Matt Besser Lecture Notes (in collaboration w/Will Hines)

May 21, 2012

This past Sunday, founding member and owner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Matt Besser, gave a talk at the Chelsea theater about what his concept of “UCB-style” improv is and what he’d like to see taught here in New York and what not. I have my thoughts on all this but that is not what this post is about.

Instead, here are (w/Will’s permission) the notes that I took at that lecture that were organized and clarified by the Associate Academic Supervisor of the UCB, Will Hines, and sent out to some staff and performers.

I hope you enjoy and maybe (hopefully!) discuss.

-Nick

***

Outline of 5/20/12 Besser Meeting, courtesy of Nicholas Feitel:

MINDSET
I’ve been talking a lot about mindset, what’s your mindset when you enter a scene and start improvising.
When I started I was standup, so I already had stage confidence.
Charna told me that I wouldn’t be good at improv because of stand up. She was right, at least at first.
Difference between standup/short-form, the game is already given.
In short-form game is explained to the audience, details fed into comedy machine
Short-form more selfish, who can do it “the best”, less group dynamic.
ImprovOlympic didn’t work when it was competition based
Long-form improvisers listen to others, the most important note an improviser can get. You listen to others.
My mindset used to be dueling stand-up, you say something funny and then I say something funny. Two separate thought bubbles.
I didn’t trust or give in to listening, I didn’t have trust that it was funnier to build off something someone else created with me as opposed to me being funny, trust in the group mind.
I was on stage with someone was good and I thought the other persons idea was better so I shared it. One shared thought bubble — group mind.
Stand up and longform are different muscles, different mindsets

IMPROV and SKETCH
At UCB, a great improvised scene is the same as a great sketch .
You don’t always do A+ scenes, just like we don’t do perfect Harold’s
Everyone else is doing improvised plays, narrative, with silly people and that it wouldn’t work written down. It stills works because the audience loves improv but we are trying to get away from that.

SEMANTICS and TERMS
We have two kinds of long-form: organic and premise-based. Equally as good.
Organic coming off a suggestion and we start improvising not off of an opening. We are “yes-and-ing”
We build a base reality (who, what, where) from yes-and-ing.
Base, what you’ll build a scene on, reality so we know what’s normal, and what the first unusual thing is.
Once we find that unusual thing, we don’t need a yes-and, we just need to say if this unusual thing is true, what else is true. That’s the difference between UCB and other schools, other schools have “yes-and”-itis.
Game doesn’t happen until a second person reacts.
If someone says I’m going to “kill myself with potato skins”, you then say “yes let me help you” then we have two unusual things because of yes-and, because then we have someone who is helping people kill their friends (unusual) and someone who wants to kill themselves with a potato-skin (unusual). It can’t go down the two paths.

I want you in the mindset of this: “if this one unusual thing is true, what else is true”. It’ll take you through that sketch of any show you like.

TOP OF INTELLIGENCE
Maybe yes-and-itis is caused by people who don’t play at the top of their intelligence, that fear leads you to play not at the top of your intelligence to say something funny
Del said two difference things that get lumped together
-Treat your audience like poets and geniuses, don’t “dumb down” the scene for your audience.
-commit to playing a doctor the best you can.
Your character isn’t necessarily as smart as you are, they’re not necessarily. If I’m an 8-year-old, I’m not as smart as who I am normally.
The intelligence is our intelligence of how people behave towards one another.
That’s not what a person would say (I’ll help you kill yourself), because no matter who you are, you’ll deal with the unusual thing. The top of intelligence choice is dealing with the unusual thing.
You have to get into the mindset of how would I respond in that scenario, most of you are not truly reacting as you would react.

OPENINGS/INITIATING OFF MONOLOGUES
A good monologue lasts about two minutes, we need to slow down and tell a little bit more.
The purpose of this initiation is to let them know where you are coming from, so it’s your take on what was funny from the opening.
We use the opening to come from a common place, I like to think of if as the pitch meeting from the sketch show.
What makes a memory a memory is that they are unusual things in your life.
I want to get pretentious words like “emotional” out of your vocabulary. Let’s use the words from our curriculum.
Could be the point of the story, the way someone told the story, some part that got laughs.
It would be idiotic not to use the parts of the opening that got laughs, we have to find our own way to flag to, but we want to find a way to flag 3, because it’s more efficient. 4-5 are too many to remember, 1-2 is not enough because other people may hopefully use them.
With my initiation line, in an opening there’s chaff (doesn’t bring us anything, words equal to suggestion word), premise (when I can really gel what I found funny in the opening and who,what, where), half-ideas (no premise but at least directing towards what we think is funny off the opening).
If you see immediately that you’re joking, or bringing in your own idea, let it go.
People talk about emotion or relationship, but really just commit to being real. Either that or commit to being peas in a pod which can be helpful and you could be a slight straight man (ala Cheech and Chong), the straight man is the one who gets to explore. You have to be your own unusual thing.
Our opening is the pitch meeting for the sketch show, I wouldn’t pitch something at SNL that I didn’t think was funny. We don’t like to imply that one person brings the whole game, but that funny thing from the monologue is the thing we should heighten and explore.
Why did a scene peter out after the beginning? Because we let the truth of the funny thing go.
Really explore why something is funny, ideas off a suggestion, otherwise why are you doing the opening, you’re not honoring the audience’s ideas and the group mind you just built if you go out there with nothing
You’ve got to give the initiator their real chance to say what they think is funny before laying on your own thing.

HEIGHTEN/EXPLORE
Like stair steps
NOT raising the stakes! Don’t say raise the stakes. For exploring, when we started in Chicago, we were told to raise the stakes in the second beats, it seems to take us to the same places (doctor’s office, white house), INSTEAD: what’s another great place to play this game?
Raising the stakes imply that second beat is better than the first, and that’s not necessarily true.
After Wiig’s Penelope/”the one-upper” they weren’t thinking how to raise the stakes the first time the character premiered for next week, they thought about where else to put her.
What’s another scenario that’s full of potential?
I need another place that has other details (not better, funnier, a lot of potential in this new place/situation).
Second beat may be better based on better handle on the game.
Find what’s funny and make it funnier- heighten
If you heighten without exploring, then we lose the reality, it’s over more quickly.
Explore= figure out why this crazy thing is happening / justify
Exploring allows our scenes to go longer.
The “sillier” something is the quicker the truth runs out.

PLAUSIBLE CRAZY PEOPLE
When I was doing Crossballs, the character debating the real person has to be a lawyer for their absurdity, explaining the premise.
Ex: a guy who kills ducks with a rocks because a guy who’s kill a duck with a gun is a pussy.
It takes longer to get through the scene arming ourselves with more specifics.
The earlier on in a scene, the more grounded and logical I have to be, have those slower builds, because if you heighten too much you play out the scene to end.
I try to give the initiator more respect, so you try to give the initiator more respect, if it’s premise based, you really try to find what the person’s idea is and clue-in on what they’re doing. Sometimes when things get messed up, the second unusual thing is more unusual than the first, so you have to drop the first thing and play the things the audience chooses
Don’t aim to find the flaw in someone’s logic, there are flaws in all logic, just keep heightening and exploring.
Make sure you stick to your guns even if someone questions or calls out your logic.
You’re allowed to be selectively oblivious about one unusual thing but if someone lays on a second unusual thing, it’s bad, but give up and play their thing.
Some people like to juggle two-three games, as the other player in the scene just try to focus on the one most unusual thing. Sometimes organically a new game can come up and you can play that if you heighten enough (not in a Harold).

AVOID THE TERMS EMOTION/RELATIONSHIP WHEN ANALYZING IMPROV
I hate hearing the word emotion, relationship, this is a sketch, not a movie or a film. Who is this person, what do they want from me is acting, we don’t need that, we need base reality, commitment to that, an unusual thing, ability to heighten explore.
Just try to react as yourself in situations and maybe really ask yourself how you’d actually react.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Week Final

April 27, 2012

It’s been a rough week or two for me.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Anyway, my Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Class is now over. I got a lot out of it, I feel like, getting better at drawing premises from openings, really finding the emotional commitment in my harolds that I struggled to find before, learning how to respect the other people in my class and deal with my own expectations of myself. It was all difficult, but in the end, like many things in life, I grew.

As I’ve said here before, the point of writing down these notes and putting them on the internet was that Neil is a performer who is very highly respected, within the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and beyond, who does not teach classes often anymore (he said he would not teach another class here until at least August), whose philosophy I admire and so I thought I could (with Neil’s permission) share.

If I were to take the one thing that I got from this class, it would be to take things personally in scenes. Be real and in the moment and react as you would in life if this was important to you. Doing so will lead you to the sort of emotional commitment that will lend itself to interesting scenes and games that will not be cliched because they will be filtered through the lens of your experience.

That said, that’s my extrapolation.

So here, for the last time, are the notes from our last class. Hastily scrawled, certainly incomplete, almost definitely inaccurate. Use them for what you will.

And thank you to my classmates and especially to Neil, for the experience and the notes.

***

This week try to put it all together:

What we are shooting for is to do truthful high commitment invocations which lead us into truthful emotionally committed scenes and fun games. Commitment is the name of the game.

For second beats, follow the fun. You can follow tangents as damage control, but only do it if it’s the more fun thing, otherwise let’s reinvest in one or both of these characters or go analogous if we earn it.

On Anxiety And “Pressure”: all of us are very concerned about how well we do in our performance or on stage, but it leads to second-guessing and selfish play, you may steam-roll over someone’s ideas or invent. The trick is genuinely to make your scene partner look good and make their ideas look like genius. If you take yourself out of the equation and are really doing that, which is hard to do, then you’ll be doing the best work of your life, even if the thing you did was something your scene partner set up. Then the credit you get is funny, because you’ll be getting credit for other people’s moves, them yours. Because the stitching behind the tapestry you’re showing everyone is everybody helping each other, everyone owns the laughs.

There’s no way to teach that or to make people do that, but if you do that your anxiety will be taken care of.

Warmup: character telephone, match in the moment, not call and response and then match, pass it on.

You want to make sure if your behavior is interesting or funny, we want the philosophy behind it to pass the bullshit test. Just like anytime you’re talking to someone and they are blowing smoke up your ass, is like a weak justification on stage.

The why behind the why- you can always justify something on a surface level, the worst example of which is “because you’re crazy”, But if you give the why behind the why, we get to a playable attitude.

For instance “I like paper because paper is awesome” vs. “I believe in physical things, everything is too impermanent”.

What’s the thing behind “It’s not you, it’s me”. The reason why that’s so cliched is because even if it might be true it doesn’t reveal a deeper philosophy or reason.

When you cease to do what you love or be who you are, that’s one step towards selling out. Object monologue warmup (tossing around a mimed object and telling a truthful story about it) gets you towards remembering truth.

If you’re gifted as sleeping in dog shit, find something that you remember that’s important as opposed to “I like the smell of shit” but if I can convince you that I’m the guy that likes that for an interesting reason (“because I want to get back to animalistic nature”) then we are there.

Do a Harold with invocation then do an  “I believe” Harold. Both characters in a scene should say at some point I believe____. Shouldn’t be inelegant because that is often what game is, a point of view or reaction. Every character that’s a good character can say that

Take big swings for thou art. An invocation gone wrong is when people leaned on silly voice or phrasing. Of course you can rephrase what you already said but if we’re not saying anything new we’re not using it for what it’s good for.

Make sure we’re not playing too glib, even if we are having funny philosophies, make sure to acknowledge reality/the other side even still

When you’ve got a simpler game from the opening, don’t ignore it in favor of other games we’ve played before.

Be careful of treating something that might be close to an improv cliche (candy for drugs, for instance), we can play it, but then we need to treat it even more seriously/personally.

You can’t be resting in thou arts, we should feel like we are increasing our speed and our momentum, not just casually rephrasing things. Take the idea from the mundane to the sublime, take it there with the delivery and the content. When you get to the big ideas, we find things we can play in our piece.

Doing three line scenes where we get “who what where” out is clunky and should not necessarily be how we start scenes, but it’s to make you miss those things when they are going in to your scenework.

I always say to earlier level students that audiences are so happy to hear what they are looking at that they will forgive clunkiness.

In that way, even a clunky explanation is better than a meaningless pattern.

It’s not a rule that we always connect the scenes in the first third beat. Never play for the blackout at the end of your pieces.

The trick of this class is step out and mean business immediately, be emotionally committed and real and then play what’s actually fun, not what you thought would be. Once we’ve got our game, push it and don’t let it die.

 


Neil Casey Advanced Study Notes Week Seven (w/special guest Will Hines)

April 20, 2012

Hey everybody.

Here are the notes for Week Seven of my Neil Casey Advanced Study Class, this week guested by Will Hines. These are also mostly referring to second beats and “the game” specifically.

As always, these are hastily scrawled, mostly inaccurate and incomplete. Use them for what you will.

For what it’s worth, it was a good and enjoyable class for me. Will has a style of noting that really tries to unveil your style of improv. The only thing he asks is agreement and most notes put the onus on him, going so far as to begin many notes and directions with: “help make me a better teacher…”

I also really enjoy his style of play and think of him as one of my favorite teachers.

That said, the notes:

***

I think there are two kinds of second beats where you just do the same thing again a little different like the second verse of a song and that can be fine
Sometimes formulaic., but good because it’s clear and simple
Another second beat can be if this is true then what else is, maybe seeing another part of the world, following the consequences of that world
There’s still time-dash and analogous but other options too.
One type of second beat should be the same way again with new specifics, it makes your long-form feel like it has depth to it
I try to find a moment that’s iconic when doing a “different specifics” second beat, the moment I would put in “the trailer” of that scene.
The way to tell if you did it is the audiences laughs or nods
An “if this, then” second beat,
We coach against going plotting, but plot is a good tool to use if you are taking game with you.
The reason we coach against plot is because too often the audience thinks what could happen, but we want the audience to see our choices make what “did” happen.
TiC- Improv is like driving with a windshield blacked out, only rear-view mirror.
Only something that reflects backwards is satisfying in a second beat.
I’ve heard gasps from the audience because when they make the connection, they love it.
Take the same urgency/energy/atmosphere of that high point in the first beat.
In European Vacation, Eric Idle keeps getting more and more injured, whenever he enters the seem, he’s friendly, it’ll still be a new landmark, but he still gets messed up
That’s the only type of second beat I really see.
Even if it’s different types of fucked up (physically, emotionally, et cetera) its still the same pattern
Another part of the world, playing a similar game or very informed by that game.
If you’re doing the same thing, it’s a challenge, but have better specifics, be funnier.
When you have a script, it’s hard to act like you’ve heard those lines for the first time, make them your own. So is improv, finding lines.
There is something forced and writerly about second beats, but people want it, so it’s good to give it to them.
I’ve never had a class where I talked about openings, second beats, et cetera and it’s like do it this way, it’s like do it and if the audience laughs, know it can work. That’s my lesson.
“Hey everyone get in here” group games can work as second beats but not so well in the group game slot, because we know that a second beat will be planned a bit in advance, so the audience will forgive you for that premise.
When in doubt from the back line, on an empty stage, just jump out there. The improv gods will reward you.
Make sure we are not pushing too hard towards our objectives/goals in a scene. We need to be able to dance back and forth for our scenes to work.
It is bad to ask for an edit in a scene but if somebody does you have to be on it.
In a second beat, make sure to start with your spin on the idea so the audience can get on board.
If you don’t know how to do it, but you can tell me what the central part of the first beat was, I think it’s not terrible to just say that in character to the other principal in the scene.
It’s ok to fight as long as you’re aware of what you’re saying to each other and yes-anding but don’t care about winning the fight, be aware about being sensitive to the dynamic.
Make sure to capture the irony of the first beat, if not the second beat of A Christmas Carol would just be that everything was fine in the town and that Scrooge was nice now
I’ve seem great reality and emotional commitment in this class and choices to drive the scene forward but make sure that you are paying attention in some part of you to the irony of the scene when you are in it.


Finding The Balance

April 17, 2012


This is the video store which I grew up with, well, at least the second or the third.
Previous video stores like Evergreen and Hudson Street Video went out of business in their cavernous depths throughout my West Village upbringing, sings of the changing times even before Netflix, the gentrification of my neighborhood, the transition from VHS to DVD which already then was too much for some places it seems to overcome, the eventual rise of the neighborhood boutiques that would take over the place of my upbringing turning it into yet another mall for tourists, a transmogrification of Bleecker Street from “quaint” to the fetish-izing of that word, just another route to the meat-packing district, the acceptance that the neighborhood I knew is gone in a way.
People have similar complaints about 42nd Street describing its grit, real-ness, it’s trouble pre the early 90s revitalization of it into its current “Disney-fied” incarnation, the place of “bright lights, big city”, but I feel like that must be different as the West Village I knew, transvestite prostitutes or no, was never in need of a “fix”. In all honesty, looking back, we could have still used the video stores.
But this was the last one, World of Video, the place I tried unsuccessfully to maintain a membership at through my film school education and after, which I failed miserably at because I, like so many of the past generation of Americans before me, am epically terrible at returning DVDs, the same reason I no longer take books out from the library (other than the functional illiteracy that comes out of emerging from a world of a structured education).
Going in there, it was full of the type of misanthropes I envied in my youth and feared in the wake of my film school education, people working at a video store, failures of a type in my eyes. Clinging to a past with no foreseeable future, bitter for the sake of what left not to be about.
As I looked over my last entry, I saw (unsurprisingly) how close I feel to the last time I wrote, just in an inverted fashion. As opposed to last week, where I looked back on a week of accomplishments , I look back on this week with the difficulties I’ve faced and as opposed to feeling conquered, I find myself through the looking glass, not worrying, at least initially, about how bad I feel, but how much it’s alright to be ok.
That might sound confusing, I should probably explain. On Friday, I went to a party, got drunk off a flask of Evan Williams I got to avoid the keg provided (finding “alternatives” still a part of my dietary lifestyle) and did what people in such a place are apt to do, I tried drunkenly flirting with people, got upset over stupid things and eventually just got sad walking home (though not crying sad). I felt bad in the moment, but fine the next day, when I had lunch with my family talking about difficult stuff, I took it with grace, being even more “okay” than they were, using my yoga practice for self-kindness and then kindness to others. Saturday, I bombed a show I really cared about, Sunday, I struggled heavily in class and through a sketch show. The only place I could be, I told myself, was where I was, where I am. That is my mantra. We can only be where we are, be in the moment, pay attention, give our all and then forgive ourselves for our shortcomings.
I did a private session with one of my yoga instructors, Sarah Bell, last Friday because I always felt like I was doing things wrong in my practice or at least not as well as I could be. I looked at my downward facing dog, the simple upside-down v-shaped inversion that you see a lot in people who practice yoga and in all of my practice I could never straighten my legs, always bent. I told Sarah my concern and showed her my pose and she asked me, after a moment:
“Alright, would you mind clueing me into what you think is wrong with your downward facing dog?”
“Well,” I replied. “I can never straighten my legs. So I feel like I must be doing something wrong.”
“You’ve been practicing yoga for 6-7 months now. How old are you?”
“24.” I replied.
“24.” She repeated back. “So for 22 of those years you’ve stored tension in your legs and I’ve seen your progress and you’ve improved so much, in what, those 6 or 7 months. Look at yourself in a year, look at yourself in 10 years. Look when others are getting lower back issues. For now, look at yourself with kindness and be proud and be okay.”
And I felt GREAT coming out of that, I felt so happy, just as I felt when after another romantically-blah evening out my friends took me aside to point out how impressed they were.
“Dude,” my friend (who wishes I would refer to him as “my extremely funny friend”) Sebastian told me, looking seriously. “You were just being yourself and goofy. Usually you’re so aggressive, no middle ground, but you were really being chill tonight. Just letting it come to you.”
And it was such a nice gift. Just feeling like I could see myself in my practice, like others could see me. That even in failure, I could notice my improvement, regain balance, see the world and not get bitter.
This morning I was cut from a sketch group I was asked to join, a major accomplishment and opportunity. I had the feeling the cut was coming and voiced that opinion to friends and my roommate Teddy, who didn’t think so, but didn’t deny it either. I did feel terrible as I did this morning, heading to therapy, a process I described to my therapist as the feeling when you get close to your house when needing to use the bathroom: your bowels get tense, your body telling you “Run!” as the discipline with which you held yourself disappears so close to the finish line, as you rush to take an “emotional dump”. My therapist, a less crude person, likened it to getting sick after a big project.
I let out my feelings there in therapy, voiced my concerns, tried to be aware, but my therapist wondered if I was too analytical still. What is the boundary between detachment and self-kindness, what is long enough to be in your emotions?
These are the same questions (as I’ve pointed out repeatedly) that I think we face in improv. There are no “right” moves, but there are moves feel right in the moment, things that are good or bad, ways we learn to trust ourselves and our choices, not second guess ourselves, be more in the moment and less insular. They are things I struggle with, as we all do. But I can only make the choices I can make, which is not for a lack of responsibility (which I think could be alternately called “self-awareness”). So how does one be okay with not being okay?
I feel like that’s what my blog is all about.
I don’t offer an answer. I already was cut from the sketch group I was in. Lots of great things are happening too in my attitude, in the way I look in the world, in the stupid ways that people look or react to me, or even in the opportunities I’m given.
I can think about reasons. I can think about the “whys”. I do in my life try to be mindful and reflective.
But it’s difficult to look critically at self-kindness and be kind when looking at self-criticism, to take the note, make the move, known when to be aggressive with a girl or a job or a group, know when to hang back and wait. A great many people are happy and a great many are not.
It’s confusing this life.
It helps, you know, to talk about it.
***

I don’t much have to say about this except that it was a fun party.
On Saturday, my friends dragged me out to Astoria to my friend Will Quinn’s birthday party at his last-stop apartment shared with a bevy of other comedians from Virginia. It was a “Game of Thrones”-themed party renamed “A Game of Wills” replete with grapes, a cape and some dude holding a foam-core version of Thor’s hammer the Mjolnir, because a more appropriate Game of Thrones reference was not forthcoming.
I, surprisingly to the nerd that I once was/still am, have never seen A Game of Thrones, probably a vestigial grudge left over from when I used to play at the RPG/collectible-card-game store Neutral Ground, where the people who played the Game of Thrones CCG (Collectible Card Game) were even weirder and lamer than the people who played Magic or the incredibly ghetto kids who played “Yu-Gi-
Oh!” an anime-based CCG that somehow tied into a hyper-sexual ancient Egypt.
Anyway, I just showed up in a plaid shirt and got real messed up and silly. Eventually, my friends making fun of me suggested I fight the other kid in our other group of friends (a Fordham contingent), a kid named Adam Twitchell who usually did not party and so was being real goofy out-of-his-mind, while I just sat outside on the patio in a lawn chair, enjoying the late-spring breeze in my anti-social tendencies. What began as me grabbing the foam-core Mjolnir and just randomly hitting Adam eventually devolved into us slow dancing to “I’ll Make Love To You” by Boyz II Men in order to make up for the aggression.
Like I said, this all is a small thing, but I feel like usually on a Saturday Night I’d be out seeing or doing improv shows or at nearby bars talking about improv or thinking about it or even just walking, heading home, as I do so often now.
So, it was nice to just get out to the outer boroughs, drink something and be silly in a crowd of similarly aged people also not knowing what they were doing with their lives, peppered by occasional personal conversations and some extensive chair sitting.
Adam, I’m sure this will be a treasured memory for you, for all time.
***

I’ll make this as brief as possible.
This was a very embarrassing moment for me.
Hanging out with some of my very funny improviser/writer friends in the improv ghetto around 30th-26th Sts bet 6-8th avenues (further if you count rehearsal spaces), everyone seems obsessed with the new Panera.
It’s a throwback to people’s suburban existences. It offers ample seating and bathrooms for an area low on those things. It’s relatively cheap, people bring things to your table, no tip necessary. It can be difficult to spend even 10 dollars there.
Still, it always looked goddam awful to me and I would usually bring in my balled-up Faicco’s sandwich when my friends would go.
This time though, I bit the bullet and ordered a “Thai Chopped Chicken Salad” just hoping it would not be awful fake meat like Au Bon Pain.
It was not fake meat. It was relatively low-calorie. It was very filling.
But man was it average.
I guess guys, if you need something to eat.
Or if you find yourself in a desperate situation.
You make the best of it.
But it’s like when you walk in to Chili’s and you hear about things being “fire-roasted” and stuff, you can at least somewhat imagine that people are doing those things in a Chili’s, even though they are obviously not.
But definitely not in a Beige-clad place like Panera.
It did have real chicken, peppers, edamame and some nut sauce though.
And maybe, for some people that’s enough.
What has my life become?
***
PANERA
Thai Chopped Chicken Salad (w/ “fire-roasted” edamame, red peppers, lettuce, peanut sauce, etc…)- $8.29
7th Avenue bet. 28th and 29th Sts.
1 to 28th St.


Why Am I Such A Downer?

April 12, 2012

On Monday, 4 separate people came up to me and asked me what the matter was and I didn’t know what to tell them.

More disconcerting than whatever was going on in my heart was the fact that it was so readily apparently, obvious to 4 different people, so urgent that not only did they notice it, they felt the need to come up to me directly in order to have some sort of intervention.

And what was that?

My hairline? A source of easy, venial obsession. I noticed the other day a spot on my frontal scalp hair would not grow and which I keep trying to sweep to the side or not notice, an easy signifier but not something worthy of a massive self-immolating breakdown to the point that people are concerned.

My weight? Still a point of contention for me, so much so that wandering around on Monday I considered talking to a nutritionist, a medical doctor (something suggested by my father after I told him the difficulty I had had opening  tough window) or downloading a fitness app, only to finally just literally google “What should I weigh” only to discover from the rote internet that I was literally at my ideal weight or, said differently by a tipsy girl at the bar last night: “Really, you’ve lost a lot of weight Nick since I first met you, don’t lose anymore or you’ll be too skinny.” Grace here is not imminent because it is something I chose to change about myself (thus a point of vulnerability) but at least validation from a stupid google search proves the insanity of my inadequacy there.

Romantic difficulties? These have tortured me since forever, so there’s no big change there, except maybe sometimes feeling like a dirtbag. Going in to my therapist’s on Tuesday, she posited that the issue regarding my weight and my romantic difficulties were inter-connected and thus feeding each other in terms of worry, that “you were wearing your extra weight as an excuse, a way to protect yourself or not take responsibility for your difficulty in finding someone compatible with you”. After all if I had the excuse that there was something physical I could change about myself, I could let myself off the hook for the more difficult work of maybe just accepting myself more, being more okay with myself, just being a happier person.

I gave a note the other day to the Level One improv class that I Big Brother (read: like a TA in college) that was given to me by Peter McNerney: “A great gift that you can give to your scene partner is being natural, not being worried, not trying to “get it right”. Because when you get yourself in that headspace of ‘getting it right’, you close yourself to the opportunities of what the scene can become.” An easy note, a difficult one to accept. If I want to be more desirable, more fun to play with, find some more balance or okay-ness in myself. Don’t try to blame percentage points of my own weight (“If I lost 1 pound would I be one pound closer to  a girlfriend?” cries flawed and silent logic) but instead just do the work of trying to enjoy myself more, be happier, be more in the moment and ready.

In my yoga classes I take (again Young Nick cries out in douchebaggery at present Nick’s invocation of yoga), the teacher will often tell us in poses, “Don’t look down at the ground. Looking down at the ground may serve you in life, probably not, but maybe. But here, in practice, look up.” Like in yoga, in life, in improv, just trying to stay positive, not seeming worried, being affected but staying up until something important comes along, well, it’s important.

So I went into my therapist and confessed like I would a confessional the different ways I felt like I was undermining myself romantically, the ways I felt inadequate or sad or frustrated. And my teacher Christina Gausas is right that “after a certain while, navel-gazing becomes about ego”, in the way that people have pity-parties as a way to attract attention and receive external validation, but it also felt good just to be explicit about what you feel about your life, to be expressive to say your emotions in a way that they could be exposed and then mastered. In my work with my coach Sean Taylor, one of his most frequent notes to me and my teammates is just to “speak your thoughts”. In life we are frequently coy because we fear the consequences and certainly as I look back on a youth of speaking rawly out of either extremes of speaking out of intense emotionality or saying nothing that that is not the best way to live, but damnit, if you can just talk to another person, birth your thoughts and insecurities into the world, make your unconscious or conscious mind exposed for a moment, what a difference that makes.

To reiterate a note from last week from Neil Casey- “We are that special breed of people who can talk about what they mean on stage”. Or, that way, in life.

People ask why I write this blog, why I write things so personal here and it would be easy to say that it is therapeutic (and it is), but the truth is as it has always been, is that storytelling is a craft which is both a practice and a way of attaining a sort of mastery over the self. In connecting the dots in my own life on paper, I see my own patterns, forgive myself for my own mistakes, make manifest what is only insecurity when it floats around in my brain. When I talked to my friend Matt Weir this morning, who is very handsome and tall and an inveterate improv lady-killer, he was telling me how important it was to have that moment “where you realize you are in the presence of someone or something important”, where you take that time to recognize the importance of the moment and not blow it off, but try not to worry about it.

And then the paradox of yoga, improv, acting, what have you: To care about the things that are important to you. To consider them without worrying about them. To show the appropriate amount of attention to things that drive you without letting them consume your life or become yet too much for you. Yesterday in my groovy friend Emily Shapiro’s “Yoga For Freaks and Geeks”, a cheap yoga class she runs for improvisers and comedians, Emily talked about “Tree Pose”, that classic pose in yoga where you try to put one bent leg high upon the other, balancing on the straight leg: “Maybe today you get high on your leg, maybe you’re just down by your ankle or even toes on the floor. Just try not to push your knee and hurt yourself. Wherever you are, that’s cool!” the last part intoned with her own goofy lilt. Finding balance in your life, your worries, your improv, everything.

And then that difficult part embodied by Emily’s cool-weird-girl lilt- Being in that place then, of “That’s cool!”

So there you are, people who came up to me, worriedly on Monday. My psyche exposed. I’m worried about my weight sometimes, my improv not so much right now (I had three great shows last week, pretty cool!) and my love life, happiness, balance, quite a lot. Sometimes I fall out of that pose, on to the floor and sometimes it gets me down not being where I want to be and I dive into that place of self-criticism, desperation or even the crappy validation-projection that happens looking on online dating sites or into the eyes of another person at a bar.

But even those days are fine, somewhere along the way.

Even those moments are fine as long as they are manifest and talk-able.

Because I think a scumbag is someone who isn’t honest with themselves.

And I think me, I just have a receding hairline.

And that will have to do.

***

It was a feast fit for a blood test.

As I have mentioned on this blog before, I suffer from psoriasis, one of the nerdist things one can suffer from.

Psoriasis makes you covered in terrible like scabs and crap and rough patches, it can be brought about by stress the environment or nothing, be dormant in you forever or make you into a freak of nature, standing around like some 50s Ray Harryhausen creation.

Luckily I take pills that control it for me, just leaving me with something that resembles but isn’t dandruff and a couple weird spots here and there. But, the medicine that I take does have all sorts of side effects causing me to get blood tested every now and then just to make sure that my liver isn’t failing or any of that crap.

And that also means, once in a while, in a while, I can’t eat anything for a full 12ish hours.

This would be easy for most men, but not a hypoglycemic crazy like me, oh no.

Between the waiting, the daze of getting up and the unfriendly people at the NYU Medical Center Pharmacy, by the time I have gotten my extraction given and on gone, band-aid placed, I am in a blur of food-crazed starving and blind anger searching like a sasquatch seeking brains!

But that old conundrum, one that used to plague me!

By the time I get done with these things it is ALWAYS 10:30-11:30am! The nether-zone of eating!

Too late for breakfast with it’s strictures and conventions (see other rants against breakfast on this blog) and too early for the nearby go-to Indian joints of Curry Hill (near to NYU-Med) to be open.

So it was in this way that I found myself trying out for the first time a place on Lexington that I never would have gone to ordinarily, one of the anonymous joints that line that street with adverts for sub-par lunch buffets or hot plate fare, all pale imitations of my beloved Dhaba Lunch Buffet which opened stunningly at noon! Noon! Too late!

Anjappar Chettinad is a South Indian restaurant, a breed that is usually vegetarian (and thus constantly advertised for NYC as being kosher) but this one advertised on the window that they featured “thalis”, the south indian tradition of a meal comprised of several small plates, but with non-vegetarian options as well. I almost opted for the North Indian special off their lunch menu, not knowing what anything really was, before a kind look from my waiter steered me back saying “If you come to a South Indian restaurant, it would make sense to try the South Indian food, no?”

It did.

The plate was deceptively huge with a chicken curry still on the bone, a delicious spicy vegetable curry with cauliflower, the precise makeup with which was unrecognizable to me, some biryani rice (plain) which I tried to have little of even though it was exquisitely spiced, raita and finally the bread.

The bread was the best part, my deepest regret, my greatest pleasure.

It was neither naan nor poori nor any of the indian breads I am used to. It was a heavier, flaky, pull-apart bread soaked with butter that felt rich and full absorbing curry fully with every bite. I was transported.

I ate so much more than I ever though possible.

Luckily Yoga was harder than I thought it would be with Emily Shapiro.

So I felt some sort of atonement.

And also drank some Diet Coke (sorry Emily :P)

***

ANJAPPAR CHETTINAD

South Indian Executive Lunch Special (Non. Veg)- $12.95 (15 w/tax+tip)

Lexington Avenue bet.  27th and 28th Sts.

6 to 28th St.

***

A final addendum, food wise.

I am addicted to those fucking hot wraps from Pret A Manger.

It is embarrassing.

I blame Christina Gausas who, while lovely and amazing and talented, has an unnatural predilection and love for that place that like most of her advice, forced me to follow it.

The Buffalo Chicken Wrap and The Falafel and Red Peppers Wrap are inexplicably excellent and relatively inexpensive (like 6-7 dollars). They are low in calories and (if you give them five or more minutes to digest) very filling, disturbingly so considering their low calorie count.

Now, I should be clear. I should hate Pret A Manger. They are a chain, the enemy of New York City business and innovation. Low calorie foods are stupid and lame and pre-packaged hot wraps? God, why don’t I go to fucking Denny’s?

But I can’t help it now.

I dream of getting fucked up and eating twelve of them, wrap after wrap.

Damn you, Christina Gausas. Damn you, Pret A Manger.

You have turned me in to a corporate shill.

 


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Six

April 11, 2012

A rough one.

This week we did a character wheel exercise focussing on second beats off of a character monologue and Neil was not pleased. None of us did particularly well and even the Harolds were a little bit of a slog with some second beats getting restarted (including one I did). We then did a final tag-out exercise like a La Ronde to build off patterns and blow-out games, focussing on taking “big swings”.

It felt difficult to get into the groove of it and everyone seemed dejected leaving. Some times are just like that.

I felt fine, in going with my notes from last week, knowing that even if I performed less well this week, I could feel the stretch. I felt like I was getting second beats drilled more into me.

Anyway, here are the notes from this week, abbreviated, hastily-scrawled, typo-ridden, mostly inaccurate.

Use them for what they are worth.

***

Strong emotional commitment will carry the day in your first beats and invocation.

Today is about encouraging simpler stronger second beats and then simpler stronger third beats

Harold exercise without connections

Last line/first line edits: I like editing on the lines, I think it’s nice to pivot on that line, it feels like we’re building a chain between the scenes.

Playing real vs. making things important: think back to park bench of truth

If you and I sit somewhere and have a conversation, something playable will come up if you’re being aggressive about observing and seizing things.

The artifice of playing it real is yes-anding, because if we were in real life we can just sit around and not doing anything

If you’re at my house and we are sitting around and making iced tea, we can sit at that in real life, but as improvisers we have to provide verbal information into the scene while still being in the reality

Sometimes if my big note is play it real, I’m not noting people on plateauing and not adding things. I’m not going to barge in and say “yes, and” but if you’re playing it real and not getting to funny you are probably not yes-anding

Follow your instinct about how big of a choice to make, don’t sell out the first thing you make, just trust yourself. There is no such thing as too big of a choice, but such a thing as a false choice, if something is contrived and shoe-horning a sitcom premise. Make sure it’s actually flowing from what’s going on on stage. If I step out with you and have a moment with you it sucks if I back out of that to do an initiation.

Threes going to be something that’s already there when we step out together and it’s easy to see people reject that, hard to point out what’s right.

What’s always going to be new is you and me looking at each other talking about what’s on our minds.

Why is it that when I say characters people do half-crosseye and insist on playing morons?

You can play characters that are dumber than you, but have a good reason. Your instinct shouldn’t be to knock 10 IQ points off.

Play someone you know, our instincts to play characters is to play goons.

If I’m an idiot then my fundamental game is that I’m an idiot and you can’t play anything else

A real blockhead is an unusual thing, they don’t exist in real life

People say I wanna play a big character and so you play stupid

Note on second beats:

We don’t want to get vaguer with a specific game, we want to get more specific with what we are doing.

And don’t miss the beats, the builds of first beats.

We don’t want to be second-beat robots, if you expressed something in a certain way in the first beat, that will probably be a big part of your second beats.

It’s ok to play unoriginal games, you just have to act the hell out of it, because if you are doing it the same way we’ve seen it done before then we lose interest.

We have to honored what we’ve been labeled with, one way or another.

We don’t want to do second beats where we are more detached about the things that are cool, we want to be even more in the shit.

I’m trying to draw out of you second beats that peel the onion away as opposed to pass them around

I want to do second beats that you do first beats that are hit or miss but second beats you know what’s coming so really hit that pitch

I would rather you guys la ronde or push your second beats, if the move is lateral. If your second beat isn’t clearing the bar that your first scene met, then work it

We want clear, simple more hard-hitting attacks on the game

If not, let’s take group ownership w/ tag-outs and walk-ons to mold things


The Apple Of…

April 6, 2012

I eat apples now.

Walking around New York City in the all-encompassing want-to-eat after Yoga, meandering between classes, rehearsals and such, I want something sweet.

The chocolate “bark” I keep in my bag for dessert-y things is quickly depleted through sharing and late-night, mid-day and other cravings. I want something portable and I don’t crave anything sugary due to the calming effects of the dark chocolate.

So I go for apples. A new development in my life.

But I find myself needing one to eat.

As referenced by friends and even in the New Yorker not so long ago, this is not as easy as it might seem. For some reason, between childhood when I ate apples enjoying their simple sweetness and the current moment, skipping over the many years when I did not eat the fruit (who would eat an apple if you could eat a Candy Center Crunch from Good Humor?), apples seem to have either vastly declined in quality (a talked about rumor) or my taste buds have changed significantly (true as well). Now, unlike the daily banana that with a piece of Babybel cheese consists of my breakfast, I cannot just pick up an apple anywhere.

Myst has to be made about finding an organic store, sifting through or discovering the right kind of apple (Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, the list goes on) and then spending the 1,2,3 dollars just to try to get to something that tastes like it’s sweet and edible as opposed to mealy like the Red Delicious or Granny Smith has been reduced to.

It’s a strange task, but one suited to me.

After all, I’m a chaser.

To make the obvious metaphor, I chase around girls, trying to find the balance. For all the roller-coaster highs and lows of comedy, I feel like I’m getting a lot of attention in my small corner of my small community for the work that I am doing (despite how much I still beat myself up for not being good enough or getting it right, in a direct proportion of about 3-4 bad rehearsals shows-to about-2-3 good ones). My therapist continues to compliment me on my looks, as does the old woman Marie who wakes me up every morning grunting up the stairs (“You’re beautiful.” she tells me, when I see her on the doorstep). I had someone text me for a date last week out of the blue that seemed fun and fine. I even have people tell me at the bar come up and say they “like my face” which is pretty cool, but in flirty situations, I still don’t know who I am.

As I try on being mildly aggressive, it’s like putting on a character in a scene. When you touch my arm, are you touching it because that’s the way you are or you want me to touch you back? How much contact is too much? Or how do I even gauge how you feel about me? Now that I’m not so hung up on crushes (or am I?), I can be better about backing off, not hanging my hat on one thing. But then if I’m just flirting, how do I read your mind or confidently make moves when I don’t know how much to put on, how little?

I feel like I get kind of creepy when I talk about this stuff and, of course, I assume it is something I will learn at some point (bringing things back to yoga, I didn’t assume with that I’d be a prodigy over night, much to my aid) but it goes to life and improv and everything. In situations of comfort or elevated status we can be comfortable and otherwise not.

An improv example: this past week I did a rehearsal with my friends Teddy and Sebastian. Both of them are incredibly funny, talented people who have had a lot of opportunities thrown their way because of how good they are, how hard they work. Our coach is Louis Kornfeld, an improviser I have amazing respect for and I get into the room and I just choke and choke repeatedly. My friends are being hilarious, getting tons of laughs, making nice, natural choices. I am talking quickly, unnaturally, sounding worried. Telling people who they are. It takes me all the way until the end of rehearsal to get out of this place of tension.

A counter example: I go into the class where I big brother (read: T.A. the class) and help teach the students exercises and I do great, feel super-natural and when I make mistakes I don’t sweat it. I got to do a show last night on the Magnet mainstage, that I was so tired and burned out for, I had just had a class I had done terribly in right before it and had no rehearsal and destroyed it. Everyone at the bar was talking about how funny I was, coming up to me, shaking my hand. It’s improv so that show is gone forever, but for that night, it was mine.

When I find myself in a place of comfort or not, when a girl stares into my eyes and tells me “you know people really like you around here” or grasps my hand or something, or when I just have no idea who someone is to me and so act naturally, without as much self-regard, I tend to do better. The same as improv, dating, life, job interviews, god… But when I feel that pressure to perform, whether it be on track to team auditions, or just in a room full of people I respect (or a girl I have a crush on) it can be easier to find myself in that place of self-doubt, of instant self-judgement. Crippled.

This happens often. As I’ve said, I’m a chaser of things, formerly dreams (replaced by “doing the work”), sometimes girls, still constantly: approval.

I still seek it out and even in that seeking, find myself lost (a cliche, but…)

In a great speech Michael Delaney gave to my improv class two weeks ago, he talked about people auditioning for Harold Teams at the UCB theater and talked about the priorities of these people in comedy:

“They all want to get on Saturday Night Live, right?” He said. “I think that’s honorable, that’s an honorable goal. But I think it’s a shame when people miss the opportunities they could find along the way while they’re hurtling so quickly towards their goals.”

Because isn’t that the trick of it? Just slowing down and noticing. Seeing what happens, being open, even as you have a want?

In improv, pretending you don’t know you’re funny, that you have no idea what you’re doing, so that you can accept and give laughter?

In acting, “pretending you’re not pretending”.

In dating, seeming like you’re not needy for long enough for you to both admit that you are, in a way that’s hopefully mutually manageable?

I’ve walked around New York City a bunch. I’m less worried about my weight.

I’ve eaten quite a few apples.

Maybe it’s just fun, finding my type.

Or having a show.

Or going with overwrought metaphors.

For one post or two.

***

I feel like for most of my food discoveries, they could just all be chalked up to: “What can I say? I was hungry.”

I had noticed a hole-in-the-wall called “Meatball Obsession” a few times, sticking up near the PATH train on my way/walk up toward the improv ghetto from down near my house.

The proximity to mass-transit along with the specificity and tinyness of the location all contributed to my interest and one semi-hungover morning before class I decided to just sit at a Starbucks waiting, waiting for it to open.

It claimed to be the home of the “meatball-in-a-cup” and indeed it was, with various balls retrieved from crock pots with toppings administrated liberally.

There was a sandwich option which I did not avail myself of, but I was happy to report that the cup was full and nourishing.

I got the turkey meatballs in a “double” which were great (though my mother’s remain the gold standard), filled with bread crumbs and light with thyme for flavoring. I also opted for the Genoa topping at an extra buck which added toasted pine-nuts, shaved parmesan and some nice extra virgin olive oil I saw to the top of my meatballs coated with “sunday sauce”.

The dipping bread was delicious, dangerous, unexpected. Strips of parmesan-coated Foccacia already placed swimming in the sauce. I ate only one before throwing the other one out in a task that took too much willpower and a lot of fear.

Apparently they had opened that week so I felt pretty cool.

“You are.” They told me, looking me in the eyes.

And then I made out with the cashier.

***

MEATBALL OBSESSION

Double Turkey Meatball Cup w/Genoa Toppings (Shaved Parmesan, Pignolis, EV Olive Oil)- $8.71

6th Avenue bet 13th and 14th Sts.

123FL, PATH to 14th St.


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