Tag Archives: empowerment

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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Be Ham Fisted: Break your comfort zone.

I recently started reading Brian Tracy’s Maximum Achievement, one of umpteen personal development books out there, and one of the oldest (originally published in 1993). There was no specific impetus to seek the book out: During my random Sunday research I landed upon references to it, found it and started reading it. It’s sold as a business book but the principles apply to pretty much everything in life.

What separates Tracy’s book from the others is it has far less self-congratulatory fluff text than the others, and far more analysis and discussion on how our minds fundamentally work, plus how you go about re-aligning yourself for success from the ground up. About 1/3 of the way in, I’d already highly recommend it, even if you just read the first 120 or so pages and put it down with a new understanding of how your brain works.

I bring the book up not just because I’m reading it, but because he hit my current situation right in the gut with this quote:

“A major difference between leaders and also-rans is that superior men and women are always stretching themselves, pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. They are very aware how quickly the comfort zone, in any area, becomes a rut. They know that complacency is the great enemy of creativity and future possibilities.”

A comfort zone, in any area, can quickly become a rut. I am in a rut. It never occurred to me until now that my rut could, in fact, be the direct product of my comfort zone dictating my actions. Why did I suddenly lose confidence in my abilities? Perhaps my growth and experience has just landed me in an unfamiliar place. The umpteen mile road trip of our lives just has me on a steep highway incline climbing up a mountain range. It may not seem that way, since I don’t distinctly feel like I’m struggling with anything in particular, but the combination of my experience with my current work has me re-learning to walk with yet another new set of bionic legs.

Or, conversely, my previous comfort with my work (which I’ll peg from about mid February until about a week ago) may have been a plateau of development, where I had developed substantial ability but at that time wasn’t growing or pushing myself. I had enough time to get comfortable with my ability in that period. Suddenly, I’m once again pushing myself, and that comfort has dissipated.

The next line from Tracy after the above quote eerily echoes another concept I’ve been working with:

“For you to grow, to get out of your comfort zone, you have to be willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable doing it the first few times. If it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing poorly until you get a feel for it, until you develop a new comfort zone at a new, higher level of competence.”

I did a scene in Jorin Garguilo‘s iO class where I didn’t quite get to the heart of the scene. After the scene I totally knew it, and Jorin addressed it. Instead of telling him yes, I know I know (a defensive tendency I’ve always had to work on quelling), I listened and took the notes.

A classmate chimed in (the following is all paraphrased), “If the dialogue in the scene isn’t conducive to him making that point, how do you do it without being ham-fisted?”

Jorin replied, “Go ahead and be ham-fisted. If you have important information to share, do what it takes to get it out there. It might be awkward for a moment, but it’ll move the scene forward and make it better.”

I realize part of our comfort zones as improvisers is to make our dialogue and actions fit our usual narratives and patterns of behavior. And often times those narratives and patterns can be useful and engaging.

But a lot of great, funny scenes are about testing and often breaking those patterns. The most frequently productive way to do this is with brutal honesty in the moment, e.g…. your character hates another character’s cooking. I bet just saying it as bluntly as possible will not only make a funnier moment and scene than the most clever lines you could concoct, but getting over the hump of revealing that info will push the scene somewhere no one would have imagined it would go, which probably makes a better scene than to dance around the subject and not say what your character is feeling or wanting.

Plus, most of all, we as the audience and your fellow players may not know what you’re thinking, or see what you’re seeing. Trying to figure the scene out if we’re not sure will take us out of the scene. Plus, bottling that detail inside gets you in your head and takes YOU out of the scene. If you as a player get that info out there, everyone now knows, keeping everyone (you, fellow players and audience) in the scene with you and allowing us to enjoy where it goes.

I realize one of the things that draws me to improv is each scene’s fascinating exploration of humanity. That exploration is a lot more possible and fun for players by challenging our comfort zones, which includes clearly communicating thoughts out of our heads and into the reality of the scene. We get in our heads because that is part of our comfort zone. We can’t be present and in the moment without getting out of our heads, which requires we get out of our comfort zones and be willing to take the risk of truthfully being in a scene as a character.

I don’t know if this will break my rut, but I do know this idea is worth considering. Plus, you ought to read Maximum Achievement.

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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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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!


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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Things my 36 year old self would tell my 25 year old self (and other 25 year olds)

Disclosure: I’m old. I may look and often act younger than 36, but according to birth records from the State of Nevada I was born in 1978 and thus am 36 years old.

At the end of one recent Saturday night my roommate, who’s 25, asks me what advice I as a 36 year old would have for a 25 year old, a broad and loaded question to ask someone at 2am after a few drinks. I had a little bit of advice, but I thought more over subsequent days about the question of what I’d tell my 25yo self.

That became a list of things I’d tell any 25 year old, which of course I broadened out a bit:


– You think you have life figured out, and absolutely know who is right and who is wrong, but you don’t. You’re not even close. And that’s fine. The key to life is realizing that virtually no one really does, even the people who really seem to have it together. We’re all just living our lives through a series of educated guesses.

– So take it easy on people who don’t see the world the way you do, or you feel are fundamentally wrong about something. Chances are there’s much more to it, to them and to life than that. So, unless they’re directly hurting you, themselves or others, let them be… no matter how shitty you feel their POV is.

– Each of us are entitled to and deserve absolutely nothing. This is both a bummer, and liberating. It’s a bummer because we’re not owed any benefits or success, even if technically by the letter of the law we are. Anyone can honestly decide at any time that you’re not entitled, and everyone can decide at any time not to stand up for you even if you’re right.

It’s liberating because no one deserves to stay in a bad situation, not have opportunities or be treated like garbage. You can pretty much do anything you seize the opportunity and put forth the effort to do. I prefer to look at this truism in a positive way. We are capable and able to do many things, even if there are no guarantees should you fail.

– That said, everything you do is a choice, and everything you receive is a product of someone else’s choices. Respect the times people make the choice to give you something or do something for you that they don’t otherwise need to. And take note of the times people make choices that hurt you and others. Do with this info what you will.

– Vice versa, take note of how the choices you make help and hurt other people, even inadvertently. The more mindful you are of how you affect other people, the more mindful you can help them be of how they affect you… and the more highly people will think of you over time. Many will not care, but many will notice, and those often are going to be the people that have your back going forward.

– Talk to people directly when they’re troubling you. Don’t withhold that shit, even if you feel outing yourself can get you into trouble or fired. You’ll be surprised how often talking about it clears the air and makes everyone feel better.

– People rarely think about how their personal habits affect their bodies until they get older and it’s too late to undo decades of damage. Don’t wait. Cut down on the drinking and smoking (both cigarettes and pot). (If you do anything harder than that and you seriously want to be something more than a working class stiff, then shame on you for hurting yourself like that, and fucking stop it right now.)

(Don’t let the successful addicts of history fool you. They succeeded despite their drug habits, and many of them were ultimately destroyed by those habits. Take the high road.)

– Don’t trust any feature article or blog post you read on the internet. Seriously, there’s so much subversively sponsored and agenda driven bias behind literally everything written that I pretty much spambox about 95% of it, even when good friends post it. Even mainstream sources like HuffPo and Slate. In fact, I feel bad for friends who repost this stuff. Learn to spot the agenda behind everything you read, and just don’t take any of it too seriously.

– Not convinced? Read Ryan Holiday’s book “Trust Me, I’m Lying”. I’m not a fan of Ryan as a person, but I find the information in his book very telling and valuable, as he and his employers actually used these tactics to manipulate public opinion and still do today. Literally everything on the internet is about generating clicks and even outrage through false premises. Dividing communities is how websites conquer the need for revenue.

– Use paraben-free deodorant, e.g. Tom’s of Maine. The aluminum and additives in regular deodorant may be far worse for you than sponsored studies are letting on. Plus the additives are what stain your armpits in white shirts.

– Stop waiting for the right time to do something, or when you’re ready. That day is never coming. There’s never going to be a perfect time, or even a good time, to do that thing. And it’s never going to turn out perfectly the way you want it. This is the folly of wedding planning, the obsession of creating the perfect version of an event. It doesn’t mirror the rest of life in any real way whatsoever. Nothing is perfect, and what you get instead can still be great if you put the effort to it. Yes, it could easily be awful too, but it’s never going to happen either way until you move ahead and make it happen.

– If you’re gonna pursue an endeavor or practice you really want to do, DO IT HARD. Take it seriously. Make sure the rest of your life complements your time and ability to do that thing. Make sure you’re practicing it several times a week unless/until it’s clear to you that your interest in it is no longer serious.

Sports talk host Jim Rome has built a multi-million dollar empire over his 25 years on the air. During a Q&A with fans, he was asked how he felt he made it from the small time in L.A. to the top of his profession. He said, basically, ‘I’ve known countless people who are more talented or skilled at this than I could ever be. But they quit. They eventually gave up. And I never did. That’s a big part of how I got here.’

Commit in your life to building it around the things you want to do, right down to how the way you eat, sleep and take care of yourself serves your ability to do your passion.

– If you’re gonna go out and drink, that’s cool, but don’t be the loud douchebag/bitch at the party. Being gregarious among your friends is fine, but don’t force the rest of us to listen to or deal with you. I tend to cut those people out of my life (not just for that; such people usually give me a few other associated reasons to do it) and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who does. Respecting the host’s home, a neighborhood, or the space of a public establishment isn’t just about not breaking their shit.

– Exercise. I don’t necessarily mean pick heavy things up and put them down, or do oven hot yoga, or run 7 miles a day, if that’s not shit you want any part of. (If you do, then knock yourself out). But do something a couple times a week that challenges your body’s limits. Play sports. Go on long hikes. Take some modern, ballet or jazz dance classes (sorry, but ballroom’s too physically easy to count). Carry your 30 pounds of laundry down to the laundromat and back. Walk to the supermarket and carry your groceries back instead of driving there.

If you absolutely don’t want to do much exercise, at least do a cheap but daily exercise program like 5BX or the Hacker’s Diet workout. Or even a challenge program like One Hundred Push Ups. Something is better than nothing, and you may be surprised at how much it improves your body/energy.

– Clean up your diet, e.g. meat you cook yourself, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds as close to their original form as possible, rice and/or beans cooked yourself, water and coffee/tea. Deviations should be incidental and infrequent. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, but when you do go for the clean option.

The processed shit pumps you full of sodium and other additives that make you retain water weight and jack around with your body function. Plus it’s more expensive per serving.

– Never mind getting in shape. Hell, even if you’re ripped or rail thin now you should clean up. Your energy levels and your health over the next few years will be much better than if you don’t.

– Sleep is so NOT overrated that by now I say it’s vastly underrated. Turn out the lights by 11 on work nights and make sure you get at least 7-8 hours in bed each night. Take an afternoon nap on the weekends if you feel run down. By his own admission, Tom Jones looks pretty good at 70-75 because he drinks a lot of water and gets a lot of sleep.


– You know what IS overrated? No, not love, but settling down. Don’t make binding decisions like marriage, children or homebuying lightly, because you’re sacrificing so much more than you realize. It is not nearly as easy to break out of an unwanted mortgage or a bad marriage as people make it out to be, and having kids is a much bigger (and more expensive) pain in the ass than anyone lets on. Do not believe the hype. And no, that’s not your hormones or biological clock egging you that way. That’s cultural and peer pressure.

– Love does not conquer all. In fact, it’s motivated more horrible mistakes than anything.

– Don’t feel bad if you’re not married or in a committed relationship by now. We culturally teach people to get hitched at 18-25, but people don’t really figure out who they are and what they want out of life until their 30’s. Who and what you want now might not be what you want in 5-10 years, and if you make any commitments before then (marriage, a house, kids), it’ll be too late to change without serious damage to people’s lives.

– If you need a relationship to be able to afford your life (e.g. you’ve got to live with your boy/girlfriend), you probably need to focus on getting a better job or career, if not trimming your expenses.

Arguing with people:

– Don’t, unless there’s just no other viable choice, unless it involves a situation directly, adversely affecting your life. If you’ve got to risk being an asshole, be an asshole for the right reasons.

– That said, stand up for yourself. And don’t be afraid of yelling at the creeper on the train or the street if they’re giving you and others a hard time. Pretty much none of them are serial killers, or even at all skilled in hand to hand combat. You think they’d be on the street sliming random people if they were?

Bills and money:

– Pay your bills. On time. Every time.

– Don’t take rainchecks.

– Don’t break a contract or a lease. Don’t sign either one if you want the flexibility to leave before the term expires.

– Take a year or two, minimize your spending, and pay off your debts if you’ve got any: Your credit cards, your student loans, etc. I wish I had the wherewithal in the early 2000’s to suck it up, align my life and get those paid off. I’m still paying the price today. Life and your finances do not get any easier, unless you miraculously get rich.

– It doesn’t seem possible to both have a life and not spend any money… unless you’ve got good friends or a practice/hobby doing something you’re passionate about. Find them if you don’t have them.


– The usefulness of classes follows a bell curve. Take too few and you’re not skilled enough to practice what you want to do. Take too many and you’re not putting yourself out there, building a practice and carving your own identity. Plus, you’re institutionalizing yourself, exploring a physical pursuit in such an academic and puppet strung setting for so long that you can’t branch out on your own.

– Theatre, dance and improv instructors promote classes and workshops because that’s how they make a good portion of their income: The tuition you pay to attend. Most people and organizations will never make enough money from performances to pay the bills. Classes are pretty much the only reliable revenue stream… but only as long as students feel persuaded to attend. Classes, while they do have a significant benefit for a performer, often are more beneficial for the host than they are for you. Just remember that instructors are like realtors discussing the purchase of a home: They’re always going to endorse doing it, because that’s where they get their money. Proceed with caution.

– Find out what skills and practice you need to develop, and take enough class to develop that. Then stop taking class for a while. I’d recommend not taking more than a couple year’s worth of classes in a row. After that, form a group to practice together or find a place to regularly jam. It’s the practice that’s going to teach you most of what you need anyway. Only consider going back if after several months you notice a clear key weakness or skill you need to improve, and there’s a class or mentor in place that can absolutely address it.

– General exception: Take a workshop, intensive or one-off class if the subject matter is interesting or relevant to what you’re seeking or trying to do. But only then. If you find yourself taking a lot of these classes, step back the next time one comes along.

– Do. Find out how to produce your own shit. Don’t wait for someone to let you into something. Never mind the value of active practice. You don’t want to give others all the power over your artistic life. It’s cool to want to join an iO Harold Team and audition for it, and it shouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t take you. Have other shit going on so if they say no thanks there’s an abundance of other pursuits in your future.

– Don’t spend time around people who don’t want to work with you or respect you. If you’re getting big-timed or the cold shoulder in response to your support or attempts at conversation, seek a better crowd.

– Go to shows because you want to see them, not as a favor to people whose attention you want, or otherwise out of obligation.

– You can block people on Facebook from sending you event invites. Please use that function on the people who never talk to you but like to spray invites. They’ll annoy you far less. Also, be okay with declining invites. I’ve got a lot of shit I do with my life and most people know others do too.

– Hey, don’t be that person: If you create a Facebook event or want to invite people to someone else’s, take the extra few minutes and selectively invite people you know can and might want to attend. People who don’t block you will appreciate the selectivity, even if they’re not interested in the event.

– Unfriend the people who never seem to give a shit about you, never come to your shit, etc., but always want to promote their shit to you. Don’t be a fanboy or a groupie. People who care about you ought to get your love and attention. (People who don’t give a shit about you but also never bother you are obviously okay.)

– Don’t act like an asshole unless someone’s directly violating your space or dignity. If someone’s just being a dick, give them the “yeah OK” treatment and GTFO of there as soon as you can. File that info away for future reference.

– There are going to be days as a performer, student or ensemble member where you are able to perform but you just don’t want to go to class, go to practice, go to a jam, go to an open mic, not because you’re seriously worn or burned out but just because you don’t want to. Those are the days you NEED to go, get up there and seriously give it the best you got. Muhammad Ali once said he didn’t count his sit-ups until his muscles started to burn, because those were the ones that counted. Those were the ones that were helping his body grow past its current limits.

– Likewise, the times you’re nervous or uncertain about getting up there are the times you need to push yourself up there and just do it. It’s never going to get easier until you force yourself to experience what you fear, and get into your muscle memory the habit of facing the light and doing it anyway.

– And the times when you’re knee deep in something and it sucks are the best times to soak it in and work through it, because there will be a lot of days where life punches you in the face on show night, and you’ve still got a job to do, colleagues and mentors counting on you, and (often) people who paid to see you perform. There will be a lot of nights where everyone gets off on the wrong foot. You can save the show by connecting with your fellow performers and working through it, or you can sink with it and end up wasting everyone’s time.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw 4 interceptions in the 2015 NFC title game, and still led a 16 point comeback in the final minutes to win a trip to the Super Bowl in a situation where almost any other team would have totally given up.


If I told all this to a 25 year old, they would tune about 90-100% of it out, partially because we all forget 90% of what is said to us, and in part because many young adults have a black and white POV in a grayscale world.

So I don’t expect anyone to take this totally to heart and I even think many will disagree with much of it. But I hope you get something of positive value from it.

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Ideas for a practical approach to fringe festivals for emerging artists….

Performing in fringe festivals is a risky and expensive venture. Presuming you are even selected after paying the application fee, you almost always have to pay several hundred dollars in entry fees to get a slot in the festival. You have to book and pay for travel. If you have a job, you usually have to leave that job for some period to participate. You have to invest in promotional materials to distribute, or other similar efforts… and there’s no guarantee you’ll draw an audience even with thorough promotion. No matter how good your show is, you may end up performing for rows of empty seats, and might not even make your investment back, let alone pay your bills.

I traveled with Xan Scott for her show Apocalypse Clown a few years back. I produced my own solo show, Drawn Dead, at the 2013 Seattle Fringe Festival (SEPT 2015 EDIT: And the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival). Along with the firsthand lessons, I got to meet and take in the efforts of more successful touring performers. Their years of development allowed most of them to profitably tour fringe festivals across the continent.

Those of us who don’t have that following face far greater risk. Personally, I racked up a lot of expenses doing it and eventually settled back into a day job, one I wasn’t ready to give up just yet to take a shot at out of town festivals, even if the upside was great. Often, the end result is a smallish audience and a significant net loss.

(Festivals claim to promote your show. Technically, this is true, but that means putting your name in their program and in media promos. Telling people about and selling your show is still up to you directly.)


When I first got to Chicago, I had no notion of trying to do any fringe festivals for a while. Making do in Chicago alone was going to be tough enough, and getting the time off to travel for festivals wasn’t currently practical.

… or so it seemed. Living in Seattle I took for granted being very far from any other accessible major festival venue. The closest cities were Vancouver BC and Portland, each about 3 hours away by car. Everything else was a flight or a long drive away. I pretty much had to leave Seattle behind for 1-2 weeks to do a festival. If I had a day job and bills to pay, there was no way I could manage that. Only when I went freelance and/or self employed was it even possible.

But Chicago is in the Midwest, very close to a lot of other major cities. Milwaukee is only about an hour north. Indianapolis, most of Michigan, Iowa, St Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville are all less than 4-5 hours away by car. Minneapolis and KC are only 6 hours away. Hell, I can get to Toronto in about 8 hours if the border wait isn’t ridiculous, and Hamilton or London Ontario even sooner. So many places are within reach now.

Also, Chicago itself is a theatre hub, itself home to the Chicago Fringe Festival. But many of the suburbs have active theatre scenes, e.g. just an hour west is Elgin, which hosts the Elgin Fringe Festival. Just around Lake Michigan in Grand Rapids is the Lake Effect Fringe Festival. There may be others I haven’t found yet that are within an hour.


That all said, I remember how much work and investment I put into Drawn Dead in 2013, and the return I got from it. It was an expensive experience rather than a lucrative or sustainable one. Once the thought of giving festivals another shot started crossing my mind, I had to consider the personal cost and benefit of the effort. But I felt there was more of a gray area than the seemingly blunt divide between Martin Dockery or Wonderheads level success and what was basically an expensive theatre vacation.

And it was an unlikely subject that led me to explore that possibility…


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