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by Darren Held

Someone asked me before improv class recently, “What do you think I should do to get the most out of class tonight?” Well, since you asked…

Relax: You’ll be much more in the moment if you’re not freaking out. Sure, improv is scary, but remember that everyone is in the same boat as you and just wants to learn as much as they can. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Repeat.

Don’t try to be funny: Trying to prove how funny you are means you will be driving an agenda, trying to force something to happen. Instead, focus on the objective of each exercise and strive to accomplish the goals. Not all exercises are meant to be funny! And anyway, the point of class is to learn the fundamentals of improv – when you know how to do good improv, the funny just happens without you trying to make it happen.

Listen: Each exercise is designed to help you learn one or more skills, so listen when the instructor explains how to do it. You may not see the reason for a particular exercise, but trust that there is one. Listen when the instructor gives you feedback. Listen when the instructor gives everyone else feedback, too. There are probably 16 people in your class – if you only listen to your own critique, you are literally missing out on the vast majority of the instruction that takes place.

Watch: It’s great to demonstrate your enthusiasm by jumping up and being willing to go first. But if you’re unclear about how an exercise works, let a few others go first so you can watch them, listen to their critiques and learn how it should be done. There’s nothing wrong with letting someone else be the guinea pig sometimes.

Be patient: Some people have this idea that they want to be better at improv. But you aren’t just going to wake up tomorrow and be better. You have to go through the process to get better. That means treating class like class, rather than a performance. It means taking in the feedback you get, and doing your best to apply it. It means accepting that there are ups and downs on the improv learning curve, just as there are on any learning curve. It means sticking with it when you’re frustrated and working through the tough spots. So be patient! It is a virtue, you know.

Take responsibility: It can be tempting to blame your scene partner when an exercise didn’t go the way you’d hoped, or argue that the instructor didn’t explain the exercise well enough, or insist that you really did do such-and-such correctly when the instructor explains that you didn’t. Don’t do that! I’m assuming that you are in class to learn – why else would you pay someone to teach you improv? The only way to learn is to accept the feedback your instructor provides. Your scene partner will get their own critique of the exercise, and if you start throwing blame around, people will soon decide not to trust you. If you don’t understand how to do an exercise, ask for clarification before you do it. And being defensive or deflecting the critique totally defeats the purpose of taking a class – how will you improve, if you don’t accept feedback and learn from it?

Trust: Trust yourself, your instructor, your classmates and the process. Nobody is saying that trust is easy or automatic. But improv is based on it… and without it, you will not progress very far.

For Pete’s sake, have fun! Go into class with an open mind, high energy, a willingness to fail and the desire to play! Where else in life do grownups get to play games, be silly and laugh their asses off? Sure, learning improv is difficult – but it shouldn’t be work!

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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