Crossroads, or why I haven’t had anything to say in a while

A couple months ago I started playing poker tournaments again (a cash game here or there, but mostly tournaments), not on the regular but once every few weeks or so. I even took a few road trips in part to play poker in different Midwestern locales. I’m still a pretty good tournament poker player, and on the whole (I track my wins and losses) I’m in the black by a couple hundred dollars.

Obviously, walking away after winning feels good and walking away after busting doesn’t feel good. But much like what happened the last couple times I gave up poker… I walked away from the last two or three poker tournaments I played feeling dirty, like I hated some part of myself after doing it.

I don’t have any moral opposition to playing poker, obviously. I don’t feel I’m committing any mortal sin in playing poker. The issue goes back to a point I made in Drawn Dead: It’s a game played mostly by shitty people or at least by people who behave badly when around poker tables. And it’s not just the nature of the game requiring you be cold and calculating. The people in general are people you would not want to be around in general. People get surly and even occasionally fight. Other than playing the game and sometimes making money, poker is not a particularly enjoyable life experience. In getting back into poker I’ve learned that I’m good enough to make money, and that I’d usually rather spend my time doing something else around other (more friendly and trustworthy) people.

After entertaining the possibility of playing regularly again, I decided that poker’s best left as something I do now and then, whenever I’m in the mood for it. It’s an expensive hobby, even if you’re good enough at it to consistently make money (since you need a bankroll for it), and it takes hours away from your day every time you play. If I don’t enjoy it, why do it?

——

Right now overall in my life I’m at another crossroads. I basically took a break from performing after finishing my training at iO Chicago and Annoyance. I do still play and practice weekly with Sosa Mimosa, but otherwise don’t work on anything else. Many of my colleagues have moved on and work on other things.

I’m not being pulled in any particular direction, especially given all the possibilities require a substantial personal investment of time, money and effort. Shows require an audience that isn’t necessarily there. Projects require willing participants who aren’t necessarily interested in what I want to do. If your successes are met with the same silences as your failures, then what aside from personal satisfaction was the point? I can get mere personal satisfaction from a myriad of other activities that don’t require nearly as much investment.

I long since reached a point in my life where any effort I put towards theatrical practice needs to lead to meaningful results. Morally, financially and otherwise personally, I can’t pump money into classes and attending or producing shows that aren’t going to allow me to do anything substantial. My plan all along from the moment I arrived in Chicago was to train for a year and then work on my own to develop further. I’ve long since passed the peak of the bell curve on the useful volume of training. The only way I can effectively develop now is active and productive practice. I have more than enough information on what I do well and what I need to work on.

What I lack right now is a drive towards something that 1) I want and 2) that I have the ability and opportunity to do. I have vague interests in multiple possibilities that would require substantial effort and practice, but right now I don’t have the ambition to pursue them. There’s little to no foreseen reward on top of doing them for their own sake, and at this stage of my life doing it for its own sake is nowhere near enough reward for me.

I don’t need personal reward from a creative project or performing so much as I need to know my input and work is rewarding and fruitful for others beyond its own sake. And I don’t think any of my peers are in a place where the work I’d want to do is aligned with or rewarding for them… never minding their own current schedules and needs. I’ve worked too much on furthering other people’s ambitions, projects and messages to keep doing that at my own expense. I feel like there’s no give and take, that to keep going was to keep giving and for everyone to keep taking without anything in return.

I admittedly don’t want to continue performing unless I can do the stuff I want to do. I’d rather do nothing than expend time, money and effort on someone else’s ambitions with no personal return.

——

This is not to say I’ve done nothing with my life. I started running on a not-quite-weekly basis and can consistently run 3.5 miles… not bad for someone who couldn’t fathom running a 5K three years ago.

I did put aside my intermittent fasting (though I still have 16 hour fasts a couple times a week) to implement two new dietary concepts: Bulletproof eating and a ketogenic diet. A bulletproof diet is a strictly clean diet focused around organic meat and vegetables as well as eschewing carbs for healthy organic fats. It is what inspired Bulletproof Coffee, coffee combined with clean butters and fats (I drink coffee and tea with coconut oil). Ketogenic dieting of course is cutting virtually all carbs from your diet and setting a max on protein intake, filling the rest of your diet with healthy fats. This induces ketosis, where your body’s digestion and energy use switches from carbs to burning fats, as well as eliminating body-bloating inflammation that results from consuming carbs and other processed garbage.

When I started 2016 at 185 lb, I set a goal to drop to 160 lb by year’s end. I had done well with intermittent fasting, quickly dropping to 170-175 lb, but I stalled at around 171-174 lbs and couldn’t get below 170 for more than a day. But, after a week of keto, I quickly dropped to 166 lb and even after reintroducing carbs and other occasional garbage, I managed a cruising weight of 167-168. I also find myself sleeping better… not even more hours sleep, but the sleep is deeper and more restful. I also feel less on edge in day to day working life.

Because of cravings and available foods, it’s pretty hard to stick to straight keto for extended periods. With a ‘ride the wave’ approach I’m hoping to extend the periods where I can suitably manage it. I now think I can hit 160 lb easily before the fall.

I am also moving to a new studio apartment near my current Wrigleyville place, which will not only be a life upgrade, but puts me closer to the lake shore, which will better allow me to go for runs and perhaps practice some sports, the latter which I haven’t had the chance to do much of since moving here.

If I’m not going to produce any artistic results, I might as well produce some personal results from improving myself.

——

I’ve been asked time and again if I have any projects on the horizon and for the last few months I’ve told people a highly condensed version of what you read above, that I’m taking time off for now and at a crossroads as to what I want to do next. I have alluded to resuming active work in the fall, and that is my intention, though I don’t know exactly what will come next. I am glad I’m no longer training and can make time for whatever will come next.

I have some vague artistic ideas, with things I’ve worked on as well as new ideas, but am not interested in sharing them unless I’ve actively decided to work on them and have something to share with people.

Taking it easy

After quitting training programs in March, I decided to scale back my improv commitments and focus on one improv commitment (Sosa Mimosa, which meets or performs once a week), allowing time for the rest of my life. While that amount of commitment will change at some unforeseen point down the road, I feel very good about that decision.

It’s the first time I haven’t been regularly investing money in improv training, and I see it in my bottom line. I went from struggling and treading water to having disposable income. Of course, I’ve also tightened up my spending and diet and that has helped (another benefit of paring back my schedule is it makes following a meal plan easier). But not throwing $200+ a month down the hatch to take classes makes a big difference.

It’s the first time since shortly after I moved here that I have free time to do other stuff. Not too long after Drawn Dead’s Crowd run, I felt like getting back into poker again and have since spent most of that time studying and practicing for non/micro-stakes online. Quickly I saw an improvement in my cash game play, and during a recent vacation I played two poker tournaments and did very well in both, plus did fairly well in cash play. Yes, there was some good luck involved, but I saw definite improvement in my strategy and confidence. Poker is not something I want to do all the time or invest a lot of money in right now, but I have fun doing it and will seek opportunities to do it as long as I enjoy it.

I also started running again. I stopped during a busy period last year, and of course winter conditions made it difficult to start again until recently. My employer held a 5K as part of an event and on a whim I signed up to do it. During my previous running I never quite maxed out at 5K distance, but managed to quickly work up to 3.5 miles before the event and, while doing so slowly, managed to run the 5K without problems.

Now, I have a regular routine where after Sosa rehearsal I run from the Clubhouse to my home, a distance of about 3.4 miles. The run is arduous after a lengthy day but great exercise and I’ve been able to finish it each time without problems. Also, when I have weekend commitments in Wicker Park, I walk the 3.4 or so miles there, sometimes back. After gaining some weight during my vacation, the substantial exercise along with redoubled diet has helped me lose the weight back. By only doing it on excursion weekends and every other Thursday, I also allow my body ample time to rest and recover between sessions.

I still like improv and still intend to coach at some point. The last 1.5 years offered great perspective on the realistic prospects of putting work into improv, and the bell curve of effort vs reward. I now have found a good level of immersion in improv, that allows me to explore the other things in my life important to me.

Poker Dealers and the value of observation

If a regularly employed poker dealer works at his/her job for long enough, they see thousands upon thousands of Texas Hold’Em hands, and from their observation many can’t help but become better at reading everyone at the table… even if they can’t see the players’ cards unless the hands are shown down after the river. A lot of these dealers, after a while, can tell you who has what hand by the river of most pots, despite not seeing anyone’s cards, just based on how they played the hand… similar to how legendary poker star Daniel Negreanu can tell opponents what cards they have despite not seeing them.

Those dealers watch the same betting and playing patterns play out so many times that it’s akin to Mick Napier watching improv students or auditionees get a suggestion, and knowing exactly what they’re going to say or do to open a scene.

This isn’t some psychic or mentalist skill, so much as it’s the development of understanding the one thing common to all humanity: Behavior patterns. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we tend to follow similar behavior patterns in similar situations. Even when we deviate from the norm, we still fall into some sets of behavior patterns. And from learning those patterns, we also recognize deviations from those patterns, and can clue in to what they indicate.

What does this have to do with improv? Obviously, with poker, a deviation from a player’s normal pattern of betting, checking or folding can indicate a difference in the strength of one’s hand. It can indicate a bluff, or a monster hand, and an astute player can read into this observation and either call down a bluff or weak hand… or fold and avoid losing money to a stronger hand.

In improv, the benefit of watching a high volume of shows is that you recognize the patterns players fall into, what happens to the show when those patterns are followed, and can read into whether deviating from those patterns can benefit or harm the show. I’ve practiced a lot of improv, but I’ve also watched a lot of improv. I’ve heard of students who took time off and just watched shows without any expectation of participating… then came back to improv much better performers. Having seen time and again what works and what doesn’t, the player (even if rusty) has a better sense of what drives a fun and entertaining scene.

I’m not about to say that an experienced poker dealer can walk into the World Series of Poker and crush it, any more than a long time compulsive improv viewer can walk into Second City and kill it on the Mainstage. You still must practice and gain practical experience and ability, then work on demonstrating improvement.

But the road to get better becomes easier to follow when you spend extended time watching how others get there.

Revisiting ruts (and how to get out of them)

I had a friend mention being in a rut. I wrote about this almost a year ago, and a lot of that stuff is true. But since then I’ve found that a lot of the following activities I’ve learned are also helpful:

– Start the scene with a basic statement. Then respond to the scene partners’ next line by restating that statement in a different way. Notice how you restated the point, what words you used, how you said it, and follow whatever patterns emerge in how you subsequently respond to the scene. This is a Mick Napier exercise that often is quite fun.

– Be ridiculously specific. What will usually happen is that you will merely come across as specific to your audience. This is because we tend to be vague in our improv scenes. Forcing ourselves to go over the top with specificity makes our choices specific, and thus interesting.

– No one cares about the plot or narrative. Be okay with the scene being about nothing. Instead, find something (the other character, something in the room, a task) to focus on or filter the scene through, and do so to a ridiculous degree, much more so than is necessary.

– An old Kevin Mullaney exercise: Try to respond without any gaps in the dialogue. As soon as the other person finishes speaking, immediately respond off the top of your head. This is very Meisner Technique inspired, and it works. It gets you out of your head and present in the scene, because you don’t have much of a choice. And the dialogue flows the way a normal conversation would flow, which engages the audience.

– Decide immediately, the moment before you begin the scene, that you have a POV about your scene partner’s character. You love that person, you hate that person, you’re hiding something from that person’s view, you can’t get more than three steps away from that person, etc. Do the scene from that perspective and filter everything introduced through that. This is one example of what some improv schools call a “game”. You give yourself a game and then filter everything that happens through it.

– A Farrell Walsh exercise: Take a suggestion, or perhaps a word or phrase from the end of the previous scene. Quickly think of a personal memory that evokes some sort of emotional sense memory in you. Obviously don’t overthink it, since you have a split second to get in the scene, but find that emotional state and begin the next scene with that state of being. For example, I hear “greyhound” and quickly think of a horrid cross country bus ride I once took where the large dude next to me fell asleep on top of me. I remember how constricted and shitty that felt, and begin the next scene from that place.

– Declare a point of view that you believe to be true or an opinion on something you can talk about. “Nachos are always better at a Mexican restaurant” or “We should tax the rich 50% income tax with no deductions” or “The Mariners should probably play Dae Ho Lee more often.” Or take the opposite view of what you believe. Immediately make a statement about that and do the scene from that place. I sometimes start scenes by making some sort of statement I believe about some inane subject. Everything that comes after is filtered either through whatever I stated, or whatever character qualities I exuded when I started.

– Finally, and while I hope this goes without saying for many, it is crucial: Do not under any circumstances drop whatever the hell you came in with. Find a way to fit it into the scene, because that’s going to go way better than changing into whatever you think the scene is supposed to be about. If you come in thinking you’re a gruff cop, and the others in the scene establish you’re all kids on a playground, it’s way more fun for you to act like a kid who acts with the quality of a gruff cop, or maybe a cop who wants to be a kid again, or whatever. Commit hard to what you brought in while accepting whatever reality is created, and the resulting scene is probably going to be real funny.

———-

I think any or all of this can be quite helpful for working through and busting out of an improv rut.

Intermittent Darkness: Everyday internet blackouts

I’ve talked about my experience and success with intermittent fasting. The idea is a variation on the concept of timeboxing: Taking a task and giving yourself a defined period of time to work on it.

The common thread in a lot of my growth on all fronts is the focus on timeboxing my effort in those tasks, from simple tasks to diet all the way to my work on stage: For the 2-3 hours I’m in this room, I’m going to take the work seriously and treat it like it matters. Once I walk out, I can forget it and go about my business. During the times where I’m not as motivated to practice improv, this mindset and approach is terrific: I ask myself to give a good couple hours of focused practice to a rehearsal, practice, show, etc, and after that I’m free to go if I wish.

——–

We’re perpetually checking our phones, looking at our laptops, and otherwise constantly connected to the internet. Time and again people recommend we take time to disconnect, but habit makes it easier said than done. In fact, here I am right now typing on a PC with the intention of posting these words to the internet. I was looking at Facebook and Twitter before this and probably will do so after, as are the rest of you.

April Fool’s Day falls tomorrow, and the stupidity of the average prank post raises a doubly annoying harbinger… given the average “news” content posted on the internet either finds varying levels of absurdity or brings out various levels of absurdity in friends, family, colleagues and society at large.

Put the two together, and the prospect of looking at any internet feed on April Fool’s Friday seems so disgusting that once I considered an April Fool’s blackout day (no internet), I not only found exciting the idea of going dark… but I got another, more sustainably useful idea.

Considering my success with the habit of intermittent fasting, and also considering how many nights I turned in late from being on the PC… I think it would be a good idea to actively practice going dark every evening. Two hours before the time you generally turn in, just shut off your PC and phone.

For my general schedule, it’s best to go to bed around 11pm, so I would shut everything down at 9pm. I’d read books, practice calisthenics or poker or read books or go over my writing or whatever I feel like doing that doesn’t involve a computer, let alone the internet. If I’m doing an 8 or 10 pm show, then great. I go home afterward and go to bed, without checking anything.

Anyone who needs to reach me will know to do so before 9pm, or that I will not respond to them before tomorrow morning.

This is similar to how Ryan Holiday refers to his internet-free time on an airline flight as “enforced quiet time”. With no access to the constantly-updated internet, you revert to more holistic personal practices: Reading, writing, thinking, talking with people, studying, learning to do something new, meditating, exercise, etc etc etc.

But most of all, it’ll be easier to get to sleep without finishing the day with a light screen screwing with my circadian rhythms. By eliminating those stimuli, my body and mind can more quickly acclimate to sleep mode, and it’s much easier for me to turn in and get to sleep at 11pm (or midnight on those late-show nights).

So while I was compelled to do this out of a more isolated and annoying stimulus (April Fool’s Day), going dark at every day’s end is in large part an opportunity to extend the intermittent-habit practice to more of my everyday habits, and hopefully improve my life.

I had to leave the pH training program

I left the pH theater’s pHarm House program today, in the last week of level 1 out of 4. There was no crazy blowup or walkout. I just made the decision on my end and let them know today.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been quite busy, but things lately have felt different. I have other projects I want to work on and need to work on. The nights and days off I have been home, I’ve taken notice of how hungry I’ve been for that recovery time. I haven’t had the time to do the things I passionately want to do (e.g. notice how little I’ve been writing!).

I’ve taken stock of what I’m getting from each of my respective projects versus the time, money and effort I’m investing in those endeavors. Over the last month I have gotten much more savage and blunt in evaluating whether or not I really need to be doing something, how much of my time and effort it’s taking, and whether that time and effort could and should be used elsewhere.

While I liked the pHarm House classes and shows, it did take a chunk out of 1-2 of my nights a week, and of course the tuition is not free.

I am working more on the side to save money and repay debts. I also quickly realized I am already practicing quite a bit of improv, and getting a lot from that.

I already have a weekly commitment with a regular team, am training on the weekend with another program, and barnstorming occasionally with another indie team. On top of that, my iO 5B shows are in process through April, and of course I have a full time weekday job that requires an hour long commute each way.

My diet is much easier to maintain when I can be home and comfortably prepare meals. I get more rest when I have more flexible time. After a year of intense training, and with a current regular practice, there is no need to push myself further unless it’s seriously warranted.

And right now I am frankly worn out. I feel like I’m running from thing to thing to thing without really experiencing it, and that’s not good. That’s exactly the kind of lifestyle I dreaded adopting.

When I get a couple days off, I feel better, but my schedule’s not allowing that right now. If I left the program, that freedom would become more consistent.

I like the pH theater, and I liked my instructor and classmates. I did learn some unique things about character work and scene dynamics. The lessons were useful but I wasn’t hungry for the knowledge, and part of that was just everything else I need to work on and want to work on. I didn’t want to invest in something that I knew would only be a low to medium priority to me.

There was also the issue that I’m training with CIC, and that program’s Thursday grad shows (which I would get to do in the Fall) would have directly conflicted with pH’s weekly program shows. I would have had to burn someone anyway. I’m already missing half the pH shows due to my weekly team commitments. Because it’s a cumulative and singular program, I could not have taken two months off during the CIC grad shows.

I also didn’t totally mesh with the theater’s programming and culture. That’s not a huge factor, but it was a factor.

Given all that, the choice became sadly easy. I wish everyone I worked with there the best, but this was a much needed decision. It’s a sad relief, in a sense. It was definitely much more about me than it was about them. It’s actually a really good program and I encourage people wanting a year long performance commitment and the opportunity to get better at fast improv to give it a shot.

No more school night 10pm rental shows, effective immediately

Effective immediately, for various personal reasons, I will no longer participate in or produce any 10pm rental shows on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. This goes with my (unspoken, but now documented) moratorium on all midnight shows.

Obviously, Friday and Saturday 10pm shows are fine. Obviously, any show that ends by 10:30pm on any night is fine. This includes pretty much any 8pm or 8:30 show and even some 9pm shows.

If I were to end up on a Harold team or something similar, and I had to do a 10pm or 10:30pm school-night show for that, this would be okay.

While I won’t produce or participate in these shows, I’ll consider attending such shows on a case by case basis, though given the enactment of this rule you can probably figure out the odds that I’ll attend (odds that BTW go down the more I have to pay to attend said show).

Practice at the level you wish to perform

Basketball coaching guru Sidney Goldstein once astutely noted, “Players do in games exactly as they do in practice. Erratic or inconsistent play in games is 100% due to practice planning problems.”

Likewise, any sort of theatre, whether conventional stage plays, sketch comedy, improv, etc, is only as good as the work put into rehearsal and practice.

The irony of most improvisers treating rehearsal as rigmarole is that how they practice, the habits which they practice, is the most important factor in how well they will do during showtime.

In college, I reached a point where I stopped stressing about exams. I did my homework and reading religiously, before each class, and when you do this you can’t help but learn the material.

I found it sad and amusing to see classmates stress over cramming and studying before the exam, trying to do all the learning they were supposed to do (but didn’t) during the preceding 1-2 months. Meanwhile, I maybe gave the material for the exam a final look over shortly before the exam, but usually didn’t do any extra work beyond what was assigned. My attitude was: By exam week, I either know the material, or I don’t.

This work ethic helped me once I got into theatre. By practicing reciting lines from memory well before I needed to get off-book, I was usually ready to perform off-book early in the process. This in turn made working on the show easy, since I wasn’t multitasking the reading and remembering of lines with learning the blocking and making choices in the moment. I could focus more on how I performed with my scene partner in space.

Take it back to improv. A lot of students and experienced performers treat rehearsal as a task to be tolerated, rather than their chance to develop the level of performance they want to do in front of an audience. Then they wonder why they’re so easily taken out of their game, or why they struggle to do well during showtime.

I take my rehearsal process as seriously as I take the performance, because this is my opportunity to get used to playing at the level I want to play in the show. It’s similar to working out. You can’t bench 300 pounds until you practice benching 100 pounds, then 200 pounds, then 300 pounds. You can’t run a marathon until you practice running long distances over an extended period.

And you can’t expect to perform at a high level without going into rehearsal and, along with practicing the director’s planned exercises, practicing performing at that level in a rehearsal setting.

FYI regarding Second Fiddle

In case you were wondering, I had to cancel the Second Fiddle show due to various circumstances within and beyond my control. The Bughouse Theater was understanding of the situation, and we incurred no losses as a result.

My group No Pay Internship will keep our eyes peeled for future opportunities to produce a show, though obviously we’re not in a hurry to do so for now. We are opening for some shows during this month, so we’ll definitely stay busy.

Little things that tend to take the air out of improv scenes

I’ve taken a lot of notes in improv classes, shows and practices lately… not just on things I learn, but also observing and noting some moves that several current instructors have noted tend to let the air out of scenes.

– Talking about the past
– Talking about the future
– Entropy, aka silences caused by indecision and inaction
– Talking about people outside of the scene
– Meta commentary: Talking about objects in the space, about tasks that you’re doing, about yourself i.e. “I am the type of person that ______”.
– Something I like to call “Almanacing”: An uncharacteristically itemized discussion of details in a character’s history. Examples: “I graduated law school from Harvard” or “He left home two years ago and we’ve been living all alone since.”
– An unclear relationship between the characters… not so much establishing the base relationship like “mother-daughter” or “coworkers”, but establishing the contextual heat and weight of how the two characters get along, e.g. whether they like or hate each other, how one feels about or affects the other, how they commonly interact, etc.
– Debating “fake facts”: Two characters arguing who did what or what is or isn’t true, in lieu of moving the scene forward through exploring their relationship.
– Bailing on your character’s essential action. This is not necessarily conceding an in-scene conflict, which can be done while still maintaining a character’s essential action or point of view. A bail is usually out of character and clearly a choice of the performer rather than the character.
– Bargaining and transaction scenes.
– Two people who don’t know each other at all, instead of a scene with two people who do know each other well.
– Qualitative platitudes, e.g. “I love _____” or “The best _____ ever” or “I hate _____”.
– A character’s lack of an essential action, or what some call the objective. It’s the thing motivating and driving the character in that scene. It’s an important element of acting, and important to improv too, whether or not improvisers practice it. (The essential action is also a key way to avoid “corpsing”, aka breaking into laughter during a scene)

Over the last week I have watched improv scenes and sets while, without tracking any performer names or even much about the scenes themselves… writing down any instances of the above situations occurring. I even wrote them down for my scenes afterward, and I certainly made a few of them myself.

I wrote instances down whether the scene was going great or going buh, even if they were parts of really good moves. I only noted the moves to see how often these instances occurred, not to judge any of the scenes or performers.

So far, four particular moves have risen above the others:

– Meta commentary: Talking about objects in the space, about tasks that you’re doing, about yourself i.e. “I am the type of person that ______”
– Talking about people outside of the scene
– Talking about the past
– Talking about the future

Almost all the other items in the larger list happened with some regularity (about 10-15 times in the scenes I’ve surveyed the last couple weeks). Scenes where people don’t know each other have only happened twice out of the dozens of scenes I’ve watched during this study.

However, the four items I noted above occurred 30-40 times. And the good news is they all can be addressed by focusing on one simple thing: The current relationship in the moment between the characters on stage. This has in turn helped me focus on avoiding the listed habits, and countering with more present and connected moves. This exercise also gives me a helpful point of focus in watching scenes, making the exercise of watching classmates or so-so show scenes a more interesting and fruitful one.

Rather than be paralyzed by such a laundry list (incidentally, Mick Napier has an exercise where he cuts off scenes whenever anyone does any of these things), it helps reinforce the importance of the moment, of essential actions and the character relationships on driving a fruitful and fun scene.

I’ll continue this survey over time, and see if any other trends emerge.

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