By Darren Held

Destination Gonnaville: Population 0

Ready for some improv wisdom from the man himself? Darren Held is gonna share some with you… right NOW:

Hey! You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna go somewhere – a coffee shop – and I’m gonna sit down and write the best blog ever! It’s gonna be chock full of wisdom and humor, and it’s gonna be a few paragraphs long and it’s gonna be on the website. Whoo! Now just sit back and imagine me standing in my living room talking about how awesome this blog is gonna be for the next 3-5 minutes.

Sound entertaining? Really? Well, then you’re too kind. My guess is you would actually rather read this blog than see a scene of me talking about planning to write it. If I’m wrong, text me and I’ll send you a video.

Unfortunately in improv, Gonnaville is a common destination. It’s human nature. We love to make plans in real life. Planning our trip to Vegas is way more exciting than focusing on our Chinese Chicken Salads in front of us – in real life. But imagine the person in the booth next to you, who knows nothing about you. If they were eavesdropping, would they rather hear your plans for the future – or would they be more intrigued by a salty confession that you invited your ex-girlfriend despite objections from the guys? Or that you have great remorse over the full body flamingo tattoo you received that last time? Or that one of you scheduled this lunch to move your relationship past friendship and into full blown lust?

You get the picture… What we want to see in improv is what is happening between you NOW. Improv is all about relationship. When we feel unclear about our relationship, we take an express train to Gonnaville: “I’m baking a pie.” “We’re gonna be rich!” “Yeah! We’ll win a pie competition!” “And we’ll be famous!” “Now what?” “Let’s bake it!”

The concept may have substance, but what’s interesting are the types of characters that would actually be in a pie competition. Who does that?! I know exactly zero pie competitors. Okay, maybe my sister, circa 1998. She was way into peaches then. Anyway… labeling these rich characters will be fun for you and the audience. Maybe you’re thanking your Uncle Arlis for pulling you out of high school early to focus on a pie-making career, and giving you a mission. Maybe one of you has misplaced the special ingredient, so your dreams are in danger. There’s really no wrong answer as long as you make it present.

Just like Riverside County, we can’t avoid Gonnaville completely. But there are a few tricks that can help you get back on track to Now Town and bring things to the present time.

1) Get emotional. Having a freak out always stimulates a lagging scene. So if you feel it going to Gonnaville, change the emotion and justify it: “You know I can’t go to anymore competitions. I get into fights every time and end up in jail.” Or confess something. Confessions are always great: “I have to confess, I’ve switched to cake. Pie just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I won’t be your partner this year.” This makes it about your relationship now.

2) Discover something in your space. If you’re talking about a thing somewhere else, find something in your location. There’s a reason the audience suggested this location. They want you to use it! So find that note from Mom that says the recipe is
copyrighted, or spill a vat of oil on the pie and ruin things. Or find a piece of mail that says Oprah wants to meet you and she’s on her way. Just make sure you keep it about how this affecting your relationship! No Gonnaville Oprah scenes! What is she gonna do next?

3) Label your history. As a matter of fact, label everything. Has someone made you a pie that you think will get you rich? Tell them how talented and generous they are. Then find examples in the present the pay off that example: “You are so generous. You made all this pie, and I just turn on the oven. I don’t deserve you.” Or delve into your relationship history: “You’ve always had a knack for things in the kitchen. Like when we went fishing for Dover Sole, and you made an orange truffle sauce right there on the lake.”

You may be wondering Is going into the past allowed? That’s not being present! Absolutely – as long as it’s emotionally connected and affecting the Now. Yes, anding is the foundation of improv. You can “Yes, and” past facts emotionally, but not the future because….well, you know, it ain’t happened yet. So now matter how excited you get about this contest you’re gonna win, you’ll eventually run out of steam because you’re not there.

So save the fare, and try these time savers! Okay. I’m gonna go talk to my cat about how awesome my improv class is gonna be tonight.

By Darren Held

The Most Important Rule of Improv

I met Andy Araujo in my very first improv class and he was the first improv friend I ever made. He’s smart and hilarious, and you should read what he says about improv! I mean, you know, if you want to and stuff.

There is a lot to remember to make an improv scene successful. So what is the most important Rule of Improv?

I used to think that “agreement” was the most important rule to remember. It certainly is important. If your scene partner continually denies the information you are putting out there, it is a one-way ticket to Nowheresville (which I believe is the capital of BF Egypt, but I digress). As important as agreement is, I don’t think it is the most important rule.

“Staying” in the scene is also very important. If I’m doing a scene and someone does something completely off-the-wall, I cannot look to the instructor during a class (or God forbid, the audience during a show) and say “that doesn’t make sense to me.” Unless your scene partner goes into cardiac arrest, you have to stay in the scene and deal with the information (or lack thereof) that has been presented.

Commitment is also very important. It is possible to make a bad scene into a good scene just on commitment alone. Owning the information and committing to it is so much more fun than a tentative, wishy-washy response to that information.

So all these rules and practices are really important. But I still would not call any one of them THE most important. What is the most important rule of Improv?

Have fun.

When you are having fun, it shows up in the performance. It inspires your fellow performers, your fellow classmates, and everyone in the audience. And, well . . . it’s fun.

There’s a reason they are called Improv games. They are games, with rules, where you can let your imagination run, where you can pretend to be someone other than yourself, where you can be a part of a team that makes something magical happen.

Even when you are taking a class and you are struggling to learn something new, don’t deny yourself the opportunity to enjoy the challenge of acquiring that new skill. Just like when you accomplish anything, the rewards are great.

Okay, now I have to get ready to start the work week. That’s not fun.

By Darren Held

Just Relax

Here’s what troupie Beth Cunningham has to say about relaxin’ and improvin’:

“Just relax.”

This was feedback a former improv instructor gave me at the end of my class session. And just like magic, I never worried about an improv scene ever again… ehh… not so much… Telling me to “just relax” made me even more stressed!!! There’s so much to think about during an improv scene—character, listening, getting out the who/what/where/relationship, yes and-ing, spacework – and now relaxation is a priority?! Since when?!

Fast forward a few days, I was having a very exciting Saturday watching a “Chopped” marathon on the Food Network. If you’re not familiar with the show, the contestants have a limited amount of time to cook a dish for three judges and they have to use the mystery ingredients presented to them. The mystery ingredients give the chefs an element of surprise and prevent too much pre-planning prior to the challenge. This naturally reminded me of improv. We come into the scene with our skills, but we need to be prepared for whatever “mystery ingredients” are thrown our way and be willing to accept them. Well, this one chef competing on the show mentioned that he’s trying to just relax to ensure that his creativity is present in his work! This man had 30 minutes to whip up some chicken liver stroganoff utilizing the mystery ingredients, and he was focused on relaxing to ensure that the judges truly saw his full abilities and talent.

That’s when I decided to explore this “relaxation” concept because not relaxing during a scene can manifest into an abundance of obstacles—getting into your head, not listening closely, not connecting with your scene partner, etc. So by not relaxing, you can negatively impact a scene, by not being your very best, creative self! So, why is it that even though I want so desperately to relax, there are still times when I’m in my head and nerves eat at me?! This is definitely something that I am continuously trying to explore.

One thing that I’ve enjoyed experimenting with is my character’s physicality. Physicality can be underestimated, and it’s a great strategy to relax and settle into a scene more. Character needs to be in your body. You need to feel your character. Once you embody a character, the pressure is off yourself to have to come up with all the answers. It’s your character’s job. Not yours. You don’t need to mentally leave the scene to come up with a witty line. Leave it to your character. You know you’ve succeeded at this if you can say after a scene, “I didn’t even think of that. My character did.” That doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s magic. The scene is moving forward with your character in it; your job as an improviser is to get out of your character’s way.

Relaxation definitely doesn’t always come naturally to me when I’m performing improv, but I feel like I’m slowly taking some baby steps in the right direction. Ultimately, relaxing will not only better my improv scenes, but will also allow me to enjoy being in the moment all the more. So give it a try. Just relax! *wink*

By Darren Held

Obstacles Are for Mud Runs, Not for Improv

by Sonnjea Blackwell

I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts my troupies have been writing about improv and all its magicalness! And I hope you’re not too disappointed that I’m taking a turn…

You know by now that I honestly believe improv is a mirror of human life and behavior. So I’m always intrigued when I see clear examples of that in class. I do a yes, and exercise with Level 1 Improv students, and it’s interesting the number of ways people find to TECHNICALLY yes, and their scene partner, while in reality negating the hell out of everything. This example is a mashup, but it’s not that far off:

First Person: Hey, remember that time you went to the store?
Second Person: Yes, and I forgot how to get there.
First Person: Yes, and you didn’t have a map.
Second Person: Yes, and I tripped and broke my ankle.
First Person: Yes, and you didn’t have your phone, so you couldn’t call an ambulance.
Second Person: Yes, and I died.

Seriously, all we want is a simple, step-by-step account, layering information bit by bit, about the time Esmeralda went to the store. In order for it to be the story of the time Esmeralda went to the store, she has to get to the damn store! But human nature being what it is, we can’t go with what’s simple. We have to create problems and obstacles and make everything 1,000 times harder than it needs to be.

How many times in real life do we do that exact same thing? All the time. Seriously. All. The. Time. We look gift horses in the mouth, we don’t accept what the universe is telling us, we don’t trust our own instincts, we zig when we know we should zag. I don’t think life is meant to be one hardship after another. We make it that way by not being who we really are, and by doing things for the wrong reasons and… whatever.

What if we didn’t do that, in improv or in life? What if instead we recognized that going with the obvious answer is usually the best answer? What if our yes, ands were TRUE yes, ands and not fancy, devious yes, buts? What would life be like if we didn’t make it harder than it needs to be?

If you just can’t imagine life without obstacles, do a mud run. But for the rest of life, including improv, running on a nice, easy, level surface is the way to go.

By Darren Held

Are You Gonna Get a Job Doing the Improv?

Today’s improv wisdom comes from my homie, Kendra Nicholson:

I was talking on the phone to my dad who lives in Missouri. After a few moments of yelling, he finally put in his hearing aid so we could converse at normal levels. He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was getting ready for improv class. We then had this conversation:

DAD: You get paid to do that acting stuff?

ME: First of all, it’s not acting. Improv is completely different than acting, and secondly… No. I do not get paid to do it.

DAD: Well, when you’re done with them classes, are you gonna get a job doing the improv and then get paid?

ME: Ummm… No.

DAD: Then why do you do it? What’s the point?

ME: I do it because I love it. I do it because it’s changed my life for the better. We learn to say “yes” in improv. We learn to just accept what is happening in the scene and run with it. I find myself saying “yes” a lot more in my daily life too. I’m learning to be more spontaneous and to stop planning so much. When you stop planning and worrying about what’s going to happen later, when you let go of your agenda, you can just be in the moment. It carries over into my daily life. You can simply concentrate on what is happening right now, and let those anxious feelings go. Improv has helped me become a better listener. We learn to hear everything our scene partner says before we respond, and when that carries over to your everyday life, it’s a wonderful thing. I used to find myself planning my responses to people I was talking to as they were still talking. I would simply be waiting until it was my turn to say something too. I wasn’t really listening to all of the information. I was just getting bits and pieces. I think most importantly though, I laugh a lot more. I find humor in places I never looked for it before. I have also met some amazing people. I have so much fun with my improv peeps. They are an incredibly supportive and funny group of people. So… That’s why I take improv classes.

DAD: (Crickets… Crickets…)

ME: Dad? Are you still there?

DAD: Huh? Oh… Yeah… I’m here.

ME: Did you hear anything I just said?

DAD: Not really, sis. When I put in my hearing aids, I was able to hear the TV, and that Judge Judy gal was really lettin’ some fella have it! Do you watch Judge Judy?

ME: No. No, I don’t watch Judge Judy.

DAD: What were saying about that acting thing?

ME: Not much. Just that it’s helped me become a better listener.

DAD: Oh. I already know how to do that.

ME: Yeah. You’re a great listener. Can I talk to Mom?

1 2