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by Darren Held

By Sonnjea Blackwell

I was at a meeting the other day (no, so far there are no Improv-a-holics 12-step programs; this was a Buddhist meeting) where a smart person said that strategizing could get you into trouble. A few of us needed some clarification on that, because planning and creating strategies are necessary to build a business. They call them “marketing strategies,” after all, not “marketing let’s just see what happensies.” Anyway, the smart person clarified that having a strategy wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but being married to that strategy to the exclusion of any other possibilities would inevitably lead to problems.

I pondered that for a while. Then I got distracted by wind chimes. Shiny AND musical. But in the 7.5 seconds I focused on that thought, I realized that living in the gray area as much as possible would be an awesome goal.

We do exercises in Held2gether improv classes in Long Beach that help students get comfortable in the so-called “gray area.” The gray area is, to quote Tom Petty, “The great wide open,” the space where anything can happen because absolutely nothing is planned. It’s amazingly hard for most people to learn to get comfortable with not knowing. We want everything laid out so we know what to expect, so we can prepare our responses, so we aren’t caught unawares. Nobody likes to make a fool of themself, and being prepared can help prevent that to a certain extent.

But life doesn’t go according to our plans, and that’s where we get ourselves into trouble. We’ve planned to the hilt for Scenario A. Only life deals us Scenario B. When we are so committed to what we plan for, it’s really difficult to switch gears and cope with a whole other scenario that we never saw coming.

But improv helps you get accustomed to going with the flow and embracing the surprise that Scenario B inevitably offers. You’ll be standing on a stage doing some kind of pretend activity – let’s say raking leaves – and you think, “well, we’re raking leaves so we must be a married couple in our front yard doing fall chores,” only suddenly your scene partner says, “Brilliant idea getting these jobs as gardeners at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Susan. Now we can hunt zombies while we work!” Because you are comfortable in the gray area, you don’t freak out and you definitely don’t deny the information! You agree with the information, add some of your own, and you have the makings of a hilarious scene.

Staying open to life’s possibilities is a great way to live – sure, you have a road map in your mind of where you’re headed, but nobody says you have to take the 405 to get there. You could take surface streets. Or ride a bike. You could take the scenic route, or a short cut. You could stop to visit friends on the way. Or you could, you know, kill a few zombies here and there. It’s totally your call.

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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