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by Darren Held

You know how babies can go from giddy to sobbing faster than a Ferrari can go from 0 to 60? Without getting into a whole lot of psychology and self-help talk, it’s because they don’t think about their feelings or analyze whether they’re correct and appropriate or judge themselves for having those feelings or have decades of conditioning that forces them to suppress those feelings. They feel something, and they express it. When they feel something else, they express that instead. End of story.

Improv kinda needs that same type of ability to express every sort of emotion in every conceivable combination. I may start out giddy in my scene, and then my scene partner gives some information that makes me terrified. Then, perhaps, when he saves me from whatever I was terrified of, I feel grateful and lustful. Which most likely then makes him terrified. (What? I can’t be the only one who confuses “lustful” with “duck face.”)

Improv relies on huge emotional shifts and big reactions to information to drive the scene. To trot out the Ferrari again, your car isn’t going anywhere (except possibly downhill fast) in neutral. Same is true of your improv scene. Neutral will get you exactly nowhere. When you feel your scene has stalled, the surest, best way to jump start it again is to have a HUGE emotional shift. If no information has come out to justify that shift, don’t fret – have the emotion and then worry about justifying it. Somehow, magic happens and just by committing to a huge emotion, the information needed to justify it flows into your collective brains and you and your scene partner manage to explain exactly why, in the middle of this boring retirement party, you suddenly became so paranoid you hid under the table. Or, you know, whatever it is.

Practicing emotions is one of the things you can do on your own, outside of class, to improve your improv. Try and do it in front of a mirror, so you can make sure your facial expressions match your physical expression. Yell, scream, cower in fear, laugh until your face hurts, whatever. The more you can FEEL the difference in your face and body, the easier it will become to switch from one emotion to another on a dime. Play with subtleties, too – how does irritated look and feel and sound, compared to angry? Or furious?

Look, I am the QUEEN of calm, cool and collected. Not that I don’t have emotions, but none of this “expressing” crap comes naturally to me. So I understand your angst. But if I can learn it, you can too. You are just as magic as I am.


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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