I recently had a chance to perform for another theater – which creates great cross promotion, pollination and continues to solidify the community – all things that I support and do everything I can to foster.

As each new show/ opportunity/ company arrives on the scene i begin to see something else wain. It’s the yin and yang of community. As people find a home, they get settled. They settle. They stop. Where there once was a bunch of smaller groups scrapping their way around town and starting shows everywhere they could, have now gotten…. lost.

A wise man told me a while ago, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

So that leads to the menu of items needed to foster a healthy and vibrant community that can be self supporting:

  1. space: there HAS to be a performance venue to be in front of people. If you don’t have opportunity to perform, and readily available space, then the dream starts to fade. That can be anything – a bar, a black box, a street corner.
  2. leadership: someone must take the reigns and say ‘hey, let’s do this!!!’ We all need a push now and again, and a support system to help make that idea a reality.
  3. resources: you have to have the ability to be financially solvent. You have to have affordable housing, and a job that can afford your performing habits. Something to get things rolling till you can create new revenue streams on just your performances. you have to have a starting place that makes it possible to launch yourself into the abyss.
  4. staying power / vision: you have to KNOW what you want. You don’t have to know how you will get it, you just have to know that it is possible. And be willing to do what you must to get there.

I am sure there are 900 other items. Read Daniel Pink’s book on the Rise of the Creative Class and I am sure there can be a million more things I have forgotten. But for my corner of the world, this is the list I have.

So far. Of course, I will never stop refining it.

Red Beans and Rice

I am making up a pot of red beans and rice, which I am want to do on occaision. One of the main parts of Red Beans and Rice is the ‘holy trinity’ of foods; Onion, celery and green pepper.

It makes me think ‘what is the holy trinity of improv?’ In my mind it is a few things:

1. Confidence. Do something. Whatever it is. Just do it. Stop thinking about why you should or shouldn’t. Just do it. That moment where you considered it – that was your downfall – you should have done it. Stop considering and start moving. Your body doesn’t lie – if it felt like you needed to enter / exit / do something, then you probably did. Listen to your body. It knows more than you do.

2. Care. Care about the characters you are with. The fact that you are onstage with them means that you must care something about them, right? Otherwise, why would you be in this scene with them? (And, if you don’t like them – then leave. It’s not hard, just walk away. Really.) So care about them. Know them. Even if you don’t – it just means you know them in some other way.

3. Reality. People say really crazy things in life – so amazingly crazy that it seems unreal. But put those people in in an improv scene and they get timid, or blah. Or they got HOG SHIT CRAZY. It seems like it is one or the other. But they don’t reflect the reality of life. The joy in the lady talking to her toy bear on the bus. The guy who is buying ten cans of cat food and a frozen pizza in line in front of you at the store . The couple having the most undramatic breakup over coffee at the coffee shop. It’s all really amazing. If you just open your eyes and see it, it becomes the new reality for your life on stage. See it and reflect it.

I am sure there are fifteen other ingredients that I can come up with as well (like bay leaves, very very important the bay leaf is…), but for now, you get these three.


Take Risks, Support Each Other, Tell the Story

(NOTE: Originally posted at An Hour of Play)

From the 2005 production of Lookingglass Alice

These were the three underlying principles of Lookingglass Theatre that Andrew White cited in his acceptance speech for Lookingglass’s Tony Award for Best Regional Theater (video of the speech here. Now, that may seem like boilerplate stuff, but what doesn’t necessarily come through in those words is the level of commitment Lookingglass gives to those words, and has done for about 25 years now. What I don’t think Andy mentioned in that speech is that the early production to which he refers happened while they were all students at Northwestern University. While I don’t think I saw the production of “Alice” that he cites, I did see others of their productions, “The Serpent” (which I think was the impetus to moving forward as a company), “Still Life with Woodpecker,” and “West.” What struck me in each of these productions were a few things:

1) Holy crap did they take risks. I still have vivid memories of scenes from “The Serpent.”. From a very visual representation of the “begats” section of Genesis (seriously, is there a duller part of the Bible? Until you see actors writhing on stage begetting, that is) to disjointed representations of assassinations to a stylized violence of Cain and Abel unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, I continually found myself with my mouth agape. That I still can visualize those scenes 25+ years later… in editing SmokeLong Quarterly, I’ve often talked about the stories I love being the ones that I can’t stop thinking about months later… I can’t stop thinking about “The Serpent” a quarter of a century later, and most of those thoughts come not so much from the text, but from the level of risk (and reward!) in that particular production.

2) Those risks so obviously wouldn’t have been possible without tremendous support and trust among the actors (and director). Some of the movement literally could have caused tremendous injuries if the partners in those movements hadn’t been absolutely committed to supporting them.

3) They worked their asses off. In truth, I misremembered the third point Andy made as “Work hard,” rather than “Tell the story.” I remember hearing (second-hand) that when Lookingglass played the Edinburgh Fringe in ’87 (as did Mee-Ow) that LG members were discouraged from hanging out with members of Mee-Ow while there. They were all friends, but LG was there to work. Similarly, it often seemed, while they were in rehearsals for shows at NU, they virtually disappeared from the social scene. They still had lives, yes, but their focus was absolutely on the work. While I never got to attend one of their rehearsals, in my imagination, they were focused and intense (in other NU shows, I worked with most of the members of LG, and even individually, their focus was clear).

The Regional Tony, to me, wasn’t so much an accomplishment in and of itself (or something they ever specifically aspired to) as it was the outside world recognizing a quarter century’s worth of very talented people committed to one another and to those three goals.

As we’re getting ready to go into our first auditions for Interrobang, Lookingglass has been much on my mind. When Randy and I first met at Feierabend to discuss our goals in starting an improv group, one of the things I said was that I wanted to commit to working hard, and that this specific goal was counter to much of my early acting history (one director said as much about his experience with a show I did at New Mercury in ’93). I’ve always deeply loved ensemble work in general (and ensemble improv in particular). And, since getting back into improv, I’ve been dying to find a group with which I could grow and make a high level of commitment to supporting and pushing one another to become better individually and as a group.

I think Interrobang is getting there more and more with each rehearsal. The understanding among each of us that we’re not going to play it safe and that we’re going to be right there for each other… that’s awesome. And, somehow, almost instinctively, even in our crazy-ass experimental free-form, we never let the story drop.

So… while I can’t speak for every single member of Interrobang as to what we’re looking for in the auditions, I don’t have to look much beyond Chicago’s “theatre without a net” to voice what I’m hoping to see: take risks, support each other, and (in a slight deviation from Lookingglass’s credo) trust that the story will find itself if you do those things.

One last line from Stephen Colbert’s recent commencement address at NU: “In improv, you are not the most important person in the scene; everyone else is the most important person in the scene.”