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by Darren Held

There’s an exercise we do in the Held2gether Level 1 Improv class that we call What That Means. I love this exercise, for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s easy for me, and
  2. It helps students get to relationship faster

We’ll focus on #2, since #1 is kind of obnoxious. There’s a tendency, especially for people relatively new to improv (“new” = people who have been doing improv for less than 20 years or so), to make scenes about “stuff.” To be clear, audiences aren’t particularly interested in pancakes or lava lamps or carburetors. They are interested in what’s happening between the characters. And yes, “stuff” is important, in terms of setting the scene and establishing a location and giving the characters a catalyst for what’s happening between them today. But “stuff” should never have more than a supporting role. “Stuff” never gets to be the star.

So anyway, What That Means simply turns a series of statements into labels about one participant or the other. If I say, “You’re wearing black,” you might say, “I’m wearing black. What that means is, I’m depressed.” Then I’d say, “You’re depressed. What that means is, you’re dissatisfied with our relationship.” They you’d say, “I’m dissatisfied with our relationship. What that means is, you never make time for me.” And I’d say, “I never make time for you. What that means is, I’m totally self-absorbed.”

Based on a simple statement of fact (someone wears black), we get a series of labels that let everyone know one person is depressed and dissatisfied with the relationship and the other person is self-absorbed and doesn’t value the partner. Tada! Now we’re getting somewhere, and we can figure out why today’s the big day in this couple’s life. Maybe Self-absorbed gets her come-uppance. Maybe Depressed & Dissatisfied gets dumped on even more. Either way, we’re not stuck talking about laundry or mowing the lawn or whatever.

The exercise is brilliant, but you can apply the principles in any improv scene. Just label personality traits or behaviors, as opposed to simply labeling looks or physicality. Saying someone is blonde doesn’t tell us anything about your relationship. Saying someone thinks she’s better than everyone else because she’s blonde gives her – and the scene – a huge gift and gets the ball rolling on what the dynamic is between you.

And before I get tons of hate mail from brunettes, I don’t think I’m better than everyone else because I’m blonde. That was just an example, people.

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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