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by Darren Held

I’ve been watching Sons of Anarchy lately, and this is what I have learned:

  1. Where I grew up (maybe 30 miles from where SOA is set) is even more redneck than I previously thought; and
  2. these guys know how to commit.

Not to women, of course. That would be silly. But the members’ commitment to their motorcycle club really is “till death do us part.” It’s a white trash, redneck version of the mafia, basically. If the club needs you to do something, you do it, and the penalties for failing to commit range from creatively disgusting to lethal.

Oh, right. Improv.

I’ve mentioned commitment once or three hundred times before, but it’s so important it bears repeating: commitment is everything in improv. You can overcome a denial; you can justify bizarro information; you can correct an attack of sarcasm. But if one person doesn’t commit, you’re done. You can’t do improv alone, so everybody in the scene has to be IN THE SCENE.

There are different aspects of commitment… There is commitment to the character, the voice, the emotion, the genre, the suggestion, the moment. But you can simplify by just thinking about being 100% committed to the scene – then everything it entails will be included. That means you keep going until blackout or until the instructor ends the scene – without glancing over and asking, “Keep going?” It means you give your all to the character, the voice, the emotion, the genre and the suggestion – whatever each of those things means to you – without worrying if you’re going to look silly. It means not judging the scene as it unfolds, but truly being in the moment – listening to your scene partner and having big emotional reactions to their information.

It’s hard at the beginning because nobody wants to look silly, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone means there’s a good chance you’re not going to succeed 100% of the time. And there’s something comforting about stepping out of the scene, perhaps to comment on the suggestion or apologize for an accent or seek approval from the instructor; it’s a way of letting everyone know that you think the scene’s a little wonky and, since you’re aware of that fact, you shouldn’t be judged for it.

I get it. Really. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with a wonky scene. Especially in class – I mean, the whole point of class is to learn stuff. If you already knew everything there is to know about improv and never had a bad scene, why would you take a class? What there IS something wrong with is bailing. You don’t learn what you need to learn if you bail on a difficult scene. Darren and I can watch and critique wonky scenes all day long… because if the players have committed, and the scene goes weird, we can help them understand what to do differently. But if somebody bails, the scene doesn’t really happen, which means we can’t help. We have no idea what MIGHT have happened if they hadn’t bailed, so we can’t see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Look, I’m not that creative, so nothing disgusting or lethal will happen to you if you don’t commit in improv class. But you won’t learn what you set out to learn, and that’s a bummer.

By the way, how do you think I’d look on a motorcycle?

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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