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by Darren Held

Part of commitment in improv is being fully in your scene from the minute it starts until blackout, not judging, not seeking approval, not glancing at the audience to see if they “get” it, not looking at the instructor.

This is often a hard thing for brand new students. I understand. We all want approval, to some extent. We’ve all seen (and been) that kid doing something goofy at the park and yelling, “Mom! Hey, mom! Watch this!” The flip side of the showing off is the fear of falling… We want to learn to ride a bike, but we don’t want dad to let go of the seat too soon.

I see it in improv classes when students are doing an exercise that is a little (or maybe a lot) outside their comfort zone. A student will say their line of dialogue, then look at me. Or they’ll do a tiny bit of spacework, then look at me. Or they’ll have a glimmer of an emotion, then look at me. The problem is, I’m not in the scene with them. The person they SHOULD be looking at is their scene partner. By looking at me, they are pulling themselves out of the made-up reality of the scene and making it difficult or impossible for their scene partner to connect with them. When people are brand new, I avoid referring to this as “bailing on your scene partner” because that’s a harsh definition and I don’t want people to feel stressed out on top of their inability to commit. But it’s an accurate definition, and since bailing on your scene partner is one of the worst things you can do in improv, I can’t just let it go, either.

The best thing to do in class is to pretend the instructor isn’t there. It’s not appropriate to be showing off like in the “hey, mom, look at me!” scenario, and there’s no need to be afraid since it’s all about the learning anyway. And it’s not like you’re gonna crash your bike if you say something “wrong.” The instructor will guide you through the exercise if you’re really floundering, but ultimately you will learn SO MUCH more if you just commit and struggle through the scene with your partner. The critique at the end will help you discover why certain things worked or didn’t, and it’ll help you understand what you might do differently next time.

Since improv is all about being in the moment and learning to trust your instincts, I’m not helping you if I let you lean on me through your entire scene. And you don’t need to look at me for approval constantly, either – you have my approval just for showing up and going for it! I’m totally on your side and I want the exercise or scene to work every bit as much as you do. So just focus on your partner, let go of any judgement whatsoever and go for it!

Trust me. I learned to do it, which means you can too.

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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