Character Alphabet

CharacterAlphabet.png

I have a new solitary pre-game ritual/warmup that I’ve been enjoying while commuting to improv practices/ shows, and thought I’d share. I’m calling it Character Alphabet.

With the Dada Monologue, you’re trying to come up with random words on the fly; you start forming your mouth into a letter, and you just trust that the rest of the word will follow (like grabbing something out of the air). Which is fine. But I kept falling into the same default emergency starting consonants. “Fffffutile dinosaurs c… c… cracked generic pastries, and c… classic ffffffrankfurters p-p-partied with five piranhas.”

Plus I realized I was using a lot of the same words from day to day. “Potato” kept popping up a lot.

So to force myself to get more words and letters into my brain, I started doing short four (or more)-word sentences that cycle through the alphabet. Words can ONLY begin with the letter you are on. Start with a different letter every session so you don’t overwork the same section of the alphabet. I try to make the words as visual and specific as possible (avoid abstract vocabulary like “freedom,” “incidentally,” “existentialism,” etc.).

“Narcissistic newts nipped nine Norwegian nails.”

“Orange octopuses orated occasionally.”

“Pentagonal pterodactyls pined peacefully.”

Etc.

 

Fun, right?

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE

 

Whenever I’ve tried Napier’s “Solo Character Switches” exercise, I blank out of words to say, and I never get through more than about 2 minutes of the exercise (covering probably about 3 characters instead of the 12 I should be covering with 10-second switches).

So I’m combining Character Switches with Alphabet Soup. Do a different character for each 4-word sentence. (I base the character off the first word of the sentence.)

While I’m not brave enough to break into full-out characters on a New York City subway, I have no problem silently mouthing words in public, silently positioning my throat and lips exactly how they’d need to go to create the voice of this character. I can visualize exactly what sound would come out of me if I were to activate my vocal cords. It’s as close as I can get to full-out characters without becoming a public nuisance.

 

To me, characters are one of the most fun parts of improv (which I always forget), and coming up with words on the spot is one of the hardest parts of improv. This exercise isn’t the most challenging warm-up in the world, but it’s a pleasant wake-up the bits of my brain that need to get woken up.

Failing greatness

WARNING: Not so comedic. Some discussion of suicide. (1) I’m not suicidal right now, don’t worry about me. (2) If you think it might be a trigger for you, or generally uncomfortable, you might want to skip this one.

 

———-

Prelude: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about laziness and depression.

I’m not depressed (probably?). I am lazy and insecure with self-confidence issues.

And I’m waffling about hitting the “publish” button on this. Why do I need to be so open? Is it a cry for attention? Does it belong on this blog? Does it belong anywhere?

…Fuck it, let’s go.

 

———-

Two things I encountered yesterday morning:

  1. A quote from Amy Poehler, as illustrated by Zen Pencils: “Great people do things before they’re ready.”
  2. A quote from Stephen Thompson, towards the end of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour (31:13): “People who achieve greatness in all sorts of capacities are obsessive people.”

That first thing goes against every fiber of my being, and I can only be obsessive about anything for two-week stretches at a time.

I think it’s normal to see people we really admire (“great”) and analyze: what exactly makes those great people so great? What separates them from the riff-raff? What can I do to put myself on the right side of that threshold? —which is why these kinds of quotes are so prevalent, and why I assume so many people find them motivational.

My gut translation of quotes like that is: “Worthwhile humans have XYZ trait, but you don’t have XYZ trait, therefore you are worthless. Just give up. There’s no point.”

 

———-

Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal does a lot of comics about what he calls “the Blerch.” [link] [link] [link]

I haven’t been getting anything done lately. My Blerch is winning.

It’s always been a battle for me, as I assume it is for most people. (Why else would Inman’s Blerch comics be so popular, right?)

Do most people plan their whole lives around the assumption that they won’t do anything unless they have to do it? ‘Cos I do.

 

It’s why I have a rigorous schedule for improv (when I’m in it; I’m falling out right now [see "Blerch" above]): classes on Mondays, practice group on Fridays, show-watching on Wednesdays.

It’s why I participate in community bands— I know I won’t do any music on my own.

It’s why I know exactly what days I’m going to run a month in advance.

It’s why I don’t cook or clean.

It’s why I won’t freelance— so what if I’m late on my deadlines and have no repeat clients?

It’s why anytime anyone says “hey we should do a thing,” my response is always “ehhh maybe I don’t know, I’d rather sit around and do nothing.”

 

Laziness/Blerchness is the commonest and most shameful thing in our western culture.

Severe depression is its own thing that I have no frame of reference for, but I wonder: what’s the functional difference between severe laziness and mild depression?

 

(Side note: Here’s a link I found that suggests breaking the thing you’re avoiding into smaller, tinier, doable goals.)

———-

Robin Williams committed suicide on Monday (8/11/14). (He was one of the contributing influences to this “Robin Cartwright” pseudonym I use.)

When the news broke, everyone cried, “I loved [that movie he did 20 years ago]!”

I have no idea what Williams was going through. But if it were me, and nobody had anything good to say about any work I’d done since c.1997, I don’t think I’d be handling it very well, myself, emotionally.

…..

One thing that’s come out of this is that people are talking openly and non-judgmentally about mental illness.

I haven’t seen the line “suicide is selfish” this time around*, which is refreshing. (That line never made sense to me; when I’ve considered suicide, it always felt altruistic, because OBVIOUSLY the world would be a better place without me in it.)

*Ed. The “selfish” thing started coming up later. Dammit.

What I have seen is a lot of “mental illness is a real illness; if you are ill, get help.” Which… it’s more complicated than that, innit?

…..

John William Keedy did a series of photographs about anxiety, and got interviewed by NPR.

There’s a stigma that goes with having a mental illness. It comes with this idea of weakness of will. Which is weird, because if somebody had a broken arm you’d never tell them to will their way out of it.

Here’s the thing: with a broken arm, it’s either broken, or it isn’t. You look at an X-ray, and you know.

With mental illness, there is a whole continuum, and it’s pretty fuzzy. Sometimes you feel shitty and it’s “normal”; sometimes you feel shitty and it’s “abnormal.” Drawing a precise line between “normal” and “abnormal” is incredibly unclear, and has been debated among trained psychiatrists for years, and that precise line shifts from year to year, from DSM to DSM, from one psychiatrist’s subjective opinion to another’s.

I self-diagnose myself as “subclinical pretty much everything.” I show some signs of dysthymia, bipolar II, PMDD, SAD, anxiety, agoraphobia, avoidant personality disorder, etc… but I can leave my apartment in the morning and hold a job, and I am therefore “functional” and not truly “ill,” so it’s hard to justify the time/cost/effort of seeking help.

…And by the time I get to seriously considering suicide, I’m just SURE that I’m fine, and suicide just seems LOGICAL.

Argh.

 

—–

I don’t really have a point, I just wanted to vent.

 

In closing, here are some better and more articulate thoughts about depression to read, if you haven’t seen them yet:

  1. David Foster Wallace writes about his depression (1984)
  2. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half writes about her depression – Part 1 (2011)Prelude, and Part 2 (2013)

 

Podcast sharing time – Put Your Hands Together

Quick public service announcement:

I’ve been looking for a (free) podcast of various comedians’ stand-up routines for a while. I found one: Put Your Hands Together. It’s live weekly standup recorded at UCB-LA. There are big names, medium names, names I don’t recognize. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for, and I hope maybe you will like it too.

CLAP DAMMIT CLAP

 

Introversion + Too many people in this scene

I’m an introvert. Whenever I take Meyers-Briggs tests, I’m wayyyyyyyyyy over on the introvert side of the spectrum. (I haven’t retaken the test since I’ve started doing improv, and I don’t know if I’ve started to get more in touch with my extrovert tendencies lately, but I’m still definitively an introvert.)

 

A defining characteristic of introversion is that we’re quiet and reserved in large groups. We are most comfortable by ourselves, or talking to someone one-on-one, maybe two. Not a crowd.

I bring this up because I find that I prefer doing improv with just one scene partner, and I get progressively more freaked out the more people I have to play with at once.

Monoscenes, by definition, require interacting with a large group of people at once, which I’m starting to think automatically sets off my introversion/ social anxiety/ agoraphobia/ fear, and renders me useless for improv.

 

…..

I was involved (I still am, kind of sort of? I haven’t officially quit) with an indie team that did variations on monoscenes. I was never really into the form, but everyone else seemed to be, so I went along with it. I hoped that I was just inexperienced, that I’d grow to love the form with time. Hasn’t happened.

Those same teammates have commented that it’s really hard to do a good Harold. No argument from me— all long-form improv is really hard. But to my mind, Harolds— or any forms built from straight-up two-person scenework— seem more straightforward to pull off.

I want to improvise laid-back explorations of two-person relationships. I like those in real life, and I like the idea of improvising make-believe versions of them. No pressure. No crowds. Just you and me having a moment together.

I dunno. Improv is hard enough on its own, so why make it even harder?

 

I do believe that if you’re still mostly failing in the practice room, it’s prudent to be patient and keep it behind closed doors until you’re nailing a slightly higher success rate…. I also believe you can get comfortable being on stage by doing stuff that you have a high probability of succeeding at. Sufficient preparation allows you to build skills, and utilizing those skills drives your success.

(Did I just quote myself? Yeah. Yeah, I did. #arrogance)

Some long forms are more difficult than others. When I get bored of the easier ones, then yes, I’ll move on to something trickier. But I see no reason to jump into something I’m unlikely to succeed at before I’ve mastered some forms that I might actually be able to pull off.

And I’d be more likely to succeed because…

“It’s just so much easier to follow passion than it is to follow…”
“…an obligation.”

(Rick & Lewis)

 

Arrogance vs. self-loathing

As basically every post on this blog can verify, I have issues with self confidence. But I’ve got an ego, too, and feeding that ego feels really good— that’s the whole reason comedians go for laughs, right?

When I’m not filled with self-loathing, when I start thinking, Hey, I might actually be competent at this, or God forbid, Maybe I’m even GOOD at this, I’ll often catch myself and put on the brakes: Whoa there Robin, your last practice was probably unskilled as anything, but you were in an egotistical headspace, so it only felt good. You still aren’t good. You can only improve by addressing your flaws. So I’ll start focusing on all the mistakes I make, and I’ll realize I can’t do ANYTHING right, and I’ll crash right back down to self-loathing.

Self-loathing is an unwanted state of mind, because it makes me question every move I make, which leads to bad improv, which leads to hating myself for being terrible at improv. (Also because self-loathing is generally unpleasant and unproductive in life— let’s not forget there are several reasons why self-loathing is not ideal.) But I don’t want to be pompous and overconfident either.

I’m on an egotistical upswing right now, and I’m trying to fight my natural tendency to seek humility and find a happy balance.

To quote an episode of the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast:

[People always say to me, 'Self deprecation/ low self esteem] is going to keep me humble.’

And I always say to them, ‘Humble? Not your problem. You don’t have a problem being too arrogant.’ …I will say to them, you know, as a therapist, I’ll say, ‘If I hear you sounding too arrogant, I promise you, I will tell you to bring it down a notch. Not my biggest fear when I think of you, being an asshole-dick-arrogant-schmuck. Not what I worry about.

- Mental Illness Happy Hour, Episode 165: Mini Episode: Low Self-Esteem with therapist Dr. Guy Winch, segment starting around 22:16

 

So: go ahead and overshoot the confidence thing for a while. I give you permission, Self.

Overcoming fear: I want to be here

For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting deeper into my current improv philosophy of “just have fun.” Am I making a lot of dumb Level 1 mistakes because I’m not panicking and weighing the pros and cons of every decision? Sure.

But honestly, if the Bill Arnett improvement graph is at all accurate, then I was already doing some of my best work in Level 1, and my current bad scenes are generally better than my Level 1 bad scenes, simply because I’ve been doing this for nearly a year now and those “better decisions” can just sort of happen now, sometimes, if I can just LET them. And I can let them happen if I can just be less afraid.

 

Why am I so afraid?

  • Because people I respect will judge my performance negatively, and they will lose respect for me.
  • Because I will ruin everything for my brilliant teammates if I make one stupid move, and every move I make has the potential to be stupid.
  • Because performances feel like opportunities to show off how shitty I am, the whole idea of which makes me cringe.

 

Are these fears valid?

  • No, people won’t lose respect for you. Sometimes you do shitty improv. It’s okay. If people hate you/ pity you after one bad show, then they don’t understand improv, so fuck them, who put those dickfaces in charge of your life?
  • No, you won’t ruin everything. No mistakes in improv. You may make a choice that makes the scene harder to play, but your teammates are good improvisers, and they can take your choice and make it sing. Mick Napier asserts that the best way to support your scene partners is to make bold choices, so gift the fuck out of your teammates and stop worrying that it’s dumb.
  • …I actually kind of agree with the last one, though. You yourself aren’t shitty. But yeah, I do believe that if you’re still mostly failing in the practice room, it’s prudent to be patient and keep it behind closed doors until you’re nailing a slightly higher success rate. I think this is at odds with the popular majority, and I do agree that actively avoiding stage time will feed your phobias. But I also believe you can get comfortable being on stage by doing stuff that you have a high probability of succeeding at. Sufficient preparation allows you to build skills, and utilizing those skills drives your success.But feeling like all performances are a venue for your shittiness? Dude. With class shows (for example), you’ve spent eight whole weeks building the skills necessary to perform the form! You’re prepared! Chill out!

 

How can I stop being so afraid?

Right now, my anti-fear tactics are:

  1. Play like there’s no audience, like it’s just another no-pressure practice group session.
  2. Don’t spend the time leading up to a show thinking about the show, even if you’re focusing on positive affirmations. One of my teammates once said “being in your head with overwhelming positivity is still being in your head.” (Plus— affirmations don’t even work unless you’re already confident, don’t waste your time.) Go for a walk, give attention to each of your five senses, practice basic mindfulness. Being in your head = worry = fear = weak improv.
  3. Remember that you want to be there!

 

Why do I want to be here?

Because this is FUN. Because I love being silly.

The shows I most enjoy watching are the shows where it looks like the improvisers are having fun. If ME having fun leads to a better show for the AUDIENCE, well duh, my work is cut out for me.

 

(As ever, this is all just rambling personal opinions that I’ve already stated in previous blog posts, just repackaged. My apologies for redundancy!)

Vossprov – Bill Arnett: The Experience Graph

http://vossprov.tumblr.com/post/69006511917/bill-arnett-the-experience-graph

image

You may not feel like your scenes are getting better but your poor work is slipping away. That plateau you’re on that frustrates you after class is actually a slope. And while the climb may feel like inches a day, the ground is rising to meet you by several feet a day.

To put it another way: your bad scenes improve sooner than your good scenes do. Becoming a better improviser means tightening the gap between your best and worst work & becoming more consistent, which natually happens over time (years), mostly by doing less godawful work. Chill out and keep on truckin’.