Oh no! We’re all out of daffodils and you know Mrs. Anderson only likes bouquets with 7 daffodils.”

WTF? The scene does not need that problem. It’s akin to saying, “Yeah, I realize we’re secretly in love with each other BUT I would rather talk about flowers.”

Seriously, in real life, if the guy you’ve been crushing on is finally admitting he also has feelings for you, are you going to suddenly start talking about flowers? Or anything else, for that matter? No. At that point, you don’t give a flying fuck about Mrs. Anderson and her flower OCDness, you’re just going to respond to that big news. How you respond might be different from how I respond, and that’s fine… but it should have something to do with the last thing your scene partner said.

If you keep it simple and ALWAYS reply to the very last thing your partner said, you will be less likely to introduce unnecessary problems into your scene, go down paths of freaky information or make your scene about “stuff.”

Believe it or not, taking the easy way is often the best way. Yay!

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