Saturday, October 13, 2018

DEVISING DEMYSTIFIED MWAHAHAAA


I am fortunate enough to be hired on a pretty regular basis to Direct/Co-Write/Dramaturg the devised work of comic performers who do not employ a 4th wall AND who recognize the necessity in having an outside Director/Co-Writer/Dramaturg—henceforth called DCD, by me in this blog post and then, probably, never again by anyone.

So I thought it would be neat to explain a bit about the process, my background and philosophy, and more useful stuff about the DCD lifestyle, in case it's mysterious. Mwahahaa! Whether you're looking to bring in a DCD for your performance work, or are yourself considering the not-particularly-lucrative DCD career path, here are some of my very own DCD concepts for your perusal!

1) YOU NEED ONE YOU NEED ONE YOU NEED ONE. Let's get this little lecture out of the way. If you create theater of any kind, you need some sort of DCD. When I was in the straight-theater world, nobody thought about putting on a show without a director. It was like, DUH. So I'm not sure why, in the world of devised performance, some folks got it into their heads that they can cut corners and leave out... um.... the most important thing? No way, pal. And you can't DCD your own show either. It's too damn many hats to wear, and everything suffers. Performers need to wear the performer hat, and unfortunately, they have to wear the producer hat at least at first because they have to get people to come see what they do. That's enough hats! You can do some of the DCD legwork on your own, for sure, but ultimately, bring in SOMEONE or a few different people to see what the eff you're doing before you go public with it. Outside eyes are the only eyes that can really truly see. 

2) STORY. Ever heard this maxim? There is no story in a clown show. The clown is the story. 
Terrifying, right?
Obviously, complete hooey.
Well, it's slightly true.
But it's sort of bullshit.

The truth is, yes, any compelling comic performer should already be a story—by which I mean, a compelling character has a narrative buzzing around them that an audience can sense, can get curious about. But that doesn't mean that the story doesn't also need to be PLAYED OUT. We might see the story buzzing around the clown, but in a full show, we need to go on the ride. The ride is a story arc, a question to be answered, a lesson learned, an adventure taken. 

If I'm any good at DCDing, it's at least in part because I've spent my life being a story addict. My childhood books have layers of ancient peanut butter stains from being read over and over again (over sandwiches). Scary stories kept me up at night, romantic stories consumed me. I'm one of those people who often narrates my day-to-day life, just to myself, like a lunatic. I've taught high school English and facilitated classic book clubs and written 3 novels and watched way more movies and television than I feel like counting or admitting, from a wide range of eras and genres. Since I was young, I've obsessed about how stories are constructed, what their agenda is, what the conscious and unconscious choices of the author reveal about their times, their environs, themselves. Stories are everywhere, and if you're like me, then you see stories hanging off of every tree limb and sign post, like the forgotten entrails of your friends after the zombie apocalypse.

A massive foundation of stories comes in handy when you're trying to make a new one.

3) THE FOREST AND THE TREES. Let's break down a show this way: you got a forest, and you got trees. The forest is the overall story; the trees are the elements that make up that story. A show needs to have trees—parts, elements, bits, micro-stories—and it needs a forest: a journey, an arc, answers to questions like "what's it all about" or "why did you make people come see this in the first place." But just because you have, say, 55 minutes of trees does NOT mean you have a forest. 

I have worked with artists at all different stages in their processes. Usually, they have already done some work on their own: they have bits, they have a character, they have a concept. What I often notice is that a performer comes to me with trees, sometimes a lot of trees, but when we start to chart out what the forest is, we come up short. We see that the trees all have a similar dynamic, or tell the same micro-story within a larger framework. Sometimes I notice that performers have spent a lot of time making the same tree over and over again in slightly different shades, and that's cool, but when it comes time to make a full show, the same tree over and over again does not a forest make. Or, perhaps more to the point, it makes one repetitive-ass show.

I use index cards a lot in my process. They're super useful both for noting what trees we may already have, and what we may still need to complete a full story arc. We put all the trees on separate index cards. We ask questions of each tree: what new purpose is it serving, what theme does it reinforce, what does it reveal, why do we love it. Those questions often lead us toward bigger forest-type discussions: what are the show's aesthetics, values, lessons, investigations? What do we have, and where are we headed? Forest and trees, man. That old chestnut has never let me down.

4) TABLE SESSIONS. I work with performers using a combination of "table sessions," (as in, work sessions with writing utensils over beverages at tables) and studio time. Table sessions are when the performer(s) and I can think about the forest, switch index cards around, write things down, talk about areas of the show we need to develop further, set goals for studio time, deal with feelings of panic and/or inadequacy, all of it. We talk talk talk and play with index cards and drink hot enticing beverages and talk more. Talk is important, as are hot enticing beverages, and table sessions are the times when the performer can wear the co-writer/co-dramaturg hat, and give feedback on the whole process. There must be space for talk in a development process, which brings me to—

5) STUDIO TIME! Here's a common DCD-less pitfall: performers go into the studio for studio time. They have material they have to develop, so they spend studio time talking big concepts and trying to figure stuff out. They end up spending way too much time talking and way less time on their feet working. They get a little stage time in and call it a night, exhausted. Sure, it counts as a rehearsal, the same way walking to the refrigerator counts as exercise. It's just not the most effective exercise, or in this case, rehearsal. 

Remember when I said wearing too many hats is bad for a performer? It's more than bad. The quality of the material you develop will be nowhere near as good as it could be if your studio time is weighed down with discussion. You know what studio time is? It's a fucking workout for your show. It's when somebody warms you up and gets you going and gives you games to play and side-coaches you as you play them. You play play play and invent invent invent. That's it! And that shit is videotaped! Filming improv is the most important tool performers have. Not necessarily every rehearsal or every minute, but every time we're trying to work something out or develop material, we tape that shit. So many times, something awesome happens, something clicks into place, and if there's a camera on, all you have to do later is watch and transcribe. BAM! MATERIAL DEVELOPED! Smooth it out later. 

Inspiration is, as I'm sure you know, one of the worst assholes out there. It's hard to pin down, it's hard to predict, and it's inconsistent as fuck. If you talk too much, it flees the scene. It needs more than anything to be protected, to have a safe and carefully curated space to do its strange ghost-pony dances. Table sessions are a way of separating "think/talk time" from "create/play time." They should be separate, if you want that ol' asshole inspiration to come haunt ya in the best way. 

6) MONEY!!! One of the reasons, I know, that a lot of devising performers don't use a director is because usually, directors cost money. Not always; you can trade outside-eye work with friends, or find someone who is beefing up a resume and wants the work... but yeah, sometimes you have to pay. Myself, I charge hourly. Sometimes I consider going to a flat-rate model based on the size of the final project, because taking on an artistic project is not an hourly kind of job. You think about every show you work on even when you're not working on it. 

But if you're balking over spending money on a director, perhaps costing you a few grand, at most, allow me tell you about the show I once spent over 15 grand on. It was the first Butt Kapinski show, 12 years ago, when Butt was performing with 3 other guys. The show had a set designer, a sound designer, a lighting designer, a video designer, a costume designer, two week-long artist residencies, 2 years of rehearsing in Brooklyn spaces, rented theater spaces, a producer, all the usual show production costs, not to mention the performers and director who didn't get paid. I footed the whole bill. Mostly, I was so glad that something I wanted to make was getting made. I had lucrative work those 2 years and was able to spend that kind of money.

Where is that show now? Totally dead (rest in peace). I have absolutely nothing to show for it. We did about 12 performances of it, and then never again.

On the other hand, I have a lot of show for it. I learned a ton about how shows get made and what's needed to make them. I learned a lot about what I didn't want to do for the future. And I get to say to people, you're worried about paying me? Let me tell you about the time I spent 15 grand. Don't pity me, just congratulate yourself that you're not spending anywhere near that, and you're getting a show that will hopefully last longer than mine did.


Making a show is NOT a science—it's totally different every time. There are moments during development where I doubt my abilities to pull it together, I lose faith in the vision the performer(s) and I once had, I wonder if it's all crap. We all do. But mostly, it's a magical, mystical process. Watching performers give birth to an art baby—a baby that you have doula'd and midwifed and kinda a little bit fathered too... it's so powerful. It goes up and there's response and you see the relief on the performer's face—the hardest work is done—and the determination to keep going and refining and working... 

Making a show is a marathon, and it doesn't ever seem to quite stop. That's a cool thing about art. And life. Something is always growing—even if it's tiny, a dream, a notion. Something always has the potential to bloom.



Friday, September 21, 2018

FINDING THE GAME: DEMYSTIFIED BY A CLOWN!

After a 15-year hiatus from performing improv comedy, I find myself back into it, and I love it and hate it all at once. 

In the early aughts, I left the improv scene in NY and got into clown. Mainly because the improv troop that I loved, Burn Manhattan, had kinda disbanded and weren't really teaching anymore, and the UCB, swarmy-cult-like bastion of problematic improv, became the dominant comedy force in town. Plus, frankly, it was tiring to always get onstage and try to do earnest scenes with strong setups, and have all these dorky dudes turn every scene I initiated into some creepy sex role-play thing. I imagine some of that gender stuff is better now.

But setting the sexism aside for a moment, trends in improv felt too cerebral and mathematical for me. UCB actually had a diagram. When I see a comedy diagram, this may be just me, but I smell death.

The UCB and its manual-of-formulaic-formulation is probably responsible, too, for the sweeping debate in improv circles about what it means to Find The Game. Oh, you didn't know there are sweeping debates about what it means to "find the game"? Lucky you!!! Stop reading immediately!

But those of us who are improvisers, we know that there is some debate about what Find The Game means. Because UCB got all cute and defined it, and then Annoyance in Chicago was like, Uh, NO! And then everyone else was kinda like, wait, aren't you all actually agreeing with each other? And then we all were like, argh!

I fled all that Game debate when I found clown. But now I'm doing improv again, and I feel like I'm funnier than I used to be. And Clown helped me understand what finding the game actually means, in its simplest terms, and I am ready to share it with you... ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS PAY $99.99 FOR MY VIDEO TUTORIAL SERIES HAHAHAHHAHAH no seriously actually just read the next paragraph. 

In clown, there is one game: make the audience laugh at the fun you are having. In standup comedy, there is one game: make the audience laugh at the fun you are having. In improv comedy—I know, it's collaborative and you want to make your partner feel good and blah blah blah—but when it comes right down to it, come on, there's really only one game. The audience needs to be laughing, and you need to be having actual fun.

Actual fun means play. It means what a dog does with a ball. It means what a Bat Mitzvah girl does with a limbo stick. It doesn't mean just thinking about something kind of amusing. It doesn't mean thinking at all.

You should know if you're having real fun or not. But maybe you don't. If that's the case, let the audience tell you. If we want to get mathematical about it, figure that probably, if you're having proper fun right away, you should get a laugh within the first 25 seconds of your scene.

Let's talk about what should be happening before that 25 second mark, from an audience perspective. In the first 5 seconds, the audience is sizing you up and deciding whether you are in fact going to do something to make them laugh. By 10 seconds in, they are either interested or bored already. If they're interested, which they should be, then let's give you a bonus 15 seconds to do something that will make the audience make some sort of noise to reflect their interest and increasing entertainment.

You know how in those airline safety videos they tell you to put your own mask on first and then assist the child next to you? Right, well, in that first blush of a scene opening, you gotta find your own game before you can find the game between you and somebody else. 

Naturally, there are PUH-lenty of improv gurus who will tell me that I'm full of garbage, that you have to deeply stare into your partner's aura and find the game there. That what you are is Nothingness until your partner fills your nothingness for you. Yeah, maybe. But maybe not. The beginning of a scene is an emergency. The plane is crashing, and everyone is panicking trying to "find a game" before they find theater. Perhaps it's not wise to count on your partner to be your sole game. They just might be too in their head, and you're running out of time. 

I'm not saying that your scene partners don't matter. They matter a lot. I'm just saying, when the air is getting sucked out of a plummeting plane, put your own goddamn mask on first. You gotta find a way to have fun in your own body right away, right as the scene is starting. You have to bring the party before it's too late. 

So how do you find your own game? UP your energy. You wanna walk someplace with your normal, run-o'-the-mill pedestrian energy, consider an intersection or a supermarket. If you're on stage, you are in an UPPED ENERGY STATE. That's right. All the time.

Have an emotion. You don't need to invent one. There is probably an emotion already there, just bubbling like an underground lava spring ready to erupt as soon as you let it. Here's an example. The other night I walked on stage with another player. Before the scene started, he was standing in front of me, and I was like....
Ohhhhh, look, he's showing me his back.
Ohhhhhhhhh, he's trying not to look at me.
Just like that, I felt mad and sad, and a little predatory. That's all I knew when the scene started. But it was enough to put me in a heightened state.

You don't have to do much, you just have to do something fun right away. And the audience will immediately, instinctively respond. When it's working, you find their laughs surprising, because you didn't think what you actually said was that clever. And it probably wasn't. It was just a honest reflection of the fun you were having.

There are lots of ways to have a personal game, but I tend to start with emotion cuz it's right there. I let the emotion send me toward a physicality game that feels fun in my body, and I play that. Then, hopefully, the game becomes a two-hander, and you and the person or people you are on stage with can figure out how to play together. More on that in some other boring improv blog post for which I apologize in advance.

Just remember this: having fun on stage means physical and emotional exercise. It means making actual shapes with your body that you don't make in your day-to-day. It means expressing feelings that you don't share most of the time. It means bringing the most special, most rare, most weird reflection of yourself to a bunch of people who will be grateful for your willingness to share that with them.

The clown in you never has to think about the game.
The game is inside you, all the time.
Breathe. Be brave. Let 'er rip. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

WHAT COUNTS AS GOOD FEEDBACK?

Once upon a time, a brilliant workshop participant sidled up to me on a break and asked a question. "While I was watching someone on stage a few minutes ago," he said, "I had the impulse afterwards to tell him something that he could've done that would've been really funny. But then I was like, Is that good feedback?"

And I was like, "Great question, Brilliant Workshop Participant."

I think we've all spent a lot of time in comedy classes listening to our teachers or even fellow students give "feedback" in the form of This is the awesome thing that should've happened in that scene, but didn't. How useful are these awesome ideas after the scene is over? Can these ideas somehow dig up the corpse of that scene and resurrect it, Frankenchrist-like, into a fresher, more ferocious form of itself?

Unfortunately no, friends and lovers. That scene that just ended is totally dead, and we all know what happens when you try to resurrect the dead: you get angry psychopathic monsters or Christmas sweaters, and none of it's any good at all. Telling a performer what they could've done to make a scene better is not really going to help them. Because think about how people learn. People generally learn by being able to put new information into a file that's already created in their brain for that information. Into what brain file can we put This is how that scene would've been better, besides the brain file of Oh, this teacher or fellow performer is way smarter than dumb ol' meeee?

And that brain file is near to bursting, friends and lovers!

When it's time to give feedback, here are six concepts to consider, as both teachers and fellow artists-at-work:

1)First, the best feedback is not feedback. It's side-coaching. 
For Satan's sake, comedy teachers, when performers could be better on stage right now, and it will only take a word or phrase from you for them to fix it, don't wait! Freakin' tell them now!!! Side coach side coach side coach! When a performer gets to experience a change from inside an improvisation, they learn very differently from just hearing something afterwards and nodding. They learn experientially, which is really the best way for anyone to learn anything. There are limits to this, of course; over-side-coaching stops the flow. Still, most classes I've been in, the teachers have mostly aired on the side of under-side-coaching. Which sounds sexier than it is.

2) Before you say anything at all, ask the person who was just on stage how they would evaluate what they just did. When we are asked to self-evaluate, we start to more carefully consider the different aspects at play in our work. Often, people do a really great job of self-evaluating, and when they don't, then it's easier to see what their particular blind spots are by getting them to talk first. 

3) Define and reuse terms, and limit limit limit.If a concept has been introduced, and performers are trying that concept out on their feet, a great focus for outside-eye feedback is, how did the performer use that particular concept? Keeping terminology consistent can help us figure out how well we are understanding and applying what we're learning. And it may be that other issues beside the concept-on-the-table have come up for you as you watch, but consider letting those go. I know it feels so tough to not give particular gems of feedback, but let them go anyway. We don't need every last drop of your feedback brilliance every time, sad but true. 

4) Look for patterns. Just like I am always accidentally buying myself a new striped sweater that looks like every other striped sweater I've ever bought, people make the same kinds of choices over and over again. Pointing out the pattern is a great way for a student to see what they're doing, and keep it in mind so that next time, they've have more awareness of their tendency toward stripes, and maybe make a decision to do plaid instead. 

5) Look for the ROOT of your feedback.When we watch other people in a workshop environment, we're always "playing at home"—figuring out how we would do it if we were the ones on stage. So it's totally natural that we'd come up with ideas for what could've been different/better. But instead of telling a performer, "you could've done this," go one level deeper into your own idea, figure out the concept behind your idea, and pitch that concept to them, as just one more way to approach a moment. For example, let's say you're watching someone improvise and it seems like they should've gotten very excited at a specific moment, but didn't. Why did you come up with the idea that they should've gotten excited? Is it because you're watching with a lens of what makes characters tick?or maybe what is rhythmically interesting? Suggest one of those lenses to them, not the result of the lens. Give your students the pole, not the fish. Which, again, sounds sexier than was intended.
6) Keep feedback time short. Back when I used to teach high school English, I would watch my fellow English teachers in the faculty lounge covering their students' papers with comments. On one hand, I saw the value in that: it gave students the message that their words were being deeply considered; their words mattered. On the other hand, it was a lot of ink for students to absorb, and they usually got overwhelmed by it. My teaching mentor told me, early on, "Students don't read your comments; they just look at the grade." (He was adorably cynical, but often right.) He told me to give my students more writing homework, and comment less on it. I took his point. I'll say it again: we learn by reps. Fact: the more reps you give your students, the better. It doesn't matter how genius your feedback sessions are; they are still no substitute for reps reps reps reps reps. 

More work, less talk, but more targeted talk—that's what makes us all happier, and also, ultimately—whooda thunk?—funnier too. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

FRINGE DIET

So last summer, I ate quite well during the Edinburgh Fringe month for about 10 US dollars a day.  In honor of touring season coming up in the Northern Hemisphere, I thought I'd publicize my Fringe Diet. I think many of us have trouble eating well on the road, but if you're in one place for long enough to get to the grocery store, and you need some inspiration, maybe this post is for you. There is a lot of satisfaction in making your own food on the road; it isn't hard, and you feel like a healthy yet frugal rock star while still enjoying the luxury of fresh food.

What follows is simply my grocery list with suggestions for how it all came together. Obviously tailor as you see fit. 

eggs 
yogurt

These were breakfast items. Just good to have around the house. The yogurt stayed at home, as did most of the eggs, but sometimes it's also amazing to hard-boil an egg and bring it with you. Whatta power snack!

Extra-virgin olive oil
A packet of prewashed arugula or spinach
Mini-cucumbers 
sugar snap peas
a bunch of scallions
broccoli and/or brussel sprouts and/or yams
fresh sprouts or sunflower seeds (dried)
cherry tomatoes
pickled beets and/or olives
a few lemons
feta cheese

I always carry a good tupperware container with me—one that closes securely with those plastic locks. Each day I put together a big salad with some combo of the above ingredients. I roasted broccoli, yams and brussel sprouts and had them around to put in the salad. I drizzled the olive oil, feta and squeezed lemon on that salad and then when it was time to take it out and eat it I just shook it vigorously and it was ready to eat!

a few hardy fruits: apples, oranges
grapes
berries
fresh mint leaves

I also had a secondary, smaller tupperware that I brought fruit around with. Because it was summer, it was berries and stone fruit slices and grapes. Mint sprigs were just nice to have with it, refreshing, and a little lemon squeezed on the fruit also makes things nice.

Good bread, like bread you'll be excited about
hummus
brie or another cheese that's not feta
smoked salmon
sliced deli meat like turkey and ham
pre-cooked chicken meat if it's good, or if it's not, get raw chicken thighs and asian marinade and make good chicken at home. 

I also made sandwiches which are naturally great to take around. I toasted the bread first just to make it sturdier. Any of the salad things can go in a sandwich too, of course.

chocolate-coated protein bars that feel like both dessert AND protein
nuts
dried fruits

These I carried around in baggies with the tupperwares. So I felt like I had lots of variety with me at all times, and none of it was that heavy.

And that's how I did it at Edinburgh! Seriously, 10 US dollars a day! Except for the last few days, which descended into an exhausted vortex of beige fried things like chips and doughnuts-fried-in-front-of-your-face.

None of us, perfect. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

LAST TOUR BEFORE SEMI-RETIREMENT

Today I leave for yet another big long tour. It is similar to another one I started four-and-a-half months ago, and another one I started four months before that. It seems, for the past five years, that I've been taking between two and three two-to-three-month trips a year. I have identical battery chargers with three different countries' plugs. There is currency from five different countries in my change jar. I have spent way too much time overwhelmed by jet-lagged, needlessly-terrified during airplane turbulence, and bereft of my collections of impractical onesies and heavy necklaces. I have spent a large chunk of several years being on tour. I'm retiring.

I'm not retiring. But I have turned down two well-paid international gigs this year already, gigs that would fly me to faraway places and put me up and all that stuff. I have said, enough is enough, for the time being. Def no more overseas work for the foreseeable future.

You know, unless you get an offer you can't refuse. But you can't wait around for those.

It is, of course, bittersweet. I loved touring. I met so many beautiful people, I grew so much as a teacher and a performer. I mean, the shows! All over the dang anglish-speakin' wirrld! And the workshops. The incredible communion with performers from all over the place.

It all really hit me during Edinburgh last summer. About a week and a half into shows, the audiences were applauding right when I came on, like I was famous or at least someone they recognized from their gym. I have no idea how that happened, and I'm sure there's some reasonable explanation for it—but it occurred to me in those moments, this might be the height of your performance career. It may not get any better than this. I killed it at the biggest arts fest in the world, night after night. For me that felt like a big deal.

But then again, my definition of "killing it" at Edinburgh means that I cleared a few thousand dollars and had a lot of great shows and didn't get seriously depressed even once. There's of course further to go. My famous friend always asks me, when I'm about to go on another tour, "Are they paying to fly you first class?" And I have to say no, and remember that, if they were, I probably wouldn't be semi-retiring right now. I'd have a personal chef and an entourage, and I'd never be lonely again hahahaaaa.

But that's a whole other life.

I think in order to get to "the next level" with Butt Kapinski, I would have to first amp up my social media and video content by roughly a gazillion percent, and then, I'd have to put Butt around TV/film-type opportunities. That's just for starters, and who knows, really, if if if if if. There's a lot to do in this world. I have a lot of other plans.

Which is not to say that Butt is dead, not at all. I'm pretty sure I will do Butt Kapinski for the rest of my life. It probably just won't be for month-long runs at faraway festivals.

I mean, you never know... but I've noticed things about myself on tour for the last year or two... I'm not as social as I used to be. Wherever I go, I seem most excited about finding a local pool and a good tupperware to carry salads around in. When I'm not actually working, I spend a lot of time watching "RuPaul's Drag Race" in bed. I make fewer friends each tour; I rarely go dancing; I miss home.

And so, I'm hanging up my golf-club-case and my battery chargers for the foreseeable future.

But I'm definitely going to enjoy this last tour. One month in England, two weeks in Australia. Some long flights, but a lot of opportunities and inspiring artists and good black tea. Each time I've toured, I've seen the progression: the way one's reputation has baked even more into the soil of the tour in front of you, so you feel that the soil is more prepped for your seed than it was the first time you tried to plant it (so to speak). You feel those moments when you headline some lineup show that wouldn't have booked you three years ago. When you hob-knob with someone you used to think was far beyond your coolness level. Those moments when someone wants to gush over how amazing you are, and you know what? You stop them. Because enough people have gushed over you now. That I'm famous feeling is fun, but it's fraught, too. It's fragile. It's like 6am on a spring day, when the air is so fresh and delicate you want to suck it all up through your nose. Actually no it isn't. It's like those Trader Joe's chocolate truffles that you eat ten of the first time you try them, and then the next time you encounter them, you can only eat two, and then you don't want any anymore ever. Your body just sees them and shakes its head.

Did I choose to semi-retire, or did semi-retirement choose me? Who knows? I think every career has its own trajectory and its own momentum and its own path, and everything has to end sometime. Not like it's over, but it could be semi-over. And I'm kinda fine with that. I'm 44, you know what I mean? But it's not just about age. It's about coziness and routine and community, and how increasingly important those are to me now that I've really found them up in my Slightly-More-Urban Twin Peaks, USA. It's the spot from which to go forward with my personal next-step-in-world-domination.

It's a big world; sometimes going further means taking smaller steps.


Friday, February 23, 2018

HOW DID YOU MAKE THAT SHOW?

An awesome workshop participant suggested I put up a blog post about how I came up with my "solo" show Butt Kapinski, so that in moments where somebody asks me that question and I don't have time to have a coffee with them, I can say, at least there's a blog post!

Well, it seemed like a nice idea.
But the truth is, I kinda have no idea how I made my show. Or rather, I have no idea how far back in my life story to go to start the answer to that question. Do you want to hear about the clowning and improv classes I took when I was six? Probably not, right?

I also think there usually are two sub-questions inherent in that question. There's how did you create that character? AND how did you decide to wear a light and make the show interactive/immersive? And, really, when you boil it all down, the question beneath the question is probably actually How can *I* make a show that makes ME feel the way I imagine YOU feel when you're doing your show?

Well, I can try to answer some of that, anyway.

First: Butt Kapinski the character is a very organic distillation of a whole lot of me-stuff: film noir fandom, slight gender dysphoria (misogynistic-societally-induced or organic, who can tell), childhood speech impediments. When the character came out of me, I was not expecting it, but it made absolute sense right away. It immediately felt like the most logical direction I could go in. It was the easy choice. It was obvious. It was and is utterly me.

The wearing-my-own-light concept probably came from going to Burning Man a few times in the early aughts. It blew open a lot of things for me: the artistic aesthetic was three-dimensional, inviting interaction. I saw how spaces could feel electrified, how costumes could blend function and fantasy. And I saw a lot of creative use of light, people wearing lights. Mostly to illuminate themselves, not others. But it did get me thinking.

Then when I started really getting into clown work, I felt hungry to interact with the audience and too limited by the stage lights and, frankly, other clowns. I said to my boyfriend at the time, What I really want is a light that I can wear so I can go anywhere. And he said, That's what you should have, then. And then my dad, who has a degree in electrical engineering, designed it, and my lighting designer friend built it. And so it was born. And the light's creaking sound just developed through use; none of us knew that was going to happen.

All of the material for the show was developed either in performance or in rehearsal with friends acting as audience members. For the first two or so years of doing Butt as a solo thing, I just did 10 minute bits at Variety and Burlesque nights, which gave me a lot of experience with different audiences and some confidence that what I was doing could and should be a longer piece. 

And like I've said before, being a high school English teacher was my best training for clowning, and for doing a full-length solo show. The day-after-day practice of putting together an interactive performance for the classroom, that really did it for me.

So... that's how I made my show.
How should you make your show? Uh... (shuffles feet, looks elsewhere)
Well at the very least, here are four ideas I would throw your way:

1) Slaughter the 10-minute bit first. Like, totally slaughter it. Like, have them hooting and cheering and begging for more. Maybe get your 10 minutes so good that you get paid for it sometimes, or at least, sought after. It's a strong indication, if you have an amazing 10 minutes, that you might be able to have an amazing 20, or 34, or 57. 

2) Think about the experience you want an audience to have. Beyond just sitting there, what can you give them experientially, so that they are able to put a piece of themselves into your show, and be rewarded for having been there. The world already has enough just-sit-there-and-watch-me shows, don't you think? Fourth-wall theater is dying. Make it an event, or make it for Youtube.

3) Assume that you might only have ONE character in you, ever, that anyone will ever love. Why make that assumption? Because I think that makes you realize that you better put everything you got into that character. Don't save shit for that character down the line. Everything you have now, everything you are and ever were, use it now. Make it about you, deeply—where you're from, what makes you tick, what your obsessions and loves are, what gives you pleasure, what you want most of all. And don't forget the shame—shame is probably your most powerful tool for creating a character that people can laugh at and feel catharsis through. I still feel shame every time I perform; I cultivate that shame, because keeping it around, and going forward anyway, makes me brave. But you can't be brave if you aren't sharing something that some part of you would prefer not to share, not to have others laugh at. No matter how good a performer you are, you can't pretend vulnerability. It's either there or not there, and the audience can smell it either way.

4) Consider getting into teaching, if you're not there already—especially teaching students you have to work a bit to win over. Maybe teaching will satisfy your solo-performing needs and then you won't even need to make a show!

Ha ha ha ha ha!



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

SHOULD YOUR COMEDY CLASS BE A SAFE SPACE?

Sooooo, last summer a participant asked me if our workshop was a "safe space," and I told her it wasn't. That was probably a lie.

What does it mean, safe space? This is a big messy subject, and chances are I'm going to get stuff wrong and miss stuff, because there's so many nerve endings that this issue touches, and I know I'm not going to touch them all right. Anyway, we'll go in together.

If we choose to define safe space in the most broad terms, as in, A space in which you will not be bullied, harassed or assaulted, then of course, our workshop is a safe space. And in these times, I'm going to venture a guess that most comedy workshops are.

But that's not what my workshop participant was asking. She wanted to know if our workshop was A wink-nudge SAFE SPACE wink-nudge, which probably means something different, something more along the lines of, A place where intolerance is not tolerated.

That is where things get very sticky, because then how do we define intolerance, how do we define not tolerated, and for that matter, how do we define IS... you see where I'm going here.

The truth is, I haven't had to think very much about this question, due to a very excellent screening process that happens almost independently of anything I'm doing. First of all, I'm a female-coded person (as the kids are saying)—so whoever has signed up for my classes already thinks that a female-coded person might be able to teach them something about comedy. That disqualifies a whole buncha douchebags right there.

Second of all, I'm teaching a class called Naked Comedy. People signing up for such a class are both (A) not freaked out by the idea of nakedness; and (2) already very open to being vulnerable.

That seems to be a potent cocktail in terms of getting ideal people to my class. Who knew? It doesn't appear to be a particularly elaborate screening process, and yet, my classes are full of really awesome people, like, almost without exception— awesome after awesome after awesome. That's just who signs up. Just because of my gender and my class's name.

So what I'm saying is, you can ask me if my class is a safe space, and I can squirm at that idea and get all rabble-rousin' and Del-Closey and bray out, Naw, man, this shit ain't SAFE! We're all punk rock and Not-Safe-Spacey round THESE parts!

But I'm full of it.

I'm playing with a majorly stacked deck (and you should see the stack on this deck! jk).

But, see, there are plenty of other comedy classes. Those classes are called "Generic-Sounding Comedy Training" with teachers' names like CHET and CHAD and CHEVERETT. Those classes might not have the same self-selection in their signups. Are those classes safe spaces? Should they be?

I'm going to venture a guess that, in times like these, most comedy classes are going to strive to have some safety in them. Comedy schools are no doubt doing everything they can to define safe space as Not Inviting Lawsuits.

A variety of people sign up for "Generic-Sounding Comedy Training." Some on the woke-r side, some maybe less so. But the comedy world is generally, as we all know, full of liberals (ed. note: I'm using the Amurkin definition of liberal here, which is synonymous with leftie. But it is fun for us to remember, Amurkins, that liberal elsewhere in the English-speaking world actually means conservative. Whooda thunk?) So while there might be a few non-liberals in our comedy classes, no doubt they will smell the leftie-leaning odors in the room and keep their dumber instincts to themselves. Mostly. Maybe.

Everyone is coming into their comedy class carrying varying amounts of privilege and garbage, both. And how do we create an environment that checks our privilege and garbage, that doesn't perpetuate the same-old same-ol? How do we create the space in which it feels like the master's tools are available to everyone?

I wonder sometimes about the safe spaces that are safe in some ways and unintentionally problematic in others. Comedy is still largely a rich man's game—it's changing, but there it is. Most of the "comedy authorities" out there are, at this point, still privileged men. Do these men know how to cultivate the funny of those different from they? Some do, right? But some...? You've been in those classes, right? Where it felt like the alpha white dudes were the only ones the teacher really "got," because he himself was an alpha white dude, and so, while he really wanted to support, he just didn't have enough of the master's tools to loan out.... And so we all paid our money and did our time, and nodded our thanks, and left the class saying, "Yeah, it was ohhh-kay..." But we felt like we were watching somebody else get to use the fancy hacksaw. And that feels unfortunately familiar.

It's not that the space wasn't safe. It was safe. Nobody got harassed, nobody got abused. But still. It wasn't enough.

Should your comedy class be a safe space? Obviously.
Should your comedy class be a wink-nudge safe space? Yes and no.

Yes, your comedy class's infrastructure and facilitation should be making every effort to privilege the voices of the less-privileged in a way that doesn't single anyone out or make anyone feel weird. That is a mighty difficult balance to strike, but it's a priority. Affirmative action is necessary for our comedic evolution. We need different voices, desperately, right now. If your class can only cultivate the comedy of the privileged, then it might be a Don't-Sue-Me safe space, but it's not a Ultra-Mega-Major-Fluffy-Kitten safe space. And maybe, we're all at a point where Ultra Mega Major Fluffy Kittens are mandatory.

But no, your comedy class should probably not keep you safe from the potential ignorance or unconscious violence of other participants in the class, provided nobody's doing anything on purpose to be an asshole. Our comedy classes are an ideal battleground to meet those monsters. If you feel challenged by somebody else's comedy in a comedy class—whether they're being misogynist, racist, phobic or just dumb—it's an opportunity. And your class environment should provide for and welcome those opportunities. That's why the right facilitator is so important: making sure that the space is held in a way that allows us to all try out and test and fail and explore and confront and see.

Our comedy deserves a cozy environment in which to breed and grow. It is our armor, our great weapon against all the little psychological blows in life, and it can get bigger and tougher the more we use it. It's time to use it. We have the scimitars of resistance, the martial arts of mischief. It is the time to kick comedy ass and wipe the floor with somebody else's ignorance or unconscious violence. That's the only way any of us will truly be safe.

We are here for the soft battle, and we are ready.