Rediscovering Myself Through Improv by Agnes Chan

Improv has been a great outlet/hobby/activity/distraction, all of the above, for me as a mom.  After the birth of my second child, I fell into a postpartum rut.  I loved my kids, but I felt so lost about who I was aside from them.  I started browsing through the local Parks and Rec magazine looking for an enrichment class.  Between Line Dancing and How to Have a Conversation I found Held2gether: Improv for Life.  Improv was the perfect way for me to escape and do some acting minus the homework.  Then, one short year later, I was forced to take a break from everything due to some scary pregnancy complications.  Thankfully, this baby made it and I’m now the mother of 3 beautiful children who are 9-, 7-, and 4-years-old.  My little one did continue to scare us with a couple of medical issues during the first two months of his life.  After his first birthday, when we knew we were in the clear, I could finally breathe and started craving something for myself again.  So, I came back to Held2gether and started with the Sketch Writing Class.  I wanted to do something creative, but was nervous about being on stage.  The Sketch Writing Class was perfect because I could “perform” from behind my computer.

 

Since then, I’ve gotten my stage legs back, went on to perform live improv, participated in several scripted Sketch Shows, and was even part of Held2gether’s first scripted show, “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues,” which was a very heavy dark comedy dealing with sexual assault.  Like any other play, this required homework and memorizing lines, but I was ready for it.  I was in a place where I could dive deep into my character’s dreams and struggles.  It felt so empowering channeling my emotions into this scripted play that paralleled many of today’s headlines.  It was a far cry from my usual shows like Paw Patrol and My Little Pony.  For the last 9 years, I’ve devoted my life to my three kids.  Like many parents, we lose ourselves to raise our kids.  It’s important and necessary work, but I lost myself.  I still help with my kids’ schools and different non-profit Mommy groups, but I’m ready to discover who I am again aside from being a mom.  I’m so grateful to Held2gether for putting on local theater productions to give me a chance to express myself here in Long Beach without having to drive two hours each way to Hollywood.  Because, let’s be honest.  I just don’t have time for that with my three kids.  As much as I want a life of my own, my kids are still a big part of me.

 

I Think I Just ‘Yessed’ Myself by Sarah Pinsky

Four years after my first workshop, I’ve realized all the conversations I never gave myself permission to have and the connection I once avoided out of fear are there on stage. Though I might still prefer to hide in the audience, improv pushes me to meet my own internal challenges. Uncomfortable emotions and foreign topics are open for exploration.

As for everyday life and “sane” people: eventually the line between it all blurred. Life seeped into improv and improv into life. I find myself slipping into characters and games in regular conversation. Now, my mom suggests sketch ideas. My dad creates characters. Timid friends let their goofiness show. Other people play along naturally, just as eager to share bits of their unexpressed personality and to connect through play.

After spending my life feeling subject to the world around me, saying “yes” to improv has given me courage to be myself and agency to shape my world.

Learning Improv Can Help Lawyers by Zarina Hora

When I first started taking improv classes over five years ago, I had no idea how it would change me. I love surprises and improv continues to give me little, cherished gifts that pop up out of the blue.  I knew that improv would give me a new skill, but not a new community. I knew that I would be pretending to be other people, but didn’t realize that in doing that, I’d learn how to be myself. Oh! I could write a 2000 word essay on how it has changed me as a person, and how it can change you. But for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing on how it helped with my career as an attorney.  Like so many of the other benefits of doing improv comedy, improving my professional skills through improv was an unanticipated but welcomed gift.

 

 

It will Make you a Better Speaker

The number 1 fear of people is public speaking. Now imagine, speaking when you haven’t learned a script, memorized a speech or even know what you will be speaking about until you are on stage. That’s what improv is. And that has carried over to the courtroom. I find myself better able to respond to unanticipated questions from the judge or arguments from my opposing counsel that I was not prepared for. I am able to think quicker on my feet and all of this has made me a much better litigator.

 

With improv, you will learn that if you plan, premeditate and have too much of an agenda, your scene will not go over well. How do you learn not to anticipate? You have to be present, young grasshopper.  Learning to be in the moment has helped me respond thoroughly, genuinely and organically in the courtroom- often resulting in a thoughtful response that people find persuasive.

 

It will Make you a Better Listener.

One of the skills that you learn in improv is to listen to your scene partners. If you listen well, you will be able to respond with an observation that heightens the scene and can lead to hilarity. The better you listen, the better you will improvise.

Lawyers love to hear themselves speak. It’s irritating. I have heard lawyers yell over each other in the courtroom and are constantly focusing on what they want to say.  But by learning how to listen better, I hear the arguments my opponent is spouting as opposed to just thinking about my response. Ironically,  by listening better, I am able to poke holes in their argument or come up with a compromise that works in all parties favor.

 

It will Make you a Better Networker

Whether you are interviewing for a new job, or have to wine and dine business executives on a regular basis- Improv can help. First, as above, improv can make you a better listener which makes you likeable. It also can make you funnier, witty  and more entertaining. All things that make you likeable. And Let’s be honest since most lawyer jokes end up with the lawyer being dead- we could use all the help we can get in the likeability department. Now, don’t get me wrong, people still don’t like me, but I’d like to think improv has made me a little more tolerable to others.

 

It also gives you something to talk about other than law. People hate “talking shop”- even at professional events.  Lawyers are notorious for not having balance. Pity the person that is at a job interview and can’t come up with an answer to “What are your hobbies?”  Unlike your children (people really don’t want to hear about your kids. No really. Just stop talking about them) or the weather,  it sparks an interesting,  honest conversation that isn’t mundane or ordinary. It’s the antithesis to small talk.  Most people don’t know what  improv comedy even is so they will ask follow up questions: “So you mean, you do stand up?” And then you have to explain (for the umpteenth time) that, no, improv is not the same thing as stand up..and voila! You are now great at engaging others in interesting conversation. Improv sets you apart  and makes you memorable because it is such a unique hobby.  I wouldn’t suggest going into improv just to become less dull- but it was one of the surprising consequences I  soon realized when I told people I perform improv in my spare time.

 

It’s truly a Team Sport

Lawyers aren’t exactly known for being laid back. We probably had messed up childhoods where we learned to equate love with achievement and thus, we are competitive. When you become a lawyer, you are constantly trying to “win” an argument, motion, or trial.  Improv gives you a break from all that competition in a way that sports and even theatre could never do for me.

With musical theatre, you have to audition with others, get rejected, and  Ms. Dune always gives the lead to Lauren Torres anyways so what’s the point of even auditioning? Oh, sorry….that was my highschool experience.  But with improv- there is none of that competitive stuff. To become good at improv, you actually have to play as a team. In fact, those that constantly try to “have their  moment” often don’t do well at improv. As I have honed my improv skills, I have learned to play and work  better  with others-  both on and off the stage!

You never know what your role is going to be until you are in a scene and you all work together. There are no solos. No stars. And No leads. Sometimes, you have to support others taking center stage and other times, you have to take the reigns and drive the scene. It changes by the moment and I think that’s what I love about it.

 

 

It Will Help You Take Risks and Fail

You essentially fail almost every time you do an improv scene in one way or another. You can’t think of what to say, you don’t listen to your partner, or you make a joke that lands flat.

But the more you fail in improv, the better you get. And when you catch your fails on stage while performing and call it out,  it turns into a joke. Everyone laughs. You feel great. And you are  ready to fail again! I failed so much that I can honestly say I am not afraid to fail in other areas of my life.

By learning how to take risks and fail with improv, I started taking more risks with my career. And yes, sometimes I failed. Fail. Try again. Fail. Fail. Succeed. Try something else. Fail. Fail. Succeed. That’s my trajectory these days. Recently,  the willingness to fail has actually led me to have the courage to leave a very secure job and start my own firm because I saw the potential.  I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?  My colleagues and associates will laugh at me!” …um, I pretended to be a broom with a hangover at improv class, last week. I can handle people laughing. Well, turns out that scary risk ended up being the best decision I have made in my life. In part, I think years of improv beforehand made me more comfortable with failing and trying something new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Ways Improv Can Unlock Your Inner Child by Nelli Veletyan

Growing up, I’d play pretend constantly. Whether I was hosting a royal ball in my bedroom or singing to a crowd of thousands from our apartment balcony (deepest apologies to our neighbors), playing pretend helped me explore, imagine, and get creative––while also providing an escape.

I know I’m not alone in this. Playing pretend as a child isn’t groundbreaking. In fact, I’d bet most everyone did it. The real question is: with all the benefits it has to offer, why do we ever stop?

Something happens when we get older that makes us believe playing pretend just isn’t a ‘grown up’ thing to do. Societal pressure? Lack of time? Fear of being judged? Well I’m here to say: f*ck all that. Playing pretend is for everybody––ånd it’s really freakin’ good for you.

So, how do you jump back into the land of make-believe as an adult? The answer is simple: improv.

 

Unleash your imagination.

When we play pretend as kids, we get to be anyone, anywhere, doing anything we want––the options are only limited by the boundaries of our imagination. A jellyfish at a job interview? You got it. A princess lost in an underground jungle? Yes please. A superhero that can shoot fruit roll-ups out of their eyeballs? Sure, why the heck not?

But unfortunately as we get older, our wild imagination often gets stashed away, replaced instead by predictability and routine. Days start to look the same and blend together. Coffee, work, dinner, repeat. Boriiiiing. Meanwhile, our imagination is buried under a zillion errand and bill-related cobwebs begging to be rescued, dusted off, and put to good use.

Improv provides an outlet for tapping into your imagination on the regular. Every scene is a new opportunity to build entire worlds, try on different characters, and spin up unlikely circumstances alongside other improvisers.

Plus, there’s no room for routine in improv––it’s all made up on the spot so you have no idea what’ll happen next. This way, you’re pulled right out of the dull and predictable and thrown into practicing a flexible mindset that’ll prep you for just about anything that might come up in your everyday life (cough, cough… pandemic, anyone?).

 

Get silly.

Think back to your childhood self. Did you dance around without reason? Try out a funny voice to make people laugh? Pull goofy pranks on unassuming siblings? I know I did. Now, take a moment to reflect––when was the last time you took part in an act of complete and absolute silliness?

Been a while? That’s okay, the good news is improv is all about making big, bold, and silly choices. Maybe you’re in a scene as a talking alarm clock who’s tired of ringing. Or perhaps you’re an alien that only speaks in three-word phrases. Or an archaeologist that’s just discovered a rare species of heart-shaped dinosaurs. No matter the choices you make––you’ll be pushed to think outside the box and get comfortable laughing at yourself. What’s more, you’ll have scene partners supporting you with their own silly choices the whole way through. In fact, don’t be surprised if the talking alarm clock and alien somehow end up in the very same scene. (Yes, really)

 

Silence your self-doubt.

If you’ve spent any time around kids, you know that they hardly ever think twice before whatever they have to say has made it out of their mouth. For better or worse, kids don’t filter themselves. If they have something to say, they say it, committed and proud. But somewhere along the way, we start to second guess everything that runs through our minds. Will people think it’s funny? Will I sound smart? Will anyone even care?

Luckily, in improv, there’s technically no such thing as a wrong choice. If what comes out of your mouth makes no sense whatsoever, it’s still the right thing to say as long as you do so with confidence. It’s a test in believing in yourself and your scene partners and knowing that whatever comes next will be great as long as you don’t hesitate to commit to the information you’ve shared.

 

Tune in to the moment.

Kids live in the here and now. They don’t spend a ton of time thinking about how a play date went last week or planning where they’ll go for next year’s summer break. They’re in tune with the present and excited about what’s happening exactly where they are in that moment.

As an improviser, no matter how much you tend to live in the past or future in your day-to-day (sound familiar?)––you’re challenged to let that line of thinking go when you’re on stage. Why? Because a core tenet of improv is active listening. To successfully ‘Yes, and’ a scene partner’s choices, you have to listen, make eye contact, and stay fully present. If your mind starts to wander, you might miss critical information you need to keep the scene moving. That means your brain isn’t stuck ruminating or thinking ahead, it’s actively engaged in the present moment.

 

Embrace your emotions.

When kids are feeling something, you can see it all over their face.  They cry when they’re sad. They cry when they’re hurt. They cry even when there’s really nothing to cry about.

And the thing is, adults do too. We just happen to be a bit quieter about it. Well, a lot quieter. We hold back our feelings to avoid being vulnerable. If we show that we’re sad, we fear looking weak. If we feel happy, we start to wonder how long it’ll last before something terrible comes along to balance things out.

Improv challenges you to get out of your emotional comfort zone. When you get up on stage, you’re taking a giant leap of vulnerability and putting trust in your scene partners to have your back as you try on disappointment, shock, joy, fear, excitement, and every emotion in between. And they’re trusting you to do the same.

And sometimes, what you might be feeling under the surface can help fuel some of your emotional choices on stage. Don’t worry, it’s a good thing––see it for what it is, an opportunity to channel your emotions into something fun and ridiculous to help work through them, rather than bottling them up.

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So, whether you’re 18 or 88, there’s a whole made-up world out there waiting for you. I encourage you to keep on playing, pretending, and embracing the silly, there’s more than enough of it to go around––and your inner child will most definitely thank you for it.

 

Want to give improv a try? Take a peek at our event schedule to sign up for our next free workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Became More than That…by Cael Schwartzman

I first signed up for a Held2gether improv class to do something terrifying. I wanted to find a sort of rush that both scares the sh** out of me and also keeps me coming back for more. After my very first Level 1 class with Instructor Kendra, I realized that I had found the rush, only it wasn’t one of fear, but of fun! The kind of fun you didn’t think you were allowed to have as an adult. Being as silly and weird and goofy as possible in front of others, instead of proper and professional and safe. It was exactly what I was looking for – a place to escape the monotony. 

Our one homework assignment for that first class was to go see a Held2gether show. The first show I saw was a Hot Java show that just so happened to be the 5-year anniversary show for the troupe. There was a huuuge audience. The troupe obviously put on an amazing and inspiring performance, but then the Hot Java owner, Ken, came out with a big ol’ cake. Speeches were given byKenand by Darren through happy tears of gratitude and love for the past 5 years of bringing all of these people together. I saw that this was more than just some fun class. It was a community.

Throughout the years to follow I took all the classes I could and then repeated them all again and again! I wasn’t about to let the fun end just because there’s no Level 4 or 5 class! Through this process I was able to meet just about every single member of this community. And let me tell you… that is one amazing and diverse group of absolute weirdos! Then, one of those random Friday or Saturday evenings, I was walking along that Bixby Knolls sidewalk. I headed through those automatic sliding doors and through that looong Expo room that’s so big and dark and empty that you’re constantly second guessing yourself –  “wait, the show is tonight, right?” I slipped through those unassuming double doors in the back, into a room absolutely packed full of familiar faces eager to give everyone who walks through the biggest hug they’ve ever given, I realized that the word “community” no longer fit. This was a family. A home away from home. 

And then COVID-19 hit. We were all stuck inside hiding from each other and the world, except for the quick run to a grocery store with a mask on our face and a glimmer of hope in our eye – hope that just this once, there might still be a pack of toilet paper waiting for us on the shelf. The lockdown affected everyone differently, but not that differently. Anxiety, depression, anger… it felt like we were going through those fabled 5 stages of grief at the loss of our old lives; the loss of the world we knew just yesterday; the loss of the world with all of our old hopes and dreams and goals. Everyone had to find a way to reset. 

And reset we did! Held2gether quickly and seamlessly pivoted to the online sketch series – HeldApart. Suddenly I had new things going on every day. I had to quickly learn lighting, camera angles, “acting”, writing, editing, and directing for isolatedly filmed sketches. My mind was focused on creating for the next episode rather than the isolation and impending doom of the pandemic. Being in the YouTube chat room while watching each episode feels just like walking into that room in the back of the expo. The whole family is there! Giving each other the biggest virtual hug we can. Held2gether truly is improv for life, and in the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Life, uh… finds a way…” 

RAMBLINGS OF A HUMBLE NERD by Neil Matsuzaki

As a human being of the nerd persuasion, I sometimes don’t know what is and isn’t a reference I can throw into an improv scene.  Thanks to superhero movies, the widespread acceptance of video games, and TV shows like “Game of Thrones”, nerdy knowledge is more accepted than ever and it might seem like I should be fine being Spock and saying “Live long and prosper,” in a scene.  And while this is true to a certain extent, I still sometimes grapple with the line between the colloquially accepted Batman reference and the super obscure Moon Knight one.  

And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I can be caught clueless when it comes to most contemporary pop culture.  More than once in a scene, I’ve been staring down the barrel of having to be a musician or movie star that I only have the most fleeting of ideas at who they might be.  

So why are you bringing all this up you may ask? Well, you probably didn’t ask that, you’re probably just reading this like a normal person.  I’m sorry for being presumptive.  But I bring this up because it has come to my attention that I’m not alone in this.  Maybe not specifically the nerd culture stuff, but that we’re all individuals and have our own separate interests that may or may not overlap.  And that’s okay.  

No one can know everything…or at least, I’m pretty sure that no one knows everything.  But we do the next best thing.  We cobble together what we can out of context clues and vague memories and run with it.  By “Yes and-ing” each other and staying in the scene, we can continue, no matter what curveballs are thrown our way.  And for audience members who do know, they’re just happy the reference is there.  Are we gonna mangle it?  Probably.  But is it gonna be entertaining?  Well that’s a solid maybe!!  

And if you’ve ever been to an improv show where I was in the audience, you’ve heard me in the audience yell out “Mad Max Thunderdome” or “Jedi and apprentice” because I want to mix it up.  How many times have we heard “siblings” for a relationship?  Or a “kitchen” for a location?  If we shout out the crazy things we would normally keep to ourselves because they’re too “weird” we could explore a whole new side to our improv.  

I guess what I’m saying is, go for it.  And I need to internalize this more myself, to be honest.  Depending on the suggestion (especially with time periods when I think about it) I sometimes use my ignorance as an excuse and become afraid to add information.  But when I shout out “Klingon Blood Brothers” as a relationship at a show, I don’t need the players to know about bat’leths and birds-of-prey.  In fact it’s probably more entertaining if they have no idea about Klingon culture and focus on what is going on with these Blood Brothers as opposed to if I got the suggestion and exposited about the Sword of Kahless and its significance in DS9.

Now that I think about it, how often have I been given a time period, and the first thing I did was try to make as many timely references as I could rather than establishing the things that matter to the scene.  Maybe I need to stop worrying about what I don’t know, and live in the scene that’s in front of me.

Well dear reader, thank you for listening to the ramblings of this humble nerd.  Just by being there as a sounding board, I’ve gained some insights on myself, and for that, I thank you.

Are We There Yet? by Ann Mantel

Are we there yet?  Imagine your 6 year old self in the back seat of the car.  Now whine it to your parents.  “Are we there yet?”  Admit it, as grown adults we seem to be whining those words, if not out loud, at least in our heads, as we cope with our pandemic lives.  

The toll COVID19 has taken can’t be understated.  People of all ages, working and interacting face to face, shoulder to shoulder with others in the community- From teachers to waiters- Sales people and salon workers-  Shaking hands, getting and giving high fives and hugs- Sitting close at the table with family and friends.  We really did all that.  Now we don’t.  Now life events from Weddings to Funerals take place on Zoom.  It’s surreal on a good day and unbearable at its worst.  

Those of us who participate in live performance have had to pivot. There was no other option.  For theatre artists, musicians, stand-ups, club owners, profit and non-profit theatres –and anyone who makes their living in the world of performing arts- well, it continues to devastate.

We at Held2Gether are managing to hold together.  With the leadership of Darren Held and Richard Martinez we did even more.  We pivoted and got back to work.  We became “Held Apart”, producing digital content and streaming for the community with a variety of shows.  Classes came back.  Zoom of course.  But we plugged in and kept moving.  The irony is now that we are Held-Apart, we couldn’t be held more together.  Working this way is not what we signed up for, but honestly, it’s been wonderfully gratifying.  Making the effort to connect with each other, troupe members and extended community, has been a ball.  Creating our online content- improvising, sketch-writing, jamming, meeting to play games, to share strength, to be vulnerable- it’s been a comfort and a joy.  

Someday, whenever that is, we’ll be back in that dusty little theatre with the broken chairs and the sub-standard air conditioning.   We’ll schlep the cans of soda, the beer and wine.  We’ll set up the bar and put out the tip jar.  The audience will schmooze while the troupe pretends to warm up backstage.  Darren will welcome everyone.  The lights will go down and then come back up to reveal a group of people doing what they do best-  breathing on and listening to each other.  And it will be grand.

No, kids in the backseat.  We’re not there yet.  But we will be.  Until then, keep creating anyway you know how.