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Improv at The Groundlings [L.A.]: Week 1

Walking into The Groundling Theatre, the first thing that hits you is that you’re in a modern shrine. More specifically, the shrine of funny. The photos of lots of funny, funny people - your Will Farrells, your Kristin Wiigs, your Jim Rashes (ha) - crowd the lobby walls. 

When I walked in this morning, I spent a while just looking at these photos. It put me in the right frame of mind for my Improv A, the most basic, non-professional kind of deal you can do at The Groundlings. I chose The Groundlings because there are some cool writing classes…the only prerequisite is the six-week Improv A class. 

I’ve never thought much about improv, even though I’ve always liked performing. I spent time on stage in high school and casually continued on in college, grabbing prestigious roles like “pregnant woman stranded in airport” or “promiscuous rebellious teenage daughter” in small productions. I’m naturally more introverted, but dropping into these weirdo characters, getting to say their words…it was a fun way to be a totally different (usually sluttier) kind of gal. 

But improv, with no script, no blocking, no nothing, basically, has never been in my particular wheelhouse. There’s no control! You’re supposed to “just go with the flow,” which is way too last-five-minutes-at-the-yoga-sess for my blood.

So, I wasn’t sure how this improv class business was going to go. 

Here’s how this first class goes: We move into a small classroom. There are 15 of us, and we are ranging in age from fresh out of high school to white-haired and possibly retired. We sit down and immediately, our teacher is giving us a pretty in-depth lecture on the human brain. Guess what, y’all? Our brains are so thinky! The whole point of this class is to hang out less on the that thinky side, and more on the “do it, do it!” side.

We then test this out with a bunch of group activities where we’re messing up a lot together because we’re all still thinking way, way too much. This is okay, though, our teacher says. He lets us mess up, then walks us through what we don’t even realize we’re doing. He tells us stories about being in the troupe with Will Farrell, who is (unsurprisingly) really great at improv — how he’s like watching a cat in the middle of the room, and you’re just unable to tear your eyes away, wondering what it’s going to do next. 

We learn all the ways that we naturally want to force our controlling natures on these improvisations by planning out what we’ll say, how we’ll pick up a story. But it doesn’t work that way, and more than a few times, we all try, then fail epically because again, that pesky thinking. 

Our faces betray when we mess up, when we start thinking about our responses too much, when we’re suddenly self-conscious. Mostly, our natural mode in these situations is self-deprecation, drawing attention to ourselves and our mistakes, laughing it off, making it obvious. But that’s for stand ups, our teacher says. To do improv, you have to stop pulling the attention to yourself. You incorporate the mistake, and you play it like it was completely intentional. 

Also, get this - in improv, you shouldn’t really try to be funny! 

We keep putting our bodies through these stressful exercises and eventually, we all stop caring how badly we’re doing and what everyone else in the room is thinking. In a sense, we’ve all accepted this ship is fucked, so we might as well just have fun as it goes down. We do a final exercise together where we incorporate all the improv stuff we’ve learned and it’s so much better than the first exercise that we’re all genuinely smiling by the end. 

I wasn’t funny at all today. And I didn’t discover that I’m natural-born improviser.  But I still left class today feeling great. The things I often feel are hindrances to my own creativity - anxiety, judgment, being too much inside my own head - are exactly what this class is all about overcoming. 


(This is a memory piece about holiday celebrations and my family. I wrote it in appreciation of my bonkers, out-there dad, who passed away around this time in 2002, and also, how much fun and how very important family parties are when you’re a kid. Please enjoy.)

I was born in the late 70’s to parents who graduated high school in the late 70’s and liked to throw Black-Sabbath inspired Fourth of July parties.  What that entailed was rowdy friends, loud rock-n-roll, lots of cheap beer, and oversized, illegal fireworks that my dad and his friends somehow smuggled into Illinois from Canada each year.  Hamburgers and hot dogs had every chance of burning on the grill, as did the American flag.  That wasn’t an arrangement on the picnic table.  Nope, it was just a decorative bong.

My grandparents, who lived next door and disapproved of marijuana and flag burning – but not hot dogs – often showed up in between going to veterans parades and respectable church friends’ festivities.  My grandma usually sported a sleeveless polyester blouse in vibrant shades of red, white and blue, despite the stares that followed her like a trail of perfume.  She brought me sparkly red, white, and blue barrettes with streaming ribbons and beads of the same colors, which she fastened into my hair with satisfaction.  My grandpa cornered any man with long hair and proudly showed off his World War II shrapnel scars and his Republican National Convention pin from 1978.  My mom, usually with a green handkerchief tied around her hair, immigrant style, let me run around the yard in my bathing suits or sometimes, naked – instead of in the requisite red, white and blue sundress – which was what probably drove my grandpa to retire early from these occasions.

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Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.

—W.G. Sebald, “Austerlitz”

Twitter, or this is way more than just writing practice

If you believe the word from corners of the world as various as NPR and my boss who hates social media, Twitter is THE tool for writers.  By all accounts, it forces us writerly types to craft our 140 characters carefully. The challenge is whittling down an observation or a joke or our endless, ranty internal monologue to fit the space, but not limit the impact. 

And you know what? These people aren’t wrong. Twitter’s GREAT writing practice.

Being on Twitter has no doubt improved my writing. Anytime you’re forced to cut, it’s going to make you more aware of what words matter. Turns out, a lot don’t. Helping verbs are the worst. Vague nouns do nothing to make your tweet come alive. And don’t even think about using Twitlonger. Suck it in, lady, and make it work! (Is that something Tim Gunn says? As a non-Project Runway watcher, I feel vaguely that it might be.)   

But even more than writing practice, you’re more directly aware of your audience at all times on Twitter. It’s an audience that is capable of responding DIRECTLY TO YOU. It’s capable of great kindness and total indifference. Writing for strangers who may never communicate with you…now that’s so much easier. There’s not so much at stake. Certainly not a bunch of people who start to know you a little, and who you start to care about just a little, too. Which is, at essence, what Twitter’s all about. 

As my group of followers expands and grows, I’ve really had to work on my ability to communicate little moments and quirky thoughts to both friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. It’s striking the right balance between “awww” and “whoa.” It’s using writing to help my followers know me more through these little bursts of words. 

And it’s being brave enough to really put myself out there. Not just to write safe, adorable witticisms, but to allow people to know the real me. The real, weird and self-conscious feelings and thoughts that flit across my event horizon every day. To write fearlessly, openly, confidently for a particular bunch of people who may or may not respond. 

As a writer, I’m naturally a bit of a wonk. I can be awkward and, at my core, fearful of not being cool, of not being liked. So fearful, in fact, that when it comes to Twitter, I can watch the stream of conversations happening and often won’t join in. Because I don’t want to write the wrong thing. Because I don’t want to @ someone who doesn’t write me back. Because in my funhouse mirror that seems like reality, I just might interpret a non-response as rejection. YES, I KNOW, THAT’S BONKERS. But still. Writing on Twitter….yeah, it can be a tough. 

But that’s why Twitter is such great practice.   

Progress Report: “Hail Mary”

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been working on a short script, “Hail Mary,” for the last few months. What I may not have mentioned is this: I’m often appallingly unmotivated to sit down and write, especially these last pages.

This is probably the first time in history that this has ever happened to a writer, I’m positive. I’m so unique in this way!

Lies. LIES! 

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In Which Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

It was a good day when I discovered that the documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” was available for instant streaming. Good because in addition to an inside look at the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on TV” tour, I just like Conan. Always have. He’s weird and smart and sharp. He’s not afraid to be a goof. (Yep, these are qualities I value in people.) He’s also not afraid to be himself. Somehow, knowing that there are people like him in the world makes it a better place.  

Maybe unsurprisingly, I found this film pretty compelling. I think anyone who creates and/or performs would find a lot to absorb here. What was most compelling, though, wasn’t the process of putting together the show. I only note this because I really thought it would be — Conan and his writers sitting around, hammering out a show in the wake of feeling decimated. How you put together something new from the ashes of heartbreak. And there is some of that, but much more of the film is focused on following Conan from town to town, gig to gig. Also: this is where it gets good. 

Because the real meat of this story is the tension between needing your creation and cursing it. At the exact same time.

In city after city, green room after green room, Conan grows more and more annoyed at all the handshaking and photo ops and listening he’s required to do. Stupid people keep demanding he do things! He’s tired of having to smile so much. He’s traveling…a lot. He hasn’t seen his family in days.  And his hair? NOT cooperating. (Ok, ok, the hair thing may be my own impression.) But he can’t stop. 

And yet…the things that annoy the hell out of him and make him a little bit nuts turn out to be the same things giving him his mojo back. He can’t help but see the many, many people who have his back - out there, laughing, enjoying themselves and most of all, supporting his work. Even if a major network didn’t. 

Even if he wanted to stop, he needs what performing this show gives him. Needs it baaaad. He needs it to be Conan. 

I’m in the process of finishing revisions on a short film script. I’m happy to be near the end, even though I know the last pages are going to be a lot of work. A lot. And I’ll probably have to revise some more. There’s motivation in the form of some concrete talk about getting this script made. …I know! It’s incredible! It’s also overwhelming. It’s the point in the project where anxiety occurs. Some obsessing. Maybe some tossing and turning when I really want to be sleeping.

But that’s what happens. When you let something you create in, even just a little, it sets down some pretty deep roots. And before long, so much of yourself is in that creation that you can’t do anything but keep going. 

I get it, Conan. I totally get it. You really can’t stop. 

Exactly, Ira Glass. And thank you. 

Exactly, Ira Glass. And thank you. 

Intro (or, a friendly, if slightly serious, welcome and hello!)

A week ago, my friend C. asked me if I was ever going to start blogging again. Then, a few days later, my husband R. asked the same thing. Coincidence? Maybe. But little did they know that I’d been asking myself the same question for about the last year. Only a year! 

And here’s why - I am way, way too interested in way, way too many things. It’s writer’s syndrome. You want to write about everything. Everything is fascinating, everything is a potential story. But when it comes to blogging, I need a filter, a frame. An interesting one, preferably. And if possible, one that will keep things from heading too far into “look here at this caa-razy thing that just happened!” That’s what Twitter’s for and even then, I still feel guilty whenever I post about mundane things, like how cute my dog is when she sleeps with her head on a pillow. (SO FREAKING CUTE.) 

So when it comes to the frame through which I can write about my experiences, it should have been immediately obvious. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative process, about why writers and other creative types do the things we do.

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