Monday, October 25, 2010

How to Be a Jerk

Dear fellow improvisers:

Are you having fun?

If you are not having fun, seriously consider the possibility that you are a jerk.*

If improv isn't fun, it probably has to do with judgment. You're judging other players, judging yourself, or judging your coach. Judgment is antithetical to acceptance, to YesAnd. In my head, this idea looks something like: 

If you are the jerk in the troupe, not only are you sabotaging yourself, but you're making it hard for your friends to play with you and hard for your coach to direct you, and now nobody's having fun. Just like you. So congratulations.

The solution to not having fun is to have fun. That means showing up** and playing with your fellow artistic geniuses. Having fun doesn't mean everything will be easy, but who cares if it's easy if you're having fun?

Even if everyone else really is better than you, have fun. If you're having fun, nobody will notice your shortcomings, and you'll get better faster.

Even if one of your troupe members really is a black hole of comedy, have fun. If you support them anyway, you might be surprised. And even if you're not surprised, this scene is over in three minutes, so who cares?

Even if you think your coach is trying to ruin your life by turning your troupe into an extension of his own ego, have fun. Play hard despite your director having an off night or your coach asking you to exercise a muscle you don't feel like exercising.

I know these blue boxes well because I have been guilty of all of them at different times. When I was stuck in that orange box, it had less to do with improv and more to do with how sick and depressed I was at the time. Talking to my coaches about it helped.

If you're in that green box, can I come to your shows? Better yet, can I play with you?

*Credit to Derek, who got me started on this train of thought a few years ago when I overheard him say something like this to a surly workshop. Susan Messing and Rachel Mason both say things along the same lines, but they are less quotable for being rated R.

**Physical presence without emotional presence doesn't count.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Chart

This is The Chart.

Auden had sloppy penmanship.
Specifically, it's W. H. Auden's Romanticism chart. However, one of my literature professors at Wheaton called it The Chart with some amount of reverence, so that is how I think of it. (You can read a more legible PDF here.)

The basic idea of The Chart is that hell is getting what you think you want to an extreme degree. It is taking a good thing so far that it becomes an obsession. In the middle of the chart is balance, everything in its right place.

Another way of putting it is that one side of the chart wants Earth to return to being Eden/Arcadia, to return to nature and freedom; the other side wants Earth to hurry up and become Zion/Utopia. Neither extreme really lives in the present. Both take a good practice so far that it loses its context and becomes a bad practice.

Which, of course, makes me think of improv.

This is my improv extension of The Chart:

My handwriting typing is better than Auden's.

I find it helpful to check in once in awhile and notice where I'm defaulting in my scenes. For me, I find myself hanging out mostly on the left hand side of that chart, particularly when I'm tired or distracted. If I can be honest with myself about that, then I know what to work on. 

If I notice I've been basically myself in every scene lately, it's time to be a character so totally different from me that she (or he) might not even be sane. Or if I've been defaulting to high status, it's time to try being varying degrees of low status characters for awhile. And, incidentally, I notice that if I've veered way to one side for a long time, I'm probably sabotaging myself by playing out of fear.

It's awesome if you have a director who can tell you honestly what he sees and guide or shove you out of your comfortable default. Unfortunately, I'm my own director at the moment, so I have to trust my gut and shake up my own playing. This works better some days than others.


If you have the patience to read a couple of poems, you can see Auden's application of this idea that we all tend toward one end of this spectrum in "Under Which Lyre" and in the Vespers section of "Horae Canonicae." I hope you do have the patience sometime -- those are two of my favorite poems in the world, though I suspect I only half-understand them.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Elements of Style

This is possibly my favorite book.

My friend Kevin gave me this illustrated edition for my birthday a few years ago.
The Elements of Style is a tiny book, mostly a list of rules about grammar and punctuation. It tells you the difference between further and farther, lie and lay, nauseous and nauseated, and that most crucial distinction between shall and will. It has lists of rules, such as:
12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

13. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

14. Use the active voice.

15. Put statements in positive form.

16. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

17. Omit needless words.
I go back to this book every few months, whether or not I'm writing anything at the time. I tend to pick it up when I'm mired in some kind of unfinishable project, when I am too overwhelmed with life to begin reading a novel or too unfocused to read poetry. (It was the only book I could even pick up after my friend Stephen died, suddenly and far away, over three years ago now. I read it over and over, because it was small and concrete and certain, and life was big and vague and confused.)

Each of Strunk and White's rules is followed by examples of good writing that follows the rules and bad writing that doesn't. Sometimes, though, our heroes deviate from the plain examples to explain why the rule is important to the world. Here is one of my favorite passages in the entire book:
Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expected to be met at a railway station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

The illustrator of the most beautiful edition of The Elements of Style is Maira Kalman, who is proof that I am not the only one fixated on this book. She has also made a short film based on her illustrations, which I stumbled upon via The Kitchn:

And here is Maira Kalman talking about her life and art. She talks about The Elements of Style about 8 minutes into the talk.

Her illustrations look like the inside of my brain.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cake! Caaake!

A dear friend of mine sent me a link to this post by Hyperbole and a Half, which chronicles our hero Allie's psychological meltdown when she can't have cake.

I felt this way about improv in the year after graduation. Rather, I would have felt this way if I hadn't been too sick to do stand up without passing out for those first few months. After that was over, though, I had crazy, get-out-of-my-way improv withdrawal.

Improv is my cake. Cake is also my cake. The following is improv nerdiness, interspersed with cakes!

Lauren and I made this for a friend's birthday. My mom probably helped with the icing.

I've used baking as a metaphor for improv when people in my workshops ask me why their scenes aren't working even though they're working hard on accepting, heightening, making strong offers, what have you. It's because that's not improv, really; those are just tools to help your improv be less sloppy.

If improv were a cake, technique would be the wooden spoon and mixing bowl and spatula. It'd be really messy to make a cake without those things. But if all you have is a really great bowl and spoon and spatula, you'll still go hungry. At least, hungry for cake. 

Time would be the oven, the form would be the cake pan. Cupcakes have the potential to be as delicious as bundt cakes, layer cakes, or crazy sculpted cakes; short form can be as fun as Harold and Armando. They're different shapes in which to pour your awesome scene work.

I made this cake for my friend Meredith, who is a vegetarian.

There is no definitive list of what to put in a cake to make it a good cake, just some general guidelines. Most cakes have some combination of eggs and flour and sugar and milk. Some have cream cheese or carrots or cocoa; some are vegan or gluten-free. It's a lot of stuff that wouldn't necessarily taste good on its own but works in combination with the other flavors to make something new. There's flexibility there, as long as you keep your proportions reasonable and your ingredients are good quality.

Most scenes have some basic ingredients, too: relationship, character, environment, game, and probably more I can't think of. Or fewer, depending on the kind of scene.

If your milk's gone rancid or your sugar has ants, your cake will be awful. Your cake pan and egg beaters might have been fine, but that doesn't save your cake. There's no sense investing in an expensive Kitchen-Aide mixer if you're not going to bother with your ingredients and proportions.

And once in awhile, for some inexplicable reason, a cake with all those great ingredients still doesn't turn out the way it's supposed to, and you can't always know why. You just have to double-check your ingredients, clean up your tools, and try again.

My mom probably did not help with this icing. This is all me.

FURTHERMORE. You don't have to have icing for a good cake. In fact, bad icing will ruin an otherwise good cake, and good icing won't save a gross cake. If I have to chose between a cake with bad icing and a cake with no icing, I'll pick no icing.

And I'll take a good, interesting scene that doesn't me laugh over a weak scene dripping with gags. Even good icing doesn't make up for bad cake, and funny jokes don't make up for shoddy scene work.

Truth: Icing is my favorite part of cake. But it gives me a stomach ache to eat it by itself. Good icing on good cake, though? Life doesn't get better. I mean, improv doesn't get any better. That distinction keeps blurring these days.

I wonder if the same could be said for many art forms, like writing and painting. Technique helps so much. But if there's not something the technique is serving, if its for its own sake, then you have some lovely shiny clean dishes and nothing to eat.

This is from when my mom pretended it was my birthday so my friends would come over and watch Schindler's List.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fear, Failure and Feathers

Here is the picture from my elementary school history book that made me afraid of being tarred and feathered.

I thought it might happen to me on accident if I walked on our road too soon after new asphalt had been poured. I don't know where I thought the feathers would come from, though. Or the colonists.

(Other childhood fears included: scorpions, letting my feet touch the floor if the lights were out,* and the witch from "The Three Little Pigs."**)

I've been thinking about fear because of improv. I've heard that fear of public speaking is almost as common as fear of death. Several people lately have told me that they can't imagine trying improv, that they would be so afraid that they would throw up or pass out.

I want to tell them that a very good improviser I know has been known to throw up before shows. And I've passed out at key moments in plenty of practices, including practices I was directing.*** Improvisers aren't fearless people but people who choose not to let that fear keep them from playing.

However, we do let that fear drive us away from playing our best.

The common things improvisers are afraid of include: Not being funny enough, looking ridiculous, having too much responsibility, having no control. Really, those are all manifestations of the fears of being hurt and alone.
If I don't control this situation, it might go somewhere awful. And if it goes somewhere awful, it will look like my fault. And if it's my fault, other people won't want to play with me anymore. And if nobody wants to play with me anymore, I will be alone, and it will hurt. Therefore I must control all scenes and games or I will be alone. Probably forever.

When you actually write it out or say it out loud, you can see how irrational it is.

I think the best thing for me, and probably the best thing for many of my improv friends, was to experience undeniable failure.  
I didn't control the scene, and it DID go somewhere awful! I knew it I knew it! 
And then to realize that that's as far as it went. We moved onto the next scene after that, or we shook off that horrible performance and showed up ready for practice the next week. None of the other scary hurt-and-alone-in-the-dark things really happen after failure. Ok, so there's tar on your shoes. Acknowledged. But where did you think those feathers were going to come from again?


 *This was somewhat to do with scorpions, which were a real threat in my house, but mostly it had to do with that there might be some tar on the floor and I might accidentally step in it and get sucked in and be tarred and feathered.

** I know. There is actually no witch in "The Three Little Pigs." A wolf, yes. But no witch. I still had nightmares about that witch, though.

***Anemia + abject panic = fainting.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


This is my friend Duke.
"I have faced existentialism and bitten my thumb at it."
Throughout college, Duke gathered friends and strangers around him for movie nights, often referred to with one of the following handy acronyms:

TGIBF (Thank God It's Brazil Friday, in which we did not watch more than ten minutes of Brazil every week before we changed our minds and picked another movie)

TGIBFBF (Thank God It's Boys From Brazil Friday, in which we similarly did not watch more than ten minutes of Boys from Brazil)

TGINMOPIN (Thank God It's Not My Own Private Idaho Night, in which, as rumor has it, they watched way too much of My Own Private Idaho)

After our cursory scans of the theme movie, the actual movies we watched ranged from popular to obscure, but usually more on the obscure side. Many weren't in English. Some turned out to be great movies, like Secret Sunshine and Tokyo Godfathers. Others turned out to be abusive, like Carnivale, or laughably horrible, like Zardoz. Some were too baffling to categorize, like Wool 100%. We didn't know what to expect, but we knew it wouldn't be run-of-the-mill. No summer blockbusters here.


These days, Duke is teaching English classes in Laos. We miss Duke. Besides missing him for his own sake, I've also noticed that my friends get together less frequently when he's not here. That combined with my new living alone situation, I see less of my friends than I would like.

So when Steve asked if I would open my apartment to a movie night, I said of course! Friends! Come over!

Steve paused the movie before it began and said, "I want to introduce this by saying that there's no good way to introduce it, just that Duke says it's important, so here's The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya."

That is how, even with Duke out of the hemisphere, I found myself watching an alienating anime, which I did not enjoy much, but which I kept watching because Duke wanted it. And I hung out with friends I don't see as often these days, because Duke wanted them to see the show, too.

So kudos to Duke, the only guy I know who can orchestrate a Wheaton movie night from Southeast Asia.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The discovery never seems to stop.

This is my friend Steve.
"Everyone stop asking me to do things I like!"
Not long ago, I borrowed Steve's computer for a few minutes to show him a video clip. In the short time we were on Hulu searching for the clip, we had to sit through two different birth control commercials, as well as repeat screenings of a disturbing, Lisa Frank-style cat commercial. Each time Hulu asked if these ads were relevant to me (read: relevant to Steve's computer) I clicked "Yes."

If you ever use Steve's computer, I implore you to follow suit. I dream of a world in which Steve is so bombarded with Yaz and Friskies ads that he writes unpleasant things on helium balloons and releases them over a field of ostrich-legged turkeys.

Good luck, and we're all counting on you.