By Darren Held

It’s Always Been A Matter of Trust

I was recently invited to work with a group in the entertainment industry.   I was thrilled, as this department of 8-10 people had been together several years.

Plus they were very creative people. I figured I could try a variety of training exercises and games to help them reach their team goals for the new quarter, and experiment more than usual. I wanted to try some unique material to raise their brainstorming to a new level.

I chose to begin the workshop with a simple storytelling exercise, where the participants take on characters and share information back and forth. The idea is to get on the same page, and let go of their agenda.


Participant 1: I’m Joe DeLuca

Participant 2: I’m Monica DeLuca

1: We’ve been married 12 years.

2: Yes, we were married on Staten Island.

1: It was a beautiful wedding. It was outdoors.

2: Yes, over the water. He was wearing a blue tuxedo.

1: Blue is her favorite color. It matches her eyes.

Get the picture? You take whatever information your partner gives you, and add to it. I thought this would be a quick intro exercise to build confidence before we got down to the nitty gritty. Boy was I wrong.

The first couple couldn’t seem to share the story. One would ramble on filling in all of the details, then the other would explain why it couldn’t possibly have happened that way.   I reiterated the point of sharing small pieces of the story, and we tried again. There was not much difference. I began to wonder if I had given enough detailed information, and started my business debrief early – about how sharing details leads to stronger team collaboration.

Then we tried to the next couple. Same result.  Twice.  So I decided to try it in trios. This time one sat in the background quiet, arms folded, while her partners – two men, talked over each other with individual stories.  I was stunned. Every time I explained the game and gave examples, they nodded their heads in understanding. Finally I inquired to one of the men: “Why did you feel the need to speak over your partner?”

The answer was “I don’t trust that he’s going to give me something I can work with.” When I asked why, he informed me that they have to fight to get heard in their pitch meetings.   When I pushed further and asked how that affects them as a group, it came pouring out. By fighting to get heard, they usually didn’t even listen to anyone else’s pitches.   Even though they were a team, the loudest idea won.  And if their pitches made it past the brainstorming phase, they often had “dutiful” support by their team, but not creative or generous support. How awful. No wonder they couldn’t participate in a simple sharing exercise. They didn’t trust each other at all. Several years in the same room with that dynamic just exacerbated the situation.

It became so clear to me. Trust is absolutely vital a team situation, and that goes double for improv.   The most joyous scenes are the scenes where you can toss a simple nugget to your partner, also referred to as gift, and think “I can’t wait to hear what they’ll add. I’m going to stay present and receive their gift, so I can give one back.”

Lack of trust is nothing to be ashamed of. We all have our reasons why it’s difficult to trust in certain situations. The great thing about improv is that it helps you build trust. By practicing the art of mutual creating, and saying “YES!” to all the gifts you receive on stage, you learn to accept others. You learn flexibility. And perhaps most importantly, you learn you can create value from everything.

By the end of the day, after creating together, this particular group behaved like that had met each other for the first time. They realized they all had brilliant ideas, and finally understood why they had been so successful to this point. Now that they’re ambition is married to trust, I can’t wait to see what they do next.


By Darren Held

Don’t Kobe Your Improv Scene!

These are the improv musings of a troupe member who prefers anonymity. Also, there’s a sports analogy, so it’s clearly not Viet.

Not too long ago I was in the audience of a non-H2G improv show. It was different in that it was directed by two of the improvisers performing in the show, whereas we have the amazing Darren Held who directs without stepping on stage himself.

The improvisers/directors in this show were funny, had good stage presence and were clearly experienced actors. They were also in virtually every scene and did most of the talking. By the end of the show, I kinda hated them as much as one can rationally hate people based on live entertainment.

One of the reasons to love improv is that it can’t be done alone. (It can, but it’s never good.) You and your partners get up on a stage and work together to create something out of nothing. When it all goes right, you feel the connection and trust that allow you to seamlessly know what the other person is going to do without saying a word. Those moments are magical.

That is… unless you’re one of the stage whores in the show I watched. In which case, you treat your scene partners like a stage prop in your solo performance. Not cool. Also, a total waste of someone else’s talents. You don’t always get to say the killer line that brings everyone to their knees with laughter. But it’s just as satisfying to set up your partner to deliver that great line. Even though there is a prominent “I” in the word, improv is a team sport and no one wins when they play alone.

So don’t be surprised if you’re ever at an improv show and hear someone yell from the audience, “Hey, Kobe Bryant, pass the damn ball!” It’s probably me and it won’t be a scene suggestion.

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?

By Darren Held

Let It Go, Let It Go

So, you can see I’ve been remiss in writing blog posts lately, so my troupemates have agreed to help me out by doing my job for me. Yay! You can see their thoughts on improv and life and other stuff right here!

Thanks to Richard Martinez for this terrific post!

I took my first class with Held2gether in February of 2012. I remember feeling really nervous, because I associated “Improv” with “funny” and I never really considered myself to be a funny performer.

Prior to H2G, I performed theatre on stage in which the characters I played were rooted in heavy drama. And honestly, I kind of thrived on that. I let all my personal struggles (from the day-to-day work stress to the heavier issues I’ve battled) find so-called release through playing characters that screamed, yelled, cried, raged, ranted, and screamed some more. As cathartic as that was in the moment of performance, it never really helped me to let go of what I needed to let go of in my personal life. That release was only temporary, and my life hadn’t necessarily improved because of it.

The only way to affect positive change in my life was to take a good, long look at the darkness and drama that I was coasting in, and figure out how to let that go, and let light and laughter in.

I was finding ways to improve myself in other areas of my life: my relationship with my partner, moving out on my own, and changing jobs to a more positive environment. But theatre, which has always been my passion, was still an aspect of my life where I held on to the darkness by continuing to focus on “heavy” shows. It wasn’t until I started Improv with Held2gether that my love of theatre truly began to contribute to the positive affect on my life. I started to feel comfortable being myself on stage, and not having to resort to histrionics to achieve that.

These three basic rules of Improv helped to shed light on the areas that I needed to work on with myself:

“Yes, and…” – In an Improv scene, you always want to accept the information that is given to you, and add to it. In my life, I have had a tendency to say “no” to presented opportunities if I wasn’t comfortable with them, or unless I knew every single detail that could possibly emerge from accepting said opportunities. I rarely added new information to conversations unless it was coaxed out of me. I had it in my mind that I had to be in complete control of what was happening in my life. My rule was “No, but…” I had to let go of that to get to a better place in my life. “Yes, and” has taught me to not be so afraid of new information or change, and that no matter what may come my way, I can most likely handle it.

Avoid Asking Questions – “What are you doing?” “Where are we?” “What’s your name?” I’ve learned that in Improv, questions can hurt an otherwise awesome scene, because it puts the responsibility of presenting information onto your partner, and lets you get off scot-free from having to contribute. In my life, questions arise frequently. And often I’ll answer them with more questions. (“What do you want to do tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do tonight?”) Questions can be a quick road to nowhere. Making definitive statements has been a scary concept for me. “What if they don’t like what I say?” “What if that makes them not like me?” What if I stop asking so many damn questions, both out loud and in my head, and start making some active choices. In a scene, letting go of the fear of responsibility can lead to wonderful Improv. In my life, letting go of the fear of responsibility can lead to a wonderful life.

Connect With Your Partner – Darren and Sonnjea always tells us before we begin a scene to make eye contact with the performer on stage with you. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it can be easily overlooked, or downright scary. Sometimes I think I have such a great idea coming into the scene that I want to get it out first, eye contact be damned. Sometimes the fear of not knowing what to do in a scene causes me to look down or up or to the right or to the left. Anywhere but at my partner. In Improv, this will lead to a disastrous scene. I learned that a scene partner is there with you as your partner. You’re in this together, and together you’ll make it work. In my life, I’ve long held onto the idea that anything that I needed to do in my life, I had to do completely on my own. I didn’t ask for help. Instead I overworked myself, and let details fall through the cracks. The first time I ever directed a play, I took on practically all the responsibility, from booking the venue, to ordering chairs, to stage managing, to setting up sound cues, to running the ticket pre-sales, and so forth. The opening night of the show should have been my proudest moment, but I was too frazzled by not letting go of the “I can do it all syndrome.” Now, I’m learning not to be too proud to ask for help. I connect with my partner to make mutual decisions. I connect with my friends to work on projects together. I connect with the people in my life to help make my life easier, and hopefully that goes both ways. Making eye contact with people still scares me from time to time, but the more I let go of the fear of connecting, the more successful my life becomes.

I’m at a point in my life right now where good things are happening. I’ve grown a confidence that wasn’t there before. And together with the other positive areas in my life, my passion for theatre has helped me to let go of some of the crap I’ve needed to let go of. It’s an ongoing journey for me, yet it’s a journey that I’m continuing to find success with.

I still love acting, and I know that in the future I will play “dark roles” again, but now I know that I don’t need them to grow or escape. I used to not think that I was a “funny performer” but it turns out that the humor comes naturally just by letting go. My favorite moments on stage used to be the ones that might make an audience cry; now, my favorite thing about performing is that it reflects the lightness and laughter that is starting to seep out of me.

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