By Darren Held

Learning from My Students

by Sonnjea Blackwell

A whole new round of Held2gether improv classes starts tonight, and I for one could not be happier!

I love teaching improv… I think pretty much everybody knows that by now. And there’s something incredibly special about teaching beginning improv and witnessing all the light bulb moments when people suddenly grasp a new concept, or when they come in all excited to tell me about how improv has helped them in their “normal” life, or when somebody who has had the terrified deer-in-the-headlights look for several weeks finally lets go and just has fun. As much as I love doing improv and performing, teaching wins. Hands down.

But there’s something else I love about teaching the beginning classes, and that is: I learn so much every time they go on stage. And I don’t mean in the airy fairy learning about the world and my place in it way. I mean in a concrete, improv way. Yes, beginners make a lot of mistakes. Duh. If they already knew how to do improv, they wouldn’t need a class. But they also have a tendency to be incredibly trusting. They totally commit. They don’t roll their eyes at others’ “mistakes.” They play because it’s fun, or because they’re working to overcome some personal difficulties. They haven’t figured out that improv is fucking hard, and they aren’t overly heady about what comes out of their mouths.

Of course, this is a broad generalization and there are people who don’t commit, or who are too analytical or whatever. But as a whole, the genuine joy and “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but I’ma go for it” attitude of beginners is something everyone who does improv should expose themselves to on a regular basis. If you haven’t taken a Level 1 class in a while (or ever), I think it’s about time you did*! It inspires me every time a new class starts. Which happens to be in about 8 hours… Yay!

*There is still space in the Level 1 classes beginning tonight AND on Saturday morning. Find out more here.

By Darren Held

Tricks to Creating Believable Characters

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Sometimes in improv classes, people get hung up on the idea of having a “character.” I know that was an issue for me for a while, since I don’t come from an acting background. But I’ve learned some tricks along the way that will help you have believable, grounded characters in your improv scenes.

Oh, would you like to hear them? All righty, then, here goes…

  • Know your character’s point of view (POV). You don’t have to get all actor-y and come up with a 70-page backstory for yourself. You just need to know a couple of things, and then let those things come out in your interaction with your scene partner: First, what’s the most important thing to this character? There’s no wrong answer – it’s your character, so it’s your choice. But you MUST make that choice in order for your character to be believable. Maybe the most important thing to this person is being accepted. Maybe it’s keeping children off their lawn. Maybe it’s cheese. Those are 3 silly options I thought of off the top of my head, and you can see that they would result in vastly different characters. Second, what does the character want from your scene partner RIGHT NOW? Forgiveness? Respect? Sex? Knowing what your character wants and what’s most important to them will help you react to your scene partner’s information, and will also help determine how you deal with whatever your “big what” is in this scene.

What? No, there’s no more. My “tricks to creating believable characters” is a very short list: Have a POV. Period.

Everything else can flesh out a character, but without a POV, you don’t have a character. I don’t care if you slouch, walk with a limp, talk in a British accent with a lisp and/or announce that you’re a lesbian – if you don’t know what’s important and what you want, you aren’t a character. You’re YOU with a slouch, a limp, a lispy British accent and a thing for flannel and mullets.

I’m not saying NOT to change your voice and your physicality – of course, you want to do that as well. I’m simply saying that that alone does NOT equal a “character.” If you know your POV first, you can let that influence your physical choices. Someone who’s uptight about their lawn will probably stand and speak differently from someone whose primary motivation in life is being accepted.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s the most important thing to your character, think of it this way: how do they see the world, and how do they see themselves in it? Is the world a big scary place, and they’re always on the losing end of things? In that case, the most important thing to them might be just not to get screwed over. That’s actually a really funny character – someone who doesn’t even HOPE to win… their biggest goal in life is simply not to get beat up TOO badly.

Anyway, I hope this gives you something to play with in your scenes. Don’t get too heady about it, though. Just make a choice, and play it out. Simple as that.

By Darren Held

You Win

by Sonnjea Blackwell

Sometimes Nate and I have text conversations that aren’t entirely Emojis, and yesterday we had a talk about giving up… so I’ma share it with you. A cardinal rule in improv is don’t bail. Meaning that, no matter how shitty your scene might get, you stay in it. You commit, and you agree, and you add information and you play your heart out.

There’s time when it’s over to analyze it, but while you’re DOING the scene, you never give up and walk away. You don’t leave your location. You don’t throw up your hands and look at your teacher or director and say, “I have no clue what to do now.” In short, you don’t quit.

This same philosophy could be applied to your improv training in general (or to anything you do in life, for that matter). At some point, if you do improv long enough (say, longer than 2 hours), you WILL get frustrated. Improv isn’t easy, and many of the skills do not come naturally to most folks, and when you hit that first wall of frustration (or the 2nd, or the 100th), it can be tempting to bail. After all, it’s not like you’re ever gonna get rich from doing improv, so why bother, right?

Wrong. Well, I mean, probably “right” about the getting rich part. But 100% wrong about the “why bother” part. First and most obvious, if you quit when you get frustrated, you’ll never get better. You’ll go out on a low note. You’ll never know what you could have done.

But more importantly, you will have bailed on yourself. Bailing on your scene partner is bad enough, but bailing on yourself is no way to live. It’s not admitting defeat – there’s no shame in losing, and we all lose sometimes; that’s life – it’s inviting defeat. It’s slamming the door on any possibility of victory. It’s selling yourself short.

We can’t all continue doing EVERYTHING we’ve ever started, clearly. But I’d argue that if you care enough about something that you get frustrated when you struggle with it, it’s worth struggling through that wall… not for the sake of learning the thing so much as for the sake of learning to believe in yourself and learning that you CAN push through the difficulties. I think of the struggly times as tests – not of my skill, but of my determination. You have to pass those tests of determination to get to the next level of ability.

And then, not only do you reap the reward of being better at improv or whatever you’re learning, but you get the satisfaction of knowing that YOU did that. You stuck it out, and you worked your ass off, and you didn’t give in to the fears or frustrations that came along to pull you off course.

You win.