Monthly Archives: May 2015

Memorizing: More Than Backwards

So a week ago I began memorizing a 5 minute performance piece for a show tonight, about 2.5 pages of material eventually cut to 2 pages flat. (I had a different piece in mind weeks ago, but found it wasn’t working and had to dump it last week for one I liked a lot better)

I spent two hours Friday, a couple hours Saturday, little to no time Sunday, an hour Monday, a little bit of time Thursday and a couple hours last night actively working on this. In some cases, I just didn’t have time to work on it, and in some cases I decided not to work on it and just relax: It’s too easy to get stressed out it if you’re constantly focused on it, which can negatively affect your work going forward.

I had previously discussed an approach where I memorize the piece working backwards. I did indeed do that to start, but found that after half a page I hit a bit of a wall when I kept trying to follow that approach. Having to recite a half page of material with newly learned material was a chore that obstructed my effort to memorize the middle.

So along with learning this piece, my process became an experiment of different approaches before I found a strategy that worked well.

Starting by learning the piece backwards was very useful, because often our traditional approach to memorization makes remembering the end of a piece more difficult and stressful. By starting with the end, that made the end of the piece the downhill-easiest part of running the piece. You can finish strong!

Based on my experience, here is what I find to be a solid approach to memorizing a piece. You’ll want to have at least a week of advance time to do this for every 2 pages of material you need to learn, if not more time. You’ll want to have a set of headphones, and the ability to set aside an hour or two every two out of three days.

– On day one, physically read the entire piece aloud off the paper at least 2-3 times. If you can do it 10 times, great, but I realize time may not be there to do it more than 2-3 times.

– From there, learn the end of the piece backwards, line by line. Get the last line on lock, then learn the 2nd to last line until both lines are on lock together, etc. Get at least the last half page of material memorized this way by the end of the 1st day.

– The next day, start memorizing the first half page the same way. This is important because, like learning the end first allows you to finish strong, getting the start of the piece on lock also allows you to start strong. Starting and finishing strong are key to a good presentation!

– After this, record yourself reading cleanly through the piece. I’d recommend reading through it aloud twice before attempting to record, and to attempt it as many times as needed to get as clean a reading as possible. Save it as an MP3 or on your phone, or some other way you can readily play back and loop.

This step’s value is obvious: You have reference material to listen to, plus you get to practice a training wheels version of the end goal, i.e. doing the whole piece exactly right. It’s a preview of your end goal!

– If traveling on foot or on transit, bring headphones and listen to a loop of the recording all the way to work and back. On an hour commute, you can listen to a 10 minute piece six times during a one way trip. A 5 minute piece can get 12 plays. This allows you to passively learn the piece through osmosis. If your commute won’t allow for 2 hours of listening, try to find 1-2 hours to kick back and listen to it.

– On the first day you listen to the recording, make sure not to physically work on the piece. This lets the piece “bake” in. This also takes pressure off you for a day to apply what you’re listening to. Just listen to the piece without worrying about having to learn it. (This moratorium is only for the first day. Once you resume practice the next day, you’re allowed to listen to the piece and work on it that day.)

– The next day, find the 3-4 most important parts of the piece, the parts that if you forgot them the piece would be ruined. Get the paragraphs (or 3-4 lines max) of those sections down pat, as well as a good idea of their order. Obviously, this means that if your memory (heaven forbid) goes out at any point, you can still hit the high notes. You will also want to read the whole piece off the page a couple times, to help reinforce the running order. Before the end of day three, be able to at least run your opening, these 3-4 sections, and the end from memory.

– In your next session, run the piece from memory as best you can, from the beginning as far as you can get. Note the parts that you don’t clearly remember. Seriously, if you so much as hesitate or have to struggle in any way to remember the next line, mark or otherwise note that part.

– Repeat to memorize each of the sections you marked, from the end of the last part you knew, through each given section into the start of the next part you remember. You want to meld the parts you need to work on with the parts you do know.

— (If the sections you’re forgetting are more than a couple lines in length, memorize the large sections one line at a time, from the back or the front, as if it were new material.)

– If you’re only forgetting a few small sections, try memorizing the first offending section, get it down, then once again run the piece from scratch and go as far as you can get. Once you reach the next offending section, learn it until it’s down then once again try to run the entire piece.

– Repeat this process until you can run the whole piece from memory without a hitch. Even then, every time you hit a point where you hesitate, go back and re-learn that part, melding it with surrounding parts you know. For a 5 minute piece, this may take a day or two. For a 10 minute or longer piece, this could stretch out over days, maybe even weeks.

– This is important: For every two days you spend actively memorizing a piece, take at least one day where you put in no active work on memorizing. It’s okay to listen to your recording of the piece during the commute on these off days (in fact, I highly recommend it).

It’s important to give yourself space to relax: Too much sustained work on the task can stress you out and make it more difficult. Also, much like how your muscles need rest to recover, your brain needs time away for your work to solidly commit to memory, as well as recover the capacity to take in more material.

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So there you go. The act of memorizing pieces is something I’ve always stressed about. Spacing out on stage has always been one of my personal nightmares, and until now I never felt I had a truly solid approach for committing material to memory. Going forward, this is the approach I’m going to use and recommend.

I hope you find it helpful.

Ruts, and how to get out of a rut

At some point during this past week, my comfort level on stage suddenly, inexplicably dropped. Whether or not my improv looks okay to the outside observer, I don’t feel comfortable with my improv, or feel like I know what I’m doing. This is what people generally refer to as a “rut”.

I’ve taken stock to see if something in my life’s out of whack:

– Life hasn’t been any busier or more annoying than usual.
– My schedule’s actually been somewhat lighter than usual, but still fairly active with things I want to do. So I’m not being overwhelmed. I do have a couple non-improv shows coming up but I feel comfortably prepared for them.
– Emotionally, I actually feel fairly good about where life’s at.
– I’ve been getting decent sleep (even naps!), my diet’s actually improved the last few weeks, I’ve been drinking plenty of water (especially with the rising temperature in Chicago), and I’ve been exercising regularly with good results. So health wise I’ve taken reasonable care of myself.
– I’ve felt tired at times, but no more than usual… and the occurence of those tired periods have mostly made sense, e.g. after a workout, or after a long and busy day.

You can blame Mercury in Retrograde, my Emotional and Physical Biorhythms being out of whack, or government radio waves or some other crazy thing. But I presume personal ruts randomly hit all of us now and then, like a basketball player who can’t hit shots, a baseball hitter who can’t seem to get hits, a bowler who can’t seem to string together strikes, a runner whose per-mile pace has dropped and can’t seem to pick back up, or even an everyday worker who can’t seem to stop making little mistakes.

The important thing about ruts, and what gets people down within them, is to realize you’re better than this. You know what you’re capable of doing well, and it eats at you that you’re in a stretch where you’re not doing them well.

How as a performer do you work through a rut and get out of it? Being in one right now, I gave it some good thought… and came back to six principles(, because I figured since this is a period of bad luck, I’d go to my lucky number six).

1. Stop caring (for now) about the results.

The negative emotions we feel in a rut are a product of letting the small sample size of our results emotionally affect us, which can create a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of more negative results. So stop caring if you’ll fail, especially if right now mentally you believe you will fail again anyway. Be in the moment and let the results of your actions happen without emotional judgment.

This will feel liberating, success or fail. The subsequent results may (pleasantly) surprise you a bit.

2. Focus in the moment on your practice of the basics.

In improv, I like to re-double my focus on what I consider the key improv principles: Relationships, attention to detail (in listening and in action), and commitment to the moment. Sometimes we get in ruts because we’re out of whack with one or more of the basics. Even if not, focusing on the basics gets your mind off being in a rut, while keeping your practice and focus on things that will get you out of it.

Other disciplines have their basic foci. Runners can focus on consistent breath and form as they run. Basketball players can focus on their shot/dribbling/defense mechanics and the correct range of motion to take effective shots. Baseball hitters can focus on the mechanics of their bat swing. In the workplace, you can (usually) double check or methodically work through your tasks.

In every case, one important point to remember is to:

2a. Finish every action before you begin another one.

This is a holdover principle from my theatre training (thanks to George Lewis and Geof Alm). Too often, sloppiness and poor execution comes from rushing our actions and not letting them “land”. You can’t take the next step without the last step hitting the ground. Ruts often come with a lacking attention to detail, and making sure to finish every action will force a restoration of attention to detail.

3. Take notes (and I don’t mean write ideas down).

Being in a rut during an improv class, practice or rehearsal, or if you’re on a sports team with a coach, may be a blessing. An instructor, coach or director watching you can give you notes on things they see you need to do or improve. When a mentor gives you a note, make a point to apply it as soon as you get the chance. With improv this is easy: Take the note and immediately endow your work with it in the next scene, and (if it’s a general note) the next scene. This almost certainly will produce positive results, even if merely a positive reaction from your mentor and peers. It may not clear the rut but it’ll get you moving in the right direction. Be open to notes, then make sure to apply them early and often.

The last three aren’t as relevant to your practice as they are to your life.

4. Get your exercise.

Do you do or have you done an exercise plan? If so, great. Do it regularly, whether or not you already have. Staying active and helping improve your body’s circulation will do wonders for your general outlook, which will also help break you out of your rut.

Oh, you don’t exercise? Now would be a good time to start. If you get no exercise, walk around the neighborhood or workplace for half an hour a day. If you already walk, consider something easy to break into, like jogging. Or the Hacker’s Diet or 5BX exercise plans, which are easy exercise plans designed to be done quickly each day.

5. Eat some good (i.e. healthy) food.

Chances are your diet isn’t anywhere close to ideal, whether or not you make the effort to eat a healthy diet. If you practice a sound ans somewhat strict diet, then great. More power to you, and make sure to get a good share of protein and brain food (however your dietary choices allow you; vegans, cut down on the soy and eat some fucking quinoa. Way more vitamins!).

If you do eat a lot of processed food and assorted junk, try cutting it out for a meal or two. Mix in some fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat or non-meat protein, some juice. And of course, drink plenty of water. Our diets can mess with us, both in good ways and bad. Eating a lot of crap over an extended period can leave you feeling worn down, which can contribute to a rut.

Likewise, eating more wholesome food than usual can do more for your outlook and energy than meets the eye… and can help you break a rut, whether the nutrients boost your energy and help flush the crap from your body, or the act of eating better has a positive placebo effect on your outlook.

6. Get as much rest as you reasonably can.

Chances are you’re not getting 7 or more hours of sleep a night, if your sleep habits are consistent to begin with. Losing sleep, whether over a day or over a long period, can start to wear on your outlook and everything else you do. If you can force yourself to turn out the lights at 10-11pm for a few nights in a row, or mix in a nap on a free afternoon, the extra rest can not only re-energize your body but it may improve a sleep-deprived dour mood and might help crack your rut.

Also, if you’re working a busy schedule, try to book some time to relax, not do anything and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes our work overload gets us in ruts, and clearing space to not work can help the brain reset. Often, getting away from a problem for a bit can help us solve it once we come back with a fresh, rested mind. When we memorize material, taking time away from memorizing helps the material settle in our minds. When we exercise, it’s the time spent resting and recovering when our muscles grow from the workouts.

Sometimes, even when we’re getting enough rest, some extra rest can help us break a rut.

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So there you go, six points of focus to help break a rut. I wrote this as much for myself as I did for you the reader. I’m in a rut, but with some simple points of focus and self care, I expect I’ll either break out of it soon, or stop caring about it enough to notice either way.

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What is Drawn Dead?

I realize, having brought up my solo show Drawn Dead many times, that a lot of newer readers (especially my Chicago colleagues) probably have no idea what I’m talking about. I should explain.

Drawn Dead is a 55 minute solo theatrical storytelling show about my (real-life) experiences learning to play tournament poker (which it turned out I was pretty decent at… on a local level, at least), how that experience re-shaped how I view the world, why I gave it up and recounts the harrowing experience of re-discovering and re-learning the game during a shitty time in my life, how it led me on a stupid but eye opening trip to a regional poker festival at an Indian casino in rural Oregon, and what that trip taught me about myself. There is some embellished and at times supernatural fiction backdropping what is mostly a true story.

The show is built around a fusion of physical theatre, storytelling, dance and interactive sound design. The show was developed during my 2013 residency at Seattle’s Studio Current, with direction by colleague John Leith, and debuted at the 2013 Seattle Fringe Festival to small but welcoming audiences.

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Let’s talk about Drawn Dead

So I have some news: Barring a bizarre turn of events, I will perform my full length solo show Drawn Dead at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival in September.

Prior to arriving in Chicago, I hadn’t laid a finger on the show since the 2013 Seattle Fringe Festival. Once the festival ended, I let it sit. Subsequent efforts to book the show in other festivals did not come through, then 2014 led to creative hibernation and work towards my eventual departure from Seattle.

Once I arrived in Chicago, I devoted myself heavily to studying and practicing improv. But, at the behest of some colleagues, I also got back into storytelling and in the process took my first serious look at Drawn Dead since 2013.

Rather than look at the original script (which I believe may still be in Las Vegas with other possessions yet to get shipped to me), I took notes to try and outline the story I remembered, plus ideas for elements I wanted to add or change. I knew I would rework the show if I ever picked it back up again, and the only question was how much.

One key change is that my improv and storytelling skills have since gotten a LOT better… not so much my delivery as my distillation of story into a presentable piece. Before, I had a tendency to ramble forever whether describing an idea or writing it. My inner editor has gotten a lot less precious and a lot more efficient, plus developed a much better eye for the important nuggets versus the needless info. Improvement with my improv has helped that as well, as working in the Chicago scene has further hammered home the importance of getting to the relevant and interesting point.

When developing version 1 of Drawn Dead, my limitations as a storyteller made it clear to John Leith and I that the story’s best presentation was as a physical theatre piece with audio and storytelling elements. My efforts to tell the story didn’t do enough. However, having improved as a storyteller since, I’m sure my storytelling can carry more of the show.

Also, my improv has gotten better. This helps with developing solo scenework. Pretty much all of the original filtered through the internal POV of the main character. I now see potential for replacing the audio backdrop with 2+ character scenes I could develop through solo improv. I’m considering replacing the overhead, at times supernatural narrator in version one with a mentor character in the next edition.

This is not to say I’m going to trash the entire original version. I still want to use the original opening scene mostly as is, and some of the poker tournament montage scenes still work great. And obviously, the original story is still the original story. Version one embellished a lot of material, and there’s no reason version two can’t take liberties in a different way. It might even be closer to truth while yet being better.

I’ve got a few quick projects coming up over the next couple weeks, but once those are finished I’m looking forward to diving into the abyss of Drawn Dead, version 2015.

Memorizing backwards

I’ve been making a mistake all my life, and as a result have run into the same (and now obvious) problem.

Let’s say you have a piece to memorize. Like most, I start at the beginning of a piece, memorize the first bit, then try to memorize everything after it one section at a time. You tend to nail the beginning, but then the memory and preparation of the latter part isn’t as great. Likewise, some people memorize certain key chunks of the piece, then fill in their memory of the rest later. They still run into the same problem, where they nail the key parts while transitional parts aren’t as solid.

It can slow you down in practice or, even worse, performance. Unless you’ve got the piece on lock in your mind, you can hit a spot you don’t know as well, forget and draw a blank. The terror of the moment can even prevent you from comfortably jumping to a subsequent section you might know better. This is probably the one aspect of performing work from memory that has always terrified me the most.

In the rest of our lives we learn that a key to success is to start with an end goal and figure out step by step how you get there. Often, by backtracking or working backwards, you can better piece together how to get to that goal. (It also helps you find stuff you lost)

Likewise, it just occurred to me to try backtracking memorization. Start by memorizing the end of a piece, either the last sentence, paragraph or whatever section you can comfortably put on lock in a short period of time. Then go back to the previous section, learn that, and then recite the two parts together. Any struggle to do the first section from memory is rewarded with the momentum of a subsequent section you know well. You gain momentum as you do the piece, rather than losing momentum from subsequent parts being more unfamiliar.

So I’m going to start learning pieces backwards. Might want to give it a shot.

EDIT: Looks like I’m not the only one to have thought of this!

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Put One Foot In Front of the Other And Run

Let’s diverge off performance art for a bit.

I’m hardly a poster child for good diet and fitness. Anyone can look at me and clearly see it. Nowadays, I eat way more packaged/processed anything than I probably should. Over my life I’ve gone back and forth between keeping my diet clean and keeping the acquisition and preparation of meals simple (and truth be told, I have found meals to be insubstantial when I’ve tried to do both). The latter usually means eating a good portion of processed, fat-producing food.

I walk a lot, live a fairly busy lifestyle and have a tendency to crawl all over the place in improv scenes. But I don’t work out and I certainly don’t look like someone who body sculpts let alone gets in regular workouts.

Recently I got back into running, which I’ve done off and on for years. Growing up, like many, I had trouble running any sort of distance without getting winded. As an adult, I tried interval running on a treadmill, where you start at a walk, ramp up to running hard briefly, then slow to a walk and repeat the gradual acceleration to a sprint. But I still found myself getting winded if I had to run at all otherwise, for any extended period of time.

In recent years, I discovered Hal Higdon’s training website, one of many out there. The career running enthusiast’s running program is nowhere as popular as Couch to 5K. But one simple piece of advice, probably even a throwaway line to him, became the turning point for me and running.

It’s his description of the term ‘Run’:

Run: Put one foot in front of the other and run. It sounds pretty simple, and it is. Don’t worry about how fast you run; just cover the distance–or approximately the distance suggested.

Like many, throughout my running experience I always felt I needed to push myself at a brisk pace traditionally akin to running. Of course, I would always get winded. Whenever someone jogs, they feel they must maintain a certain intensity and pace. Higdon’s advice suggests that’s not necessary. As long as you’re moving your arms and you put one foot in front of the other, before the back foot is totally planted (the technical definition of walking), you’re technically running. No matter how slowly you do it, you’re running if you do at least that.

This couples with another discovery I had in Seattle. I trained in Alexander Technique with Carol Levin, who taught me this important series of facts:

– Your lungs do not have muscles, and you cannot substantially improve the strength of the muscles that control the movement your lungs.
– Your stamina doesn’t improve by improving the strength of your breathing. Your stamina improves when you improve the efficiency with which all of your body’s muscles work.
– Your lack of efficiency in a task forces your muscles to work harder than they do once you’re efficient at it.
– You don’t get short of breath because your lungs are tired. You get short of breath because your muscles have been pushed so hard in such little time that the amount of oxygen a normal breath gives your body is not sufficient to keep them going. Thus, you breathe harder, to take in more oxygen more quickly and better re-supply your body.

It hit me: The reason running makes people breathe hard is because most people press too hard when they run. They feel they must run at a given pace and intensity, higher than they’re comfortable with. This quickly taxes the body, you quickly run short on oxygen, and your lungs go into overdrive to re-supply your body. Thus a lot of beginning runners run hard, run out of breath, slow to a walk, run hard, get tired, slow to a walk… often practically hyper ventilating as they tire. It doesn’t feel good, yet runners get used to pushing themselves like this. The vaunted “runner’s high” is actually a renewed rush of oxygen to your brain and organs after their extended forced shortage.

Hypothesis: If I ran slowly, I could run longer distances without getting short of breath. And over time, as my body becomes more efficient at running, I’ll be able to cover longer distances more comfortably.

A few years ago in Seattle, I decided to take Hal’s advice and, no matter how slowly I had to run, focus simply on putting one foot in front of the other at a pace only fast enough to ensure my back foot came off the ground before my front foot was totally planted, while moving my arms. Even as I get tired, I just kept in mind the simple advice “put one foot in front of the other”. As long as I could do that per the above, I would not stop.

My first 1.5 mile run was a pleasant surprise. Despite running the first half mile uphill in the hilly Seattle neighborhood of Queen Anne… I never once had to stop or walk to regain my breath during the entire run. It took 30 minutes to finish the run and it was somewhat difficult, but I spent all 30 minutes of that run running, and more so I had just run 1.5 miles without stopping, without having trained prior to doing so. I ran slowly and deliberately, definitely slower than the brisk “jogging” people are used to doing, but I ran the whole way without stopping.

Two days later, I completed the same run the same way, without losing breath or stopping. And so I continued, roughly every other day.

Within four weeks, not only could I run two miles without stopping, but as my body’s running muscles got stronger my pace began to pick up. I was finishing that 2.0 mile run in *less* time than it had originally taken me to run 1.5 miles just a month before.

What happened was not that my lungs got stronger, but that the muscles my body uses to run got stronger. My entire body got stronger at running and over time could run more efficiently. Not only could I run longer distances, but I was able to run more quickly.

This tale doesn’t end with me moving on to 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon racing. At the time I discovered this, I was also practicing and training as a performing artist (which included intense dance and physical theatre training), and eventually the commitment became so rigorous that I had to stop running after a few months. I did pick it back up at a couple of points, with the same approach and the same good results, before having to shelve it again weeks later for similar reasons each time.

I started running again recently. While difficult in the early going I still managed to run 1.5 miles without stopping or getting winded on day one. I’ve been busy and haven’t been able to run three times a week like before, but I try to do it at least every Saturday, if not other days during the week. A few weeks in and counting, I’m curious to see how far I can take it this time around.

I’m sure there’s some sort of parallel we can make to performance art, to doing improv, to making theatre and being a regularly active performer. But I think the point that running doesn’t have to be a hyper ventilated stop and go pain in the ass is point enough for now. That, and sometimes all you need to do to keep getting better at what you do is to put one foot in front of the other and run… so to speak.

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Make your own opportunities to practice and perform

When I called into question the utility of auditions, I alluded to but didn’t really discuss an important point: The ability of performers to empower themselves and create their own opportunities, rather than rely on auditions to get performance opportunities outside of classes and jams.

While forming a group to practice and play with isn’t a slam dunk, the real barrier is fear, a lack of self confidence and a resulting unwillingness to commit by players. You don’t do it because you don’t think you’ll have the commitment and the ability to a) follow through with a regular schedule on your own as players, and b) get better and challenge yourselves.

With classes and jams, you have an instructor or a leader buggy whipping you all the way, plus an audience of peers who (usually) are cheering your efforts on. If a group of you decide to meet and practice together, there is usually no experienced mentor leading the way. You are effectively directing and leading yourselves.

Without that mentor or leader to answer to, there to push you, there’s a great temptation to either flake and not attend, or to not try as hard as you would in class or a jam. People don’t have the respect for a voluntary practice among a group of peers that they do for a class they paid $200-350 for (and in some cases get punished for not attending), or for a jam in front of mentors and peers (which they often paid to participate in).

Don’t think I didn’t run into this challenge when a bunch of us formed Wonderland in Seattle, or with myself in everything I’ve done. It takes a collective commitment, as well as a bit of personal investment, to start a group and not only keep it grow but to continue growing and improving together. It was hard to keep the group on the same page, to have the lacking commitment of some not derail or bring down the work of everyone that’s committed to getting good.

Someone has to wrangle everybody. Someone has to find rehearsal space and (usually) pay to book it. And, most of all, people not only have to agree to participate but actually show up, almost every time. And that never minds that the success of the group from there is about how seriously everyone takes the practice. Or actually booking a show, paying for the venue, and somehow finding enough friends, family and word of mouth to fill the venue for that show. It’s very hard to be a leader of something so relatively nebulous.

I recalled this whole idea when I read Joshua Ellis’ piece this morning on empowering people to learn to code. The title and premise of his piece mirrors my point on starting a group: The trick is that there is no trick.

The barnstorming improv groups you see in Chicago, Seattle, NYC, LA, anywhere… there was no special requirement (like completing a training program) or magic formula to their success. They didn’t even necessarily have to finish their respective school curriculae (and many didn’t). Once they had a handle on what they wanted to do in improv, and once they discovered a group of people they liked practicing with… they formed a group, met and practiced regularly. Eventually, they developed the confidence in each other and their work to produce or appear in shows, and that was that.

Yes, it certainly helps to be well trained, to have a knowledgeable and strong-minded leader, to have an uncanny sense of cooperation among the group and the right people, to know people that can hook you up with space or gigs in improv shows, etc etc etc.

But so many groups came into it sort of trained, with no hookup other than a space they could afford to rent, with a rough idea of what they were doing and maybe one or two people confident enough to steward the ship.

And that’s the secret. There’s never going to be a right time, when you’re ready. You’re never ready. And yet, you’re always ready. You’re always going to be learning, and always going to feel to some degree uncomfortable.

You’re never really going to figure out what works and what doesn’t until you actually, seriously attempt to do it… much like you were never going to learn improv until you made the effort to sign up and come to classes. And often times you not only won’t have that expert assistance, but you probably don’t even need it. You can learn how to do it yourself, and can learn a lot more about being a practicing improviser from actually trying and failing and learning to do it better than to go to class and then hardly get to practice at all unless you go back to class, become addicted to jams, or somehow score off an audition.

If you take nothing else away from this post, and my audition post, it’s that you and your peers have the power to create your own opportunities. And that rather than wait and hope that someone will cast you in something, all of you should get together and just make your own opportunity. Take that $5 you’d have spent on a jam, pool it with 6-8 other people, and rent a rehearsal room for 2-3 hours a week. Find some exercises you want to practice, or just do some scenework. If you want to do a show, practice scenes for a couple months, then get in on a show or find another group to split the bill with. Just do a 20-30 minute montage if all you want to do is scenes. Just do it, see what happens and learn from it.

As with many things, 80% of the challenge is just making yourself do it.

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Ideas for a Practical Approach to Fringe Festivals, PART 3

(Part one is here.)

(Part two is here.)

(Also, yes this 3rd part was very delayed. Once you read through you’ll see why. This took a lot of work to flesh out and make somewhat easy to follow.)

Using data from past fringe festivals and based upon my experiences, I started tinkering with formulas in a spreadsheet and soon discovered a hypothetical formula for figuring out the EV of performing in a festival.

FestivalEV-1

Like itself, the formula’s methodology is based on some hypotheticals.

– We know how much it costs to apply for and (if accepted) secure a spot in a festival.

– We (usually) know how many shows you get to perform if accepted.

– We can even put some fairly reliable numbers on travel costs (airfare, gas, lodging if necessary), and on promotion materials (printing fliers, posters, professional photos/video when applicable).

– If you know the venues available to you, you can even put a headcount on the possible number of seats, in some cases the exact number of seats, of your potential venue.

– If you dig into past festival data, you can even approximate the average dollar return per person at the show. The good news is almost every reputable festival gives 100% of all ticket revenue back to the artists.

That said, you can’t just multiply the cost of tickets by attendance: Some people are comped. Some pay for all-fest passes which only gives you a reduced payout per head for those.

I’ll give you a hint as to how much you can expect to earn: On average, US fests pay about $6-7 per person, while Canadian fests pay about $8 (but of course you’ve got to convert between US and Canadian currency). You can fuzz that number up or down a bit depending on contextual factors, like if a fest doesn’t pay back 100% of ticket sales (however, if that fest puts firm numbers on money paid to artists and actual attendance, your original number should still be accurate).

– You can figure out your rough probability of getting into the fest if it’s determined by lottery. If you know there’s about 150 entrants and they’re drawing for about 30 slots, then figure your base chance is 20% = 30/150. Of course, a given festival might divide into sublotteries based on geography (e.g. half local acts, half outside acts) and other factors, so you have to consider how that affects your chances of getting drawn.

Getting In, Subpoint 1: With juried festivals, it’s not so random, but if you look at the quality of other previous shows and stack it up against yours, you probably already have a good idea of your chances of getting in. Obviously, you should only apply to juried fests if you feel there’s a very good chance you’ll get in. In many juried cases, an inexperienced or relatively unknown group probably has very little chance of getting accepted and it’s probably not worth applying until you get some other festival experience under your belt.

Getting In, Subpoint 2: First come first served festivals are easy to figure. You pay to get in and you’re in! Your probability of entry is 100%! Obviously, you should probably register as soon after applications open as possible. These festivals fill up quickly, as in within a day or so.

– The real uncertain factor, the one you have to flat out guesstimate, is the number of seats your show can fill relative to the number of seats available. A total novice to festivals can’t possibly know, though their number is probably pretty low. You can promote your ass off and get 10 people per show. A similar person could make half the effort and fill 2/3 of the house. Even an experienced performer familiar to the audience can have similarly inconsistent results depending on the time of shows, what kind of show they’re producing, what other acts they’re up against at the festivals, how their promotion is received by the community, etc etc etc.

That said, if you do fringe theatre for a bit and are bluntly realistic with yourself, you can get a good general ballpark of how many people you can reasonably expect to show up. And you can use that estimate to get an expected value for applying to a given festival.

FIGURING OUT THE EXPECTED VALUE OF YOUR FRINGE APPLICATION

Follow me on this. Let’s presume we’re applying for, say, the Chicago Fringe Festival.

– We’re applying for the lowest level slot, three shows in a small venue for $250.
– It costs $25 to apply.
– A small venue can hold, say, 50 people.
– Based on past history at this given festival, an artist averages $6.75 for every attendee, after factoring in pass discounts and comps. (While that can change or vary in the future, that’s based off previous data)

– Let’s say we live in Chicago 😉 and travel will not cost much for us in this case… say, $20 for gas/parking if for some reason I can’t use my pre-paid Ventra pass and take transit. (Let’s also say my hypothetical show is about how cab, Uber or Lyft drivers really suck and every driver knows about it and wants to kill me… and that’s why I’m not considering rideshares as a transport option. Obviously, if ridesharing works, you’ll want to factor in those costs per ride.)

– There’s a very small number of available slots being drawn in the lottery relative to applicants, especially considering the slots are subdivided between local acts, outside domestic acts, outside international acts, minority “diversity” acts. After factoring in the number of applicants vs slots, plus adding 2% to account for not being drawn at the lottery but being drawn afterward as a top alternate that gets into the show anyway after someone else drops out (which happens a lot: Often, a top five alternate will get their chance to play thanks to dropouts)… I have about a 15% chance of getting into the festival.

Let’s say I think, with no promotion other than telling my friends on Facebook/Twitter and running my mouth among colleagues, I can fill about 30% of the available seats at my three shows.

First, let’s figure out how much we can hope to make if our show is accepted.

FestivalEV-2With an expectation of filling 30% of the seats, we see we can expect an average of $303.75 in revenue.

Now, let’s figure out how much it will cost to produce and perform our show if it’s accepted.

FestivalEV-3The combination of the app fee, the festival entry fee and assorted costs is $295.00.

Again, this is only if we’re accepted. Obviously, if the show is not accepted, our application fee is down the toilet.

FestivalEV-4(Yes, it’s a sunk cost and economics/poker-nerds say you should ignore sunk costs. But remember, you’re considering applying for the festival. You haven’t applied and spent the money to do so yet. We’re figuring out the expected value of *applying*, if it’s worth your while.)

Now, take your expected revenue if the show gets in, and subtract the expected cost to get the expected net value of doing the fest.

FestivalEV-5If you get accepted, you’ll make on average $303.75, expect to spend about $295.00 total to do the fest, and typically end up $8.75 in the black.

Multiply that expected value times the probability of your show getting accepted, then subtract the probability of the show not getting accepted times the lost application fee. THIS is the expected value of applying for this festival.

FestivalEV-6Is the value negative? In this case, it is: On average, if you hypothetically had many many chances to apply for this festival, you will lose $19.94 per attempt to do this festival. The times you get in and make a profit will not make up for the times you don’t get in, or the times you get in and lose your shirt anyway.

Given that, applying for the festival has less expected value than not applying at all. You’ll lose money in the long run by making the choice to do it.

If it’s positive, then there’s more value in applying. Even if you’re not drawn, it was a decision that if you repeated it 100+ times would pay off over time.

Rather than post a bunch of examples, I will provide you with a link to a Google Sheet of the formula. You can plug in numbers next to the respective columns and the bottom line should spit out a result. Because this is publicly viewable, I would highly encourage you to save a copy to your own Google Drive and use it there.

You can tinker with numbers on your own, and see what value you can expect from your respective situation, as well as how that EV changes if you change various factors, e.g. you spend $50 to produce a few hundred fliers for distribution, plus some posters to hang at businesses (with their permission), and you think it’ll improve attendance by 20%. Or if you’re applying to a festival and the venue will actually have 30 or 100 seats. Or you’ll get 5 or 6 shows instead of 4. Or it costs $50 to apply, or it costs $550 to enter, or the fest should pay an average of $7 per attendee, etc etc etc.

Most of all, let’s say you do apply for a show and you get in, or no matter the odds you’re going to apply for a festival. This formula can also tell you how much you need to make to break even, or how much you can hope to make if your show does well. Just make the entry probability 100%, since the show is absolutely accepted and you absolutely get to do it once the entry fee is paid. Tinker with the numbers and see for yourself.

If you have questions or want me to clarify any info here, you can comment here or shoot me an e-mail at misterstevengomez@gmail.com.

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Now, again, I’m not trying to mechanize your passion for performance art. If you really want to apply for Edmonton Fringe, you’ve got the money to throw down and you giveth not a single fucke how much money you make or don’t make… then apply for it no matter what and don’t sweat this at all.

This is more so for:

– People who are on the fence about applying for a festival.
– People for whom this, for whatever reason, *is* a profession or business to them, and want to determine the value of applying to a festival or not, or have to choose one festival other another when all other factors are relatively equal.
– People who could otherwise use the time productively if they don’t do the festival, but still have an interest in considering it… i.e. they could produce shows at home, or work for pay during that time.
– People who in general or principle are interested but just unsure if a festival is worth the investment.

Also, of course, there are going to be people for which this is mostly irrelevant. For example, if Martin Dockery plugged in his stats for a given festival, he’s going to get a massively positive expected value no matter what, because he’s probably going to sell out every show or close to it. Maybe, MAYBE, he might want to compare the value of two concurrent festivals he’s been accepted to in order to see which one he ought to do. (But knowing him however much I do, I highly doubt that’s much of a factor to him.)

And of course there’s the flip side that you’re new and despite your best efforts you’re simply not going to draw well, almost certainly will finish a festival at a loss and this is by and large a learning experience. You can use this information to figure out roughly how much of a sunk cost you’re looking at.

Of course, if you want the experience and have the money to spend on it, don’t let me stop you! Knock yourself out, enjoy it, and consider any money you make back a bonus on top of the new experiences and friends you make.

For everyone else, it might be a suitable judgment call to look at this data and crunch the numbers. Maybe it does matter a lot if you’ve got a realistic shot of breaking even or better at a festival. Also, a lot of performers aren’t rich or otherwise subsidized, and for many the pursuit of fringe festivals may be one of their best shots to make a living doing what they love. This can help them be realistic about what they can expect and whether making a trip to a far flung land is worth the effort.

By tinkering with the capacity filled stat, you can get a baseline of how well your show needs to draw to make a given festival worth your while. If this were an algebra equation and you had to find x, the x in this equation would be the percentage of seats you need to fill to make your money back, i.e. achieve an expected value of $0.00.

Do with this information what you will, and thanks for reading.

Talking about auditions

On a relative whim, I auditioned this past week for three groups I had an interest in working with. These were longshots and I did not expect to get called back let alone cast (sure enough, I was not). I mostly wanted to test how I handled improv auditions, and see after all this time how it felt.

I had fun for the most part. I felt like I could play and have fun with all the other players in the room. I felt that, if the process had been completely (unrealistically) objective, most of my auditions were more than good enough for at least a callback, if not serious consideration for a role. (That’s not to say I deserved anything. But the work I did felt that solid.)

I’m lucky: I not only have (and have had) opportunities to practice and perform going forward, but have the wherewithal and ability to create my own opportunities. So for me the auditions were not my only shot at a regular opportunity to perform. They were an inquiry. Either way, I’ve got things going on and places to practice.

However, I feel for many of the others who auditioned. A lot of these people were super good, and many feel they don’t have anywhere else to go. For many of them, improv is pretty much their passion and creative outlet, and if they can’t get cast in something, they won’t get any experience or chances outside of classes or jams.

So let’s talk about auditions. There’s two big issues I have with the dog and pony show that is Chicago improv auditions.

One: Auditions themselves, in a big and talented metropolis like Chicago. Every director ever says they wish there was a better way to select talent than auditions. The problem with such a statement is that there *is* a better way that better serves most shows, ensembles and directors, a way that for various reasons they simply won’t utilize: Simply hand pick and solicit the people they know and most want to work with, and not waste anyone else’s time. You know the talent, you know the risks and potential, and you can comfortably trust those people.

This is even easier if the production company in question has regular classes, workshops or drop-in jams. They’ll see a lot of talent come and go, or come and stay and study. They should have a fairly good idea of many player’s skillsets and abilities, plus have some sort of relationship with many players.

Simply put, today’s audition will not shine a beacon on some new undiscovered talent that will compel you to offer them a significant commitment like an ensemble role. You’re going to go with known quantities, whether they’re people you know or people with significant history or training from somewhere known.

Sports teams don’t just draft prospects sight unseen. They scout talent at college games, workout showcases and so on. They watch a ton of video of every potential draft pick. By the time they make their picks they have seen quite a bit of every potential prospect and have a strong idea of what they’re getting. It baffles me that in 2015 directors still think that one-off auditions are a way to discover talent or determine who to cast.

Whether or not they have shows of their own, why aren’t these auditors sitting in on advanced classes or showcases? They know they’re going to produce shows. They’re already planning to spend time to hold auditions. And they’re not *that* busy: Sitting in on a couple of shows or classes every week or two is no herculean task. Regular improv work doesn’t take more than 4-5 nights a week of your life, and that’s if you’re actively working on multiple projects and/or playing on several teams/cast with weekly shows. Many aren’t. A lot of auditions are audited by multiple people. Even if you can argue the AD is too busy to go see shows, others in the company can certainly make the time. So I don’t buy the likely excuse that a director or auditor is simply too busy.

And if in fact they are scouting shows/showcases/cabarets/classes/workshops/whatever else… then why the hell are they holding open auditions? They already know quite a few active, available players in the scene (inexperienced or experienced) they’d love to work with. Why not just ask them to come aboard, or audition a group of those known players, and not waste the time/money of the other 100+ people who otherwise have no chance in hell?

Shit, back in the day, this is how Second City and iO casted their shows. They just plucked people out of class to fill or create teams. Now, with the sheer quantity of trainees and existing teams, they’ve been spooked into going Broadway on their selection process. But even now I don’t think that’s necessary, or even productive, on the local level (maybe for the touring or cruise ship stuff shit, where regional directors obviously can’t know everyone everywhere… but local companies don’t have that excuse). Those players who aren’t in know it’s tough to get in. Auditions don’t make it easier for them.

Two: Young, inexperienced performers looking to these auditions for opportunity, instead of at each other. Let’s face it. With the big improv schools spitting out dozens of fully trained improvisers every couple months into a scene already ridiculously saturated with trained improvisers that have nowhere to go… the companies are never going to provide the best long term opportunity for a lot of these young players. They’ll be more than happy to take their money to host them for the umpteenth run of a class, because that’s understandably how they make a lot of their money. But aside from a token curated midweek showcase or a class showcase at the end of the curriculum, the opportunities for these students to play probably aren’t coming unless they win out at an audition….

… or they create their own. Know where I formed a good portion of my improv experience and working relationships? It was not in class, and it was not in an improv show I auditioned for. In fact, I never successfully got cast in a Seattle improv show from an audition. My experience came when my classmate Chris Wong asked me and a few others to start meeting and practicing as a group. We did, almost every week for a couple years, and that’s how Wonderland happened.

The groups Illuminaughty and Biblical Proportions (which splintered off Wonderland) exist because we all took that initiative to create and maintain that group. The current Seattle group Human Propaganda similarly began before that when Wilfred Padua solicited his training partners to start meeting and practicing together. Interrobang began when my friend Dave Clapper and other colleagues began meeting and practicing as a group.

All still produce regular shows today. Many of their cast members have never been part of a big theater’s ensemble, or didn’t join a main ensemble until well after they formed their indy groups.

A lot of those groups you see in improv festivals? Most are not Harold style teams formed by a theater company. Most are just groups that came together independently to practice and do their own shows. A lot of improv theaters themselves came about from independent groups that over time grew their own thing into something bigger.

I wish I could grab every talented but un-casted improviser I saw in these auditions by the lapels and tell them, “Get together and form your own groups! Pool a few bucks together each week and rent a rehearsal room for 3 hours. Throw in to do a one off show or an opening set every month or two. You can do it YOURSELVES! You don’t need these auditions to get experience!”

And this is Chicago. Seattle has a relatively big scene, but it was harder than it is in Chicago to do your own show. Pocket Theater and others have made it easier for groups to play, but back in my day if it wasn’t for the generosity of Rik Deskin at Eclectic Thetare, or joints like The Rendezvous, it would have been very difficult and expensive to produce a show. And no one was looking for improv openers.

But in Chicago, there’s not only all sorts of barprov and open mic options, but serial cabaret shows are constantly soliciting for groups to do quick opening or under-card sets. Sometimes I wish I had a current group that I could submit for some of these opportunities. Many shows happening nowadays can’t find any improv groups to open or fill slots! Which is amazing, because this is Chicago! The Mecca of Improv!

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Basically, we turn auditions into gatekeepers for our improv practice, when we really can create our own opportunities. And with this much talent in this community, there’s no reason we don’t have what it takes to do our own thing.

This is not a mark on the companies holding these auditions. I’m not even saying that auditions in themselves are bad. I’m mostly saying for many there’s better ways to mine talent. And those auditioning have a better way to practice and grow outside of class.

(P.S. – Congratulations to the folks who did win roles from this week’s auditions! No joke. You clearly did a tremendous job and have considerable talent. Best of luck!)

(For everyone else… let’s form some groups, throw in a few bucks a week, and let’s do something.)

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Observed key factors to successful (and unsuccessful) improv

Like anyone, I’m no more qualified to call myself an expert at improv than the next player, especially getting back into it after a couple years away from regular practice. Personally, I feel I’m at a place where bad scenes (where I’m stuck and not sure what to do) seem fewer and farther between, and the good scenes (where my scene partner and I have comfortably connected, and those watching seem to enjoy it) occur more often. I’m once again feeling comfortable with the great improv unknown that is starting and creating a scene from scratch.

As I attend more classes/jams and get back up to speed, I’m focusing more on reinforcing basic concepts in practice, whether they’re from a new perspective or something I learned years ago. Every lesson’s an opportunity to develop positive habits, as long as I take the work seriously.

I watch scenes in class, in jams and at shows looking for what choices help a good scene work and what contributes to the struggles of a poor scene. Lately I’m starting to see the good and not so good funnel towards the same key principles. And they’re not what you think.

One school of thought tells you to establish CROW (character, relationship, objective, where you are). Another approach tells you to find the game of the scene and heighten it. Another tells you to figure out what everyone’s doing and how they’re doing it. Another tells you to slow down and ground yourselves.

All of them tell you to yes-and, to not ask questions or negate or bail or steamroll or wait too long or a thousand other things you sure as hell aren’t going to remember (hell,Mick Napier’s Improvise is famous for saying fuck all of that, but also emphasizes finding a key motivating factor to drive the scene, similar to another school of thought).

While all of these ideas can help make good scenes, there’s no way a good improviser can mentally file through a checklist that long (and at times contradictory).

A lot of top Chicago improvisers studied with several of the Chicago schools (e.g. The Second City, iO Chicago, The Annoyance), yet aren’t at all confused about how to improvise well. Yes, experience and personal charisma/talent combined with finding one’s own style plays a role in that, but watch a lot of improv between multiple productions and you’ll notice that despite thematic differences a lot of them approach scenework in largely similar fashion.

Studying at a bunch of schools alone won’t make you better if you’ve been training for a while and still don’t improvise well. If anything, going from school to school can merely confuse you and set you back further. Experienced improvisers filter all their training and experience into a more intuitively simple and universal, and most of all personal, approach.

A few weekends ago, after a very busy week, I spent an errand-filled weekend waiting for Godot in Evanston. While sitting in my car between errands, I got the impulse to grab my notepad and write down issues I consistently noticed in improv scenes that didn’t work, e.g. not listening, talking over others, bailing on a point of view, ignoring what’s been created in a scene and trying to steer it elsewhere, etc.

At the same time I also restated them as more constructive, positive ideas, e.g. listen, bring in new ideas with goal to build on what was created, never let your POV go, etc.

As I did this, I soon noticed that these notes of improvising well revolve around three central points of focus. Everything else you could possibly tell an improviser to do or no do revolves around these three important priorities.

RELATIONSHIPS

The vast majority of bad scenes focus on whatever activity or environment the performers are set in, with no attention paid to who the characters are or how they relate to one other. The vast majority of good and great scenes I’ve seen were built, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, around the relationship between the characters on the stage. (I say vast majority because I’m certain you and I have seen possible exceptions to this. But given the larger sample of data, they are indeed merely exceptions… and in many of those cases, I’m sure we still could point out some sort of built relationship underlying it all.)

It can’t be your sole focus, but when it comes to your character work, establishing your environment, etc, your strongest and most grounded choices are going to come back to how your character interacts with the other characters in the scene.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

This actually has two parts that go hand in hand.

The first is obvious: Attention to Detail in Action. Good specific offers add character to a scene and give your scene partners something to work with and build on. Vague offers don’t, and on top of it they make it harder for your fellow players to build a scene with you.

However, there is also Attention to Detail in Observation. You also need to *listen and observe* with an attention to detail. Seeing that your scene partner’s character is sad, or has said “I don’t want to go out today” in itself isn’t going to give you much. However, noticing *how* your partner physically carries themselves could give you insight in how to endow them with an offer. Noticing specific things this character says and implies gives you additional material to respond to and build upon, as well as to use to further endow your own character (with specifics, of course!).

It is not enough to listen and pay attention. It is not enough to make a choice. It’s important that you do all these things with an attention to detail.

People harp on TJ and Dave‘s object work as the prime example of their great work, but that’s a subset of their great attention to detail in everything they do, and in observing everything they establish.

COMMITMENT

It’s not only important that you make or observe a choice, or that you yes-and it in the moment. It’s also important that you, as Mick Napier always says, hold on to what you did.

I’ve noticed that the most deflating moment of most disappointing improv scenes is the moment the player makes a choice to drop or give up on whatever POV they established, e.g. “Okay fine, I’ll give you what you want.”… or in responding to new information, they contradict and otherwise completely forget what details they established for their own character. You’ve just taken this reality you and others have worked to create, and just rendered it all moot. That’s not what any of us wanted to see.

To paraphrase Mark Sutton, no one really wants the bike shop workers in a scene to actually fix the fucking bike. Furthering that point, we’re way more interested in the relationship the scenario has shown us, and if the scenario is shoved aside then what we’re watching has lost its value quicker than the stock options of a bought out startup.

Once you’ve established a tension between characters, you’ve got to resist that trained human instinct to look for a way out of that tense situation. Improv’s greatest moments are what we find when we explore what it’s like to live in and work through that tension. And once we break it, we tell the audience and each other that what’s happening isn’t really worth giving a shit about at all. And everyone tunes out, which is not the point of an improv scene.

Commitment goes beyond what you do in scenework. Commitment is itself a practice. When you do an exercise in class or practice, do a scene, run a long form set, or even do a stupid warm up exercise to start a session… doing it with commitment is going to give you and everyone more than just doing what you have to do.

It’s not enough to show up (though showing up every day you can is a big part of success). You’ve got to show up and, for the time you’re in that space, do the work like you mean it, to grow from it. A half assed effort will produce half assed results in a practice full of great performers who are working hard and pushing themselves as much as possible every chance they get. Why bother if you’re going to eliminate yourself from contention by not giving as much an effort as many others who succeed?

The majority of those who don’t succeed at improv quit. They drop out. They don’t put in the effort. The more of a point you make not to do the best you can, the easier it’s going to become to weed you(rself) out.

The habit of approaching your every improv task with commitment will strengthen your ability to commit to bigger moments when they matter. I can’t expect a person who hasn’t practiced running more than a couple blocks to run a 5K well. And one can’t expect an improviser who doesn’t do much of anything with commitment to solidly commit to a scene, a set, or working long term with a group.

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Now, don’t take this as me calling myself some sort of improv expert. Not even close. I have just noticed that these are the common denominator factors I’m noticing in every great scene, every poor scene, and all scenes in-between. I’m not even saying that I do all these things well all the time. If anything, I see that these are things I need to focus on addressing well if my scenework is going to… well, work.

Relationships. Attention to detail (in action and observation). And commitment. Key points of focus.

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