By Darren Held

What’s On Your Agenda?

What’s That Smell?

by Sonnjea Blackwell

You know how sometimes you know somebody who has a body odor problem? And everyone is aware of it, except for them? That happened once in an office I worked at, and finally the manager had to tell the person, who honestly had no idea he smelled bad. Awwwwwwkward.

Right. And yes, of course this is about improv. What else would it be about?

See, I’ve noticed that the same is true of people who tend to have agendas in improv. I mean, they smell fine as far as I can tell. But, as with the BO people, they don’t seem to realize they have any issue. For a long time, I wondered why they didn’t just friggin’ admit they had an agenda. After all, it’s as obvious as BO when somebody is driving an agenda in an improv scene. So when the instructor calls them out on the agenda, I’m always shocked that they’re shocked. Sometimes they argue that they absolutely, under no circumstances, had or ever will have an agenda of any type.

Um, What’d You Say?

But I think I’ve figured out why a person who had an agenda is completely unaware of it. It’s because they have an idea, and then in the attempt to drive that idea, they fail to listen. Since they haven’t listened, they have no idea that their scene partner has established any information outside of what the agenda-driver was driving, so they just operate under the assumption that their idea was good and that it flowed naturally.

In beginning classes, when I critique a student and they say, “Oh, I didn’t hear them say that,” it’s usually because they’re still super nervous on stage and just trying to get their own brains to work, and didn’t manage to listen to their scene partner. But in intermediate and advanced classes, the terror factor doesn’t weigh in… so in those cases, whenever anybody says, “I didn’t hear them say that,” I would bet large sums of money it’s because they were so focused on their own agenda that they weren’t listening.

Ideas are great in improv, obviously. But just the smallest kernel of an idea. Then you can share your kernel, and your scene partner can share their kernel, and you eventually get a whole, delicious extra-large popcorn with butter and salt. Awesome sauce. If you start with a full-blown story, you have to work really hard to let it go. If you can’t let it go, it goes from “idea” to “agenda” and it’s no longer a gift to your scene partner; it’s a curse to both of you. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: driving an agenda WILL ruin your scene.

Break the Habit

We’re all guilty of being agenda-y from time to time, but for some folks it’s a habit. One way to break yourself of the habit is to impose a limit on yourself of, say, no more than 5 words per line. It’s very difficult to drive an agenda if you are spending most of your time listening rather than talking. Nobody will even know about your self-imposed “rule” – they’ll just think you’re being a very thoughtful scene partner.

And if you ever want to know if I think you’re agenda-y, just ask. I’m not bashful about that and I’ll be happy to tell you.

(If you’re concerned about possible BO, I am NOT your girl. Just assume you smell like a meadow.)

By Darren Held

Improv Arguments

by Sonnjea Blackwell

I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually get into that many arguments in real life. Occasionally, sure. But not that often. And most of my friends are the same… genuine arguments aren’t a daily occurrence.

And yet, in improv scenes, there is an unmistakable tendency to create arguments, conflicts, fights… situations where people are at cross purposes and determined not only to be right, but to convince the other person to switch sides.

In real life, people avoid angry confrontations for a variety of reasons – maybe to keep the peace, maybe to keep their jobs, maybe because it’s just not very pleasant to argue. And yet, we think the audience wants to watch US argue.

Nope. They don’t. People don’t want to watch an argument any more than they want to have an argument. Silly, I know.

That doesn’t mean all your improv scenes need to be happy and tension-free. Of course the audience wants to see something develop in your scene, and that will often involve some kind of difference of opinion, even conflict. HOWEVER (and this is the key), just because we have different, possibly even opposite, points of view, does NOT mean we have to argue our positions.

It is much more interesting to just have your point of view and live in that, while your scene partner does the same. I might LOVE picking through every single bin at the dollar store in painstaking detail, examining every item to see if I can find something that was not made in China. My scene partner might have a very important job interview in 10 minutes. Yelling at each other about being late vs. being patriotic is not interesting. Seeing how these two continue to function (or dysfunction) together, finding out why they have to be here together, learning why today is the big day for their relationship… that’s interesting. Yes, one or more of these characters might get angry. They might also get sad, frustrated, happy, horny or paranoid. Any emotional change is a good thing; the thing you want to avoid is the need for your character to prove their point. You can just be you, without trying to convince your scene partner that they need to be you as well.

Here’s a bonus: it’s actually more fun to play scenes this way as well. Having an argument is stressful, in real life or in improv. Playing characters with different points of view who AREN’T having an argument can be challenging, but it’s not stressful. It’s fun, and you feel much more creative in the process.

Well, that’s how it is for me, anyway. You can try it if you wanna.

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