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.

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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.

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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.

Should this be the last Facebook Event post I make?

Yesterday I posted a Facebook event for a show run, despite my stated reservations about posting such things. Around that time, Shithole‘s Zach Bartz made a great FB post echoing the sentiment of my hollow but somewhat compulsory move.

If that advice sounds familiar, that’s because people like Dan Goldstein have been giving that advice for two decades.

MAKE IT PERSONAL

Make as many invitations personal as you can. I don’t mean use mail merge. I mean let people know, in indiviudal emails, about the show.

Yet we don’t take that advice… definitely not on Facebook, where sending invites and making posts feels productive even when it isn’t.

The Facebook invite is something most of us (myself included) feel we need to do, that no one will notice or care if there’s not some sort of Facebook datum about it. Even the Shithole themselves at least post an image on Facebook and other social media advertising their shows the day of (though as Zach attests they message people if they wish to send out invites; I’ve received many of their invites via PM myself).

What would have happened had I not posted a Facebook invite? What would have happened had I just PM’d everyone I wanted to see the show?

The likely result: With two weeks notice, chances are people would have quickly forgotten by the nights of the show, unless I became obnoxious and sent unsolicited follow up messages. And the law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly with unsolicited PM/email invites: One is great, two comes across as borderline harassment.

The Shithole (who I feel does this just right) sends one message for special shows to known interested parties, the day of. And keep in mind the common argument against doing this: People make plans and often if you give them a morning’s notice they’ll already be booked.

But Shithole’s vast community is the same community as yours and mine. All these people have plans and busy schedules. And the guys still fill up their secret venues with spectactors. A morning’s notice has always been more than enough to bring in more than enough friends and peers.

Granted, there are other factors that separate most shows’ situations from theirs. Shithole is free (donations welcome). Shows typically charge admission. Even as little as a $5 ticket price can deter someone who would have otherwise attended had it not cost anything to enter.

Also, admittedly there’s a huge cool-factor in attending Shithole. It’s an underground show in a secret location. A free underground show run by notoriously awesome people who care about the community is a lot cooler than a $10 not so underground show hosted by people who, nice or not as nice, don’t share that same rep.

Had I waited until the day of to invite people, it’s more likely people would have not have been able to attend, or wouldn’t have wanted to… especially with it costing $10 to walk in the door.

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So, there are totally contextual differences that make the approach more challenging for shows. At the same time, Zach is still completely right. Facebook invites ARE annoying and we have demonstrated history that they AREN’T effective. And messaging people directly to extend an invite has always been more effective than using a social media interface to send blanket invites to everyone you have a connection with in that social media platform.

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I didn’t like how I looked and felt, so I did something about it

At the end of 2015 I noticed some problems.

– I was overweight by about 10-20 pounds.
– I had high blood pressure that was getting dangerously high
– I felt like shit all the time
– Whether or not I got sick, I freqeuntly felt unwell
– I have always snored but recordings indicate it had gotten worse, plus my dad had developed sleep apnea and genetics indicate that’s where I’ll head if I don’t fix it.
– I didn’t like how I physically looked
– I was spending too much money on food
– Physical activity I used to do with little problem left me breathing hard
– I’m getting old, to a point where I need to be mindful that my body won’t just bounce back from neglect and that it’s only going to get more difficult
– I’ve always wanted to look better than I do.
– I have a busy lifestyle and can’t afford to get sick or slow down further

So what did I do?

– I actively started tracking everything I eat on a spreadsheet and total the calories and macros.
– I used that same workbook to plan future meals.
– I set a firm goal to lose 25 pounds by the end of the year. I weighed 185 so I want to get to 160.
– I set a soft goal to eat no more than 2300 calories a day.
– I avoided alcohol except for special occasions.
– I set a soft goal of no more than 200 grams of carbohydrates a day.
– I set a firmer goal of 120 grams or more of protein, preferably one gram per pound of lean body mass (140-145 pounds for me, so 140g).
– I set a goal of 4500mg of potassium a day. Your body needs potassium and we typically don’t get close to enough.
– I adopted Leangains style intermittent fasting, where I eat all the day’s food in a 4-10 hour window, and seek at some point to go 14-16 hours without a meal.
– I don’t drink coffee after 2pm on back to back days. If I do it one day I make sure not to do it the next.
– I shop for and eat potatoes, spinach, egg whites and chicken.
– I cook meals at home whenever it works with my schedule.
– I don’t buy/eat any food I cannot accurately log on my spreadsheet.

Since then:

– I’ve lost 9 pounds and counting.
– I feel a lot better. I have a lot more energy.
– Eating actually got easier with all the tracking, since planning meals around my schedule reduces the need for impulse decisions, and IF means I typically skip breakfast.
– I’ve cut my food and discretionary spending by 1/3, even while ordering out a bunch.

Would I specifically recommend anything to people who want to improve their diet and lose weight?

– At the very least, consider Leangains style intermittent fasting. Fasting over 12 hours fires up regenerative hormonal processes that will help rebuild your body and burn extra fat.

– Start cooking with coconut oil instead of butter or any other oils. The MCT fats and anti-fungal properties are super good for your digestive system and heart health. One tablespoon is usually all you need on the stovetop.

– If you’ve got to use any other oil, I’d recommend pressed sesame oil. Good taste and devoid of a lot of the bad shit in other oils. You can even pour a raw tablespoon into dishes and eat it as is.

– Honestly, if you can log your food, you should. Start a log. Take a week to figure out how much you eat, and then do a diet with 500 fewer calories a day than usual.

– Generally drink nothing except water, coffee and tea. Save alcohol for one night a week at most.

– If nothing else, eat a lot of protein. Protein is a key rebuilding block for our bodies and we often don’t get enough of it. Beef (lean cuts), chicken thighs/breasts, pork loin.

– If you’re a vegan, learn to love lentils, spinach, rice and beans. They are the four richest animal-free protein sources. Nuts are okay, but many people’s bodies don’t react well to them (mine doesn’t), and they’re more fat than protein anyway.

– Don’t eliminate carbs, but certainly eat less of them. I set a range of 100-200 grams a day. Most people eat several hundred grams a day. Unused carbs get stored as fat. At the same time, your body’s organs need carbs to function well. Don’t eliminate them, but set a bar of about 100-200 grams a day and stick to it.

– Don’t worry so much about how much dietary fat you’re taking in. A lot of ‘fatty’ foods are bad because they contain excess carbs or an excessive number of calories in general, and seem bad because people who eat them tend not to eat other healthy foods that your body needs, hence the health problems. If you’re eating a balanced diet and not too many calories, you can eat a lot of dietary fat and be just fine.

– If you’re not already walking at least 30 minutes a day, you should start.

– If you already walk 30+ minutes a day, I’d make a point to walk an extra 20-30 minutes, or take up a basic exercise program.

I could recommend a lot else, but that’s probably more than enough.

Marketing and Show Promotion

Like most performance arts, improv suffers from an excess of interested performers and producers, but a relative dearth of available interested audience. And like most performance arts, improvisers and producers of improv tend towards a one sided view towards the challenge of finding an audience for their improv. They see it as ‘how do we sell tickets and get butts in seats?’ rather than ‘how do we form relationships with a community that will want to support us?’, not realizing that answering the 2nd question is the most effective way of answering the 1st question.

Improv theaters with training programs grow an easy audience by giving students free passes to shows. But they’re not making money at the door when those students attend. Comps fill your seats but don’t pay off your expenses. And their word of mouth doesn’t go far, since nearly all their peers are also improvisers, and in our post-modern self-absorbed society almost none will pay the word of mouth any real mind.

Big Chicago improv theaters like iO and Second City have a long-standing built in audience for its main shows. However many of their lesser shows, and most shows elsewhere, struggle to fill seats even during prime time slots. Most shows seem like a case of a show in need of an audience, or shows made primarily for the sake of those making them, rather than made for an audience in need of a show.

Some inconvenient truths about producing improv shows:

– Unfortunately, when producing a show, your goal typically is to make money, at least enough to pay off your expenses to produce the show. No one’s into making improv shows to get rich, but anyone who makes a show happen at least wants to pay back the $200-400 or so to rent the venue, plus the cost of any rehearsal space, or a board op if they needed to pay one. And of course it’s nice if they can ever pay performers a little for their trouble. Turning a profit isn’t even on the radar. It’s just about making the show worth your while.

– The bulk of most improv shows’ audiences consists of other improvisers. These peers don’t have a lot of free time or disposable income. Rarely will they pay full price to see a show. But, like theater and dance, improv doesn’t do much to engage or cultivate an audience outside of its own peers.

– Marketing efforts often amount to the same ham fisted and too often annoying methods: Flyering + postering, Facebook invites, disposable-quality YouTube videos, email lists, begging for press from publications and websites, etc.

– Unsolicited word of mouth also comes up empty. I hear a couple dozen times a week about some really awesome show someone saw or otherwise knows about. When I hear about a show, I’m respectful about the input but I’m likely not going to see it. Whether or not I have the time and money… hell, even if I am interested, I have far too much else going on. So does pretty much every other improviser, let alone anyone who is not into improv or your improv group.

– Most people’s natural introverted aversion to sales and marketing (people generally don’t like directly trying to persuade someone to do something they probably don’t want to do), combined with the comfort zone of one’s social circle, leads people to lean on Facebook and other passive marketing methods that feel productive but often don’t bring much of anyone to the theater.

– We forget that other people are just as low on disposable income as we are, and are as strapped for time as we are. Most share our same schedules. If you don’t have the time and money to see a show costing that much, at that time… they probably don’t either.

– We forget that, if we aren’t interested or willing to pay to see a show at that time, for that price, with that content, etc… others in our demographic probably aren’t either. We forget that, if the investment and effort to see a show seems like too much of a bother for us, the driven working improviser… it’s probably too much for other driven working improvisers, let alone the not-as-driven casual audience that you want to pay full price to see your show.

– The more roadblocks you place to seeing your show (like ticket prices $10 and higher, a late start time on a work night, an unfavorable venue, an uninspiring lineup of groups, spammy and annoying marketing), the easier it is for anyone, let alone an improviser, to say no-thanks. Most non-improvisers also don’t have much money, and choosing to buy a ticket to a show, even a $5-10 ticket, is often for them an important one. You face a steep uphill battle to convince them to come.

– Simply put, it takes far more interest in and empathy for a target audience, and a committed interest in that audience’s needs and lifestyles, than we want to admit. The work to engage your community is just as important, if not more important, than scheduling and staging the actual show. If you don’t cultivate an outside audience, then you may as well have never produced the show.

No one in performing arts likes confronting the reality of show marketing. We generally don’t do it well, and we rely on methods that were outdated a decade ago to reach a changed culture that doesn’t respond to those methods. Effective marketing needs to be more personal and direct, and more about building relationships with a larger community that will in turn take interest and initiative in seeing your work with minimal or no solicitation.

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While I think we can do better, and find a better way to cultivate an audience community, there is also one final inconvenient truth: There are currently far more improv performers and far more shows than our culture wants or needs.

Let’s never mind that improv is still a strange unknown topic to many people, and that if people were aware they may be more interested. Jai Alai is a strange and unknown sport to people in the U.S. You think there’s a huge untapped market for that? You think all they’re missing is mere informative marketing? Highly doubtful. While improv is more applicable, sure, the ceiling for its reach may be lower than people want to believe.

I recognize that the unfortunate best answer, for both improvisers and potential audiences, may either be for the community as a whole to do fewer shows, as well as eliminate shows produced in unfriendly time slots (unless overwhelming audience demand presents itself)… or to create a more affordable and attractive way for improvisers to stage free and otherwise easily accessible shows (i.e. more shows like Shithole).

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In the interim, we ought to stay optimistic and open minded, to grow our audience for paid shows while we can, and find a better way to do it.

I’m not saying I have answers. But I do see what is not working, and I do have at least a general idea of how to do things better.

 

It’s important that we engage an audience that may want and be more easily able to see such a show. I have some ideas in mind to find that audience, in early stages, but it’s definitely more than posters, a Metromix listing and a Facebook invite.

I’d love to talk it over with an artists or producers who also want to change the paradigm on show marketing, and help find and grow a new audience for our work.

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Everything you do on stage matters. A lot.

All of your actions on stage read. I learned this as a theatre and clown performer, and it’s totally true for improv.

We don’t realize how much we are communicating in every moment of a scene with every little detail of our actions, the tone of our voice, the timing of our actions and speech, etc.

Most inexperienced (and even highly experienced) improvisers only notice a small portion of the context behind their words and actions on stage. Many often throw too many ideas and moves into a scene to make it go, not realizing how much information they are already adding with minimal action and dialogue… if they would only think to notice.

Much like in life, a lot of actions on stage are performed unconsciously. We miss a lot of the weight behind the words we say. Many players ramble or invent information, not realizing that the first five or six words said or the first thing they did said a lot: The content present in their tone, their delivery, their body language.

However, most importantly, the audience sees and hears EVERYTHING you do on stage. You may not have realized your random gestures and tics, or all the words you said, mattered a lot. But the audience sees them, and therefore it does.

For example, I start a scene by walking out with a limp of my left leg. My character and another character begin a conversation. During this conversation we walk around, and I not only don’t acknowledge the limp in the scene, but the limp eventually disappears as the scene progresses.

Even if you can argue the limp didn’t fit the character and scene I ended up playing… the audience saw me limp, and subsequently saw me a) apparently not notice I was limping and b) give up doing the limp, as if it wasn’t relevant.

I have now sent the message to the audience that not everything I do on stage is important, or relevant. I have given them permission to tune out not only my choices, but my scene partner’s choices. I have advertised to them that I’m not fully invested in the scene. ALL of this is regardless of how I personally feel about the work I believe I have presented.

Any action or words that happens before an audience’s eyes is reality in the show, let alone the scene. If I treat any given movement or decision like it doesn’t matter, now I’ve sent the message that what the audience is watching doesn’t totally matter. Even if they choose to stay on my side and remain invested in the drama of the show, now I’ve put more of the burden of suspending disbelief on them because I did an insufficient effort on my part to aid them in doing so.

Sounds like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, right? Well, not if I don’t just simplify my choices, and instead of trying to do a lot, I just treat with importance every move or word I do add to a scene.

Whether or not any of this lack of awareness and attention to detail does break my show, such negligence certainly does not help my improv, and it is certainly avoidable. Most of us aren’t amazing performers that consistently kill it on stage. We need all the help we can give ourselves.

Most of all, once we get used to giving our work this attention to detail, it becomes second nature and a lot easier. And I won’t offer any guarantees, but I bet the scenework becomes consistently better… more fun, even.

I’ll offer a class or rehearsal exercise that can help illustrate the idea:

ATTENTION TO DETAIL EXERCISE

Have a single player come out and initiate a scene by themselves. Freeze after a few seconds. As a group, instructor/coach/director and ensemble, point out and briefly discuss all the things you noticed about what the player did, how they carried themselves, how their voice sounded, etc… along with what each of those things indicate. After a brief but satisfactory discussion the player may sit down. (If the instructor/coach/director has a solid handle on noticing details, they may even start this process on their own to helpfully illustrate to students the level of detail they have permission to explore.)

What the player on stage will almost always discover is that they did and presented far, far more actions and traits than they may have initially noticed. They might have been conscious of a quarter of the details their peers noticed. Obviously, having a bunch of peers dissect the moment means more will be noticed. But it will show how much we communicate within a bare minimum of action or words.

Once everyone has done this individual exercise once or twice, have two people initiate a scene. After a few seconds, freeze them, and have the seated viewers (like before) point out all the traits they noticed in one player’s actions. Then do the same for the other. From there, you may unfreeze the scene and have the players continue playing for about a minute or two.

To really hammer the point home, you may add the wrinkle of instructing those players to move as little as possible, or set a limit on how much they can say at one time… or both!

Once every action and word has finite and significant economy, players will quickly recognize the importance their every little move has on the scene. They might even have fun with it, given the limited need to make choices saves them the trouble of inventing information or doing any more than just being present in the moment of the scene within their individual established contexts.

What seems like a stressful exercise at first can be freeing to players, once they realize they need not make so many specific choices at the top of a scene to build a great scene.

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The more actions and words a player does with specific intention, the richer their character work, and the more the audience will buy into the scene. If you do something on stage and don’t notice you did or said it, the audience sees you drop the ball, which saps more of their confidence in the show then most players care to admit, leaving you the task of regaining that lost confidence, on top of creating a compelling scene.

Engaging improv is not just your words, your choices, your characters and relationships… but also how invested and in the moment you are with the scene, and with every choice you make in the moment. The audience can read every choice you make, even if you can’t.

A fringe-level sketch comedy production that I would want to create or work on:

– Develops and follows an organized process for production
– Knows and has concretely identified exactly everything the show needs to happen
– Budgets honestly for exactly everything the show needs to happen
– Casts a diverse and representative range of performers who have fun, positive attitudes towards the process
– Pays its talent no less than a significant stipend
– Is developed and ultimately written by the people who will perform it
– Creates material on its feet rather than at keyboards and laptop screens
– Does not work with people who object to and are not completely on board with such a creative process
– Meets for material generation and rehearsal at least twice a week, for about 8 weeks.
– Rehearses at a reasonable day and time during the week
– Keeps alcohol and drugs out of the creative and rehearsal process. (Obviously, drinks after meetings and shows is okay.)
– Seeks to create material that genuinely makes one another laugh
– Creates material the performers enjoy performing
– Builds and organizes its creative material around a theme
– Uses thematic material to inspire and create additional material
– Offers ample time and space to create material
– Offers an organized process through which to create material
– Offers an organized process to rehearse and polish show-ready material
– Has the creative process gradually give way to the rehearsal process
– Produces the show at a friendly, accessible performance venue
– Avoids performing at venues that are inconvenient to access.
– Charges enough for tickets to make revenue and indicate credibility.
– Doesn’t charge enough for tickets to actively turn audiences away.
– Never charges a price the performers and director themselves wouldn’t pay to see a show performed by people they don’t know.
– Does not work with venues that force the show to charge prohibitive ticket prices.
– Treats the tech process and the tech staff with the same focused respect as the creative process.
– Presumes a reachable goal of selling half the seats at full price.
– Offers discounted tickets to students and performers
– Provides each performer with one comp for each week of the show, which they can use however they wish.
– Markets the show consciously and mindfully, rather than spraying invites and promotion wherever they can.
– Focuses most show promotion on a new, outside audience
– Seeks out and markets to a new potential audience for each and every show.
– Is performed with a joyous lucidity by performers who believe in the show and don’t take a single moment on stage for granted.
– Takes any revenue beyond the budget and either invests it into subsequent shows, or pays it to performers as a bonus.

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Drawn Dead’s Chicago run has concluded. Thanks, everyone.

I consider everyone who voluntarily walked through the door to enjoy the show a blessing. They chose to come see this show, and that’s awesome. I have no problem with anyone who didn’t. People are busy: Even when they don’t have conflicting commitments, even when they have the time and resources to make it… they face all sorts of worthwhile competing demands for their time. Sometimes they even just need a night off.

It took a while in my life for me to learn to not take it personal and not make it personal if someone didn’t attend a show of mine. The conversely abundant mindset, that whoever does come see the show is welcomed and enough, feels so much better. I definitely encourage that point of view over others.

Drawn Dead was produced mainly to give Chicago friends who wanted to see the show the opportunity to see it. I’m glad for everyone who came to see it. And if you didn’t see it, no problem.

If you’re in Chicago and ever want to see it, you got options:

– Come follow me to a festival whenever I produce it there.
– If you or someone in Chicago is willing to pay for a performance space and a board op, I’ll be happy to do it then and there.

In the meantime, thanks so much to The Crowd Theater for hosting the show and helping provide an audience.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Amidst my busy schedule, I am slowly writing a new show that I hope will be ready to produce this Fall. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m putting out applications where applicable for Drawn Dead to play at festivals in the region. There is a chance it could go live at some point this summer or fall somewhere in the Midwest, but I admit this is not an aggressive marketing effort. I wouldn’t mind shelving it for 2016, but I will bring it back for the right circumstances.

The Sketch Improv Project was postponed indefinitely in light of the sexual harassment situation in Chicago comedy. While it was a circumstantial product of current events, it was also a bit of a relief.

Right now, I’m studying improv on a quite regular basis at a few schools, performing and assisting with a couple of regular shows, and currently have my Monday nights, Thursday nights and weekend afternoons spoken for, plus most of my Friday nights. If things shake out, my Thursday nights could be a doubleheader for all of March. Monday nights already are a doubleheader through early March.

There just wasn’t a ton of available time. Needless to say, I’m in no hurry to book anything else for now. I anticipate this will change substantially after March, at which point I’ll look to expand on projects. For now, I will keep working on my current commitments, and savor what free time I can get.

Something Other Than Theatre: Talking About My Diet

On a non-theater note (and I’ll post about my present activities in a little bit), I came home from Christmas break with my family in Las Vegas having eaten a substantial amount of home cooked food, and weighing as much as 186 pounds before settling back around 184.

Both those numbers are higher than my 5 foot maybe 10 inch frame should be holding, and my weight over the last 15 or so years has been higher than needed.

I came home feeling not so great, recognized that I spent much of 2015 not feeling so great, and recognized that my diet and extra weight plays a substantial part in that.

– I didn’t feel great after meals
– I needed too much coffee to maintain a reasonable amount of energy
– I felt hungry too often for someone who was eating more than he should
– I kept feeling various states of ill during the year
– I snored more than ever before, and began worrying that I may be heading towards sleep apnea
– I don’t exactly have a great figure: There was more fat in more places than I cared for

Plus, I was paying more for food and eating restaurant food more than I wanted to. I came home shortly before the end of 2015 and decided to:

– Lose 20-25 pounds this next year
– Log all my food, calories, macros, on a spreadsheet
– Consciously buy as much food at the supermarket as possible
– Cut my food spending by 25-50%
– Do intermittent fasting full time (16 hours between meals, and eat all your day’s food within an 8 hour window)
– Adopt a regular bodyweight exercise program
– Get my body fat closer to 10-15% than the 20-25% it spent most of 2015 in.
– Get my blood pressure, which has always been high, down to a reasonable 130/80ish level
– Sleep more. I had been sleeping 6-7 hours a day. Sleep closer to 8 hours.

I started with a personal goal of 1800-2200 calories a day. After about a week and some research, I set more specific goals:

– One gram of protein for every pound of lean body mass (140-142 for me).
– No more than 200 grams of carbohydrates a day (most people consume 300-500+).
– Making sure to get the RDA of 4500mg of potassium each day.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

I weighed 182 pounds on January 1st (I admit I took a bit of a head start before the New Year). I was only hoping to lose about a pound per week, which would have left me around 177-178 at month’s end. But I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself at 175.8 pounds as of this final day of January, a six pound loss.

I crafted a somewhat complex spreadsheet on Google Docs to track my meals and progress, as well as calculate how many weight I can expect to lose based on my average consumption over the past week. This helps estimate if and when I can reach my goal weight of 160 pounds.

In January I averaged 2284 calories a day, which indicates either I had a lot of water weight on me, that I perhaps overestimated calories on some foods, or my Basal Metabolic Rate is somewhere close to 3000 calories. In any case, I consciously ate enough less to lose about 6 pounds.

I intermittent-fasted by skipping breakfast and eating my first meal around 2-4pm. I’m hungry a lot during mornings at work, but I drink coffee and just got used to feeling that way there. When I’m off work those cravings don’t bother me nearly as much.

There were a couple mornings where for incidental reasons I decided to break the 12-16 hour fast and eat breakfast. There were a few days where I didn’t get
in a full fasting window.

Days with a full 16+ hour fast: 17
Days with a partial 14-16 hour fast: 4
Days with at least a 12 hour window (where fat burning kicks in): 2
Days with no fast window: 8

For a cold turkey adoption of the program, a 55% success rate is not too bad, especially with another 19% of kind of sort of successes. I only failed to fast about a quarter of the time. In many of these cases there was an incidental (usually scheduling and meal timing) reason that made fasting impractical.

I adopted the 5BX exercise program, a simple and old daily exercise program created by the Royal Canadian Air Force that is similar to the Hacker’s Diet Workout, and have made it to the C level on chart one.

The spreadsheet does factor in changes to my BMR based on the weight loss, changes to my lean body mass and my slowly advancing age. Yet, at my current rate of consumption, I am projected to reach 160 pounds sometime in June.

How I Keep a Calendar

I talked previously about the value of keeping a calendar, and I want to give you a look at the detail with which I keep my Google Calendar.

As I mentioned, my calendar is not only a planner, but also a log I keep of what I did with my day. I’ll go back and add events that came up, delete events I did not do, or revise the times during which I did certain things if they ran long/short or changed their schedule. This has actually been quite helpful in situations where I had to go back and verify events that happened.

For the following example of future planning, I chose this upcoming week as it illustrates examples of every color I use to code upcoming plans and events on my calendar.

CalendarExample

I shade all my work shifts in gray, and I adjust the time on these afterward if my day starts or ends early, or late. Here you see all five workdays for my day job. If and when I help manage the studio at Theatre Momentum, I code those shifts in gray as well.

If I call in sick, take a day off, or get to leave early, I delete that particular day’s block. When I fill out my work timecard at month’s end, this helps me verify if and when I took a sick day.

Lavender indicates organized conscious practice for a performance art discipline, like a class, workshop, rehearsal or audition. When I see lavender, I know there’s a good reason I put that on there. If I have to miss it or I want to schedule something else there, I need to make a judgment call.

With classes and rehearsals, the judgment call is simple: I cannot remove it without extenuating circumstances. Being sick or having some other emergency counts. Wanting to go do something else does not.

Workshops and auditions are more flexible. If I put my name in writing or make a similar commitment, it’s set in stone. But otherwise I give myself permission to remove it as needed.

Green indicates personal tasks or projects. I need to get these things done to keep my life from imploding, anything from bill payment and finance related things, to writing tasks, to errands I need to get done.

On the left is a meeting for a potential project. The bottle middle item is a bank run to get money to pay for venue space. And on the far right is a time block to do my laundry.

Yes, given my busy schedule, I schedule time to wash laundry. I note the day I last washed my clothes and towels and make sure to do laundry within two weeks of that. If I don’t wash my laundry in suitable time, I could end up wearing dirty clothes for several days before the next available time to wash clothes.

I won’t go as far as to block off time for grocery shopping, but for an item like doing laundry I need to make sure I have the time to do it, and that I do it before my clean laundry runs out.

There are a couple of small items at the top. These are certain bill payments (usually class payments, membership fees or anything important I need to manually pay) that are either posting this day or need to be paid this day.

Turquoise is for shows I’d like to see. Despite being busy as hell, I do try and see shows I’m interested in, shows friends are playing in, etc. Any show title ending with a question mark means my attendance is a judgment call. I’m not yet sure if I can or will go, but I put it on the calendar so I don’t forget it. If the event shows no question mark, it’s an event I intend to go to if nothing comes up. If I’m not comped or the ticket isn’t already paid for, I will list a dollar amount for the ticket price.

I may delete this if I need that time for other opportunities, needed appointments and commitments, or even if I’m exhausted or otherwise not up to making the trip. And yes, I frequently delete these turquoise items.

However, at the same time, I’ll frequently see shows on the spur of the moment, and add them after the fact. As an iO student I dropped in on their shows all the time.

Aqua is for shows that I firmly committed to seeing. For the item you see under Thursday, I need to meet with Brett Mannes at pH before that night’s pHarm House show. Brett and I agreed to meet at this time, so I damn well better be there. I see aqua and I know I can’t bump that commitment.

If I buy an advance ticket to a show, it’s coded in aqua. Since I paid for the show, I better go or my money was wasted.

I’ll also go aqua on shows if I personally promised someone I’d attend that particular show, or if there’s a special meetup I committed to attend (like someone’s seeing a show for their birthday). If I have to go back on it for any reason, I’ll contact whoever to let them know and back out if possible. But these aqua items are usually set in stone. I set these commitments very judiciously.

Salmon red indicates shows I’m performing in or otherwise working. This includes tech, such as with the Monday Laser Comedy Show on the calendar. Backing out of these events is of course a huge no-no in general.

Jams and other open-mic style opportunities to practice are in orange. These are course are quite fungible. I practice and perform so much now that I rarely book these, and I admittedly just put the one (for the CIC Blender) in the bottom left for show. Chances are iffy that I’ll attend, and if anything comes up for that night I’ll probably delete it.

The most frequent dark red items on my calendar are Cubs games. Because I live near Boystown in Lakeview, the games heavily impact my commute. I make sure not to drive unless absolutely necessary on game days. I also try and run errands before homestands, so I have as little need as possible to wade through hordes of fans to do stuff. Obviously, with all these commitments I’ll inevitably need to do so, but the fewer the better. It’s also good to know when night games happen, because the Purple Line stops at Addison before these games, giving me a quicker commute home from work.

But neighborhood street closures (which is the little entry at the top of my calendar) also impact my life. If I don’t move my car for these, I get ticketed or towed. Street sweeping is another item that comes up. If I need to make sure my car’s not parked in the area, I label that day dark red so I know to either move my car to safety and/or drive to work that day.

Blue is how I code my exercise, or any classes that require great physical effort, like a dance class, a physical theatre class, a Pilates or yoga class, etc.

I’m once again running, so I have runs scheduled for certain days. In fact, because I notice how it gets the blood flowing and wakes me up, I have them scheduled on a couple show days. I also like to run home for part of my commute home from iO, so I have one scheduled for after the Saturday class.

Obviously, functional exercise like walking to and from places or carrying groceries doesn’t count. I also do a basic 5-10 minute 5BX workout that I don’t include on here, since it can be done quickly anytime I’m at home.

This in particular is a busy week, and there’s no yellow items on here. Yellow indicates social meetups and events where the main goal is to hang out and have a good time. Parties, concerts, anything where the bulk of the time is spent commiserating and/or drinking get coded in yellow, even if there’s a show built into the event. If I meet up with friends before or after the show and we hang out for more than half an hour, I’ll log this in yellow to show where my time’s going.

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All of this makes it seem like I put maniacal effort into coordinating the schedule. In reality, the various color coding and rules I note above came about gradually over the 5+ years I’ve kept this calendar. It’s mostly second nature to me and they exist because it helps me stay organized and quickly aware at a glance of what’s coming up.

This is not to say you ought to be this detailed. But in light of how many people double book themselves and forget about events in good faith, I think keeping a calendar with some level of detail can dramatically cut down on these scheduling issues.

Energy is essential, especially when you don’t have it

 

One common refrain among peers before shows is that they find themselves in a “low-energy” state. Part of their nervousness or apprehension about an imminent show is that they suddenly find themselves lacking the high energy they would prefer to approach the show with.

Many carry their apprehensive, tentative sluggishness into the set, and it adversely affects their participation in the set. Whether or not they do jump in as needed, their choices often lack alert tenacity, and frequently fall flat.

I strike many as a high energy performer, and many wonder what my secret is. I don’t take any drugs, and at most I’ve had a cup of coffee shortly before the show.

It turns out I’m probably just as tired as they are. I’ve stepped on stage for shows often feeling like I’d rather be in bed. But I refuse to let that keep me from making the strong choices I want to make and being as present as I want to be. Once we’re on, that show and the moment are all I care about. I refuse to feel any exhaustion.

The secret is that I’m also tired during practice or rehearsal or class, and because of that I make a point there to give my best within the reality of not feeling so hot. I have spent years getting used to giving my best and pushing myself to play the way I want to play when I’m feeling far from my best, knowing that someday I’d need to perform shows in that condition.

An improv show or any theatrical performance requires a higher plane of energy. An audience will frequently turn against a show if they feel the performers are not giving their best.

On a 7-point energy scale, 7 being full speed ahead and 0 being still, most of us live anywhere between a 1 and a 3. Theatre, improv, any performance, requires at least a 4, and frequently demands you incidentally push yourself to a 5 or 6.

There are going to be a lot of days where you feel like a 2 (1 is akin to laying down and relaxing). Pretty much everyone who says they’re feeling “low-energy” is around a 2, where living at a 3 feels like an effort. There are a lot of days where I walked into a space feeling like a 2, but I gave my work a 4-6 anyway because that’s what it demanded, and what I demanded of myself. I got used to meeting those expectations, and now I can give that level of effort even when I feel “low-energy”.

It takes more than going through the motions of a warm-up to find energy when you’re “low-energy”. You need to be actively present and aware, play with purpose and a sense of urgency. A good warm-up can get you there if you as a player are focused on connecting to that state of awareness, presence and sense of urgency. Warmup scenes can get you there. Shadowboxing, a run around the block, or a great conversation can get you there if you’re seeking to connect to that state.

However, it’s easiest to reach that state when you routinely find and perform in that state during practice, on a regular basis. The more often you play with presence, awareness and a sense of urgency, the less trouble it’ll be to do a show with “low-energy”.

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You’re Always Coming and Going From Somewhere

 

An easy way to create character choices in improv is to realize your character, much like yourself, is always coming from somewhere, and after this scene will be going somewhere else. This is not to say you should create in your mind a comprehensive character history for whatever character you happen to be playing. But it helps to come in with an idea of what has led your character to this place in time, with the other character(s) in your scene.

Is your character in the middle of a shitty day? Having a great day? Perhaps your character spent all day preparing for this moment, the scene you’re in right now. Perhaps your character has dreaded this moment. Perhaps your character has been enjoying the journey of the last day, week, month, year, life… or loathing it.

Perhaps your character has a long work day ahead, and isn’t looking forward to it. Perhaps your character can’t wait to get the hell out of there. Perhaps your character never wants this moment to end, or whatever happens next is nothing to this character unless they get what they want in this moment.

Imagine for a split second where this character is coming from, or where they plan to go next. From there, put yourself emotionally in that character’s shoes and imagine for a split second how you’d feel in that situation, where your head would be at.

Give it no more than a split second’s thought. You are in the middle of a scene, after all!

Take whatever sense memory you can glean from that idea into this scene, and play with that from here.

It could be the bit of information you need to help drive your improv in the scene.

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