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.

 

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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.


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


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Five

April 4, 2012

Ah man, I killed it this class and this show.

Coming off last week where Neil was sick and everybody was so depressed about him not liking us that they wanted to form a practice group just out of desperation, it was nice to have a week where I felt good about my performance.

But a note about that, even before.

My friend (and excellent improviser) Jed Teres recently re-posted an article he read about a frustrated writer working in publishing. (EDIT: realize not all of you may be able to see this link, so here is a picture of the page) He talked about how much the writer hated his job seeing these shitty manuscripts in his pile and how it eventually gave him writer’s block too just being in that place of anger. He only was able to get through when he was able to realize that there was no reason to be angry at these people and that in fact he was externalizing his own insecurity on to them.

In improv and in life, we judge other people harshly because we are very hard on ourselves. As long as we do the work and are trying and we see others do the same, there is no reason for harsh judgement (probably even not then).

So regardless that I felt awesome after this show or that Neil praised the fuck out of me, I should get to that place where I’m happy having a shit-class, maybe not immediately, maybe not even the next day, but I’m happy for that place to grow from. I don’t go and blame my fellow improvisers or blame myself, I show kindness to all involved. I thank myself and others for doing practice in this body at this time.

When that day comes I will know that I am a better improviser and probably a better person, in that power to be ok and learn.

Anyway, here are the notes for week five, as always, abridged, incomplete, often incorrect, abbreviated, scrawled hastily.

Use them for what they are worth.

I’ve also bolded a few things this week, looking over them.

-n

***

Today we are working on the idea of who gives a shit while we are improvising and digging for “because” in our scenes.

You can phone in a game you’ve done before and get away with it but why?

The good stuff is when we are not just playing a funny/not funny pattern in a vacuum (you’re the guy who loves buttons, but who cares?)

The question is how do we avoid the instinct to play empty patterns

Answer: always bring things back to emotional core or philosophy of a character.

Maybe guy loves buttons because he loves campaign buttons, middle school political involvement

Way we get from boring to interesting is by getting to personal involvement

Which gives me the right as a director to ask who gives a shit during your sets if we get into those pointless conversations

Because we don’t want to see people juggling robotic concepts between us, it fails as theater, a bad bit, no heart or meaning.

We play patterns that could pass for game but instead end up being nothing.

We will play Harolds today where everything has to be justified

Chicago calls us jokey and we call them based solely on performance and there are truths and fallacies in both. They place faster than even us now and we have some shows that play slowly.

But I will miss Let’s Have A Ball. It’s nice to do two person scenes, really dig in to the relationships and know no one will walk through the door.

I think 4 is perfect size for an improv group. Twoprov you need a lot of balls, group mind. The things that nice about improv is surrendering to group mind by checking your baggage, but in two-prov the amount of effect that any little thing has on you will be brought to the show.

I only feel two-prov that I am comfortable with is someone I’ve worked with for 5 years (i.e: Ryan Karels)

How do you play with honor when this is the only time you get to perform? How do you play nobly when you know this is the one time you’re in something in a month? How does the selfish bastard not come out when you’re putting in cash?

Answer: It’s like being in a relationship or a family, you’ve got to be willing to just play support of that’s what the group needs.

I don’t think that our whole system of getting together and being the sum of our parts  works well with most two prov.

8 person thing is artificial, based on class size, but works. I still think 4 is perfect number.

Neil Casey- “Indie foursomes. I endorse them. Let’s see more of them on our stage them. Blog that.”

I do twoprov with people I don’t know for bar sets but it would be easier rolling with another person.

In your improv, you’re always going to fall short of the ideal, get easy/cheap laughs, you just have to do the work and keep trying 

Its when people settle into it that’s hard. It’s that you never stop the effort. It’s impossible to do the perfect thing, but it’s when people are satisfied with that, that it’s disappointing.

I totally reject improv as therapy or melodrama

But what we do does mean you have to tap into memories/emotions

Because if you be fake or impression then it will ring false

As actors or performers we have to be willing to remember instead of invent

A good improviser has to be able to pull from emotion, we develop an intolerance for people who do weak civilian bits as part of their personality

A lot of people get away of being full of shit but when you put that on stage it rings extremely false

Rather than playing a left brain pattern or an imitation of another scene, invest with the emotion of a memory, imbueing it with that, will give it that voice that you have that no one else could give.

I remember buttons as running for president because that’s what I have.

It’s not therapy, that’s bs, but being as much of yourself to the table. If you’re being broken up with, remember the last time you got dumped or whatever.

True-story invocation- you imagine whatever is closest to you about this object

Improv is not therapy, but how you play believably is recall things that are true to us

Those scenes where impenetrable characters argue about nonsense, I want to avoid

If a kid is being annoying, react emotionally. Everyone has their breaking point. Sometimes, our instincts are to be nice to play it real, but if a line is asking for anger or annoyance, play it truthfully, show the emotion you might suppress in real life.

We want our character to play realistically while we want to be funny.

The template I always want to avoid, is when we are in one of those scenes when we are discussing nonsense as if it was something, acknowledge it is nothing.

Don’t treat something as important when it is not.

Your philosophy doesn’t have to be great as a justification, just what you can get

I don’t care until you drill down until something that interests and what interests me is the truth

When you have a strong emotional choice that doesn’t make sense, the game will be rooted in how you make it make sense.

When you find yourself in a scene when things don’t make sense, keep asking yourself why and you’re more apt to get to something.

Don’t let people stand out there running out of lyrics in hot-spot, same thing in Harolds.

How we express ourselves via specifics is an interesting pattern/game. It’s not robots and zombies, it’s slice of life. People constantly express their real emotions through proxies. People can’t be honest so they talk about money, where to eat, et cetera

How many times do I say I want something to care about? A dead dog?

I’ve never had anyone told me I have a small dick or saying that they are getting fat, because people in relationships are much more cruel to each other.

There’s a Louis CK video where he’s talking about George Carlin saying I did the same act for 15 years and it sucked because it was his little observations but then he started throwing them out every year and if you do that your cute observations go away and eventually all you have are your balls, things that are attached/true to us. 

We get to be that special class of people that gets to replicate a reality most people don’t have: talking about real emotions that are true.

Del- the smallest emotional discovery is better than the best invented idea

When you start bringing up things that are true real, people respond

Bill Hicks- If you get on stage then you have supply and demand covered, but I’d you’re trying to be something else then you’re trying to be a commodity, if you’re yourself no one else can give me that. 

If my game is that I’m apathetic it’s incumbent on the backline to give you more and more to be increasingly apathetic about.

Lessening the strangeness of other people’s behavior, while giving the same emotional reaction can be a good second beat

Why Grandma’s Ashes is so good if someone initiates a second beat dumbly we all get on board to support someone’s ideas

I hate to watch shitty scenes where is whiny people complaining about nothing.

I’d rather see a scene about an abusive domineering relationship than another scene about bickering talking about nothing.

One of my favorite things about improv are the moments when we earn making up nonsense. Be sure to seize them.

***

I won’t share the group notes because I try to leave personal notes out of here but I did a very silly run of scenes about a guy who wanted a piggyback ride very seriously and Neil pointed to it as being great because it was a super-dumb (but real ala R. Crumb) idea played with super emotional-commitment. He also talked about the important of emotional commitment in the Invocation as an opening to bring that same level of emotional commitment to our Harolds. I’m sure we will keep working on that.

One last note from the end of our Harolds, from Neil:

***

I have one souvenir, for you.

Michael Delaney- Connections, Callbacks at the end of a Harold: It’s all dessert. You can have a great meal without them. Don’t force them if they don’t come naturally or aren’t earned. I’d rather see new scenes or unconnected third beats than false connections.

For second beats, clear simple game should move you, don’t out-clever yourself!

You’re all clever enough to do analogous, but why do it unless necessary, there’s no greater glory in them.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Four

March 29, 2012

Ugh, guys, this was a rough one.

Not a lot of notes here. Neil was sick and we did two fairly terrible Harolds at the top of class where we had to do each others second beats. These Harolds caused Neil to sigh so much that someone actually is trying to start up a practice group called “So Neil Doesn’t Sigh At Us”.

We then did an exercise drilling second-beats, doing three different second beats off a source scene.

For my personal struggles, I did a tag-out in the Harold where my move was either not understood or unclear, which hasnt happened to me in a long time and which caused Neil to note me hard.

I was even stiff in the second beats, not initiating any of them and basically letting my partner define and contextual games.

I even had a freak out on stage as a put-upon mom during a bad group game that drew concerned looks.

I’m feeling really good today after writing the last blog post, so I won’t beat myself up too much, but man. Geez.

Anyway, here are the notes. Hastily scrawled. Mostly inaccurate. Use them as you will.

-Nick

***

Today, take a break from commitment and focus on game
Drill second beats. So that you focus on game in second beats, as opposed to plot or fun character patterns that ucan just get you by.
When you are doing an interview opening, if they are being honest, be on their side

Everyone loves to initiate scenes with dead dogs no one cares about, but people don’t care enough to sell it.
How would you really react to grief/tragedy, let’s see it.
If you make a move and a person doesn’t react the way you want them too, do it harder or roll with it, don’t freeze.
Don’t play characters who are morons, play to the top of your intelligence means play characters who are at least as smart as you. Otherwise, if we’re playing dumb people who are emotionally impenetrable, commenting on the situation without being invested, we’re just going to be doing bad improv.
What’s the emotional reality of this scene? Act like you would or justify it.
If you’re in a scene and nothings going on, decide what is going on. Don’t be too willing to let things drop.
If you touch on something dark, commit to it, don’t back away. We can all see it when you apologize for your choices.
It’s constantly going to happen that the two of us are going to be in two different dimensions in scenes. It’s what we do that matters.
If you make a move that I don’t understand I will make you explain it to me and if you don’t then I will label it explicitly, just to make sure we know where we are/who we are/whats going on.
The most important thing is playing relatable characters on stage. I don’t care how funny it is if it’s bullshit.
I’ve seen this become a thing of college-educated white people doing funny voices on stage and it makes me ashamed to feel this is what I spent my life on.
Heightening stakes to crazy places in second beats can seem forced or too big as opposed to putting a fine point on what was funny in the first beat.
I want to see you working all the time.
It’s perfectly fine to have flawed first beats, but you have to be smart and forward with what you bring from the first beats.
We do second beats so we can do the perfect version of our first beat, it’s why we teach the Harold.
In the best case, it allows you to pick up what the audience loved after a respite.
But, in the more common case, you’re getting a second chance to attack that game in a way we didn’t before.
A lot of time our instincts are to make a lateral moves or mad-lib it, it’s not something we do for the hell of it, it’s for a second chance.
Try and sum up the headline of what was funny about your first beat.
The way you sum it up is unique to you, there’s wrong if it doesn’t sum it up but your sense of humor defines that.


Feel The Burn

March 28, 2012

I talk a lot about yoga nowadays, which I still believe firmly makes me into some sort of douchebag but that said:

Often times in my life, it feels like improv, yoga, dating, living, just walking around on the street, is all just a journey towards self-acceptance and the accompanying tension and struggle of that journey.

Put in a different way, by the great improviser David Razowsky (among others), denial is the source of all suffering.

The way we want to be or imagine ourselves versus seeing clearly where we are and are surrounding, being present in the moment, is the tension of existence.

And it’s painful and difficult to notice how aware you are, how present you are, and to try to make yourself more so.

Some of us are tighter than others, I can’t even do a decent downward-facing-dog because my hamstrings are too tight or are decent chair pose, because Frank thinks I’m too weak and my teacher thinks I might have too much tension.

Or, to pull backwards, It can be difficult for me to be confident in improvised scenes because I’m often not confident in life and my choices, it can be difficult for me to “be in the moment” listening to people and absorbing what they have to say (in scenes, life, dating) because it’s not a skill I’ve always used, it’s a “tight” muscle.

All of this is fine, we all have our limitations as humans, our own stretching to do. But not being present, wanting to be somewhere else, being desperate, judging or hating ourselves, is a slippery slope to despair.

And all of this is too vague. Some examples:

This past weekend, I auditioned for Harold teams over at the UCB. Those of you who know me know it is sometimes a place of stress for me (I still get rejected for even classes there all the time, take that reality-star pseudo-fame). I had decided long ago that the Magnet was the place that I loved and getting to work with Christina Gausas in her classes and shows, learning her style. Harold teams weren’t a priority for me, heck I didn’t even like Harold Night for the most part (Neither did they apparently, since they broke up most of the teams while I was writing this). But, the thought is you’d be crazy not to audition, at least to get the experience. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has a lot of exposure and can be a good place to perform and there is much to be learned from any performance opportunity. I decided I would be fine with the auditions, because I didn’t want it, unlike some people in the comedy community, for whom getting on a team there is the be-all end-all next-step for them in their ascendance to greatness. I told myself I was ok.

But I wasn’t. As the audition came up, I got gradually more stressed. I wasn’t too stressed before the audition and even going in felt like I did fairly well. But after the audition as I talked to friends and they seemed overjoyed, I felt overwhelmed by failure. Even if we didn’t know who made teams, I wasn’t as good as them. Who was I here? Why did I care so much when I told myself I didn’t care, when I didn’t even love all of UCB, this stressful place for me? The truth, as my father told me over a turkey burger before the audition, was “that you do care so you should just stop lying to yourself about it”.

And what I realized, walking back down along lower 6th avenue to write this blog post, was that I did care because I wanted their approval BUT even more than that (explain the explanation!) I wanted their approval because still in me there is so much that isn’t ok with myself, so much that isn’t self-confident, that wants someone to tell him that he is great and that everything will be ok.

And what’s more than this and this is the most difficult thing to say of all:

THAT. IS. FINE.

Ultimately, do I want to be an insecure person? No! I would like to be less of one, at least. I have girls constantly telling me how much they hate “weakness” or “men with no balls”, just for instance. But we all have our own places we are tight, our own places to stretch, our own progress that can be made from where we are. If I have a core of insecurity and I know that, guess what?! It’s the fist, million-time-th-better-step to being less insecure! Just knowing where you are and then stretching from that place, trying on more confidence, little by little. Doing the work and being satisfied.

At the end of my Neil Casey Advanced Study class yesterday I had a terrible class where I couldn’t make choices, another player on stage didn’t understand my move and we sat in the shit we had collectively taken on stage and I just performed generally poorly. And yet I knew I had done the work so I tried to feel good, I knew I had identified weaknesses and stretched them.

When we are practicing yoga, or working out or running or whatever physical activity we do to strengthen our bodies, we know we do well because our bodies literally thank us through releasing endorphins telling us that we are helping them, physically MAKING us feel great! But when we work our minds, our souls, there is no accompanying flow of endorphins, no hints to make us be okay with the stretch, the tear, the weakness we have endured, so insted of thanking ourselves, I judge myself and make myself feel bad, or I can.

I walked out of a rehearsal for the show I have that I was cast in that Christina Gausas is directing that I am SO honored to be a part of, that meshes with my values and background and how I love to play and knew I was worse than the other people there, knew I had fucked up repeatedly in rehearsal, knew that only in the very last moment of rehearsal did I begin to grasp myself and my skills and have a breakthrough. I moved already from a place of weakness to a place of strength in such a small time. As my yoga teacher, Chrissy Carter says, do not think of the body you are not in right now or wish you had, thank yourself for the practice you are doing in this body at this time.

But as I walk out, I am consumed with worries. Will I not be good enough and be dismissed from the show? Am I being too weak in scenes, in that struggle to be in the present? What about my habits and quirks that I try to suppress, picking my nose, or scratching my scalp or just my insane gestures from the audience (a fun sight for those of you who know me to behold). It is a struggle to not judge one’s self for one’s mental work because WE CARE. I care! We all care about our lives and our passions and so it is difficult to see them as practice. It’s good to be emotionally invested in things, to feel things. My friend Jon Bander said last night in rehearsal that “it is so wonderful to see people feel things on stage, because frequently as stand-up or sketch comedians, we are not allowed to feel something on stage, only comment”.

But I also have to recognize that note that Ashley Ward gave me over a year ago that, “you are where you need to be”.

I didn’t get on a Harold Team at UCB. I didn’t even get a callback.

I didn’t have a good class with Neil Casey and impress him, so I could get petted and stroked and told how brilliant I am.

I wasn’t up to snuff in my rehearsal with Christina, whom I admire and adore, and it breaks my heart.

But today, I feel happy and I feel fine.

Because wherever I am in my life, I’m doing the work. As my friend Sebastian told me as we were walking down the street, quoting another great improviser and teacher of mine, Michael Delaney: “If you want to do this, see that you are working the hardest out of all of your friends.”

Because today, I look at myself, I see where I am in the present moment, I forgive myself, I love myself and know there is nowhere else that I could be.

Whatever happens, I do not control. I don’t control what others think of me, whether I am cast or not, admired or not, nothing.

Only if I am in the moment, the present and I’m okay with my own weakness.

Which I guess, you could call, a kind of strength.

Oh yoga.

What the fuck have you done to me?

***

My friend Frank, who is now the big brother/probably partial-dad (his pops is in his early 60s) of one Charles Orio, tells me I obsess too much about my weight.

This is true.

When I went into my therapist’s office, I described a night of regret where I got drunk ate two “Kooky Brownies” (Brownies that had a chocolate chip cookie top to them), bought too many drinks and let other people buy me some and woke up 3 pounds heavier.

(I also saw Kiss*Punch*Poem that night, an improv show inspired by and involving poets, which I highly recommend, as it currently is I think the only show that elevates improv to art in New York City that is running right now.)

My response, which calmed her down, was that I just ate normally that day. Had some nuts and coffee for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, a Fu Man Chew from Better Being Underground (aka my secret sandwich shop) for dinner and this taco for a late-night snack.

My couch-crashing roommate Teddy and I were walking down Greenwich Avenue on the sort of long-stroll from the Magnet back down to Soho we occasionally get to indulge in on a nice night when we noticed a lone taqueria standing open on the late-night street.

We went in to discover it was “Taco Happy Hour” at Oaxaca as exemplified by an open tall-boy of Modelo Especial at the counter and a dude who was willing to talk about why he was not willing to join the co-op in Park Slope.

The taco itself though was fragrant and delicious, mounds of picked onions, spicy salsa verde and a light sprinkling of cotilla cheese on two light corn tortillas with some chewy, salty chicken for an umami core. At 2 bucks, it made me more okay that the taco truck wasn’t out on a weeknight over on 6th Ave.

Teddy and I headed home after he even talked about applying there for a job and our conversation was complete.

The next day I weighed less, I told my therapist.

And all was right in the world.

Until I woke up 2 pounds heavier, this morning.

***

OAXACA TAQUERIA WEST VILLAGE

Pollo Taco- $2.00 (5-7pm or after 10pm)

Greenwich Ave. bet. 6th and 7th Avenues.

123L to 14th St-7th Ave. ACEBDFM to West 4th St.