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by Darren Held

By Sonnjea Blackwell

There have been studies that show playing tennis, for example, in your head actually improves your tennis game. Not as much as practicing with a coach, obviously, but mentally playing games and practicing strategies definitely helps when you go out on the court and face a real-life opponent.

Same with playing a musical instrument. Running through complicated fingering in your head helps you get the notes and chords right when you pick up the sax, or whatever it is you were practicing. I mean, if you were practicing the flute in your mind and then tried to play the trumpet, I don’t think it would work. It’s not magic, people.

And we’ve all practiced important speeches, job interviews and what-we’re-gonna-say-if-he/she-picks-up-the-phone so that those conversations go more smoothly and don’t make you sound as if you’re a hyena having a seizure when you laugh nervously at the other person’s opening remarks.

So you’d think the same would be true of improv. But no. Practicing improv in your head amounts to pre-planning, which is the antithesis of improv. So it’s totally counter-productive. Which is super annoying to people like me who like to over-think and plan things to death… well, maybe “like” is a strong word. After all, I suppose most of us don’t actually enjoy our mental illnesses.

Um, hello, tangent. Anyway. My point is this: don’t practice improv in your head. Don’t play out imaginary scenes. Don’t think of clever ideas or opening lines that you just can’t wait to shoe-horn into an exercise. Don’t think, “Ok, I’m going to be brushing my teeth. And then, no matter what he says, I’m going to say, ‘Here’s the thing. I’ve always hated your brand of toothpaste.’ Ahahahahaha! That’ll be friggin’ hilarious.” Trust me. It won’t.

If you must do improv in your mind, think up names that don’t include Sally, Frank, Timmy or Jo-Jo. Come up with interesting locations so you can offer suggestions that haven’t been done to death. Tell yourself a story using “Yes, and I” and “Yes, and you” as the beginnings of each sentence. Pretend you’re a mouse or a duck or a tractor and figure out what kind of human character that would be. Play zip-zap-zop until you exhaust obscure categories like Australian shellfish or most annoying Christmas gifts.

Then come to a Held2gether improv class and wing it with the rest of us. It’s win-win: you don’t force pre-planned crap into scenes where it makes no sense, and you give yourself more time to practice your winning American Idol speech in your head. You’re welcome.

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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