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by Darren Held

What’s That Smell?

agendas are bad in improv

Let go!

by Sonnjea Blackwell

You know how sometimes you know somebody who has a body odor problem? And everyone is aware of it, except for them? That happened once in an office I worked at, and finally the manager had to tell the person, who honestly had no idea he smelled bad. Awwwwwwkward.

Right. And yes, of course this is about improv. What else would it be about?

See, I’ve noticed that the same is true of people who tend to have agendas in improv. I mean, they smell fine as far as I can tell. But, as with the BO people, they don’t seem to realize they have any issue. For a long time, I wondered why they didn’t just friggin’ admit they had an agenda. After all, it’s as obvious as BO when somebody is driving an agenda in an improv scene. So when the instructor calls them out on the agenda, I’m always shocked that they’re shocked. Sometimes they argue that they absolutely, under no circumstances, had or ever will have an agenda of any type.

Um, What’d You Say?

But I think I’ve figured out why a person who had an agenda is completely unaware of it. It’s because they have an idea, and then in the attempt to drive that idea, they fail to listen. Since they haven’t listened, they have no idea that their scene partner has established any information outside of what the agenda-driver was driving, so they just operate under the assumption that their idea was good and that it flowed naturally.

In beginning classes, when I critique a student and they say, “Oh, I didn’t hear them say that,” it’s usually because they’re still super nervous on stage and just trying to get their own brains to work, and didn’t manage to listen to their scene partner. But in intermediate and advanced classes, the terror factor doesn’t weigh in… so in those cases, whenever anybody says, “I didn’t hear them say that,” I would bet large sums of money it’s because they were so focused on their own agenda that they weren’t listening.

Ideas are great in improv, obviously. But just the smallest kernel of an idea. Then you can share your kernel, and your scene partner can share their kernel, and you eventually get a whole, delicious extra-large popcorn with butter and salt. Awesome sauce. If you start with a full-blown story, you have to work really hard to let it go. If you can’t let it go, it goes from “idea” to “agenda” and it’s no longer a gift to your scene partner; it’s a curse to both of you. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: driving an agenda WILL ruin your scene.

Break the Habit

We’re all guilty of being agenda-y from time to time, but for some folks it’s a habit. One way to break yourself of the habit is to impose a limit on yourself of, say, no more than 5 words per line. It’s very difficult to drive an agenda if you are spending most of your time listening rather than talking. Nobody will even know about your self-imposed “rule” – they’ll just think you’re being a very thoughtful scene partner.

And if you ever want to know if I think you’re agenda-y, just ask. I’m not bashful about that and I’ll be happy to tell you.

(If you’re concerned about possible BO, I am NOT your girl. Just assume you smell like a meadow.)

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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