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by Darren Held

A student asked me a question before the Level 1 improv class started the other day. He wanted to know about boundaries, and whether or not he should censor himself. He said he was trying to push himself out of his comfort zone so he didn’t want to censor, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to say or do anything “offensive.”

That’s a good question, and one that I’ve gotten many times in beginning improv classes. Unfortunately, there’s not really a good answer. Luckily, the relative “goodness” of an answer has never been a sticking point for me, so I’ma just plow ahead.

I have a degree in art, and I tend to err on the side of no censorship. Oftentimes the very point of art is to make folks uncomfortable and force them to think and examine their beliefs and whatnot. Without getting into an entire First Amendment diatribe, I think really good art doesn’t just reflect back to society what people are; it should show society where we’re lacking and what needs to change.

That being said, I’m not a dumbass. If I’m doing an improv show, I will definitely consider my audience. When we’ve done First Fridays shows at the tea room with children present, we absolutely censor ourselves and don’t drop F-bombs or get raunchy like we might at our grown-up show. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to put on family-friendly shows and R-rated shows and challenge ourselves as improvisors to play within those limits. After all, there are plenty of rules in improv already; this is just adding a little more structure to the games. Also, if we are invited to perform somewhere particular, we’re certainly not going to do humor that offends our hosts. If we can’t give them the type of show they want, it’s our job to turn down the gig rather than force our agenda on them. However, when we have our own space, I think we will feel comfortable doing our own brand of humor and trusting audiences to “get it.”

So yeah. In a performance, there has to be a certain amount of consciousness regarding the topics and words we choose. But in class… I think there has to be carte blanche to say anything.

Especially in the beginning, when so many people are terrified anyway and working so hard just to push themselves out of their comfort zone. I don’t want that extra voice in their heads going, “Is this appropriate? I might offend so-and-so.” I would rather have the students turn off the self-censor completely and just go for it. And then, if/when something truly offensive comes out, we can discuss it after the exercise or scene and figure out as a class why it was offensive and what could’ve been done or said differently to make it work.

It’s a tricky thing. I won’t tolerate any kind of unsupportive behavior in class – meanness, snarkiness, racism, agism, sexism or any other kind of -ism directed from one student to another. (Not that that’s ever been an issue – improv students are awesome). But as characters – there’s definitely something funny about seeing really “offensive” types of characters get their comeuppance. And I wouldn’t want students to shy away from trying those characters, just because it might not work.

So that’s my answer on self-censoring.

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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