I’m back.

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I decided to start routinely writing in my blog again.

There are a couple reasons for this.

The inciting incident is a conversation I recently had with someone where I was talking at length about my post “My Worst Moment in Improv”. I mentioned how, in the aftermath of that post, I started backing away from both writing in my blog and improvising as a whole. I didn’t expect so many people to read my words and wasn’t prepared for the reactions I received. I was contacted by classmates who expressed regret in not stepping in on scenes that went too far. I was contacted by too many women who shared the same sentiment. I was contacted by theaters in other cities that asked me for advice on how to implement change in their own theaters, like speaking out about an issue makes me qualified to write their harassment policy for free instead of hiring a HR rep. I started slowly, and subconsciously, backing away from improv as a whole. I was tired of having to speak on behalf of all women. I was disgusted by the handful of people who shared my words & were the same people I saw inflict harm on women in the community. I was sick of showing up in buildings, including the one I worked in, and having the words “So I read your article. To play devil’s advocate, isn’t it more dangerous to deny creativity?” being said to my face. I was frustrated that I was being asked to explain consensual scene work like some kind of expert, yet was not being paid for the energy it took out of me. I was done with men stepping up to prove that they’re “good ones” like I didn’t have the ability to read them upon meeting them. I didn’t expect the reaction to consume so much of my energy and just grew tired and disenchanted by the entire community. A lot of that was on me. I wasn’t bold enough to just tell people to fuck off. I felt a sense of responsibility to continue the conversation and educate people who were inquiring. But clearly it took more out of me than I thought, because when I look back, that article is what caused me to slowly back out of the improv game and stop writing in my blog.

Two years later and I found myself back in a class with an instructor I trusted and admired for years. During the class I did the same exercise that the article I wrote was based on for the first time since a bunch of dudes thought date gang rape is a great group scene idea and I checked out completely. I felt disconnected and just wanted to get through it. I did, without incident, and was proud and sad and just thinking a shit ton. I came to the realization that I allowed my experience a few years ago take so much from me. I was pissed at myself for letting that entire experience keep me from two things I love – writing personal posts and improvising. After a high quality long conversation on a sticky and humid summer night, I decided to throw myself back into both writing and improvising.

The second reason is because in a month, I’ll be having major knee surgery for a dumbass accident I had almost two years ago. During a rehearsal, I made a dumb physical choice and fucked up the cartilage in my knee. I have already been through one surgery and two counts of learning how to walk again and am dreading this last round. The surgery will require that I do not put any weight on my leg for about six weeks. Short term recovery (being able to walk well, swim, exercise lightly, etc.) will take six months and I should be fully recovered in a year. While I’m grateful that this will be my last surgery, and that I have really good insurance to cover a highly specialized and expensive procedure, I’m really dreading sitting on my couch again. It’s really hard to be in limbo for two years while I watch my friends go on with their careers and lives. I did not think that my mid-twenties would be defined by this injury. I hate thinking about where I’d be if I didn’t have to take so much time out for recovery. While I want to be happy for my friends and their achievements, it’s hard for me to hear about their trials and tribulations in the comedy world while I’m stuck in this knee limbo unable to do anything. Before this accident, I felt like I was constantly creating, performing, writing, and working hard to achieve my goals. I finally got some of that wind back this summer, and now I know I have a year of recovery starting soon. I cried like a baby last night upon realizing that I might have performed for the last time before my surgery. So I’m trying to be proactive and reintroduce things I can do while recovering. One of those things is this blog.

So I’m back. Because I need this outlet again. I have a lot of thoughts I’ve been bottling up and my Facebook statuses weren’t providing adequate space. 

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Our friend, Joe.

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A few weeks ago, we lost one of the most exuberant humans I’ll ever know.

I don’t remember meeting Joe and I couldn’t tell you when the Neumullers went from being acquaintances to family. It all happened way before I started forming concrete memories. Since I can remember, Joe has been my brother’s best friend. They met playing tee-ball and were by each other’s sides until the end. He was my parents’ honorary son and our brother.

I’m no stranger to grief. I know how it can leave you alone for hours just to creep up to you late at night when you should be sleeping. I know that it melds days together until you forget what day it is. I know how it can disappear for a period of time then smack you right in the face.

Since Joe’s death, I’ve been trying to find the words. Any words, really. But each time I sat to write this post I gave up right away because there is absolutely nothing that I can write to convey the type of person he was. It felt selfish, self indulgent. Like I was seeking public therapy. Most of the time, it just didn’t feel like enough.

How can I possibly string words together to paint the image of someone so alive? It’s impossible. But I’ll try because it’s the only way I know how to pay tribute to Joe. I have three people subscribed via email to this blog, which means they get an email every single time I update it. One’s my mom, the other is my aunt and the last person is Joe.

Whenever I have a night like tonight where I’m restless with the memory of Joe, it’s always the same image that flashes through my head. He’s laughing. Joe had an infectious laugh. That’s a phrase that I fear being too cliche… but it really applies to him. I think I’ve heard Joe laugh more than I’ve heard him talk. He laughed constantly and uniquely. When we had his parents over for dinner before I had to go back to Chicago, the Joe memory that was constantly coming up was how much love he had to give. He wanted everyone to be happy, to be laughing, to be having fun. That’s what the Neumuller house is – the fun house.

Growing up, whenever we were at their house, it was for a party – whether or not it was formally a party was irrelevant. While they hosted an array of amazing annual parties, every hangout was a celebration in itself. It was a dream as a kid – they ran a daycare which meant that space to play was plentiful. We spent hours climbing the large rock in their front yard only to be pushed off. Hide and seek was on a whole new level complete with long discussions as to where exactly out of bounds would start. Every winter party came with the promise of hours spent in the hot tub, daring each other to open your eyes underwater or run into the snow.  The intercom system in their house was used as a way for his sister Jackie and I to communicate with our brothers during playdates and sleepovers. We all played for hours until Jackie and I inevitably made our way into her room and fell asleep on her ladybug infested floor.

Joe was a brother to us in every way possible. Whenever we played flag football, he showed no mercy on me whenever it turned into tackle football. I didn’t get a free pass from him and my brother throwing me to the frozen ground then sitting on my head. He dated all of my best friends… though I did date his neighbor, so I guess we’re even. Whenever a boy talked to me in high school, my brother and Joe would run up to him and scare the shit out of him before turning away and cracking up hysterically. My dad affectionally slapped him across the head more often than not. Every new year in high school was brought in by streaking down their street banging pots and pans and the only scar on my body is from falling on a saw at the Neumuller’s house while we were playing in the dark.

He loved everyone, hard. He would do anything for the people he loved. He had a loyalty to him that was unlike anyone I know. He absolutely loved his family, was infatuated with his girlfriend, Mina, and was a member of the greatest group of friends I’ve ever known. My brother and Joe’s core friend group is made out of outstanding individuals that have been friends since the day they met. While they’re always open to initiating new members, it’s incredibly rare for anyone to drift away. They’re the type of best friends everyone hopes for.

The best marker of a good friend is never knowing when they’re going to show up at the door, and never minding when they do. Some of my fondest memories of Joe are from days that he just stopped by and ended up staying for dinner, a baseball game after and then slept on our couch for two days. My favorite Christmas included him riding along with my brother and me while we were Christmas shopping then coming over the next day to spend Christmas Eve with us. My mom and I were just sitting there, getting a little toasty after dinner, and Joe showed up to come to mass with us.

The best recent memory that I have with Joe was the day I was going back to Chicago after a visit home. He picked me up and we were driving around as he asked me about comedy, writing and everything I was doing in Chicago. He told me that he was proud of me for going after what I wanted. He talked about how I used to sing and act and how it all just made sense. He went on about my blog posts and how much he loved reading them. We spent the entire ride talking about my life since I left Danbury and the person I morphed into. That’s who Joe was – the most supportive, loyal person you could ask for. He never held back telling you that he was proud of you and supported you in everything you did.

I’m just one of many who misses the shit out of him. I’m angry and confused and in denial. I’m mad that he was in that accident. Furious. I can’t, and don’t want to, make peace with it. I keep thinking that I’ll see him again. That I’ll get to talk to him about what I’m doing. That we’ll be able to pile into his truck for a night out that ends at the Eveready Diner and with a fishhook stuck on someone’s ass because they sat in the trunk. That he was just out of town and when I go back home I’ll be able to stop by and spend time with everyone in his family, including him. That he’ll just pop up unexpected in our house on my next trip home yelling “BIIIIIIIRD!”

The harsh reality is that it’s not going to happen. We have to keep living and the only way I can see that happening is by keeping him alive too. By having love practically gushing out of our pores. By stopping by to see old friends. By laughing to the point of being incomprehensible. By taking our relationships, family and friendships as seriously as Joe did.

After my dad died, The Neumuller family didn’t let his memory die. Even when I tried suppressing it, the entire Neumuller family kept him around. They still do. When we’re together it’s as if all the memories of my dad happened yesterday. They never forgot him or let him become some ghost that we’re not allowed to talk about… they talk about him like he’s still here. I vow to do the same for them. I know that one of the biggest fears of the family is that we’ll forget him. And I assure you, we won’t.

I’m not religious, so I really don’t have a concrete idea or belief when it comes to the afterlife. But I have a very vivid picture of what I can only hope went down the day Joe died. I imagine my dad sitting somewhere, with a cooler of beer next to him. Jackie helped shape this vision by placing my dad on his red cooler watching the Superbowl. Then I imagine Joe walking up and my dad just looking at him and going “Fuck…. You too?” then Joe nods and my dad cracks open a beer, tosses it to him and they watch the game together.

My Worst Moment in Improv.

Happiness, hardship, Life Lessons, Silly, Uncategorized

My friends Sam and Donald have an outstanding podcast, SDI, in which they interview novice to professional improvisors. Almost a year ago, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by them and they asked me one of their signature questions – What was your worst moment in improv?

I dodged their question and opted for a moment that I learned the most from. Because the truth is… I was too scared to talk about my worst moment in improv.

Two years after my worst moment in improv, I still get really emotional thinking about what happened. I get angry, sad and frustrated. While I’m extremely open to talk about my successes and failures, I’ve only told a handful of people about my worst moment in improv because I just hate talking about it. But keeping it a secret doesn’t help anyone, so here it is.

About a year into taking improv classes, I was in a class where we were doing an onion peel. For those who don’t know what an onion peel is, it’s a game where a scene starts with one person, then a second person walks on and starts a new scene, then a third and so on and so on until everyone is onstage in a large group scene. Then you reverse the process – each person finds a reason to exit in the reverse order that they came in and you go back to the scenes that you did previously until you’re left with the original improvisor finishing up their original scene.

Still with me?

They can be very chaotic for beginner improvisors but are a great way to teach them how to listen and work with a group. In this particular scene, we were in the army and therefore I was crawling on the floor, because honestly when I started improvising, I had no control over my body and was almost always throwing myself across the stage. Someone walked onstage and started a new scene where we were all at a party. To justify being on the floor, I acted wasted (ok, not the smartest choice but I was very new to this so give me a break.)

That’s when my worst moment onstage happened.

A classmate of mine crawled over to me and put his arm around me. Another classmate pretended to roofie me while another stroked my face. It evolved into what I can only describe as a date rape gang bang scene that I couldn’t find a way out of because I was so in shock by the man who decided to start humping my leg. I tried to push everyone away for what seemed like an hour but was probably about thirty seconds.  I had never been so relieved for someone to walk onto a scene than I was that day.

No one spoke up to stop the scene.

In the moment, I wanted nothing more than for someone to stop the scene midpoint and yell at all of us for letting this happen. Even yell at me if you think it would help! Tell me I’m allowed to speak up for myself! Tell me to fight against sexism! Teach me how to take the power back in the scene in case it happens again! I felt powerless against these men and my instinct was to just roll up into a ball and wait for it to be over. The day, the class, the term. I just wanted to go home.

I didn’t talk to anyone about it because I felt like I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be a bad teammate. I didn’t want to be the one who tore the group apart. I thought I would just get over it, but the truth is that two years later I still don’t like talking about it.

In my entire improv career, which has been five years long, I’ve only had two female teachers and two female coaches. This is a huge problem. There’s no reason why that number should be so off. Having female teachers and coaches gives female improvisors a person to go to when they feel like they’ve been harassed, assaulted, or the victim of sexism. There are definitely male teachers who are feminists that fight for us but it’s hard to go to them because no matter how much they can sympathize, they don’t understand what it’s like.

It is so frustrating that we even have to think about this. But here’s a few examples of things I’ve had to deal with that I don’t think my male improv friends have ever had to think about.

I’ve had to leave multiple graduation shows of mine because my drunk male friend keeps on hitting on me.

I’ve had to yell at the same person multiple times because he keeps on grabbing my ass and can’t understand why I don’t think it’s funny.

I’ve been sold as a prostitute in a scene.

I’ve been in interviews where half of it was focused on why I hate being called a strong female comedian, and I’ve been asked more times than I can count whether or not women are funny (in which I now use the Katie Rich method of answering.)

I’ve been in auditions where I was called a bitch onstage and was told to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich. When I spoke out against this within my scene, I was left with silence and awkwardness then had to work through the rest of the audition just hoping it would be over soon.

I’ve been told to lose weight, change my voice, and to change my name from Annie, which I’ve always gone by, to Anna, which is only used legally, so that it sounds less like a little girl’s name.

I’ve been told, multiple times by strangers,  that the reason I got cast into a show was to fulfill a female quota. I’ve been told, by strangers, that the reason I got a job coaching was because I was a woman. I’ve been told, by strangers, that the reason I got a slot at a theater was because the owner and I “had a thing”. All by people who have no authority or clue as to how hard I worked or how talented I may be. (I’ve learned that people really love to use your gender to justify your success and their inability to achieve said success.)

Every time I look for a new director, I have to consider whether or not they’re safe enough to be vulnerable around.

My Twitter, published articles and blog posts are a feeding ground for trolls who call me fat, ugly, idiotic & untalented – and those are just the tame trolls.

The reason I haven’t spoken about this in five years is because I’m afraid of be labeled as “difficult to work with” or “oversensitive.”

Half a year ago, I made the shift from performing constantly to coaching and directing more than I perform. I made a vow that I would never cast a show that had less women than men, and that I would never cast an ensemble that didn’t have multiple POC (if you want to know what it’s like to be an improvisor of color, read this.) I promised myself, and continue to remind myself, to speak up when someone is being sexist and racist instead of letting it slide. Everyone who has worked with me knows that I lead with a lesson that I took from the book of Dana Quercioli… before we even warmup, I lay out the types of jokes I won’t tolerate because they’re crutches, and they’re offensive. Any jokes about gender, race, sexual orientation, weight or things that come out of your body won’t fly. Not only are they offensive, but they’re already used up- we can find something better.

So why the post? I’m frustrated and sick of not being spoken up for, but to be honest… I’m not doing a great job for sticking up for myself. I’m more concerned about being liked than being treated with respect. That’s not right. So I’m going to start speaking up. I hope you do too.

The reality of dream chasing.

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High highs and low lows. And a lot of mediocre days. That’s what you get when you chase a dream.

Mine is to make a career out of comedy. In what capacity? I’m not sure. Writing, acting, teaching, directing… not exactly sure what I’ll be doing. But I am sure that I’ll make it happen. Here’s the reality, good and bad.

You’re going to be very tired. All the time. If you don’t have a demanding day job, you probably have a kid that is demanding. Or friends to keep up with. We’re all busy. All the time. Which makes dating and keeping up with friends really, really hard. When you have a free night, you just want to sleep (and you probably should).

You’re going to have to compromise and be mediocre at some things. With me, it’s work. I have a natural competitiveness and strong work ethic embedded in me that makes me want to work to my full potential in everything I do. But the reality is that no human can over perform in every arena and you have to pick and choose what you put your energy into. I work hard and produce high quality work, but I don’t go above and beyond. If I did, I’d be exhausted by the time I got to rehearsal and that would compromise my ability to perform well during rehearsal or class. You have to prioritize.

Find these people: a mentor, someone to give advice to and a really good roommate. Not a day goes by where I’m not incredibly grateful for mentorship. Having someone who has been around in this community for years investing in you means that you have someone to help guide you through this crazy journey. They’ve been there and are ready and willing to help you get to where you want to be. Having someone who comes to you for advice is a good way for you to sort out your own thoughts. Chances are, you need to hear the advice you’re giving. As for the roommate? Priceless. My roommates have so much faith in me, which is needed. They’re also the only people who know how hard I work because they see me (or a lack of me) every single day, which means that when I come home exhausted (or crying) they’re there to let me vent.

You’re going to be up against your best friends. To put it in real world terms, imagine if you had to apply for a job against your best friends every single week. Not only that, but every interview is a group interview. It’s very bittersweet. At an audition, I feel incredibly supported and excited when my friends are there. I work better with them. But after the audition, you have to learn how to deal with not getting the job and having your friend get it, or getting the job and having your friend not get it. Both suck.

But you have to remember that none of it is about either of you. It’s about the auditors looking for the best fit. Which means that you have to remove any and all emotion about the audition from your friendship. And from the way you view yourself. Auditions aren’t a way to feel validated – good or bad. Realize that early and it’ll save you a lot of stress.

As you start to get things, you start to feel like an impostor. Who am I to do this? I never thought I’d be part of this community. I remember walking into Second City for my first class, seeing people chatting with each other and hanging out. I thought, “Wow, that’d be really cool.” I thought that I’d come and take my classes, be told that this wasn’t possible, and go home. Now, two years later, if I walk into any theater alone, there’s a 90% chance that I’ll know someone there to watch a show with. I love every bit of that, and adore every single friend I have, but a huge part of me is constantly asking myself who the hell I think I am. I don’t think that’ll ever go away, but I’ve learned to tell myself to shut up.

There will be two voices talking to you – your brain, and your feelings. For me, my brain is what keeps me going. When I feel like an impostor, my brain reminds me that I work really hard and deserve the benefits. When I feel untalented, my brain reminds me that I’m too hard on myself and forces me to look at my successes. When I feel like everything is impossible, my brain reminds me that I just have to take baby steps, to reflect on how far I’ve come. When I feel like I’ll never make a career out of this, my brain reassures me that this is what I’m meant to do. I talk to myself a lot.

You can’t let a theater or a group or a person dictate your worth as a performer. Again: You can’t let a theater or a group or a person dictate your worth as a performer. One more time: You can’t let a theater or a group or a person dictate your worth as a performer. Repeat this to yourself over and over again until you start to believe it. I do constantly. It was one of the first pieces of advice that Jay Sukow gave me. I was talking about how one of my improv teachers told me that physical comedy is a crutch when I was a teenager and it devastated me because it’s my favorite type of comedy. Want to know what he said? You can’t let a theater or a group or a person dictate your worth as a performer.

The best thing that ever happened to me along this journey was not getting into Second City’s conservatory after my first audition. It derailed me from this ‘traditional’ path that I was on. It taught me that there is no single way to go about this. After not getting in, I signed up for classes at iO, took workshops and went back to writing. I didn’t keep re-auditioning, because I honestly didn’t want to be in the program yet. I stopped caring so damn much about feeling validated as a performer, threw away my ego and started to learn from a place of wanting to improve instead of wanting to be validated. Then, one random day about a year later, I realized that I wanted to go through the program and signed up to audition. Throughout the course of a year, I learned that I have to create my own opportunities, and I did. When I auditioned, I was assistant directing a musical and writing a show. I no longer auditioned with this feeling of “I need this to be successful” and instead auditioned thinking “I’m ready for this. I’d love to learn and be in this program and I know I’m good enough for it… but if I don’t get in, look at all this other cool stuff that I’m doing.” And with the pressure to prove myself out of the way, I got in. I’m now able to go through the program without the fear of failure and with the eagerness to learn and grow. If I got in the first time, I’d just be terrified the entire time.

So yeah, this is hard. And tiring. And scary. And wonderful, rewarding, breathtaking, magical and absolutely insane.

But always remember, you’re chasing a dream. How fucking cool is that?

Why improv is really important.

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This past Thursday was awful. There’s no sugar coating it. It just was. Life happened and I was just trying to stay afloat.

On Thursdays I have my conservatory class at Second City. We’re more than halfway through the term, and have an audition coming up, which means we work. Hard. Our teacher pushes us and doesn’t let us slack. Since I’ve had this teacher before, he doesn’t let me rest on my bag of tricks and pushes me to expand my range. Which is what I’m there for, which is what I love about him as a teacher. But on Thursday I just wasn’t having it. My only goal was to last three hours without running out of class.

So I let myself slack without feeling bad about it. I was proud of myself for even going. I was elated when I did something useful and wasn’t hard on myself when I was called out for being in my head. Just show up. Just commit. That’s all I that expected.

Then during break I got some really rough news. I felt like someone gutted me, like the tiny sliver of control I had (and so desperately needed) was stolen and smashed on the floor. I was devastated and done. Just done with it all. The numbness that I felt for days suddenly became raw emotion and I didn’t know what to do. My body went on autopilot and I went back to class.

Autopilot Annie went up to my teacher and told him all that I could bring myself to say: “Just so you know, some really weird things are happening in my life right now and if I have to leave, that’s why.” My teacher told me to leave and take care of myself, but I knew that to take care of myself, I had to stay.

I turned around to find my class expressing genuine concern and sympathy for me, and not that fake puppy face shit, but genuinely asking if I’m okay. I assured everyone that I was fine, while trying to reassure myself that I would be. I sat down and kind of thought to myself, “Welp, now you have nothing to lose.”

The next hour and a half was spent not caring. I didn’t care about being good, or challenged, or expanding my range. I only listened to directions enough to perform the exercise, without trying to find exactly what he wanted. Everything went away: worrying about making my scene partner look good, worrying about whether or not I knew what was going on in a scene, finding relationships, setting up premise… all of it was forgotten.

I just wanted to laugh. I just wanted to make my classmates laugh. That’s it.

What I needed during that second half was an escape from reality. So much shit was in my head from the past week and I just wanted to feel happy again. I was sick of being numb and not having control. I so desperately wanted to be happy. And I was.

My teammates were so willing to join in on the fun. We all let loose and just fucking played like kids on a playground. My teammates and teacher just let me run around like a loose cannon and do whatever the hell I wanted to do. And for 90 fucking minutes I was able to leave all the shit behind and enjoy the moment. That’s what improv does. That’s why we do this.

So often we get bogged down in the hard work and late nights and forget that it’s about spreading joy, and bringing joy to yourself in return. Do you understand how powerful having the ability to improvise is? You’re able to escape whatever shit is happening in life and just play. Not only that, but you don’t do it alone. You have an entire team ready and willing to go down that hole with you. Ready to support you in any capacity.

I can’t tell you what I did on Thursday. I vaguely remember buttering biscuits and gutting someone. I blacked out and don’t remember the rest. All I remember is the incredibly alleviating feeling of forgetting that anything in my life was wrong. That’s what improv does. It reminds you that there can still be joy and fun, even when it feels like nothing is fun anymore.

At the end of class, my teacher came up to me and told me that I was really fun, and funny, and fucking weird… and that he hopes everything is okay. My classmates did something similar. And while I usually avoid any and all compliments, I really needed that reminder. I’m so fortunate to have such a wonderfully supportive and loving team. I know that it’s rare and special and I cherish the fuck out of every second I spend with these guys.

It’s natural to get caught up in pressure, expectations and being so tired because you are working so hard. But every now and again, give yourself permission to throw everything away and just play. It’s really important.

“Strong female [insert noun here]”

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You’re a strong female improvisor. You’re a strong female writer. You write really strong female characters. And yada-yada-yada.

I hear those phrases constantly.

I know that people are trying to compliment me but I can’t help but hate that compliment. It’s not because I don’t think I’m a strong improvisor or writer, or because I’m ashamed of being female… I’m actually really proud of both things. I just hate when they make it into the same sentence.

Why? Because my gender and talent don’t correlate. Yes, some of my work is definitely influenced by my gender… but just as much is influenced by my career, age, income, family, education, interests and current mood.

Call me an improvisor. Call me a writer. Tell me my characters are strong.

Because when you don’t, you make me sound like a unicorn. Don’t get me wrong, I love unicorns. But unicorns either don’t exist or are very, very rare. 

Please stop telling me that writing female characters is hard. My skin cringes when I hear someone talking about how hard it is to write female characters. Not because I don’t recognize that there’s a problem… I do. I’m not going to lie and say that “strong female characters” are all over mainstream television. I get it. They’re not and you want us to be better than that. To strive for 3D characters. I get it.

But when you tell us that writing female characters is hard, and that it’s a rare talent to do so effectively, you make us feel like it’s an unattainable goal. A unicorn. Like it’s something else to put on the pile of “things I’ll never be good at”. Most beginners doubt themselves constantly, and when you tell us that something is hard, we’ll believe it. We’ll freak out and get anxious and doubt ourselves.

At the end of one of my writing classes, my teacher got up and said these exact words: “Today we had 22 male characters and 12 female characters. We want to create amazing opportunities for everyone and not have anyone be the default.” Then he dropped the mic, left class and drove away into the sunset… where we never saw him again.

Ok, not all of that was true. But he addressed this problem perfectly. If we’re not writing enough female characters, then tell us. But don’t tell us it’s hard to write them.

Here’s how I teach how to write “strong female” characters:

Write strong characters. Then cast some females into them.

I write characters that I would want to play. I try my best to ensure that no one is left out. My characters are almost always able to be played by either a male or female. We live in a world where we can have a female boss… or a male couple… or a stay at home dad in our work without making a huge statement.

So tell us to make every single character strong.

Also, stop telling us that female improvisors typically don’t make strong choices. Most novice improvisers don’t make strong choices. It’s not just a female thing. When you tell me that it’s a female thing, I see it as this obstacle that I’ll never be able to overcome because of my gender. I know you want to prepare us for what stigma people may have about female improvisors, but honestly, you just make me feel like I have no chance because no matter what I do, people will hold that stigma against me. Just tell me to be a stronger improvisor.

I had a teacher address this issue in a much more constructive way. During one of our first classes, I was having trouble getting my voice heard during a group scene. Anyone who has ever improvised with me knows that I’m not someone who typically has this problem. I tend to do the opposite too much… I can be overbearing or too physical. However, he pointed out the fact that I’m a lot shorter than everyone else I was sharing the stage with. Looking around me, I noticed the physical difference. I was improvising with a bunch of tall people with broad shoulders. I didn’t know how to make myself heard. By pointing out the physical differences between me and everyone else, he explained that I’m always going to have to be a little more physical and try a little harder to be heard. If he told me that this problem was because of my gender alone, I would have stopped listening. It wasn’t a gender thing, it was a physical thing.

I was having trouble because I’m short, not because I’m a woman.

So please, call me an improvisor. Call me a writer. Tell me I write strong characters. 

Keep my gender out of it.

How improv gave me the courage to quit my job.

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I remember the day vividly. I was standing in the middle of a circle at ComedySportz on a Tuesday night in September for the first rehearsal with my new team Caution Tape Party. “What’s your biggest goal?” I was asked. Icebreakers, right? “Uhm, like in life? Or comedy?” ”Just your biggest goal.” Had I more time to think about the answer, I probably would have set visions of grandeur: “I want to make a living off of comedy,” “I want to write my own show,” “I want to bring back The Cosby Show and be cast as Clair Huxtable’s apprentice.” With just a second to think of my biggest goal, I blurted out the truth: “I want to quit my job.” As if saying it out loud didn’t put enough weight on it, I was asked a follow up question, “When do you want to do this by?” “Uh… by the end of the year.” “As in the end of 2013, or a year from now?” “A year from now.” There it was. At 11pm on a Tuesday night, I said it out loud. I had until September of 2014 to get a new job.

Today is my last day at my current job. The improv community got me to admit I wanted a new job, supported me when I came to rehearsal nearly in tears after an awful day, encouraged me that leaving my job would not only improve my life, but my comedy as well, and eventually hooked me up with my new company.

But it’s so much more than that.

My first introduction to the Chicago comedy scene was made through Brian Posen. On my first day of class he told us that improv would change our lives… that he’s seen people move, get married, change jobs – all through improv. I didn’t believe him. Was I wrong or what?

Improv taught me to live for today. That’s one of the biggest lessons that you’ll get from this art form. You live in the moment. Don’t get caught up talking about what you did in the past, don’t get caught up talking about the future… the audience wants to see you deal with what is happening right now. Notes such as “This is the moment” “It’s all about the now” and “Today is the day something wonderful happens” fill my notebooks. Don’t live a life hoping that something wonderful will come in the future. Make it happen now. If you’re miserable with some aspect of your life, you have to deal with it right away. Why should I spend 40 hours of my week miserable?

If you don’t like something, change it. As a writer, I find a metaphor in everything. A few months ago, my teacher was telling us that if we initiate the scene as a tree and five minutes in, our arms are tired and we can’t hold the pose anymore, then transform into something else. If you don’t like where you’re at, you’re the only one with the power to change it. Since your team loves and supports you, they’ll adapt to your change. You should never feel stuck… you always have the power to change things. For so long I was sitting in my job thinking that I couldn’t change what was around me. I thought that I should just be grateful that I’m employed and suck it up. I have a great life outside of my 9-5 so is it really all that bad? I was a tree whose arms were unbelievably tired and I had to just take that leap.

Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you’re ready. Todd Edwards nailed this into our heads. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you’re ready because they never will. If you really want something, go for it. Don’t wait around for things to come to you. That’s not how it works. We all would love to think that if we just continue to work hard and be a good person, the universe will just hand us an opportunity. I spent a good year saying that I’m “always looking for a job.” I use that phrase because I think it nails down the fact that you’re not really looking that hard. When you’re “always looking” then you’re really just applying to something that may come across on some idle Saturday but spending most of your time just wishing you had a different job. Waiting for someone to come to you and hand you an opportunity. That’s not going to happen. You have to let people know you’re looking and apply for everything you come across. You have to work really hard for it. No one is going to give you anything – you have to work.

Good mentors can make you work hard without screaming at you. The main reason I had to leave my job was because I was treated horribly at work by one person. I was constantly getting yelled at for nothing. Literally nothing. The other day I was screamed at because our computer system shut down. Mind you, I’m not in the IT department & the system shut down because of a virus I didn’t cause. That doesn’t make me want to work hard. That doesn’t make me want to impress anyone. I define myself as a hard worker. It’s part of who I am and who I’ve always been. I always want to do my best. However, when someone yells at me over trivial things for two years, I’m unmotivated. When someone screams at our janitor for taking out the trash that she accidentally threw something important into, it doesn’t push me to succeed. What pushes me? Good people who earnestly care about the result of your product. When I had Jay Steigmann for writing, I worked my ass off. For every sketch she assigned, I’d write three… then rewrite them until I felt like I was turning in something that reflected my potential as a writer. This wasn’t because she was some insane hard-ass who demanded excellence. It was because she actually cared about what we produced. Her feedback was valuable and on point, which meant that I was willing to work harder so that when it came time for her to review it, my notes wouldn’t be that I should have proofread, or that it was sloppy, or that I lacked point of view. I wanted my notes to be something that I wouldn’t have thought of before because I already put everything I could into the first draft. Getting someone to work hard doesn’t mean being on their ass all the time. It means embodying your work so that they want to impress you. The other night my improv class with Jason Shotts ran an hour and fifteen minutes over. Our three hour class turned into four hours and fifteen minutes of the hardest work I’ve ever done. At the end, I was left absolutely exhausted, drained and physically spent. He pushed us to out limits, but he did it out of love because he wanted us to realize our potential. We worked hard because we all collectively cared about the work being done… including the teacher. If you want people to care and perform well, you have to care and perform well too.

Follow the fear. Jay Sukow, who is one of best human beings I’ve come across, nailed this one into our brains. The main reason why I didn’t leave my job earlier was because I was afraid of the unknown. I wanted to wait around for a “safe” job to come across. Something that felt like a safe transition. However, that job doesn’t exist. Anything was going to be a risk. I had nothing to lose and I was still scared. Eventually I just needed to get over that. It wasn’t easy. As I was interviewing for other jobs, I kept thinking about what could go wrong. My past experience made me expect the worst. But honestly… nothing is safe. When I got my old job, I thought I had my dream job. It was the exact field I wanted to go into. Then what happened? I realized that it wasn’t where I was meant to be. So even when you think you’re safe, you’re not. Even now, as I’m headed into a new job, I’m terrified of the unknown. If Jay didn’t constantly remind me to follow my fears, I would probably spend another two years sitting around waiting for something safe. Just go for it.

Most of all, you deserve to be happy.  A key part of being happy is feeling worthy as a human and spending your time with those who build you up. People who want the best for you. About a month ago, I had a panic attack at work. That was the straw that broke my back. I went so long without having any… I went so many years with the ability to keep my anxiety at bay. I was simply not willing to go back down that path because of a job. The improv community is full of people who are dedicating their lives to making others happy. They’re simply some of the best people in the world. When I’m at my worst, I know that I can turn to these people to raise me up. I found true happiness through them and I learned that I deserve to be happy in all aspects of my life. There’s no one holding you down and telling you to stay miserable. If you don’t like something, change it.

So touché, Brian Posen. Improv changed my life.

 

Also, added bonus… for those of you who aren’t in the improv community, enjoy this video I made about a month back of my time in Chicago’s comedy community. I hope it gives you half the vibe of this wonderful world.