Fragile Things

I’m spending bits of this weekend recording scenes for the Democracy Burlesque holiday radio show. DB is a political sketch comedy [more or less] group that I performed with regularly for two years, and they’ve invited me back to join them for this performance.

My association with the group ended for a number of reasons, but it also ended amicably, which I think is relatively rare for a theater group. I’ve left groups before angry and burned bridges (none of which I regret, incidentally), and I’ve been in groups that collapsed because we collectively decided we weren’t getting anywhere (not that we had any clue where “anywhere” was). But there have only been a couple of instances where my departure from a group wasn’t because my frustration with the group made not leaving impossible.

Independent theater troupes in Chicago are fragile things. Very rarely do people get involved without passion—which is a good thing, on the whole, but it also means that tensions get high quickly over things that often don’t deserve it. (As well as some things that do, as with my aforementioned burned bridges.) There’s also a really-not-that-compatible problem in Chicago comedy (improv particularly, but comedy generally): People have too many opportunities, so each one means less. One of the worst things to happen to an improv troupe is when a couple of people reach the conclusion that rehearsal is optional.

These issues operate on different scales. On a micro, whatever-you-happen-to-be-looking-at-at-the-time scale, everything means everything, and any point you may lose is a serious threat to your dignity, future, and well-being. On a macro scale, the next thing is right around the corner, and every corner.

I don’t really mean to rant about the state of Chicago comedy; I don’t have any new to add to that discussion, and I’m more interested in practical implications anyhow. So instead I’ll offer advice. Care, appropriately. Find others to work with who also care, so that you can assume that they care.  Accept losing once in a while, especially if you’re wrong. Focus, and demand a base level of focus from your colleagues. Avoid jerks. Don’t try to burn bridges, but don’t be paralyzed by the prospect of burning bridges.

And if you should travel over one of those unburned bridges, enjoy it.

Dreamland Day

Yesterday we closed Unicorn City, and today I am relaxed as I haven’t felt in a month.

This show has drained me, and the other producers, as none have before. There are a couple factors in this-the show was a more involved production than any we’ve done before, and there were a certain number of persistent issues (yes, that’s the most detail I plan to give) that enhanced the stress. We learned a lot from the show, and learning is often tough.

For me there’s another reason I’m tired, one concurrent rather than directly related to the show: today is the first day in more than a month that I’ve not had significant contact with other people.

I am decidedly not the prototypical extrovert that feeds on human contact. I can deal with people, and well even, under many circumstances, but there are limits. I need my non-other-people time, and it’s best if it’s more than once a month.

So today was it. And it’s been, well, dreamlike.

I woke late, but less late than ideal. (the post-show celebration went a decent way into the morning, after all.) So there’s sort of a haze of tiredness. But it’s not fatigue. It’s more like there’s a really
comfortable pillow that my head is sinking into, even as I’m moving around. I’m alert and can see and all, but if I choose not to, there’s not much wrong with that.

Other people. They’re around, generally, but there is no demand they can make of me.

My responsibilities, they are around generally too, but distant and hazy and gentle. They are perhaps the tiny currents in a still pond. A ball bobbing up and down in the middle will eventually reach the edge, but there will be no great thrust that causes it and you won’t even really see it happening.

Which isn’t to say that it’s been a lazy day. Since rising I’ve been productive almost constantly, with the exception of lunch and dinner, and I will be for at least another hour or so. The to-do list for today has 22 items on it. I might finish half of them, and that’s okay. There is no pressure; the rest will be waiting tomorrow.

It has been almost twelve hours. I am still on the edge of awareness; it is probably closer than it has been all day, but that’s okay. I will leave dreamland before long. I have, after all, a volunteer shift tomorrow, and then work, and so on. My stay here has done a lot, though. I feel more able to deal with people now than I have in a long, long time.

But that is tomorrow. Tonight, dreamland continues.

Two Dermots

I’m not great at coming up with character names, but I do want to share the story of one of the names from Unicorn City.

Most of the names are just things that seemed vaguely fantasy-ish, but Dermot, one of the unicorns, has his name for a specific reason. He’s named after Dermot Morgan, star of Father Ted.

I used the name not because there’s any connection between Unicorn City and Father Ted, but because of Morgan’s story. For most of his career, he was kind of a journeyman actor and comic, making a career but never really gaining widespread acclaim or true stardom.

Then came Father Ted, which changed that. The show was and is considered to be amongst the best British shows ever made. (Well, Irish. But it was produced for Channel 4, which is British, so…) And with that acclaim, Dermot Morgan’s star rose.

And then, literally the day after finishing the recording for the last episode of the series, Morgan died.

So was Dermot Morgan the beloved Father Ted Crilly or just some comic who worked for a long time before having a big hit? Both and neither, I suspect. What I take from the story is that there’s a real limit to how much you can control what other people think of you—or, perhaps more accurately, how much you have the ability to get them to think of you at all.

That’s perhaps annoying—it would, after all, be terrific to have some easy, or at least, clearly labeled path to fame (or at least its benefits). But there’s also a certain freedom to it: You don’t worry too much about what other people think, because it’s a waste of energy and life. And you do get to genuinely enjoy what you’re doing.

Dermot Morgan didn’t magically develop the talent needed to have a big hit the day before he started on Father Ted, I’m sure. So anyone who ignored him before that, well… they really don’t matter much, do they? And in the face of indifference… it doesn’t matter much either. I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing, and I’m proud of it, and other people will recognize it or not.

What I (Think I) Know about Collaboration

Some semi-random thoughts. I’m not really a collaborator by nature; I’ve had a lot of bad experiences and some good. Of course, it’s necessary in a lot of cases and beneficial in some. So I guess this list is an attempt to put down some principles to make it more good and less bad.

  • I’m not sure that there is any such thing as a truly equal partnership. When there isn’t a formal heirarchy, an informal one takes root based mostly on people’s ability to navigate interpersonal politics. Like many things that are, this isn’t necessarily good or bad. When the “leader” is leading because he or she is the one who is genuinely best at facilitating things happening, and when the “followers” do not abdicate their responsibility to contribute, it’s good. It’s bad when the “leader” is merely getting off on the rush of power, or when the “followers” don’t engage because they interpret it this way.
  • It’s possible to collaborate when you don’t agree on the overall vision. I don’t recommend it.
  • Collaborating is frequently inconvenient. Other people’s schedules are often a pain to deal with.
  • Collaboration is not inherently good or bad, and viewing it (or the lack of collaboration) as an end rather than a means is likely to cause problems.
  • Learn what you can from any collaboration, good or bad.
  • Collaboration means giving up control. Do so, but only carefully and thoughtfully.
  • There really isn’t anything wrong with being in charge. If it’s your vision, you probably should be.
  • Don’t collaborate with jerks. It’s not worth it.
  • Whatever happens, it’s not going to kill you.

Why We Do It

After shows, I always feel like a thief who got away with something. The idea of making something and putting it in a place and then people coming to see it is still not natural to me.

It feels great when it happens though.

There’s the relaxation that can only happen after tension, and the sense of accomplishment, and the realization—that only set in sometime after the show when the three producers of Three Legged Race were alone in the theater finishing clean-up—that after all of the breaks both lucky and unlucky that happened, we made it.

Unicorn City was, by far, the biggest and hardest theater production I’ve been involved in. The learning that happened was correspondingly sizable. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Today happens to be a beautiful fall day in Chicago. I will enjoy it immensely: The lakefront beckons, and no doubt other parts of the city will as well.

And then… it all begins again.

Sales and Soundbites

I just got back from the Creative Chicago Expo at the Chicago Cultural Center. Now, I only found out about it by picking up a postcard at Gorilla Tango as I was waiting for a rehearsal to start, and I didn’t really prepare properly for it. I showed up tired and grumpy and my only real goal was to check it out.

I’m glad the event exists, and I’m glad I went. I wish I’d planned my goals for it better and gotten more up for it.

I almost missed most of it, though. There’s a big hall on the ground floor of the Cultural Center, and there were a bunch of tables there, so I buzzed the hall, as I call it. (I’ve covered enough exhibit halls in my day job and in day jobs past to have developed some terminology.)

Without a purpose, I don’t find much use for exhibit halls—I stopped at a few booths that might have resources that would be useful in the future, and popped in at the Nuns4Fun booth to reconnect with Vicki Quade, for whom I stage managed a pair of shows (Verbatim Verboten and Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, for completion’s sake) a few years ago. Or at least I would have, if she hadn’t stepped out at the time. (I did see her a bit later.)

All of that really didn’t take much time, though, so I had to decide if I would haul my lazy butt (I told you, I was tired) upstairs to check out the workshops or just turn around. Fortunately I did go upstairs, because there were a bunch more booths up there, and I picked up a few more potentially useful resources.

The workshop that I went to was on selling yourself, which is an obvious and massive flaw of mine. I’m of two minds about the workshop itself. On the one hand, I know that there’s useful information to take from it. On the other, the presenter talked in well-practiced soundbites, each one perfectly calculated to convey the right message.

I suppose that’s a valuable skill, particularly for a speaker like this, but my aversion is this: I’ve known a few people who had that skill, and worked with them, and they’ve all had the depth of a puddle that had evaporated and then been filled in with cement. When it comes to the actual doing of things, I don’t think it would be too harsh to call them incompetent. Speakers—and salespeople, I guess—are in the business of touching emotions in a positive way; actually learning a skill, even a skill like sales, is a much harder and even painful process.

That seems awfully negative, no? Let me take a more accurate tack: I’m going to share what he said that I think sounds useful. I’m going to try to incorporate those ideas into my life—in the places where they are absolutely necessary. I don’t want to be a full-time salesman, but I would like to be able to have the skill to fall back on.

– In selling yourself, you have to be specific. And the story you need to tell is not what you’ve done to meet requirements, it’s what you have done beyond what is required that will let you demonstrate initiative, passion, and resourcefulness.* Quantify your story with measures of time, money, quality, and quantity. Trace your passion; why, specifically, do you want to do what you want to do?

– In an informational interview, you should ask anything that is not factual. Get your subject’s opinion on anything related to their work.

– “Rejection is the universe’s way of saving you from a nightmare.”

* I fully see the truth of this statement. I’m also fully bugged by it. Demonstrating initiative, passion, and resourcefulness isn’t the same as having those things.