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by Darren Held

In one of the Held2gether Improv Level 2 classes that began last week, Darren asked the students to introduce themselves and tell what skill they really want to focus on developing during this class session. There were several different answers, but there was only one answer that multiple people gave: listening.

I’ve yammered on about the rules of improv time and time again. While some rules vary from one improv philosophy to the next (spacework, asking questions and the use of puppets, for example), three rules apply to pretty much any type of improv comedy: agreement, information and commitment. Nothing starts if you don’t have agreement, nothing develops if you don’t add information, and nothing matters if you don’t have commitment.

Listening isn’t even on that list of rules. And hey, guess what! I’ma tell you why. There’s a surprise.

It’s because listening is a given. Its importance is implied: you can’t agree with something if you haven’t heard it. You can’t add relevant information if you don’t know what information preceded it. And commitment without listening amounts to crazy, unfocused energy on stage. Which is, just to be clear, not helpful.

Listening is hard in real life for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we’re so busy multitasking that we don’t really hear what people are saying. Sometimes we already think we know what someone’s going to say, so we don’t bother to listen. And some people are just boring, so we can’t bring ourselves to care about what they’re saying. What? You know it’s true.

In improv, there are also a variety of reasons people find it difficult to listen. Perhaps it’s panic, pure and simple. I mean, it’s pretty hard to focus on someone’s words when you’re terrified. Or it could be that you’re attached to an agenda, so you don’t bother to listen to your scene partner. (I don’t mean “you” personally, of course. None of you ever has an agenda. But I’ve heard tell of some people in the improv world who do.) Or maybe you’re having trouble listening because you’re busy judging yourself or your scene partner or the suggestion or the audience or the person who invented improv.

My personal belief is that everyone can learn to listen better. Of course, the cool thing is that improv class is a fun way to improve that skill. You experience first hand how NOT listening is detrimental to a scene or game – but in a safe, encouraging environment so you don’t have to feel bad about it. And when you start listening better, your improv improves and the positive reinforcement you get (laughter, applause, the undying admiration of your classmates) spurs you to learn to listen even more closely. And pretty soon, you’re listening to your boss. Your spouse. Your kids. Your boring neighbor.

Well, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.

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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