“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Game night therapy

While it’s generally agreed that animals play, there’s not agreement on why. For a long time, the theory was that play was preparation for adult survivial — learning how to hunt and kill, bonding with specific animals for life, and so on down a long list. Other researchers say no. Play behavior doesn’t confer any of those benefits, but it can have an immediate psychological effect of relieving stress, even if it’s an adult animal that never played as a juvenile.

Humans definitely play games, though, and we make up rather complicated ones. As a member of that species, though, I can definitely say that we play games for a number of reasons, but the main ones are that they’re fun, they are a bonding experience, and they allow us to experience potentially high-stakes loses at no actual cost, at least if we’re not in a casino.

Nobody is losing real money at Monopoly, or Clue, or Chutes and Ladders, or any of however many countless board or card games we’ve invented.

Speaking of cards, though, I have a group of friends that I frequently play Cards Against Humanity with, and one of the ironies is that we are one of the more liberal and progressive bunches you’ll ever meet. But somehow the challenge of coming up with the worst possible non-PC play in the game is kind of the point. In a way, I think it actually armors us against thinking like people who’d agree with some of the combos that come out.

So there’s that “practicing to be an adult” angle, if we realize that the game generally teaches us exactly the wrong things to think, do, or say.

Case in point, to paraphrase just one of the plays from tonight, the question card was “The blind date was going terribly until we both discovered our shared love of _________.” The winning answer was “Auschwitz,” and the person who chose it as the winning card for that round happened to be a Jewish American currently living in Berlin. In fact, his immediate response to seeing that card was to lean back laughing his ass off in that “Oh my god, this is terrible” way that I’m sure we’ve all felt.

But now a slight interlude before I move on to a further salient point on humans and games. Tonight’s Card’s Against Humanity match included the inaugural use of a new set, Cards Against Star Wars, and I have to say that the group opinion of that set was very… lackluster. It had typos and grammatical errors galore, not to mention our quick consensus that there’s no way in hell Disney would have even licensed this and there’s not enough fair use coverage as parody for it to happen. I mean, the cards in this box were as raunchy as anything else from CAH. Then again, a number of them seemed to be free of Star Wars references and just quoted CAH cards.

Since we were playing with all of the CAH decks my friends own, we saw more than a few .repeats of generic, non-themed Cards against Star Wars picks. We were speculating on how it happened. Maybe they had to rush this one out to meet a Christmas deadline? Maybe they had it made cheaply in a country where English isn’t the first language for a lot of workers? (Since a lot of the spellings were British, we thought maybe Hong Kong or Singapore, although they mostly tend to be well educated in that city and that country.

Once I got home, two minutes of internet research revealed that… it’s not an official expansion pack at all. It’s not on the CAH site, but Amazon turns up a bunch of sets with blatant typos in the listings and box art — Cads Against. Cames Against. With both Star Wars and Disney as the targets.

My friends were just as relieved as I was when I shared the news. Our faith in (Cards Against) Humanity was restored.

Still, despite all of that, tonight was an important gaming evening first because it was a birthday pre-party (nearly a week in advance), and second because it gave me the chance to bring together good friends from various times and places in my life who had never met before, and then I got to watch them connect and bond. In one particular case, it was almost like destiny happening. A writing friend of mine had moved to a foreign city five years ago (with great success) and it just happened to be a place an actor/director friend of mine has plans to move to this summer, so they networked like hell, and I got to watch actor/director friend be handed the road-map to do exactly what he wants to do.

Meanwhile, surrogate big sister really hit it off with surrogate little brother (except he should be big brother when it comes to the emotional maturity) and within about ten minutes, this group of insiders (to me) and outsiders (to each other) bonded and it was glorious to see.

Now what I have to wonder is this: Did it happen because I only befriend certain types of people? Or did it happen because the people I tend to befriend are generally cool as fuck?

Maybe a little of both? But the best (pre)birthday present tonight was spending time in a room full of people I love and, thanks to games, getting to know them better.

And that is probably the true function of game play in humans: To bond with the ones you love and rely on, and know that when you’re playing with loved ones, you really can’t lose one way or the other.

Which is why we all need to arrange for and have a regular game night with friends in our lives. Whether it has minimal equipment, like charades or poker night, or it’s something as complicated as Risk or DnD or Settlers of Catan, or whatever… find friends who are into it, get together to do it, invite other friends outside the circle, and watch as magic happens.

Karl Marx nailed it

A rare political rant, but necessary at this juncture.

Just a quick reminder why it is so vitally important to vote 45* out and flip the Senate in November. Remember Apartheid? This was a policy that lasted for years in South Africa which put the white people in charge and eliminated most rights for black South Africans.

But you know what? Those white people were by far in the minority. So how did they keep the system going? Simple. They made up the rules. They controlled the courts and the government, and they ignored the people. Sound familiar?

Even after violent protest broke out, the system persisted by repressing it even more violently, and it wasn’t until 1994 that Apartheid finally ended.

In American Apartheid, it’s the 1% trying to control everyone else — and that’s the only division, because there are certainly super-wealthy people who are not white, not straight, not Christian, not male, not native-born, not cis-gender, and not even citizens who have a vested interest in continuing the oppression.

So, yeah, the oppressors pay lip-service to opposing women, minorities, the LGBTQI+ community, non-Christians, non-capitalists, etc., etc. But this is only designed to scare that core group of straight, white, rural Christian people into supporting their own oppression.

As AOC put it so eloquently (paraphrasing): “You don’t earn a billion dollars. You steal it.” And that’s for sure. Anyone who is worth more than a billion did it by stealing labor and effort from people like you.

Who built Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tesla, WalMart, etc.? Not the CEOs or stockholders. They didn’t do shit. These companies were built by the people who worked for them and the people who bought their crap. But now that the rich are rich enough, they don’t care whether you can afford their crap. They’re already planning their escape to Mars or buying their own islands that are far enough above future sea level to be safe.

Why do you think there’s such an emphasis on things like self-driving cars, automated checkouts, and developing AI that can handle customer service? It’s to eliminate workers entirely.

They’ve also bought governments outright — the oldest story in the book — so good luck with reining them in via legislation, unless and until you manage to vote the right people into control of government, in which case they get to make the rules, and control the courts and governments, and maybe put things back to right.

Or… we could show late-stage capitalism its own flaws, remind them of what Karl Marx warned them about. Once capitalism could grow no more on its own, it would begin to consume the working class and the poor, driving them into debt while simultaneously preventing the state from being able to serve them. Profits would rise while incomes stagnate, pulling the middle classes into the quagmire.

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention since the 80s, which may or may not be before you were born.

The only two solutions to this, per Marx, were socialism — a sudden and violent takeover — or democratic socialism — a gradual change in policies by the successive elections of increasingly progressive leaders. Now, since we got ourselves into this via the “boiling frog” method, we’ll probably only be able to get ourselves out the same way. It’s been forty years down this rabbit hole. Sadly, we probably won’t fully dig out until 2060.

But if we start now, the ‘30s could be pretty damn cool. We just have to lean hard to the left, and soft revolution these billionaire bastards out of existence.

First step after we re-take Congress and the Presidency: re-imposition of the tax rates that existed under Eisenhower (a Republican); plus add on a cap on wealth. No single person or company should be worth more than a billion dollars. (Hell, no person should be worth more than ten million — that would keep anyone for life, but I’ll be generous.) So in addition to the income tax rates, there’s a wealth cap tax, and it works like this. Any profit in excess of a billion dollars has to either be put back into the company to finance expansion and purchase of equipment from an absolutely not-affiliated company and to hire sufficient new employees with a salary at 10% above the cost of living for the community they’re being hired in and with full benefits; or donated somewhere within the state the business is licensed in to promote health, welfare, education, or the arts.

Additional first steps: Increase Social Security and Medicare benefits to match current cost of living, with realistic increases per annum guaranteed, and prohibit any reductions at any point in the future, as well as eliminate Medicare Part B premiums, so that they cost the same as Part A (hint: nothing); slashing the hell out of our military budget, outlawing defense contracts with any company that does business with any country that is not the U.S.; using what’s come out of the military budget to fund arts and education, and to provide housing and services to the poor and homeless — turn our endless random wars abroad into wars on real problems at home; kill the Space Force because, really? And create the Peace and Plenty Force.

Democratic socialism could achieve this in a generation. Don’t believe me? Look up FDR and the New Deal, because this is exactly what he did. And rich people hated him.

Pure socialism could achieve this in six months, but it would be messy and would involve the heads of a lot of elected officials stuck on pikes in front of government buildings all over the country, plus a lot of dead defenders of the status quo. Which is kind of another proof of why America has no Socialist candidates, and what you’re thinking of is Democratic Socialism. AKA The one way out of this nightmare.

End rant. Proceed with your day of being a consumer of corporate crap.

Nerding out on Star Wars: Why The Rise of Skywalker worked for me

In which I unleash my inner Star Wars nerd. WARNING: Spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen The Rise of Skywalker yet, stop here, unless you want major plot points revealed. And, most importantly, remember that like all artistic criticism, this is just my personal opinion. Your mileage may vary, and you’re not wrong. I’m not wrong. All art is entirely subjective and personal to the observer. 

Okay. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a major Star Wars fanboy since forever and why not? It was the major mythology of my childhood, and has carried on through three trilogies, two spin-off movies, and a couple of series.

I will admit to a few things, though. One is that I never really got into Clone Wars because the 3D animation style just didn’t mesh with the Star Wars universe I knew. Two is that while I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the Mandalorian (and Boba Fett was one of my favorite original trilogy characters) I don’t subscribe to Disney+, so rely on friends for viewings.

Three, finally, is that I never got into all of the extended universe stuff in terms of books, comics, etc., but, apparently, that’s all non-canon now, so I guess I won on that front.

All that said, my personal Star Wars film rankings are as follows…

  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Episode IV: A New Hope
  3. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
  4. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
  5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  6. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  7. Solo: A Star Wars Story
  8. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  10. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  11. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Rise of Skywalker had big shoes to fill but, honestly, I think it filled them by paying off all of the promises made and, no, it did not erase anything set up in The Last Jedi, which did not erase anything set up in The Force Awakens. Remember: Characters lie, or see things from a “certain point of view.” That was established way back at the beginning in Episode IV.

To me, Episode IX played out in the inevitable way it had to. My only complaint about the saga is that a certain character who debuted in Episode VII and was set up to be the villain did not survive through IX, although they died nobly and redeemed. Still, I somehow knew from the first moment we met that character that they’d be doing the ol’ Anakin in reverse saga. And if that wasn’t and isn’t obvious to complainers, I don’t know what movie you watched. Also keep in mind that Luke saved his father from the dark side while Ben was saved from the dark side by his father, or at least what was most likely a force projection that took all of his mother’s energy to make happen, so that we also got a nice little symmetry with the Skywalker sibs, who both performed their last heroic act on a far-away planet in order to turn Kylo Ren back into Ben Solo, and wound up force-ghosting because of it.

And there’s your explanation for that last scene, by the way, you’re welcome.

Lucas is famous for saying that his films rhyme, and a triple trilogy is actually the ultimate act of Aristotelian drama. Ari is the one who created the three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end, even if he was doing it in five act plays. But if you want to take that to its logical extreme, each part of that also has its own beginning, middle, and end, as does each part within that.

Now, just taking the three trilogies and ignoring the extra films, what do we get? Nine three-act films. And it’s always the second act that gets messy (Episodes II, V, and VIII) and the third acts that sometimes wrap it up too quickly (Episodes III, VI, IX.) First acts have to deal with introducing the characters and themes sometimes successfully, sometimes not (Episodes I, IV, VII.)

End result? Three by three by three, which is three cubed, which is twenty-seven. If you’re writing any kind of three-act structure, that is your basic beat-sheet right there.

Thematic rhymes

First acts, Episodes I, IV, and VII (Phantom Menace, A New Hope, The Force Awakens): Intro the innocent: Anakin, Luke, Rey. Send them on a quest they didn’t ask for. Pop them out the other end as a hero.

Second acts, Episodes II, V, and VIII (Attack of the Clones, The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi): Show your heroes a taste of failure, put them at odds with their mentors, and let the villains seem to win in the end.

Third acts, Episodes III, VI, and IX (Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker): End your hero’s arc, although this one gets interestingly tricky, because it’s different for each trilogy. In the prequels, Anakin goes from innocent to Sith Lord Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Luke goes from naïve farm boy to master Jedi, although it’s also the story of Darth Vader going from evil Sith Lord to destroyer of the Empire (although not really). In the sequel trilogy, we start with Rey, but it’s as much Kylo’s story, so while she goes from innocent scavenger to “Be All the Jedi!”, he goes from Big Bad to redeemed hero, perfectly echoing his grandfather Anakin’s storyline in the first six films.

Don’t forget the ultimate big bad, Palps himself. More than any other character, his arcs repeat in each of the three trilogies. In the original trilogy (IV-VI), he only appeared as an idea in the first, had a couple of brief cameos as a hologram in the second, and then came on full force in the third.

Likewise, in the prequel trilogy (I-III), Palpatine starts out as a dedicated servant to Queen Amidala, becomes Chancellor in the second film, and reveals his true self and takes over power in the third.

Finally, in the sequel trilogy (VII-IX), Palpatine is nowhere to be seen in the first episode, apparently not present in the second, although the third makes it clear that Snoke was really his Count Dooku so that he was there all along, and then in the third film he comes back full force and nastier than ever.

Anyway… I’m happy with how it turned out, and I’m not the type of fan who feels it necessary to flame creators who don’t get it “right.” Why? Because, ultimately, I’m not the one creating it, so I have no right to complain. And that’s probably the most important lesson. If it ain’t your franchise, try appreciating what the creators do with it instead of explaining why they screwed it up.

The saddest part about any sportsman’s death

To be honest, news of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday didn’t really hit me that hard. Sure, it’s sad, especially because his young daughter died with him — along with seven other people I don’t see anyone publicly mourning. But I’m not a sports fan in any way, shape or form. I consider organized sports to be a huge waste of time and money. So Kobe was only ever in my consciousness as some guy who — I think — played for my home team, and I don’t even know whether he was active or retired. And it was… basketball, maybe?

Now that paragraph is going to infuriate a lot of people, but that’s kind of my point, and the point of this piece. The only time I ever see straight men of the uber-masculine “he-man” sort show any kind of emotion is when a beloved sportsman dies or suffers some kind of tragedy. And yes, it’s always a sportsman, never a sportswoman.

Case in point: the sports media couldn’t have given two wet warm shits about HIV and the AIDS crisis until Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV+. Suddenly, it was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and to all of those sports reporters AIDS was the worstest thing ever. Ironically, Magic is still alive, but it took this very weird cult-like behavior around sports figures to start to turn the tide.

And it’s only certain sports. Contrast the reaction to Magic Johnson with the reaction to Greg Louganis revealing, in 1995, that he was HIV positive. He didn’t get the same outpouring of bro love. Instead, he was criticized for daring to injure himself and bleed into a pool in 1988 when he knew that he was HIV+. (No, Magic did not receive any criticism for fucking a ton of women after he was diagnosed. That got crickets.)

By the way, Louganis is also still alive.

Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. You might recognize that first word as the name of the capital in the Hunger Games series. The idea is to provide meager nourishment and spectacle in order to distract people from the real issues of the day.

And organized sports certainly provide the circus, along with the illusion of nourishment. But what about the deaths that should have given everyone pause in just the first three weeks of this year?

Qasem Soleimani – was it legal or not? Hans Tilkowski, Luís Morais, and Khamis Al-Dosari, all sportsmen who died way too young, but you don’t care because they’re not American and played soccer. Silvio Horta, who wrote for TV and film. Neil Peart, oh yeah, I’ll give you your bitching and whining over that. Elizabeth Wurtzel, bros say “who?” Edd Byrnes, actor we’ve all forgotten. Buck Henry, actor and writer we should not have forgotten (“Introducing Lord and Lady Douchebag!”), Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. and keeper of the LOTR stuff; Efraín Sánchez and Pietro Anastasi, two more footballers. Er, sorry. Soccer players; Hédi Baccouche, former Prime Minister of Tunisia; Terry Jones, Welsh actor and comedian of Monty Python fame; Jim Lehrer, American journalist.

And yet… the straight white male world only loses its shit over the loss of a person whose talent was bouncing and throwing a ball.

Pardon me for intentionally trivializing, but it really is infuriating when any celebrity death goes into bread and circuses mode and distracts from the really important stuff going on. Yes, let’s take a moment to be sad about it — but let’s not allow it to make us forget all of the far worse things happening right now.

Yeah, Kobe is dead, and I’m sorry for his friends and loved ones, but for all of the impact he actually had on my life (total: zero) I’m not going to waste a lot of time thinking about it. And if it seems like the time I took writing this article was focused on… thinking about him, no, it wasn’t. It was more invested in thinking about all of the other people we’ve lost in the first 26 days of 2020.

Sunday Nibble #1

Because weekends are hard but I want to keep posting, here’s a snack-sized bit to enjoy with your Sunday morning tea/coffee/milk/CBD/whatever.

Sometimes, words in one language automatically look inappropriate in another, and today I give you the Spanish word… leer.

In English, it’s one syllable, and means to stare at someone inappropriately. “Don’t leer at me, dude.”

“He leered at her so much that she called HR.”

“Notice: Leering at patrons or artists is not accepted here.”

The word should also not be confused with the always proper noun Lear: “He landed his Lear Jet on Tuesday;” “The Bristol Cities Community production of ‘King Lear’ premiers on Thursday.”

In Spanish, “leer” is two syllables, and pronounced a lot like the English word “layer,” except with the emphasis on the second syllable: lay-AIR. In Spanish, it means “to read.”

It also happens to have a couple of variations by conjugation that, while pronounced differently, are spelled out lazy and without accents and look like other English words, mainly “leo”, the astrological sign; “lei” that Hawaiian airport gift thing;  leia, that Star Wars princess; lea, where cows hang out; lean, how you like your meat; Lee, a common name.

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.