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by Darren Held

I know some people have jobs where they don’t receive instantaneous feedback. Brain surgeons, for example – they don’t get a round of applause after drilling a hole in somebody’s skull. Firefighters don’t put out a fire, then stand out in front of the building and take bows while the neighborhood gives them an ovation. Most jobs, in fact, don’t involve a pat on the back after every single task. Although it would be cool if you typed a report, then got applause, then filed some receipts, then got applause, then handled a disgruntled customer, then got applause…

Improv is different from most other jobs in that regard. Usually. But sometimes, the audience is either not on board or they are on board, but they’re low-key about it, and they aren’t all fast and loose with the laughter and applause. It can happen when you do LBC humor for a largely Orange County crowd, or when the general mood of an audience is best described as “cranky pants” or when most of the audience is students watching with the intention of learning stuff.

There’s a tendency for that to happen in classes, as well as in shows. It’s not that we don’t think our classmates are funny – they are funny as hell, as a matter of fact. But when you’re watching a scene or exercise with the intention of learning from it, your brain is in a different place than when you’re watching it for escape or entertainment, and you might literally forget to laugh.

But guess what? Just like the neurosurgeon isn’t waiting for an ovation before he makes the next incision, improvisors can’t rely on feedback from the audience to keep them going. Sometimes you do a scene and it doesn’t get a lot of laughs… oh well. You can’t let that get to you, or you’ll get all heady and worried and you’ll start to throw out weirder and weirder information in a vain attempt to lure in the audience and then each succeeding scene will be worse and it’ll be a vicious circle ending with you doing crappy improv even if the only reason they didn’t clap at the first scene was because they all just woke up from their naps.

By the same token, you can’t let the audience laughing at something convince you that you just did good improv. Audiences are not skilled improv critics and they are notorious for laughing when they want, not necessarily at the moments of improvy brilliance. Your goal as an improvisor, should you choose to accept it, is to do the best improv you can in every scene or exercise, regardless of how the audience (or the rest of the class) responds.

A strong connection with your scene partner(s) will help you disregard the audience because at least you’ll feel like you’re in this together and you can help each other by sharing your energy when the audience is stingy with theirs. Make eye contact, listen intently, respond with big emotion and stay fully committed, and you will reap the reward of knowing that you did kickass improv. And no audience in the world can take that away from you.

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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