Just Have Fun Out There

I performed in an improv show at a comedy festival in Greenville, SC last weekend that went so well I thought afterward I might make it my last.

The six people I played with were drawn from other Southeastern improv troupes, and together we formed a festival supergroup. The other improvisers varied in closeness to me from perfect stranger to loose acquaintance. We performed on a stage I’ve never considered mine and one I’ve never spent time managing. We got good laughs from the audience, and afterward, just enough people told me I was smart and funny.

It was an emotionally unencumbered high, and one that tempted me to walk away. Because I love creating with other people, but I hate wanting things from them. And when I’m in a group I find myself wanting things: commitment, shared vision, similar ambitions.

With the festival group, it was good time casual improv. Afterward there would be no one to miss or be disappointed with or regret leaving. As a result, during the show I was able to “just have fun out there” which is the advice that improv teachers and coaches always give their students and teams.

What comes next for me in improv has been weighing heavily on me during the last few shows I’ve done in Atlanta. I have another show in a couple weeks, and I’m going to try to channel my improv supergroup attitude and just have fun. Because that’s one of the lovely things about improv that can easily get lost.

The Special Group

Let’s say a group is a collection of people assembled together at a point in time and space. Over a duration of some sort, they form a unit: a class, a team, an audience, an assembly, a council. They interact within this unit. Talking to each other, learning together, playing together, creating together, making decisions together, witnessing together. And then their time as a group comes to an end. The season finishes, they graduate, the show closes, the meeting disperses.

Sometimes a group can forge an intense connection that makes the inevitable ending difficult. I saw this a lot when I was an improv teacher. There’s nothing quite like your first improv class–when as an adult you’re encouraged to play and connect and talk candidly about hard things with other people. I experienced it myself as a student, and it felt like magic. I belong with these people I thought then. And now, five years later, I can’t remember names or even who was in my first class. What’s more is I’ve experienced the same magic several times over with other improv classes and groups.

If there’s something I chase spiritually, it’s not necessarily a connection to a higher power but a connection to other people. I love being part of a unique collection of beings tethered together for a short burst of time–a finite unit of people in infinite time and space. And I want our connection to mean something. I want to look around a room of fellow volunteers or coworkers or gym goers or classmates or tourists and believe that for however short a period that we belong together in that space. That our togetherness matters.

Over the past couple years, I’ve grieved the end of some creative groups that meant a lot to me and the related heartbreak has made me hesitant to seek out similar connections despite the joy I might experience. I think a false notion of what’s “special” is partly to blame. See I think I thought that if I found the right group it wouldn’t end. But the truth is all groups will evolve or change or come to a close. And that’s part of what makes them special. Because even at the beginning I know there’s going to be an ending, and so I know have to enjoy this group of people and the time I have with them while I have it.

Becoming Fagin

As an eighth grade girl, I was cast as Fagin, a 19th century old man leader of a gang of pickpocketing British boys, in my grade school’s production of Oliver! To this day, it remains one of my favorite roles of all time.

This weekend I went to see Becoming Nancy, a new musical at The Alliance about a fictional high school boy in a London suburb in 1979 who is cast as Nancy in his school’s production of Oliver Twist even though the role he wants is Fagin.

The premise of the musical captured my attention because on the surface my situation seemed to neatly transpose that of the protagonist. But while my casting as a man caused nary a stir in my Catholic community in Cincinnati in the mid-1990s, the musical’s protagonist being cast as a woman–and the love interest of Bill Sikes, a character played by a boy–results in far more controversy.

There was the fear of homosexuality in the musical’s plot that wasn’t an issue in my school’s production. Things might have been different if I’d been cast as Bill Sikes opposite my friend Kelly’s spectacular Nancy. (Despite being only fourteen at the time, she’d been preparing the role for years.)

There was the fact that I’d already broken the gender barrier the year before in the Wizard of Oz by playing the Tin Man, a role so blatantly for a man that it’s in the character’s name.

Whatever the reason, I was able to play these roles without encountering any criticism or pushback. And I had fun portraying men. Sure, I thought maybe it would make the many, many boys I had a crush on less likely to like me. But it meant I got to play these tough, protective, and funny characters, which was the kind of kid I was.

What interests me looking back now is how normal it seemed for me to play a male character while it seems impossible that a boy in my grade school would have played a female character (and not just because the pool of girl talent was STACKED). A girl playing a boy was to be expected while a boy playing a girl would have undercut his masculinity.

When I think of the patriarchy and all it denies women, it makes me upset. But I’m also upset by what it denies men. As a girl, I was given free reign to explore what it meant to be a man, right up on stage in front of everyone–finding my heart as the Tin Man and steering little boys toward crime as Fagin. The boys in my class never would have had the chance to experience the compassion of Nancy, who takes Oliver under her wing, or Dorothy’s sense of longing for home and her courage in the face of the Wicked Witch.

You could say boys could find these traits in other male characters–they don’t need to play women–but there’s something to the freedom of being allowed to play the opposite gender. I’m grateful for all the things becoming Fagin taught me. Like how to tie a tie (which I’ve since forgotten, but thankfully now we have the Internet).


I feel it should be noted that my friend Kelly also rocked the role of Dorothy, and I was proud to be her Tin Man. Also, I’m pretty sure Nancy was not murdered by Bill Sikes in our production of Oliver! 

Memorable Performances

The thing is I remember seeing Our Town when I was in grade school. It was a production put on by a local public high school. I went to a Catholic school nearby and once a year we’d take a field trip during the day to see their shows.

These performances would likely have fallen into the waste bin of my memory had it not been for one actor–a brilliant performer who led the cast in Our Town but gave his best performance as Paul in Barefoot in the Park.

I don’t know if I ever knew this actor’s name, and I have only the most general recollection of his features: tall and lanky with brown hair. This incidentally describes most every guy I’ve had a crush on in my life, and I probably had a crush on this actor.

He graduated high school before I finished grade school, and I never enjoyed the shows at his alma mater as much after he was gone. For example, I less fondly recall a production of MASH where they played the song “Suicide is Painless” on repeat through every lengthy scene change.

This past Sunday I saw Our Town at a professional theatre in Atlanta. I was hesitant to purchase a ticket because I’m trying to be thrifty right now, but every time I’d saw ads for the Atlanta show memories of watching my favorite actor as a kid would resurface. Brief flashes of him on stage that left me wondering what the plot of Our Town was and which character he’d played (either the stage manager or George Gibbs).

I’m glad I saw Our Town again and not just because Act 3 features a cemetery. The message of the play–appreciating life and our connection with others in the moment–is one that resonates with me now. And it’s an idea I’m glad that I was exposed to as a twelve year old via a performance by an actor who I can barely recall but have yet to forget.

All the World’s a Stage…But Where’s Mine?

The closest I’ve come to really liking social media is when I view it as a platform for myself and others to create art, share our stories, promote our work, and be audiences for one another.

This past March I gave up on it because I’d become a bad audience member and a blocked creator. A bad audience member because I felt jealous all the time of what I saw others accomplishing and a blocked creator because I felt pressure to express outrage at what was going on in the world but was scared to share it.

So I retreated. And this retreat coincided with a retreat from the literal stages I’d been performing on as well.

***

My future in theatrical performance is uncertain. I’m not sure what I’ll do next or even what I want. It’s a time of change that feels similar to when I left academia but then I knew I was ready to leave completely. And now I feel like I’m not yet done with performing.

I saw a show this past week in London that confirmed these feelings—The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre. I’d seen As You Like It at the Globe a year before. And it was to my absolute delight (a phrase I don’t use often) that the actor who I’d loved as Jaques in the prior year’s production was playing Falstaff in the show I saw this year. Seeing this actor (Pearce Quigley) on stage and witnessing his ability to send the audience roaring with laughter at seemingly simple moves rekindled everything I love about being on stage (and being a good audience member as well). It was a privilege to see him play once but to have the opportunity to see him twice in two different roles was incredible.

***

We all play parts, and those parts change over the course of our lives (as Jaques details in his “All the world’s a stage” monologue in As You Like It). What’s weird about social media is how much it calls upon us to capture and reflect on the part we’re playing. I see it everywhere I go on my travels—people taking pictures that define them in some way: sexy world traveler in front of a skyline, funny guy next to a nude statue, person with their hand on top of the Louvre pyramid (it’s an angle thing).

It’s not that I don’t want to share myself anymore. It’s more that I’ve become hyper aware of the ways that I’m constructing my part, especially as my identity is shifting. I want to know more about who I am now and what venues make sense for me to share my work before I put myself out there again—both in the world of performance and on social media.

For now, I’ll stick with what’s comfortable. Posting weekly on this website and sharing an image of myself with Shakespeare (of whom I’m a big fan).

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Every entrance is an exit from somewhere else

I just wrapped up a six-week acting class with Tim Phillips focused on Building the Physical Life of the Character. I learned a lot in the class about how to take time with a script, be patient, and discover a character. I’m grateful for the process Tim shared and also for the bits of wisdom he sprinkled into the class.

“Every entrance is an exit from somewhere else.”

This was a note Tim gave to some other students regarding the top of their scene when their characters were returning home. It’s one of those obvious statements that nonetheless blows your mind.

Of course the character is influenced by where they’ve just been! How can I use this to start the scene in a dynamic place?

Where you’ve been matters. This is true for characters on stage, and I think it’s also true in life. Whenever you enter a new situation, your attitude and desires in that situation are influenced by where you’ve been and what you’ve gone through.

On a day to day basis, this can be as simple as coming home grumpy after a long work day. On a broader time horizon, this can be wanting a new stage of life to be different from what came before (e.g., college to be different than high school).

I’m in a phase of life right now where I’m trying to pivot and change what I do day to day so I can make a bit more money and keep pushing myself creatively. Unlike my last major career change (leaving academia), I’m not trying to abandon what I’ve been doing, but I’m trying to build on it in a more clear direction.

I’m finding the pivoting process challenging because I’m bringing to it baggage from the past few years. I think about moments of disappointment and want to change the direction I’m going and do a 180 shift again.

But this isn’t practical or sustainable. Every situation I could put myself in will come with its own problems. All I can do now is recognize where I’ve been and how that’s influencing my current state of mind and where I want to go next.

Because I’ll leave this stage too and enter somewhere else.

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The War in my Mind is more like a Skirmish

I did not go boldly into the theater when I went to see Vernal & Sere’s production of 4.48 Psychosis. I walked in slowly with my husband, David, choosing the seats closest to the door in case I needed to make a quick exit.

The four actors in the play were already on stage performing an unsettling pre-show routine that combined movement and sound.

“This show has already exceeded my expectations,” David said to me as we sat down.

It was David’s first Vernal & Sere show, and I knew he was in for an experience. This theater company’s productions always inspire me as an artist. The talent and commitment of the actors, their use of movement, the immersive nature of the technical elements, and their willingness to take on bold AF material are just some of the things I admire about them. Their shows always challenge me.

In the case of 4.48 Psychosis, I was worried that the challenge might be too much. The play, written by Sarah Kane, centers on a person’s struggle with severe depression. Kane herself committed suicide shortly after completing the play and before it premiered.

Given the material, I knew the show would bring me head to head with my own mental health challenges. These tend to lean more toward anxiety than depression, but I find my anxious mind is aspirational. It’s always looking for more despairing ways to worry. In attending 4.48 Psychosis, I was concerned I’d learn something new that would cause me significant distress.

This didn’t happen. My unease at the start of the play was replaced with a calm collectedness about midway through. I thought I’d be looking into a mirror, seeing a reflection of the war that happens in my mind. Instead, what I saw on stage was much worse than what I usually experience. If 4.48 Psychosis depicts a full on battle, what happens in my mind, at least currently, is more of a skirmish (limited engagement, some casualties, no clear winner or loser).

The onstage battle was difficult to watch, but for me there was still something hopeful about the portrayal–namely the supportive and cohesive nature of the ensemble. As loosely defined characters, the performers fought with each other but also comforted each other. As actors, they supported the shit out of each other in every moment. This reminded me of the people who have been willing to help me over the years. It also reminded me of how I’ve stepped up and helped myself.

One of the ways I’ve helped myself recently is adopting a mindfulness based approach to dealing with my anxiety. I’m practicing recognizing thoughts as thoughts and not a definition of reality (i.e., just because I think it, doesn’t make it true although my body may react as such). In moments where the 4.48 Psychosis production became intense, I adopted a similar approach breaking down the experience into its component parts: actors moving across the stage, lights turning on and off, words being spoken from a script, etc.

Theatre allows us to engage topics that are difficult to broach like depression and suicide. It gives us access to a space where we can navigate emotionally challenging territory and then leave afterwards. I’ve always considered the benefit of theater to be preparation for real life or to help process what’s happened in real life. With 4.48 Psychosis, seeing it made me question the reality of real life. Is what I think true? Are my thoughts me?

What is true and tragic about this play is that its author did commit suicide. Knowing a real person went through what you’re seeing on stage makes for a harrowing viewing but an important one. Globally 800,000 people die each year from suicide according to the World Health Organization. Many more attempt. Shame keeps people silent on mental health issues. I appreciate Vernal & Sere for bringing these experiences to light and reminding me and many others that we are not alone in our struggles.