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

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

Yes, And… I Almost Died of Ebola

by Sonnjea Blackwell
If you’ve been in an improv class for more than 5 minutes or seen 1 of these blog entries, you know the phrase “yes, and…” That’s because yes, and is the heart of all improv: I agree with what you’ve established, and I add something to it. Then you agree with what I’ve added, and add something else. And repeat, until we’ve built a whole, hilarious scene.

Students quickly grasp the concept of agreement, often to the point of feeling like their character has to be a carbon copy of their scene partner’s character. (Just so you know, it doesn’t.)

What’s harder to get the hang of is adding relevant information. Sometimes people just agree, period, and don’t add anything. That’s just yes, not yes, and. But more often than not, people agree and then add some information that has absolutely nothing to do with what the other person just said. Here’s an example that I wish I was making up:

Person A: “I wish we didn’t have to go on this study abroad trip to Cairo! I wanted to go to Paris.”
Person B: “Me too. You look like a slut in that outfit.”

While technically adding information, Person B has now agreed with Person A in theory, but added non-relevant information designed to take the scene in the direction they had in mind.

I get that it’s tricky, and even if you are listening and aren’t clinging to an agenda, it can be difficult to know what sort of information to add. But I have an idea that just might help. Yes, and… I’m even gonna share it.

Yes, And My Disease Is Worse Than Yours

You know when you’re talking with somebody, and they tell you they just had a bad cold, and you can’t wait for them to stop talking so you can tell them about your cold, which was even worse than theirs because it lasted two weeks? And then they jump back in and one-up you with the fact that their cold came complete with a hacking cough, and you continue with the fact that your cough didn’t even respond to purple cough syrup with codeine, and on and on until one of you is claiming to have survived Ebola?

That’s the type of listening and adding relevant information that builds a cohesive scene. It doesn’t have to be total one-upmanship, and you certainly don’t have to be competing for the best/worst of whatever, but being keyed into your partner’s specific details (like you are when you’re trying to one-up someone with your tale of phlegm) will help you add specific details of your own.

You’re welcome.

Yes, and now I have to go eat. What? Food is always relevant.

By Darren Held

Improve Your Listening Skills

by Sonnjea Blackwell
It has come to my attention that there are some people in the world with sub-par listening skills. Not you, obviously. I mean, duh. But some people. Unfortunately, they don’t know who they are, because they don’t listen when people tell them they need to listen better.

Listening Skills In Improv

Although people come to Held2gether improv classes for any number of awesome reasons, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say up front that they signed up for improv specifically to improve their listening. And yet, I’ve had millions of people tell me after they’ve done improv for a little while that it had made them much better listeners. (Note: improv does nothing to alleviate a tendency to exaggerate.)

But back to improved listening, which was apparently my point. The reason improv helps with listening is because, before you can apply any of the other rules of improv (agreeing, adding information, committing, you name it), you have to listen. How on earth can I agree with or add relevant information to yours if I have no friggin’ clue what you said? I know you’re probably thinking, “Well, duh, Sonnjea.” But seriously, how many times have you had a conversation with someone and then walked away with absolutely no idea what they said? I know that’s not just me. Um, right?

At first, new students typically struggle with listening. It makes sense: our society’s fast pace, with all of our electronic devices and lack of actual face-to-face encounters is making active listening a lost art. Not only that, but new students are also often petrified – going on stage with nothing but a weird suggestion from the rest of the class and trying to make something hilarious happen can be terrifying! And people in panic mode are not exactly known for remaining calm and listening intently to what those around them are saying. It’s normal.

But as students get more comfortable with the discomfort and practice yes, anding each other, it becomes clear to them that the only way to free themselves from any agenda, be totally in the moment and ultimately do good improv is to listen. It takes practice, but the super cool thing is that the games and exercises we do in Level 1 Improv Class help you improve your listening skills with no conscious effort on your part. Of course, if you also put some focused effort into it, you’ll get even more improvement.

Listening Skills In Real Life

If you do improv long enough, the listening skills you learn in class infiltrate your real life, and pretty soon you realize that you’re not thinking about your to-do list, or what you have to get at the grocery store or what you want to say next when others are talking to you. Not only that, but those others will notice (perhaps subconsciously, but they will notice) that you are one of very few people in the world who actually listens to them. Don’t underestimate how important that is – people have an inherent need to be heard and will deeply appreciate the fact that you are satisfying that need.

Which, you know, will make you popular and stuff. Yay you!