Yes, and…

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If you ever took an improv class, you know that your first rule is to live by “Yes, and…”

Person 1: “I’m the president.”

Person 2: “And Twitter is down for maintenance. How do I keep you from nuking North Korea in your boredom!?”

Initiate, agree, escalate. It’s a basic formula you memorize. In theory, it works. Instead of shutting down the ideas of others, we’re encouraged to build on them and create a scene. It’s a great rule to a great art form for a bunch of great dudes looking to play and blow off steam from the workday.

But it’s dangerous to teach it the way I learned it.

My first improv teacher in Chicago taught us to never say no when it comes to “Yes, and…” My first improv teacher in Chicago also lost all of his jobs due to his long history of sexual harassment and abusive, manipulative behavior.

We were never told that we could say no. Improv is an art form that may have been born from a mother, but was spread by her son. And since then, it has been a straight white man’s paradise. The rules are created by these men without consideration for the survival of woman, POC and LGBTQIA.

Because of “yes, and..” I have: been sold on stage as a sex worker to the highest bidder (who bid 10 cents), was physically thrown across a room, had my body grabbed in almost every place imaginable, been kissed because LOL the shock was hilarious, roofied in a scene and dry humped in a full out gang rape scene.

It took a massive wave of rape, sexual harassment and assault for teachers to start using declaimers that “Yes, and…” is allowed to be broken if you feel unsafe. And about a year after that wave, the disclaimers have been forgotten. Or at least I haven’t heard them in a long time. We went from forcing everyone to say yes, to walking on eggshells, and are now in some weird phase where the liberty of saying no is fading away again.

“Yes, and…” empowers straight white men to do whatever they want. It teaches them that their aggressions aren’t going to be met with reluctance. It’s incredibly dangerous for anyone but straight white men.

Yet it’s still being taught the same way I learned it.

I know that like #notallmen, #notallimprovteachers teach it the same way they used it. But a hell of a lot of them do.

I had a teacher who told us that he’s going to flip a shit if he sees one more feminist rant when a man calls her a bitch onstage. That women need to stop being so defensive. He was the same teacher who also confessed that he gave us all nicknames like “hot one, off limits (boyfriend)” and “bitchy looking one”. Oh, and he still teaches.

We need to teach people to say “No” onstage just as much as we teach “Yes, And…” To teach consideration and escalation instead. If I was taught consideration and escalation, I would probably have taken the scene where I was being sold and owned it instead.

“You’re a two cent whore. Anyone willing to bid higher for her?!”

Consider, consider, consider

“Mr. Reilly, comments like that are exactly why management brought you to this workplace harassment class.”

Now I have the power and he feels like shit.

It shouldn’t be up to us to have to react to lines like that, but by teaching us that “yes, and…” isn’t always the answer, at least we’re walking around with a coat of armor. By teaching the entire class to consider and react, you’re letting Creepy Classmate #3 know that his ideas won’t in fact always be supported.

We learn that we have to learn the rules in order to break them, but when the rules are created by a bunch of white college dudes, they need to be revised. This is why I’m no longer accepting “Yes, and…” as the universal rule to improv. Universal rules are never made for the benefit of the minority. While “yes, and…” may be freeing to the average improv bro, it’s dangerous to me. It hurt me way more than it ever helped free my mind.

I’m not here to stroke the egos of improv bros anymore.

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Teens these days.

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(Photo: Carol Kaliff, Hearst Connecticut Media)

Today kids across America walked out of school to protest gun violence and the inability for our government to pass common sense gun control.

That’s incredible. I can only imagine being a government & politics teacher, or any other branch of history/American studies, and witnessing your students actively participating in and organizing peaceful protests. Or deciding not to participate because they didn’t agree with the protests. Either way, it’s a teach by doing moment. It’s teaching kids to be actionable instead of simply memorizing facts or spitting out theory.

Facebook is flooded with posts of alum, teachers and parents talking about the school walkouts or walk ins, where assemblies are being held in memory of the students killed due to gun violence. CNN is live-streaming the walkouts and the words of our CT Senator Chris Murphy. Across the nation kids are holding up signs stating their beliefs and desire for the adults in charge to be actionable. They are no longer complicit and trusting that adults will get the work done. The Parkland students showed them that their voice matters even when they are unable to vote. That you don’t have to wait until you’re 18 to voice political opinions.

I was young for my grade and didn’t turn 18 until I was in college. I remember being furious that I couldn’t vote in the primaries that year, even though I would be 18 by the general election. I was always highly opinionated when it came to politics, thanks to my mother who was always a well-informed citizen and my brother, who walked into the Democratic Headquarters at 16 to start volunteering. I would tag along with him, making calls to remind democrats and independents to vote, checking in on our elderly residents to see if any needed rides to polls, attending Chris Murphy’s debates when running for Congress, joining the Young Dems chapter my brother helped start and my favorite part of the process: going from poll to poll on election night to watch them count then ending back at Headquarters or a restaurant to hear the results roll in. I couldn’t vote, but I was more engaged in the political process than most adults.

Which was why I was furious when adults would undermine my intelligence in my teenage years. I would often hear that my opinions, and the opinions of my peers, were just echos of my family’s beliefs. I understand the thought, and recognize that may be true in some cases, but I could never understand why my civics teacher would take so much time explaining our nation’s workings to us, only to tell me that my opinions were just something I inherited from my parents when I got in a fight with a classmate over Bush’s reelection. Of course my family influenced my beliefs, but I was also smart enough to research and act on my own. I was old enough to hold opinions.

I remember a car ride where my mom and brother were talking a politics. I listened without much input, thinking instead of my recent civics lesson on political parties.

“What if I’m a Republican instead of a Democrat?” I asked my family.

I was constantly the lawyer of the family. I always wanted to think about situations from a different angle. A contrarian, always thinking of the other side before agreeing with my family.

“Your beliefs line up with the Democratic Party,” my mom replied.

“But what if they don’t? What if I’m a Republican instead?” I asked.

“Then you can be a Republican.”

I went home and did all the research I could on both parties. I spent hours trying to understand the difference and political platforms. I weighed policies against my moral beliefs and found that I did side with the Dems.

All of this was done my freshman year of high school. Clearly I was already intelligent and thoughtful enough to question my beliefs and recheck them against my political affiliation. My thoughts and opinions haven’t changed much. They evolved slightly with the times and my maturity. Whereas I used to think we should eliminate marriage entirely, calling everything a civil union, so we can eliminate the religious context of marriage, I’ve realized that battle gets misconstrued and calling everything a marriage is a better angle. I used to be much more fiscally liberal that I am today. I used to be pro-choice under medical necessity but am now entirely pro-choice. Tiny tweaks, but my adult mind is still in line with my teen mind.

So I still get angry that I was always underestimated. That adults did not believe that I researched my policies enough. To be fair, this still happens. I was constantly accused for siding with Hillary instead of Bernie because she was a woman, when in reality I thought she was the most qualified candidate we ever had and her fiscally moderate policies enabled me to reap benefits while still covering costs of social security and welfare.

People may say that I was a different type of teen. That not everyone was as mature. Well then, why not teach them to find their own opinions instead of dismissing them?

I think adults fall into an awful habit of thinking kids don’t know enough. We talk down to them and assume they can’t possibly understand. But clearly they do.

Today’s teens are living in a world where any question they have can be answered in a matter of seconds on their phones. Teenagers are actually MUCH better at recognizing “fake news” than we are. Aside from their obvious increased technical literacy, they’re also taught how to seek out information. As students, they have access to online encyclopedias and academic research. They’re constantly being told not to trust sites like Facebook and Wikipedia, and instead fact check every piece of information they want to use. They’re writing research reports and getting graded on whether or not their facts are confirmed. They’re much better at finding the truth than we are.

Without the ability to vote, I believe they’re getting antsy. I remember talking to my cousins, just shy of 18, about how much it sucked to be unable to vote in such an important presidential election. And now here we are, with massive school shootings happening at levels that I can’t even comprehend, and they’re done with us adults. They can’t vote, but they can speak for themselves and remind politicians that they’re voting very, very soon.

We need to stop underestimating kids and instead listen to them. That’s how I treat the kids I babysit. I never want to influence their own moral and political beliefs, so I just listen to them and encourage them to think about where they stand. The other day a kid I babysat was doing a project on trans kids and I found that she knew way more than even I did. I offered no opinions and instead just let her inform me on the topic. When I was watching some younger kids, someone came to the door who was running for local office. What followed was an hour long conversation with the kids about what their platforms would be and how they can run for office within their school. While I would steer at times, like suggesting they invest in scientific research when they said they wanted to stop all hurricanes, I let them carry the conversation.

We invest so much time and money into our kids and their education. But often when they want to show us the results of that investment, we don’t listen. While what happened at Stoneman Douglas was horrific, it is inspiring to see the students use their voices and speak up for themselves when a politician is dismissive of their question. Unless you’re a teacher or school employee, the topic of school shootings will ALWAYS impact the kids in your life more than it will ever impact you. Empower them to use their voices, especially if they’re teenagers. I’m so proud of these teens who are speaking up for the students in Sandy Hook who are still too young to speak for themselves. There are no longer only parents representing their students, but students themselves being actionable.

Keep going teens. Stand up for what you believe in and know that your mind is worthy of respect and your opinions are worth being heard.

Moving on.

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When I moved to Chicago, I thought I’d leave before college graduation.

I wanted to be a teacher and it made sense to my seventeen year old self to only go to an out of state college for three years then come back to CT or NY to get certified within that state. But when I changed my major three days into my freshman year, that plan went out the window.

I was supposed to move back to the East Coast after college graduation. Actually, I did move back to the East Coast. Well, kinda. I did not renew my lease in Chicago. I packed up and planned to move home but was called in for a job interview. The day before going home, I put all of my stuff in storage then went on the interview. I figured that if I didn’t get the job, I could come back and get my stuff. Then I packed all my clothes and headed home. We immediately went on vacation for a week where I found out that I was being called in for a second interview. After vacation, I headed back to Chicago and took the job. So essentially, I just over packed for vacation

When I started working in Chicago, I had no immediate plans to leave. I always knew I would eventually end up on the East Coast, but I never had a definite time frame. My standard answer was that I would be in Chicago for two more years, which turned into three, which turned into four. Two years ago, I was ready to pack up everything and move to Los Angeles but breaking my knee put those plans on hold. I wasn’t too upset about that though because Chicago always pulled me back.

I’m nine and a half years into my extended stay in Chicago. I love this city with my entire heart. I love the people I met and the strangers who greet me with the kindness and optimism that can only be traced back to the Midwest. I love taking an hour long walk after work along the lake and finding myself still in awe of our skyline. I love the neighborhoods I lived in – Lincoln Park, the Southport Corridor of Lakeview and now Uptown. I love that I always find something new in the city like how expansive Montrose Park is or where to order the best Chicken Shawarma plate. I love when I find myself back on DePaul’s campus and replay the memories: the quad where I used to run through the sprinklers after a night of drinking, the dorm where I met my best friends, the hall where I was initiated into Chi Omega. I feel the pit in my stomach churning when I find myself by my old place on Cornelia, wishing I had enough money to buy the townhouse that I loved so much. I like the way we all gather inside for long nights of beers and Christmas lights in the winter and eat outside every night in the summer. I love Eagles games at Mad River, our annual Christmas Trolley and late nights after comedy shows at Old Town Alehouse. I love how it’s in the middle of the country so flying to either coast is not a hassle. In college I cried on every ride to the airport down Lake Shore Drive. I knew I would be back soon, but I never wanted to leave. I would strain my neck looking back at the skyline on the way to Midway until it was completely out of view.

I never wanted to permanently live in Chicago. I stand by that. For every reason I have for loving Chicago, I have another reason I want to be home. The thought of raising children so far away from my family is worse than leaving Chicago. I don’t want to be a long distance aunt anymore. I missed a lot of my nephew and cousins growing up and while I don’t regret my time here, it’s bittersweet to see all the time lost whenever I realize how old they are. While I pride myself in being a lot more present these days because I’m more financially stable, I want to be able to join in on all the little things the next generation of my family will bring. I want to be at sports games and school plays and whenever I have my own kids, I want sleepovers with cousins and dinners with grandma. Beyond family, I miss New England. I miss having four seasons instead of two and being so close to so many major cities. I don’t like that each time I come home it’s an event. I want to be able to visit with friends without feeling like I’m stiffing my family. I’d like to be able to relax instead of making sure I got to see everyone while home. And I miss New England falls. GOD how I miss New England falls. I miss the hills and the trees and the mountains. I miss the foliage and the scent of October. I miss being able to hike up real trails instead of city paths.

But each time I think I’m ready to leave, something pulls me back. It’s not easy being in love with a city so far from home. I wish New York or Philadelphia had the same vibe as Chicago.

I know that in the next few years I’ll be leaving this city. Where I’m going next I’m not too sure of. I don’t know if I want to spend a year in LA living in warm weather for once before returning to the East Coast, or if I just want to head straight home. I’m not even sure of where on the East Coast I want to live. While I’m 90% sure I’ll end up in New York City, which would split the difference between my extended family in New Jersey and my immediate family in Connecticut, I’m not positive. I may jet out to California in a year then head over to New York City a year or two later. But whatever way I split it, I have two years max left in Chicago.

I’ve set dates on moves before, so I know things can change. But the problem is that I keep on delaying my departure which makes it more difficult to leave. I fall more in love with this city with each passing year. There are some good reasons why I haven’t left Chicago, like breaking my knee and wanting to stay with my medical team until completely recovered, but the truth is that I’m also terrified. I wasn’t scared of going to college. Everyone made some sort of leap that year. And while I was constantly scared after college, it was also a normal transitional period. But here I am, in my late twenties, and there are no external forces like going to college or joining the workforce to push me out. This decision is completely self-motivated and I’m the only one that can execute it. I’m scared that I won’t find the same support group I have here. I’m worried that moving closer to my family will keep me from hustling in comedy. I’m concerned that my constant indecisiveness on where to live will be what keeps relationships from forming.

My friends in Connecticut and Los Angeles will all confirm that I’m not a great long distance friend. I miss and love them but get distracted when I’m in a different city. I push away from the ones I’m really close to because it hurts to know we no longer live close enough to be dependent on each other. I try to separate myself so I’m not disappointed when their life eventually goes on and they find someone to fill my void in their new city. I want to change these things about myself, but I know that it’s something I struggle with.

I know that Chicago will always be here to visit. But I loved being a resident. I know my close friends will remain my close friends and I’ll probably come back as often as I jet to the East Coast right now. And I know that if I ever find that I made the wrong decision, there’s a three story walkup on Cornelia Ave. that I’m more than happy to put a down payment on.

I chose the perfect city to become an adult in, both legally and mentally. Any pain or hurt is almost always the result of loving something, so I’m thankful that I found myself in a city that I loved so hard.

After almost 10 years, I’ll finally answer the most frequently asked question of an East Coast transplant: Chicago is WAY better than New York*. But sometimes the thing we love most isn’t what fits best.

*(Except for the pizza. NYC thin crust over Chicago any day.)

Sexism and Pain

hardship

As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gain power and voices, I’ve been nursing my most recent story in my head. I was quick to jump on with accounts of my own harassment, assault and constant struggle to be taken seriously in my career. I think it’s time to talk about my most recent medical journey as well.

Two years ago, I was rehearsing for a show when I bent backwards to narrowly escape a fencing jab. My left knee gave out and I crumbled to the floor. An intense and sharp pain shot from my knee through my whole body. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt.. so bad that when my writing partner went to grab her car, I started throwing up. My knee started swelling immediately and I couldn’t put any weight on it without unbearable pain.

The morning after I went to the ER, the hospital called me to let me know they found a small fracture in my kneecap and advised me to get to an orthopedist as soon as possible. As it was Friday, my options were limited. I called every orthopedic office until I found someone with a Monday appointment.

That following Monday, I saw Dr. Trash for the first time. (Why I’m concealing the identity of a doctor that doesn’t deserve protection is beside me, but his pseudonym is not only fitting but also very close to his actual last name so it works.) I didn’t think much of having to wait over an hour past my appointment time in his office (all doctors operate like that, right?) and didn’t care that he rushed the appointment. All I cared about at that time was getting the medication needed to ease my pain and the doctors note to clear my absence from work. He asked about the injury and I explained it to him. I told him that it felt like my knee twisted and that there was bone on bone. He laughed at the description, citing it’s impossibility. He looked at my x-ray for about 30 seconds then diagnosed me with a dislocated knee. He advised me to stay in a thigh to ankle immobilizer and come back after two weeks.

I went home and, despite my medication, was still in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even lay in my bed because laying flat was uncomfortable. For the next two weeks, I just dealt with the pain and powered through it.

Two weeks later, I went back to Dr. Trash’s office. When I said that I wasn’t doing any better, he said it was probably because I wasn’t icing or elevating. I told him I was doing that constantly and my office even got me a special chair to elevate. He told me I would be sore for a bit but that’s “just how teenage girls’ bodies are.” I was 25. I thought it was a weird comment but didn’t think much beyond that at the time. He wrote me a script for more pain meds and pushed me out as fast as I came in.

I started PT and spent the first month relearning how to walk because the immobilizer stiffened up my leg. I was in constant pain. I started to get worried that something more was wrong. My roommate has a strong history of dislocating her knee and I’ve seen her recover before. Her recovery was much shorter and appeared to be less painful, but I thought “oh well, everyone’s body is different.”

A month later, I was back in Dr. Trash’s office. At this point, I was starting to get really concerned. After relearning how to walk, I was finally starting to strengthen my knee at PT and it was met with intense, localized pain.

When asked how I was doing, I told Dr. Trash that my pain was getting worse with physical therapy. I told him it was localized and that it almost felt as if my knee was like a puzzle that didn’t quite fit together. He dismissed my pain, stating that these things take time and I would be sore for awhile, but I told him that I wasn’t sore, I was in pain. He told me that the way teenage girls’ bodies are stacked puts pressure on your knee and therefore causes discomfort. I revealed to him, yet again, that I wasn’t a teenage girl and that my pain wasn’t discomfort – it was sharp, localized pain. He mentioned my teenage girl body yet again, and said this is all common for girls dislocating their knee. I told him that I was concerned I tore something when I fell, and asked why I didn’t get a MRI. He told me that he usually doesn’t issue MRIs for women with knee dislocations since dislocations are so common in, you guessed it, teenage girls. Defeated, I gave up.

I feel like I need to clarify at the point that I never had a “teenage girl’s” body. I grew boobs and hips before I ever knew what they were and never hosted a typical teen body. As an overweight 25 year old, I DEFINITELY wasn’t hosting one. I also grew up as an athlete and had my fair share of sprains, pulls and thrown out necks. I had chronic pain due Lyme putting water in my knee as a kid and carpal tunnel as a teen. I understood the difference between long term ache and “holy shit something is wrong.” Something was wrong.

Over the next two months, both of my PTs and I started getting frustrated with my lack of results and increased pain. There were sessions that brought me to tears because I was in so much pain. No one knew how to help ease it and it seemed that everything they did made it worse. I recall holding my breath and concealing my tears as my PT rolled out my patellar tendon because the pain was so bad it sent goosebumps to my skin. (Turns out she was rolling right over the actual trouble spot without realizing it.) Defeated, my PT checked in with me one day. “So it’s just a dislocation. Your x-ray didn’t show anything else, right?” “Aside from the ER showing a small fracture, nope.” “And your MRI was clear?” “I didn’t get a MRI.” “Why?” “My doctor won’t prescribe one.” “You need to push for a MRI.” he mumbled under his breath.

That was the jolt of confidence I needed to make another appointment with Dr. Trash. I decided I would push as hard as possible for a MRI then take it to another orthopedic surgeon. The night before my next appointment, I ran into my old roommate who broke her femur when I lived with her. As I was telling her about my rough recovery from a seemingly simple injury, she asked me who my doctor was. I told her it was Dr. Trash and she told me to run away from him. He was the same doctor who did her leg surgery wrong, and when she questioned him about her pain and bowed leg, he dismissed the pain and told her she would just have to wear long skirts for the rest of her life, like her problem was that superficial.

The next day I went into Dr. Trash’s office with more confidence than I had over the last 8 months. When he asked me how I was doing, I was honest and told him worse than when I came in. I told him that I was in immense pain that only got worse with PT. He told me women tend to feel pain worse than men, especially when it came to TEENAGE GIRLS DISLOCATING THEIR KNEE. I was done with his shit, and demanded a MRI. He told me he doesn’t prescribe MRIs for women’s knees because of the high statistics of TEENAGE GIRLS DISLOCATING THEIR KNEES. I told him I was not a teenage girl, and even my limited medical knowledge told me that there were enough ligaments and cartilage in the knee that a MRI seemed appropriate. He told me “honey, you didn’t do any damage to your cartilage or ligaments, you dislocated your knee.” I asked him how he was so sure, and again he gave me the stats on how common of an injury it was with teenage girls. He told me insurance would never cover the MRI. I told him I didn’t care, I’d pay full price for it. He then, defeated, told me “Well I guess I can falsify your prescription and tell them we’re looking for floating cartilage or something so insurance will accept it. Will that make you feel better, sweetie?” I resisted the urge to punch him in the dick, said yes, grabbed my script and walked out of his office for good.

After getting my MRI, I went to one of the best knee surgeons in Chicago. In my first appointment, he spent more time that Dr. Trash did in all my appointments and told me that the problem was that I chipped a chunk of cartilage off my leg. He said it could be seen a bit in the x-ray alone, but was clear as day in the MRI. The MRI also showed bone bruising and minor ligament damage, all of this caused by… my bone coming together when my knee twisted. EXACTLY WHAT DR. TRASH TOLD ME WAS IMPOSSIBLE. My new doctor, Dr. Hair, told me nothing was impossible in medicine. A few months later, I found out that the second thing I felt, my knee feeling like a bad puzzle, was also true. I had surgery that revealed a piece of cartilage as big as a nickel chipped off and lodged itself into another part of my knee.

It has been almost two years since my initial injury and I’m still recovering from my most recent major knee surgery which should correct my defect. I spent eight months of that time with a doctor who dismissed my pain and diagnosed me off of statistics instead of symptoms then didn’t listen when I told him I was in pain.

I wish I knew at 25 what I know at 27. You know your body. Trust it and listen to it, and the second a man starts comparing it to the statistics of teenage girls, run to a doctor who will listen to you. I heard stories that women often had pain dismissed by male doctors but had never experienced it myself. I wish I listened to the little voice that kept telling me something more was wrong, but instead I trusted that someone who thought my biggest symptom was being female knew more than me just because he had 50 years of medical experience. Every single day I’m thankful for my PT and old roommate who gave me the confidence needed to run away from Dr. Trash.

When I think about that time in my recovery, I fall into a depression. This injury changed everything for me. It kept me from performing and pursuing my comedy dreams, cost me thousands of dollars, made me miss months of work and stopped me from being a typical mid-20 something. Instead of going out, I had to relearn how to walk three different times. I spend $90 a week on PT. I lost friends because I couldn’t do anything for weeks at a time. For two years, I couldn’t perform or hustle like I used to while I watched peers get closer to their dreams. My plans of moving to LA were replaced with surgery dates and recovery windows. When I realize that this all could have been resolved in a single year instead of two had I not gone to Dr. Trash, I become furious.

So, ladies (and gents too), what can I teach you? Listen to your bodies and trust that know them. You are not reduced to a statistic based on your gender. And the second a doctor starts dismissing your pain or comparing you to a teenage girl, run the fuck away.

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. 

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.