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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Life in Free Agency

Recently, I left a group that I had been a part of for about four years. Before leaving and even for a short time afterwards, I thought that I was back at square one. I worried that I wouldn't be allowed to make art on-stage with anyone for months, maybe even years. Fortunately, that fear was misplaced and I'm already doing shows that I find really hilarious and rewarding.

FACT: I've never once promised not to shill my own shows.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

iO Summer Intensive - Time to Think

Week 2 of the Summer Intensive is dead and gone and I'm set to languish in this 3 day weekend we're cursed with for five straight weeks. It seems dumb to complain about time off but I've been doing 40 hour weeks since I was 17 and 60+ hour weeks since 19, so time off is a hard concept for me to wrap my head around. I spend weekends pacing around like a caged animal, unsure what to do with my hands or all of the thoughts I've got kicking around in my brain. I try to catch up on TV or read or do anything normal humans do, but I lose interest after an hour and my restlessness gets the best of me.

The effects of that restlessness are amplified by the giant pause button for my life that these five weeks at iO represent. I get to step back and take a breath from all of my relationships back home, all of my work, all of my ambitions. There's nothing I can really do about those from up here except pop in occasionally to remind some of those folks that I still exist and I still care about them. Nashville Improv is doing their first full month of shows without me in over 3 years. Third Coast will debut their main stage cast without me there. My godson will probably be on an Olympic Track and Field team before I get back. I guess it's just time for me to contemplate my next move.

Captured this image shortly before I captured a Dragonair on the bridge near iO Chicago

When I get back I want to do more shows with the people I work with best. I want to go to festivals and show off the kind of work I do. By November or December I want to start phasing out my day jobs and make the switch into supporting myself through teaching and performing. I want to be an active pillar of the comedy community and maybe even step back into theatre again. It's time for me to hunker down in Nashville and help push our scene screaming into the sunlight.

Two weeks in and I've learned so very much, but the most important lesson has been about who I was already. I am as good as people have told me. My ability isn't some illusion cast on me by the protection of my very talented and kind teammates, it's something I've actually cultivated through years of intense work. I met Susan Messing the other day and she said that by the end of the intensive I would be exhausted, but I think that comes from the assumption that I don't live and breathe this work. This week will be the real test of my mettle and I'm champing at the bit. I promised I'd come up here and give'em hell and I aim to deliver.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hard Lessons and Pleasant Surprises - iO Intensive Week 2 Day 2

Today was wayyyyy more enjoyable than yesterday was for me. I came in on time and rested and I was ready to dive into the work immediately. I think the reason it worked better for me is that we did less all play work and actually got to see specific examples of things we were working on. I worried that I might've been tuning out yesterday because I didn't get any me me me time, but I feel happy about the lessons taught and learned today even though I was sitting an inactive for a lot of it. I also briefly wondered if my frustration stemmed from the fact that I've learned and taught every technique that we've used so far this week, but again, I wasn't bothered by that today. It helps that we were using every game differently and far more patiently than we would in Nashville,  so the development of the essential skills they employ is multiplied a ton.

One of many great quotes today: "Please don't abandon your shit." How funny that I'd talk about Adal's lesson of patience and working with what's in front of us just ahead of a week that's focused on those two things. I'm getting positive notes from Eleanor (we all are) but I am catching myself not contributing enough and going a little too fast, so I'm just starving for more reps over here. It just dawned on me how doing five weeks of improv class means going at least five weeks between actually performing in front of an audience. I'm fuckin hungry for the applause and laughs and just being able to get up and fully be myself for 90 brief minutes. I feel caged up by the class structure and it takes a lot of effort to not monopolize speaking and performing time for the rest of my classmates.

This year in improv has been kind of painful for me in one very specific way: realizing and accepting that I won't get along with all improvisers. That, in fact, some of them might really hate me. Nashville Improv Company has a ton of people who I've connected so thoroughly with that I naively believed it would be like that with everybody who makes this weird, dumb art if I put enough effort into it. Expanding the circle of people who I'm working with has just let me see that I'm not everyone's cup of tea and that's going to have to be okay. I'm getting better at recognizing when it's time for me to shrug my shoulders and stop trying to make a good impression. If they can come around on me, they will get there eventually. Plus, not meshing well with some people just makes the people I get along with that much more special to me.

One more thing that I've noticed: I don't feel nearly as lonely as I expected to. My darkest expectations had me coming up here and earning the ire of everyone in Chicago on day one and having to endure five weeks off feeling like and being treated like garbage. My friends and family expected me to come up here and have such a good time and make so many friends that I would decide not to come home. The reality is that I've made a few friends, met a lot of great people and have learned a lot, but I'm no more lonely than I'd have been at home. I spend time on my own pretty regularly and I am very grateful for it, but I have also been too busy to wallow or to even consider that I have something to be upset about or uncomfortable with. Honestly, this feels normal. Living in Chicago is the same as living anywhere else, there's just a lot of stuff to do here.

It feels like I'm trying to run while I'm being taught how to crawl, and I wonder if I want to run because that's all I know how to do. I probably know how to crawl, I've just been exclusively running for far too long. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Intensive Week 2: RIP 2 Scene Work

We were told that week two of the intensive was going to be about physicality, but that's not all it's about! It's about environment, character-work, and group-work. Physicality and patience are the bridges we're going to have to cross if we want to make it to those goals. Hilariously, our instructor Eleanor Hollingsworth is about as different from our week one instructor as can possibly be. She asked us if we had any questions at 11;10 in the morning and when she was met with silence she said, "Really?! Really?!" and then dropped into the James Brown splits and yelled more. The words "dope" "meatsack" and "poophole" are scattered throughout any instructions that we're given. It's almost a shock to the system after last week's very thinky lessons, but it's a welcome change of pace.

Physical stuff is the kind of stuff I spend a lot of time on, so the wheels are still turning for me on how I feel about things. We did a lot of full group exercises and everything we tried today was something that I'd done many many times before. I feel... unfulfilled(?) by the things we did today. The promise at the start of class was that we'd spend way more time on things than would be comfortable, and after managing six exercises (including the warm-up) over the course of five hours, that has to be true. Less stuff that blew my mind today, but maybe tomorrow will be different.

Here are some quotes:

"Flawless is not the point."
"There is no next better, there is only what you're doing."
"Follow your body, not your mind."
"Panic creates speed. You want to create a new thing but newer won't be easier because you'll be starting from scratch. Sit in what you're doing and dig into it."
"I'm not trying to make you feel self-conscious, but I'm trying to make you feel conscious of self."

Those are wayyyyy more hippy-dippy than I remembered them sounding in the moment, probably cause I edited the curses out of them. Eleanor is fantastic and hopefully the speed with which we're moving through the material means we'll get to do more tomorrow.

iO Summer Intensive: Week One in Review

Hoooo boy what a busy 7 days I've had this past week. I'll give a broad overview here and as I iron out time to write in my very full schedule I may manage to come back to specific things. I took a lot of notes!


The first day really had its tone set by the welcome we were given to the ceremony. All 143 intensive students were gathered in the Del Close Theatre and Charna (the owner and co-founder of iO) gets ready to enter. We can tell that she's coming because she's preceded, no, heralded by her dog Stella. She then spends a few moments on stage debating across the room with instructors whether or not we should get started. I say debating, but what I mean is Charna wanted to start, they suggested we could stand to wait a little longer, Charna started anyway. It was pretty funny.

I am really glad to be a member of the section I'm in which is filled out with some very talented people from around the world. Our class has people from California to New York to Australia to Sweden (and a couple states/countries in-between) and there's a pretty wide set of performance experience among us. Our week one instructor was Bill Arnett and he essentially guided us into scenework and essentially playing ourselves. From the way he taught, I get the feeling that he was teaching us a lot of dangerous secret techniques that are banned at this dojo. He also kept saying, "believe it or not, sometimes people struggle with this" after we'd do surprisingly well our first run through exercises. We learned a bit about openings here, a bit about scenework there, a little of how to gather inspiration, and a little more about varitions on edits. Then on Thursday (the final day in our week) he drew out a diagram of what the classic harold looks like and then insisted it didn't really need to be that way. We did three harolds which had bright spots and weak parts, but were shining examples of the work we'd done and the amount we'd grown as a class. With week 2 starting tomorrow morning, I'd say that we've only just started to get very comfortable with each other.

It was Wednesday before I decided I was ready to play without reservation and accordingly it was Wednesday before I felt like I did anything really fun in class. Nobody else has mentioned feeling antsy about performing with new people, but I doubt I'm the only one who feels trepidation about it. At any rate, I'm doing my best to get to know the people I'm with better while also stealing all of their good and fun habits while they're on stage.

There's a lot of things I like about the program so far, but my favorite has to be that I've met so many people who I would have probably never met if the intensive didn't exist. I've spoken to a fellow student from Pakistan whose love of this artform is downright inspirational and who reaffirms my idea that improvisation is a life-changing thing. I've done an incredibly silly but very well rounded scene with a classmate from Sweden that felt better than some scenes I've done with people I've worked with for years. I even learned what Lance Storm's wrestling school was like from a Canadian classmate who studied there for a little while! This improv thing isn't nothin', y'all. To bring together this many talented, kind, smart, and wonderful people, it's gotta be a pretty big deal.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Have Fun and Indulge A Little!

I had a workshop with the very talented and insightful Adal Rifai of iO Chicago and he gave me something very interesting to consider. The key to entertaining improv, in my opinion, is fun. If the performers enjoy themselves, the audience will enjoy themselves. However, I've been routinely stopping myself from having the all of the fun available to me in scenes without noticing it. Part of me thinks that I was playing scenes with a fear that fun is a limited resource and if I took all the opportunities that presented themselves to me I'd eventually run out of them. The other part comes from this weird "take your medicine" thought process that I've found planted deep in my brain. It took someone calling it out for me to actually notice how much those thought processes can limit my work.

I'd start by collecting the ingredients for the scene. Defining the location, naming the characters, labeling the relationship, all of that good stuff. Then I'd combine them and work with them but never take the time to really explore or justify them. It was always a mentality of "that's good, but what's next?" instead of just accepting that what's next comes from what came before. My scene partners and I would spend the whole scene generating awesome, silly ideas and would never get the chance to give them the attention they deserved. We go in and bake 40 cakes but get to eat exactly none of them because as soon as they came out of the oven we were onto the next thing.

It's like Lex didn't even take the time to realize I meant metaphorical cake.

That workshop got me to slow down and do the thing that I always wanted to do in scenes but I avoided because I thought it'd come off as too indulgent. But indulgence is the whole thing! Why run from it? Because I might have a good time? Because I might not get to rattle off my 20 other ideas that I also won't have time to explore? It's such a strange, needlessly difficult tactic. Plowing blindly ahead almost assures that I'll never find the joy in what I'm doing, which is a real shame. I'm going to be sure to stop and smell the pantomime roses and eat every single improv-cake that I find myself baking.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Journey Begins

I woke up at 5:45 yesterday morning and with a focus unsuited to the early hour I packed and tidied my house and stepped outside to be ferried off to my destination. Honestly, the day was a million times better than I expected it to be considering all of the anxiety I'd had leading up to it. Who would've thought that spending an entire day cooped up with 10 very funny people would be a really good time?

I felt a couple of things that I think are important to highlight. The first of them being the first time I've ever honestly thought "I can do this. I can handle this, no problem," with regard to iO Intensive. I've puffed up my chest a lot and shouted a bunch of bluster into the wind, but this is an example of "fake it til you make it." At long last, I experienced a few flashes of genuine confidence that have been sorely missing in the lead-up to my trip to the improv monastery. Baby steps.

I also noticed a feeling that was a little gross and that I need to be pretty aware of and steer myself away from. I had a moment when I compared myself to the performers in the shows we saw and I thought, "They're not better than me cause they're in Chicago. We're probably in similar places as performers," which is a kind of shitty but not necessarily inaccurate thought. However, it led to a panic that people will assume I know nothing because I'm going to be a student. A fear that all the work I've put in over the years is going to be discounted and I'll be looked at like I'm less than the things I've aspired to be, and it made me angry.

That line of thinking is super dumb and I know it. There is no point to comparing myself to some strangers and bristling at the idea that they might somehow be thought of as "better" than me. Improv and Theatre are art and the qualities of what makes a performer "better" are incredibly subjective. Also, who cares if someone is legitimately better than me? I'm here to learn and improve, not demonstrate that I'm already a perfect and unstoppable force. If someone does things that I like, I will learn from them (read as: steal all their awesome qualities) and I'll be better for it. If someone assumes that I don't know anything and continues to believe that after seeing me work, maybe I should consider the idea that I don't know anything. 

Be kind, be thoughtful, and be humble. Those are the directives beneath everything I'm going to do here, I just have to continue repeating them.

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