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Monday, January 15, 2018

On Community

Improv is, of course, largely experiential - there is a wealth of improv material that is now available as permanent tokens (books on theory, books on history, books on cultural intersection, online videos of teams, DVD's of shows), but there is and likely never will be a replacement for the real over the vitru-real (or virtual).  The showing up to class, the participating in workshops, and the sitting in shows has much greater cachet and economic value to the craft of improv over even the "sitting-in-bars-and-bullshitting" (though that's very nice too).  Improv theaters, and communities, have, not surprisingly, over the last five years placed increased emphasis on the idea of "inclusivity", "ensemble", and "community".  These words are great buzzwords.  They sound wonderful, they look great in a mission statement or a five year plan, or on a logo.  They feel terrific to talk about - to speak to each other around the bar or wax prosaically (which means both mundane and also poetic) to non-improvisers about why its so great.  They sell the idea of a subjective art in a framework that feels attractive to everyone, even those who may not have natural talent or aptitude.

It is worth being skeptical though, as to whether or not we're using these words "correctly", or in absence of nailing the accuracy, at least the precision of this terminology.  Do we use these terms the same?  When we speak of these high-minded, social agreement ideals, do we want the same thing?  Would we all be happy if the director (or theater owner) thought we achieved it?  Lots of gilded (which means to conceal the valueless with luster) stories about improv-teams-past wax sanguine on the social commitment and interaction of the individual members and their relationships to each other, but don't spend much time on how they got there, or what the secret sauce is to achieving it again in the future.  (Put another way: could we take any random assemblage of 4-10 people and make a new "Baron's Barracudas" or "(Victim's) Family"?)

I think it is worth noting that the idea of community is both an inclusive term as well as an exclusive one; that is it both includes the people as members of a particular group, uniting them under one common banner or name, while simultaneously excluding people who are not part of the community. There is some discussion in one Facebook community improv group as to whether people who are not geographically located in that city should be allowed to be members of the group (including one person who has never lived in the city advocating for the removal of a particular, select few from the group on that basis, which is charmingly ironic).  I know a number of cities that have geographical groups, as well as individual groups for individual theaters or collective organizations, but due to the high level of cross-pollination between theaters, it often makes the memberships between such groups near identical, essentially removing the value of an inner enclave, excepting the desire of the administrators to get to decide who to let into the clubhouse (although it gives you more pages to post on, so I guess that's...something).  Excluding geographical distinctions or "pissing match" discretions, calling one a member of a community is meant to bind one to the inner circle while at the same time saying that anyone else is an "other" or "alien" to that circle.

Maybe let's define some terms first, and I'll try and hit a bunch of commonly used ones.  "Ensemble" is maybe the lowest form of community - this is, in functional terms, a group of 3-16 people who get together probably once a week to rehearse, and then perform variously.  Ensemble is the term that has maybe the most flowery ideal - an integrated, functioning, cohesive unit of individuals.  We imagine a group that speaks a second language, anticipates and cooperates, and thinks as a group.  Realistically though, we should separate the adjective of "ensemble" (or perhaps the capital "E", Ensemble) from what an ensemble most universally is: a group of individuals who have come together to work together on a project.  Team is probably synonymous with ensemble at this point - teamwork is only really work that is done by more than one, and the word teamwork essentially is disregarding of efficiency (how well cooperation is being done) or enjoyment (how much everyone likes each other).

We move up to "community" - probably the most over-used (or at least exhaustively used) term.  We love communities because we have come to imagine a collection of small houses or structures, everyone living together, working together to a common purpose, everyone belongs, shares, and sacrifices for each other.  I'm gonna burst another bubble here, because stripping away the poetic ideal, a community is only a group of people who share interests, culture, and/or locality, and see a distinction of that group from other groups.  When we talk of improv communities, we imagine fraternities/sororities, social groups, or even "clubs", which can exist, but not essentially or necessarily, and I would argue practically never exist, and may have never existed.

For example, this picture (right) is fairly typical of how improv theaters sell "their" community.  Supportive is part of community, sure - I wouldn't want to join a community that I didn't feel like took care of its members, but I question how authentically a community sees itself if being "funny" and physically attractive is a requirement to a thriving community.  (Not to say these people are not those things - they clearly are physically attractive people, and I personally know that they are, in fact, funny people.)  These, however, do not, a community make.  We could equally take apart "supportive" (to provide encouragement) and really hold it up: I think that contemporary functionally supportive-ness is just liking each other's Facebook posts, but it is obvious that doesn't really make us satisfied, and is no more communal than just shouting "good job, neighbor!" over your fence.

I asked a friend of mine recently who is a company member of a Shakespeare group what it meant to her to "have someone's back", and she said it had a lot to do with caring about that person's well-being - happiness and safety, and also being the provider of said attributes.  It also, she continued, pertains a lot about "trust".  Another common refrain - what does it mean to trust people?  Reliance?  Dependability? Secret-telling?  I know a lot of teams do the "got your back ritual" (right before a show, you teach each other on the shoulder blades and repeat "got your back"), but does this automatically invoke trust?  And to go back to my earlier argument about communities within a community - if an interior community only supports itself and not the other parts of the geographical community, is it a good participant in "community"?  If we had a small township, and one block of houses only watched out for themselves, are they still "supporting the community-at-large"?

(A side note about the "got your back" ritual - I was once on a team where the director made us look each other in the eye and instead say "watch your back", because she wanted us to feel like any one of us could take another out at any point, which I think most people ignored the same way they ignored "watch your back", but always made me anxious.  If being on your own feels like being hunted and unsafe, then the very idea of being apart of an organization should be the opposite, safe and hunting.  Basically, when your spears are pointed in, they cannot point out, and you cannot thrive if all you're doing is surviving.)

I break down communities into different classifications based on relative size, development, evolution, and/or maturity:  LatentNascentEstablished, and Meta.  These classifications make no qualms or judgements about the types of work being performed or the quality therein, merely to assess how much is going on, and usually how many people are involved.

Latent (from Latin, to lie hidden) is any community that has no brick-and-mortar improv theaters.  There can be any number of active improv groups of any size, any number of improvisers, but they are defined by the fact that "finding" gatherings, shows, workshops, or events is largely based on who-you-know-itude, or just pure luck.  At this level, you usually expect only one or two "big cheese" type of people, and maybe some rough inter-group cooperation.

Nascent (Latin, again, to be born) is a stage where there is one (and only one) improv brick-and-mortar theater in an area, which will usually have only one "big cheese", and any number of "house teams" (regularly performing ensembles) and developmental teams.  There is (probably almost) always observed and real hierarchy, power, ranking, and pecking order.  There is usually a sense of "being on the inside", and that having certain things that must be acquiesced to but with some accompanying prestige, and "being on the outside" which often feels like being independent, underground, and having "less than".

Established are communities that have obtained a second theater - this often creates a check-and-balance, evens out the lopsidedness in power (if any - there are a number of mono-theater communities (Dallas, Omaha) that appear to be well managed), and continues to lift the boat on how visual and recognized the community is to the non-community.  From a business perspective (and an artistic one), improv is only really useful if people come see it and engage with it.  You could do 1,000 great shows in your living room, but the best fireworks are ones that people get to, and do, watch.

Metacommunities are ones that have at least two theaters (but probably more) and are so large (numbers wise, in a single geographical location) that they contain smaller, functional communities within them.  Chicago, LA, NYC, and Austin are great examples of this - places that have so many people involved and so much opportunity that you could conceivably work within them for long periods of time and never cross paths with equivalent opposite numbers in other theaters.  These are ones where theaters really try to transcend just "welcome to Chicago, improviser!" and instead promote what makes their individual sub-meta experience better.  They are also large enough that an individual theater does not have to "contain multitudes" and can specialize: e.g. the narrative place, the short form theater, the experimental one.

(Perhaps its worth noting here the reason why the importance and emphasis on "brick-and-mortar" establishments, as they 1) become consistent, tangible, visible, (mostly) permanent headquarters for the participants, 2) imply or indicate a certain level of commitment, staking, and cooperation, and 3) necessitate a critical threshold of numbers.  They are probably the biggest evolutionary jump in any community.)

These imply and require absolutely no sense of belonging or inclusiveness, though we try to make community mean that too, even though most communities generally contain a lot of sameness, in dress, ideas, and language.  In the last probably two years especially, there's been increased emphasis on overcoming that, and encouraging the addition of people who don't look or act like the "typical improviser".  (Inclusive, by the way, to enclose, shut-in, embrace, contain and Exclusive, not admitting, omitted, limited, shutting out, (and also fashionable and expensive).)  I think communities have gotten mixed up though, when there is increased emphasis on "theater sponsored community" - I think nearly every community by now has either a Facebook group or an actual website where members can ask questions and there are posts about shows, auditions, or workshops.

What is the purpose of these central meeting places?  Are they town halls, or merely student union pin boards?  Some lean heavily to the latter - one community I'm a member of recently had a whole slew of pretty bad posts and comments - I know for a fact that the moderators wrestled very heavily about how much and what was "acceptable" and "permissible".  Some people, it seemed, appreciated a place where these things can be spoken about outloud and publicly, and others, including one of the community leaders, it seemed only wanted a place for them to post about their shows and workshops.  (This particular person left in a real huff about what types of comments were allowed, but only after their theater started to get called out, which really calls to question the authenticity of such a stand.)

Camaraderie, fellowship, and cooperation deserve some mention here, but perhaps only briefly, as we've kind of hit around these ideas fairly well already.  Camaraderie (the sharing in one's activities), fellowship (friendly relations, sharing of tastes or feelings), and cooperation (working together for common benefit) I think also can get used a little too readily by people wanting to seem like they care, but don't necessitate any belonging.  In Eric Weiner's "Geography of Bliss", people are the happiest in those places where it feels like they are actual members of a common group - in effect, you don't have to always watch out for yourself to the exclusion of others, but you and everyone around you is "in it together" - an idea that sadly seems to be without a word right now, which may be an unfortunate reflection of the society in which our language developed.

More worthwhile would be a mention of the word "intimacy", one that I don't think any improv community has ever used to describe its goals or members because it can feel "icky" and a little sexual, but we could describe it in these purposes as "closeness, familiarity, or affection".  Intimacy finds its roots in Latin as intimus, or "close friend", and shares true definition with "dear", "exacting", and "thorough", but also has a verbal kin with "intima" - "optimal", "inmost", and "ultimate".  One theater I was at routinely combated having players sit in the lobby "talking shit" but made absolutely no attempt to get people to go into the theater to actually watch a show.  On more than one occasion, I could hear the laughter of 20 people in the bar on the other side of the wall, while I did a show for 4 people in the seats.  Nothing in a community is, nor should be, routine - everything done is built on something that came before and is building to something that will come later.

Here are some terms that I never hear used by theater heads or community leaders to define their communities or their places in those communities: responsibility (taking ownership for failures as well as successes, seeing that hard work is rewarded and unacceptable behavior admonished, seeing to it that the "on paper" principles we hold dear are held), accountability (that theater heads take direct ownership for their work and the people in their charge, that their failures or "less thans" are appropriately dealt with, and that when failures occur, those are not written off as just "a one time thing" or a "we'll consider this in the future" or "a bunch of people dropped the ball here"), diligence (follow through, commitment to ideals, holding the same work ethic when we're sitting in strategic planning meetings as when we are applying the principles in a rehearsal three months later), or professionalism (taking pride in your work, working hard and respecting the work, not settling for mediocrity).  Some people are far more interested in being the "authority" - the guru, the Del, "The Guy/Gal", the Big Man/Woman on Campus (BM/WoC) - than in being responsible, accountable, diligent, or reliable, which communities need a lot more than a bunch of Rock Stars.

This is still how improv shows are sold and marketed - a random team from a random theater is just as likely to put the last names of every team member on their group logo as a team containing "actual" stars, the truth is, the idea of a celebrated few, or a minority of the elders has largely eroded and the distance between the "best" improviser and the "average" improviser is much narrower than we'd like to admit.  Almost anyone can open an improv theater at this point, and often "founder and artistic director of theater" is all you truly need to be considered a Venerable One.  What we're left with is "communities" of near equals squaring off against each other for their piece of the pie and their command of authority.  In a true community, leadership is selected by the membership.

Is it a community if all that happens is patting each other on the back and advertising shows?  Communities, I believe, in the high-minded definition, in the way that we all seem to think about and talk about, are ones that are not only about passive membership ("oh yeah, I'm a Tulsa improviser") but ones that enjoy active participation.  Community is a two way street, from each individual member to the abstract community concept, and back again.  We make regular investments and withdrawals all the time.  If we want community in the way we ideally strive, it must be this way, members watch out for each other, take care of each other, and treat each other like family, which sometimes means some bad stuff, but also corresponding good stuff.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and that is rewarded in the places we call "home".  Theaters must be an extension of that - these are places that we devote our time and energies, and they must give trust and acceptance back in return.  A theater that only wants to advertise and not participate is one I don't want to be part of, and this is what I think we talk about when we wax rhapsodic on "community".

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." - Robert Frost.

I think back to all those teams (including those I didn't mention) in the beginning, the ones we hold up as an ideal group, ones that didn't just have "members" or a "cast", ones who didn't just presume that being on the roster was enough, and what they had was this community: they shared, which means sometimes you give, and sometimes you take.  You watch out for each other and are there for each other.  You don't just promote your own shows, you also champion other people's shows.  You aren't just a "card carrying member", you participate, engage, and do.

In a sense, community is about losing the word "their" or "mine" or "yours" from the vocabulary in favor of the word "ours".

Happy improvising, everyone.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why We 'Prov

I know, I know.  It's been another very long gap since the last time my fingers graced the MacBook; this is less of an excuse or an explanation than it is now just pure fact.  Since the last time I posted, I have continued to work full time, commute for 2 hours a day, got an improv team, Boy Moms (nee Ketchup on Vegetables), and was cast in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream - if you find yourself in Chicago in June on a Sunday afternoon, I mostly will suggest this as a good time.

I find myself tired all the time; not so much from "doing" - when in San Diego I rarely had even a single free night, and I now find myself often with too much time.  I watch a lot of stuff now, but mostly find myself listless and stressed: conditions which are not exactly conducive to the mixed reward of sitting down to write.    I've been battling depression for a few months now - undiagnosed, and surely a mild depression, I would never presume to be struggling with mental health at the level of true depressives, but I'm cognizant enough to recognize the signs.  This isn't meant to try and elicit any help from anyone, when in fact a) most people don't know what help to offer and even then won't offer much beyond "grab a beer, sometime", b) usually are too busy to really help, and c) even when people offer an ear, they usually get bored with "helping" after an email or two.  (A side effect of our Twitter Culture - we assume everything can be resolved with a tweet or a post, but don't really have the wherewithal to follow through if something more is required.)

I talked last time about my considering quitting improv - it's still on the table, I suppose.  I think I keep looking for a sign or indication that one choice or the other is "right".  I still have trouble figuring out "why" I'm doing it.  It leads to an interesting analysis of why we engage in really anything.  When I posted last time (supportive) people offered:

1. "You inspired me." Deeply flattering and humbling, but I would ultimately be very skeptical and suspicious of someone who set out to do something with the express purpose of inspiring others.  At face value, it appears altruistic, but would you trust someone who said they only do things to make people fawn over them, idolize them, and/or get prophets?  Certainly inspiration is a thing, but I think this is in reality a byproduct of someone's work and can not, in good conscience, be the end goal.

2. "It's fun."  True, probably 65% of the time.  There are of course many things that people can do that are fun, and often single individuals will have multiple "fun" activities they engage in (video games, movies, banjo playing, stamp collecting, scrimshaw viewing) so to say one activity takes the cake and is the thing feels a little extreme.

3. "It's a passion."  True, for the small percentage of people who own theaters, teach classes, or have dreams of moving to Hollywood.  For these people, they cannot live without improvisation, both monetarily for creature comforts like food and rent, and for their own spiritual life.  I guess I can see myself doing other things, so I can't count this one."

4. "All your friends and social contacts are there."  If all your friends were heroin users would you also feel obligated to do heroin?  And what would happen if heroin magically ceased to exist?  If your only social structure exists in a weekly 2 hour practice and nowhere else, can you truly count those people as friends?

5. "You're good at at."  Again, humbling and flattering, but I objectively feel that I am only OK and have limited precision.  If I sucked at making chairs, would it be worth it to create a dinette set?  Or, if I were say, the best at making chairs, but everyone else was also really good at making chairs, would the chair community feel a loss if I quit making rockers?  Or would everyone else just keep on making chairs?

6.  "It makes you a better person."  Probably true, though I have also known some pretty garbage people who are also improvisers, so doing the craft is not a guarantee that you won't be petty, short-sighted, jealous, derivative, non-collaborative, disloyal, unoriginal, or marginalizing.  And while I do agree that if more people did improv the world would likely be improved in some capacity, I can't shake the feeling that this reason is the kind of quote that theater owners put on websites to sell classes.  While it is likely accurate (but by no means definite) it's regular co-opting for capitalist gain sticks in my craw.

Probably more than anything, I do improv because it's what I've been doing.  Patterns of behavior tend to continue once established.  I improv, therefore I am.  Improvisatio ergo sum.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On Improv and Homecoming

I'm headed back to San Diego this week, for the first time since I left back in September.  (This both simultaneously feels like yesterday and approximately 100 years ago.  Such is the nature of relativistic experience.)  My experiences with improv homecomings have always been bittersweet; whenever I find myself back in southern Mississippi, I always reach out to my former teammates in Biloxi and Hattiesburg - I've found in general that neither group is particularly interested in opening up the doors for past membership.

I think this is mostly due to the fact that improv has a notoriously short attention span (something I've discussed many times in the archives) and teams move on.  Our capacity to entertain old acquaintances is largely a function of our endearment to them, something that diminishes rapidly with time (and also something teams are more concerned about waves in than individuals).  Teams change, evolve, as do the players, and everyone gets a little hesitant about playing around with people that have started to suspiciously look like strangers.  Another aspect is the "little dictator"; as teams change, so does the leadership.  I don't think anyone outside of the improv community could understand it, but who is In Charge, who is Calling the Shots, and who Has Authority is a very contentious and aggressively fought for aspect of improv.  People will fight tooth and nail for years to hold the cards and have a deeply vested interest in maintaining their hold.  Outside people, getting personal attention and "special" treatment, have a certain cachet and currency of sentiment that can threaten "little dictators", when they exist.

The big issue though, is the abandoned home issue.  Improv is nearly completely built on reputation, notoriety, and putting in the hours.  Theaters tend to not value talent or ability so much as loyalty and consistency.  While you're in house and working hard, that is rewarded, but when you leave, new people move up to fill personnel vacuums, and have a vested interest in maintaining their positions.  The biggest issue with coming home is finding out that home outgrew you, and that there's no room at the inn.

What have I been up to since I left?  I still work full time, though I now have 2 hours of commute every day on the train.  I'm taking three different improv classes right now, about halfway through both Annoyance and the Chicago Improv Studio programs, but not performing regularly.  I've had a small handful of pickup shows (five, to be exact), and one show with my fellow San Diegan, Laurel, but nothing regular.  I'm not rehearsing regularly, and only watching shows with any regularity.  The tradeoff in moving to a bigger pond is that you become a smaller fish by default.  I would describe my life as mostly "empty" and "rudderless" since I left.

I miss performing, teaching, and coaching of course - these were all regular challenges that pushed me and tested me all the time, and it filled my hours completely and fully.  But I really miss rehearsal regularity the most - having a regular group of peers to work with, play with, and hang out with.  I won't lie - Chicago has been exceedingly lonely, and I have too much time to realize how alone I am.

I'm excited to be back for a weekend; I need to see some friendly faces and some familiar turf, despite how much wrangling had to happen to squeeze me in anywhere.  I'm very excited to do a show on Saturday - one with a partner who I love performing with in a show that I enjoy and know well.  I didn't realize it when we were performing regularly, but Fourth Date is the most rewarding experience I've had as an improviser - the one show that I can honestly say that I felt most like an equal as a member.  For every strength I had, Kate had a comparable (weakness doesn't sound fair - non-strength? skill-gap?) and vice versa, and every group decision was reached equally, fairly, and discussed.  Not sure what I did to deserve such a partner, but I'm thankful I lucked into it.  I've missed that show and Kate most of all, so I'm glad to get back to it, even for just a night.

If you've followed my Twitter, you'll know I've been kicking around quitting improv for a bit now.  The reasons are various, but the Cliff's Notes are that I just don't know what the point is for me anymore.  People have recommended a "short break", but I really don't see the point of taking three months off - if I stop, it'll be for good, so I want to make sure I'm making the right choice to stop.  Whether or not I quit and the reasons for doing so is a discussion for a different post (or a conversation over a beer), but it's one I've been going back and forth on since November or so.

I know everyone in San Diego is busy, and everyone has a show, and it's just not a good weekend, but if you can, I hope to see you either at the show at Gym Standard at 8 on Saturday, or if you can spare a minute, I hope we can catch up.  Coming home, even temporarily, is often hollow - and the echoes can be deafening.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Heroes Make Us Anxious

It's really no surprise that the stories we tell and share are all truly about some deep seeded anxiety.  We are highly developed as a modern species, but that doesn't replace that somewhere inside of us lurks an animal, and those animals are still primarily driven by fear.  Storytelling, both modern and ancient, are all about dealing with those fears as a way to shine lights in dark corners.

Horror movies are the most obvious; every single horror movie is about some fear (obviously), and their ability to pray on Fear of the Unknown and Fear of Alone (or sometimes both) is critical to their ability to invoke fear in viewers.  We of course remain constant consumers of horror movies because they play with our fear, and what horror movies are popular is equally driven but what continues to make us afraid in an evolving capacity.  Take a look at zombie movies, which have a very storied and long history - early zombie movies didn't feature zombies as we have them today, instead they were the traditional Haitian zombies of living men bewitched of their own autonomy and made slaves.  This Fear of Loss of Self was very much the theme in White Zombie and on through the first 40 or so years of the genre.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead made the zombies truly dead: reanimated corpses hungering for living flesh.  This is a walking, corporeal reminder of our own eventual demise that we often try and bury or burn to keep it out of sight.  We don't want to have our own fragile, decaying truth around, and here it is Fear of Death incarnate shambling after us.  That the focus of zombie movies has changed is no surprise; it used to be about dealing with the moments right after an outbreak, when the apocalypse was nigh, but movies like 28 Days Later and TV's The Walking Dead move the story to well after the zombie's first arrival.  Fear of Death is still there, but moved much more to the forefront are Fear of Others (think Negan or Cillian Murphy) and Fear of Ourselves (think Rick).  When the chips are down (for everyone), how much will they betray each other to put the weak under their yoke, and how much will we betray ourselves and our own morals just to survive?

In the years after 9/11, fear has become a large part of our lives and our pop culture, we wanted all our heroes dirtier and grimmer, because that is how we saw ourselves.  Look back to 2003 and 2004 (the earliest years, given long production and release schedules, to be affected), and our movies were Kill Bill, The Punisher, and Man on Fire, where we tried to deal with Fear of Revenge.  What would a dogged pursuit of retribution mean to our lives and the lives of those around us?

Horror movies individual fears have always been driven by fears of the moment.  It isn't a surprise that The Ring, about a haunted video tape, should come out right when we as a culture was trying to get rid of physical media (and certainly older, "outdated" physical media), and also that the only way to break the curse was to follow a meme-tic, "copy & share" approach that drives the internet (or at least Facebook.  A lot of similar trends can often be chalked up to imitations of successful originators, but what is truly fearful is very of the times.

Here's a list of the top grossing supernatural horror movies from the last decade and half, and what are some of the relevant fears:

Annabelle (2014) - Fear of Domestic Life
The Conjuring (2013) - Fear of New Homes
Woman in Black (2012) - Fear of the Distant Past
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) - Fear that Our Technology Can Not Protect Us
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) - Same
Paranormal Activity (2009) - Same
The Eye (2008) - Fear of Piercing the Veil
1408 (2007) - Fear of What We Believe Actually Coming True
The Omen (2006) - Fear of Children, Especially Our Own
Saw II (2005) - Fear of the Depravity of Man
The Grudge (2004) - Fear of Unfinished Business
Final Destination 2 (2003) - Fear that Death Will Get Us No Matter What
The Ring (2002) - Previously discussed
The Others (2001) - Fear of Surviving On Our Own
What Lies Beneath (2000) - Fear of Our Partner
Sixth Sense (1999) - Fear of Piercing the Veil

It's easy of course, to point to horror movies though; these things are supposed to scare us, but why are superheroes so popular right now?  Of course, hero stories have always had some popularity, the ancient Greeks and Romans told stories of demigods, gods, and mythical creatures doing either stories of immense bravery or supernatural powers themselves, and the tradition carries on.  Superheroes (specifically the cape and cowl variety) have been popular themselves since the 30's, with regular consumers, but why do we as a larger culture love superheroes so much now?  These are all about Fear of Actually Being Able to Affect Change, very important at a time when everyone has a voice through their Twitter account, but no real ability to do anything, instead creating a cacophony of screaming voices.

Also up for discussion is Sherlock Holmes; reportedly the most portrayed character in all of TV and film, and the current star of two successful TV series, not to mention countless imitators in spirit (House, Castle, John Doe, Bones to name a few).  Characters who are often inhuman, both in their abilities of deduction and recall, and also in their inability to easily interact with other humans.  Sherlock entered modern culture at a time when science and reason were becoming more mainstream, and a result he is Fear of Knowledge.  We now all have a veritable "Sherlock Holmes" of our own, riding around in our pockets (provided we have WiFi or a 4G connection), yet we intuitively understand that reference knowledge is meaningless without interpretation, function, and context.

And that, my dear Watson, scares us.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Missed Opportunities

I haven't written in a while, which is probably a missed opportunity in and of itself. All successful (and mostly likely unsuccessful writers) say that you have to write every day. Your life should never be without you recording your thoughts (or editing them down) so on that front I've been sorely missing. I've been in Chicago for four months now, and "missed opportunities" has become a theme of my life and thoughts ever since I made the choice to come here. Missed opportunities back in San Diego, where I've gotten to watch my friends (via the ruby lens of Facebook) open theaters, perform shows, teach classes, and live life.

 Ultimately, the decision to move here was also one of choice - Chicago, despite its faults, is still the unparalleled, uncontested champ for improv. The quantity is staggering (which is not always a good thing - more on that in another post, perhaps), and the quality of the performers and educators is remarkable. This is a city that is very forgiving, and highly welcoming of an adventurous spirit and an experimenter's mind. Every night that I get home and just "don't really feel like it", I remind myself that this is why I'm here. I left behind my friends and a (modestly) successful "career" in improv in San Diego to come and take in the new and bold. The great and the terrible. The predictable and the unknown. 

This post is really about missed opportunities - a phrase whose un-necessary length I'm only just now beginning to appreciate - and what they mean for us as artists. On one hand, we may look at improv communities and not see that. San Diego, as Chicago (and I strongly suspect a lot of places) is a player's market. Too much stage time to fill, too many teams, a variety of stages, and a glut of shows to watch. It makes it hard on producers, but great for content creators with a relatively lower barrier to entry. Even so-so teams are virtually guaranteed a slot, and great teams have a blank check. Same goes with players: person A graduates class, starts a team, gets noticed, and is instantly on twenty teams. It's wonderful to be asked, of course. We are all broken people, and getting attention in this way triggers the monkey part of our brains that desperately wants group attention.

"Oh, so this is another 'stretching ourselves too thin' post"? Yes and no. When you say "yes" to everything, you can't truly say yes to anything. As improvisers we consistently overlook the power of editing, which truly is our (and pretty much any artist's) greatest tool. What we choose to show other people, when, and for how long, is nearly more important that the content itself. At the very least, poor presentation can kill a great show just as well as slick polish can make a turd shine. What we choose to put our energy in to is an enormous strength, one that should not be taken likely.

 Now back to (Ctrl+V) missed opportunities - we also get burned the other way by making light demands on what we want to work on. Netflix is always calling, just inside the range of human hearing, beckoning: "Up next" and "If you liked every episode 'Elementary' you just watched, you may also enjoy another 80 hours of binging something vaguely similar". When I left SD, I had multiple students tell me "you were the best class I ever had", which is nice, but probably an equal number saying "I always heard you were good, but I never made the time to take you", which sucks. And not just because I didn't convert them into the first camp, but because it means they never understood what is meant in the conversion of intent to doing (or they were being nice). (I should point out not everyone falls into these camps - there is a minority camp that responded in seconds by saying how they were going to break up my teams and give away my classes. Can't win them all.)

 By this I mean the dead celebrity effect - artists of all kinds, whose work is seldom (or never) discussed is suddenly elevated to high status when they pass. I couldn't name anyone who really talked about Bowie in 2014, but when he passed everyone suddenly had a deep memory to share on Facebook. This isn't meant to demean anyone who shared a feeling, all of which are completely valid and I can only assume genuine. It's meant to highlight that our monkey brains also can't connect with the idea of something being exhausted until it is. No one wanted Atari ET cartridges until they were dumped in the desert, and then they became collectible, rare, and valuable. Everyone wanted Beanie Babies until there were too many of them and the bubble burst. We inherently tie value into availability (supply/demand) and connect our own motivation to this worth.

Basically, what I'm saying is: don't wait. Don't skip the teacher you want to take, the show you want to do, or the place you want to be, while also considering what it is you really want. Anyway, that's my long way of saying I'll be back in SD teaching in February. My good friend Elisa is putting the whole thing together with a workshop, some social time, and a show. I hope (if this is something you truly want to do), you'll come: http://improvsuperpac.com/ska/

Monday, July 25, 2016

Leave No Trace

So first things first:

I'm moving to Chicago.

The first big question is 'why?' (though that's probably just ahead of 'why now?'); I've had countless students and fellow performers ask me why I'm not in Chicago (or LA or NYC), and I even came close (damn close) to moving to LA about three years ago.  My answer was always that I liked San Diego: the weather is hard as hell to beat, it's comfortable and all my friends are here.  But most importantly, I was doing the things in San Diego that I wanted to do: perform weekly, teach and coach regularly, and the job I had afforded enough income and time off for me to do those things as well as travel around the US and Canada and do shows and festivals (at time of writing, I've been to 15 festivals, and am scheduled for another 5 in 2016).  Now, about that job.

I moved to San Diego in 2008 from Chicago because I got a job working for the Navy Drug Screening Laboratory, which has been my sole employer since then.  The lab tests urine specimens for illicit drugs (e.g. marijuana, cocaine), and my job there has often had people refer to me as "pee guy", "chemist", "drug guy", "piss tester", and a variety of other colorful monikers that lack nuance, to say the least.  That lab is closing, effective 1 February 2017.

The lab is over 30 years old at this point, and in desperate need of renovation and expansion, and the most recent survey assessed that the lab space only has 1-2 more years, maximum, before the physical plant fails and the lab can no longer operate.  That same survey also asked every Navy and Marine Corps installation from Mexico to Orange County if they can spare some space, and we have been flatly informed that there is "no room at the inn".  That, coupled with a $30-50 million price tag for updating has put the NDSL on the chopping block.  Some 60 employees will scatter to the wind next spring, which seems appropriate.  I'm lucky in that I've been offered a job at the sister lab outside of Chicago, and save getting my final orders in the next week or so, I start there on September 6.

I've been telling people that I've got a range of emotions: fear, trepidation, terror, nervousness, excitement, regret, sadness, stress, frustration - which are all true.  Certainly this will be a new chapter in my life, one that must be taken.  Sometimes you make the choice, and sometimes the choice makes you.  'Why not just stay in San Diego?' you may ask, and well, the answer has mostly to do with employment.  At present, I would make nowhere near enough to support myself doing improv, and I would rather not take a chemistry job in San Diego that may require an hour commute everyday to the outer rim (where most biotech is located).  Also, despite having helped found FCI and being employee number 1, I have been gradually phased out, which leaves me with very little invested in it.  Mike and Charles have been very successful running Sidestage, but I have even less invested in that enterprise.  And The Local, which Dino and I have been running for the last year or so is very nascent, so if ever there was a time to leave, this would be it.

In Boy Scouts, one of the principles we camp by is "Leave No Trace" - a concept that we should always endeavor to leave environments better than we found them.  This may sound ghostly - that Boy Scouts are Forest Phantoms, disappearing into the night in a puff of campfire smoke and merit badges.  This isn't truly the case - instead, when we go to places where we are guests or visitors, places that we do not own but that we only get to participate in, that we should exercise good ethics and stewardship in maintaining that space so that others may get to enjoy them.

It is hard to overstate how barren and non-existent the improv community was in San Diego when I moved here in September 2008.  There was one shortform theater, and their improv community engagement was more "private club" than "welcoming party".  There were a few shortform teams that would play about once a month - the Hinges and ROAR - but that was about it.  When I decided to start the Stage Monkeys as a long form team, we became instantly the first Harold team and only the second longform team the city had ever seen (RIP #1, The Ugly Truth).  This was at a time when the only improv training center didn't run classes regularly and one of my first coaches there said "some people try to break off and start their own thing, but it never works out so you shouldn't even bother".

I was the one who created the show Buddy System, taught the first longform class, started the first two-man team (Mike and Chris), and the first monoscene (Fourth Date), and took the first team to an improv festival (The Stage Monkeys).  Now these things don't seem so pioneering or groundbreaking (and to be fair, they didn't feel that way at the time).  There was a time when I used to know every improviser in San Diego, and now I go to a show and recognize barely half the audience.  Our city has become filled with hungry and passionate artists who just want to improvise, baby.  That we can even have hate-filled invective arguments and diatribes over Facebook was unthinkable 8 years ago.  And getting to see people I first taught and worked along side now become teachers and leaders of their own can only be viewed as an unanticipated benefit.

I think we as a culture are obsessed with apocalyptic tales and origin stories because we want to believe that we are either there for the beginning or the end of adventures (probably ideally both).  We are enchanted by ends and beginnings and want to say "I was there", but even I can't say I was there "at the start".  There were people here before I was, doing the work, and there will be people here after I'm gone doing same.  The only downside of having a large dynamic community (and one that records things so poorly) is that we have very short organizational memory.  Just as we little remember the people who began the journey 8 years ago, so too will I eventually wash away, only to be replaced by someone newer, smarter, and better.

There will probably be some people very happy to see me go.  To them, I say "you're welcome".  Hate and fear are powerful motivators, and if that gets you moving, then at least you're moving.  To the teams I coach and play with, and told in person over the last week, thanks for keeping my secret so that I could venture to talk to people in person and thank you for all work we've done together.  To the students I've taught, thank you for listening, for trying, and for being brave to do this ridiculous, ridiculous art on stage.  To the theater owners and staff, thank you for making beacons for like-minded people to find each other - I expect only good things from Mike, Amy, Gary, and the next person who hasn't come to the party yet as they make homes for people here.   To the community, thank you for letting a kid who didn't know any better and wasn't very good and who just wanted to do give me the opportunity to work and grow as a player and performer and person.

My only hope is that I was able to give some small amount of good deeds back, and that if I've left a trace, that it at least is a good one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Death and Life of Great American Improv Teams


In a previous post, I spoke briefly about the writing Jane Jacobs did in her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. This book, published in 1961, was a critique of urban planning measures of the time and flew directly in the face of what was then modern dogma (an example: belief that parks cure social ills.) The book rejects simplification in favor of an understanding of the need for layered complexity, which can at times seem like chaos. She identifies four basic concepts of neighborhoods that must be maximized in order for them to be thriving, lively places to live, which I will attempt to translate into terms for an improv team.

1. “The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two...”

In city terms, this is an admonishment against districts too tightly focused on a single purpose (i.e. warehouse districts) because it means there will be times when those areas will be empty. (Just think about how many times the Highlander traded blades with immortals in abandoned factories and car parks.) Sometimes people see success in one area (say, banks) and pile a bunch of other things in the same area (sometimes even the same intersection (hello, Subway and Starbucks)) in an effort to duplicate success. (Same thing happens when TV shows or movies are successful.) Translate to improv: teams need diversity of players. Different ideas, candors, tempos, energies, ways of playing. Everyone is working in different ways, but still towards the same goal. We never know what solution will be the one that works in a particular case, so we have to able to pursue all of these avenues simultaneously. Additionally, teams can't just do one thing; they have to be able to do many things well to be successful. (One way to read this is that they must specialize in one type of show, but one of my favorite teams, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, is very successful despite doing one very particular show – but if you've ever seen them, you know that they are dramatic, funny, tell great stories, inventive, bold, and also can act. It's also done in the style of Shakespeare, which they also succeed at. It's also exceptionally well done.)

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

In a neighborhood, there must be a variety of ways for residents to interact with each other, in a complicated and myriad network of contact. Long streets limit the routes people can take, which minimizes contact and observation. People on teams cannot be isolated from each other they must be able to, regularly do, make meaningful contact with each other. Time spent with each individual person must be (roughly) equal. I think this is why two person groups are most commonly the long-term successful ones; easier to maintain contact.

3. “The district must mingle old buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly closely grained.”

Too many new buildings makes it too expensive for some businesses to operate, and they stay empty. A variety of uses (business, living arrangements) necessitates a variety of places for them to occupy. Variety breeds success. This holds especially in terms of experience and function. What each person brings to the group (the funny one, the serious one, the one who initiates) and how they provide it are critical to its ability to operate.

4. “There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there...”

This doesn't mean all groups have to be huge, it means they all have to be close enough to each other that their interactions are meaningful. The level of engagement and responsibility everyone has for each other keeps people needing each other. This isn't a bad thing; we can't forget that the basic un-written underlying premise of “yes, and...” is cooperation. Best thing about using the word “need” is the connotation the word has of being “active” in what we do with and for each other. Low density neighborhoods feel empty and unoccupied, the same way that sparsely populated teams do. Teams with high density feel busy.

I get asked by people all the time about teams; which they should join, should they take this person or that, or should they quit this one or that one. They are equivalent to “should I move?” in terms of cities. Ms. Jacobs would probably say that moving only furthers the collapse of neighborhoods; that moving people around only lessens their capacity and drive. I think its very easy to get distracted by the offer of new teams as being the offer of better (improv) lives, when those things are not always mathematically equal. We can't fix things if we're always just on our way to the next place.

“We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.” - Jane Jacobs