Letting go of thinking

Here’s the funny thing about improv and letting go of thinking. When I first started taking classes and then performing, two games scared the ever-loving crap out of me: “What are you doing?” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” For the life of me, in “What Are You Doing,” I couldn’t come up with descriptions of what I was doing and had a really hard time avoiding the dreaded and prohibited “I’m…” The reason “I’m” isn’t allowed is because it’s a form of hesitating — although we certainly hear it in the clip linked above. (Side note: although this is a ComedySportz LA clip from almost seven years ago, some of the players here are still with us.

And in the latter game, “Da Doo Ron Ron, I used to consistently stumble over my own tongue by either whiffing the rhyme or repeating someone else and always getting called outta there no later than third. Note that the linked version here is from a different city, so they do it slightly differently than we do, with the “5, 6, 7, 8” intro, and by rotating players instead of eliminating them. And, although this is a ComedySportz clip from New Orleans from over a decade ago… yeah, you guessed it. I know one of the players here, who is now on the Los Angeles team.

If you didn’t get it from the videos or didn’t watch the videos, I’ll  give some explanation. “What Are You Doing” is an opener game, and it works like this. There’s an audience suggestion of a place, occupation, or theme, like “Pet Store.” First player starts with a motion that’s totally random. Other player demands, “What Are You Doing?” And first player replies with something related to the suggestion, like, “Feeding hamsters!” but which has nothing at all to do with the gestures they’re making. Second player acts out feeding hamsters, then first player demands “What Are You Doing?” and second player describes something completely different from the action but related to the suggestion, like “grooming puppies!” It continues until someone hesitates or whiffs it entirely.

Later on in the game, there’s an extra complication. The Ref will ask an audience member, “What are you initials,” getting either two or three. After that, all of the answers to “What Are You Doing” have to start with those letters. For example, if the letters are PJB, you’d get stuff like “Projecting jelly beans” or “Pretending Jedis breathe” or “Postulating justifiable bingos,” or whatever. And it can get messy fast, but in a good way — the more nonsensical the better, because then there’s the added challenge of the players having to act out things that are totally non-existent or even impossible.

The other game, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” is a singing and rhyming game that I’ve written about before, although not by name. It’s based on the old song. The pattern is pretty simple. The Ref gets a name, then person one sings a line that ends with that name: “I met a dude whose name was Pete” — “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” The next person rhymes that: “He was really very sweet,” followed by “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” And now it gets tricky, because the next player has to come up with three rhymes, and fast. “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He has big feet.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He doesn’t eat meat.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He hates defeat.” “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.”

One of the games within the game is turning that “yeah” into a challenge to the player who has to come up with the three rhymes, as if we’re basically saying, “So, what you got?” The other complication is that each time around after someone gets called out, the tempo gets faster.

So, back to the top… way back when I was learning improv, both of these games scared the living shit out of me, but then a funny thing happened as I’ve played them more and more and let go of the thinky part of my brain. I’ve relaxed into them, and these games that used to terrify me have become two of my favorites to play. And I’ve somehow managed to pretty consistently make it to the final round in “Da Doo Ron Ron” every damn time, as well as at least carry out much longer streaks in “What are you doing?” than I ever did before.

For “What Are You Doing,” it really is a matter of not planning ahead at all, which is especially fun when we get into the initials part of it. For “Da Doo,” there is some planning, but it’s really only a matter of holding three rhymes in my head at all times, then replacing any that get used — but the important part of that strategy is listening so that I can make the switch while remembering what’s already been used.

The next thing on my “Holy crap that scares me” list? Scene games. But I’m guessing that my amazing coach already knows that, and has a plan to guide me through that nasty land mine of terror.

And did I mention that doing this thing that once upon a time terrified me has actually turned out to be  the bestest thing ever? ‘Cause, yeah… it has. Well, okay. Second bestest. The bestest wold be a human being, but they also never terrified me, so there’s that.

Accentuate the positive

While I was trying to find an image file on my computer that was going to be the basis for an article about something my grandfather invented, I instead ran across a bit of video I shot just over 11 years ago. (Never found what I was originally looking for, though.) To give it some context, I shot the video on a camera that I’d just bought around that time as an early Christmas present to myself. The reason for that was because a gig that had started out as a “two day only” temp assignment in the middle of the previous July had turned into a full-time job that lasted over a decade by the end of that October. I shot the video over the course of a work day that was also the day of our office holiday party, my first with the company.

It was strangely nostalgic to see all of my former coworkers again. In fact, out of everybody in the video, only two of them made it with me all the way to the end, when the company self-destructed. But that’s not what this story is about. It also brought up the feels because that particular office — the first of four which the company occupied during my time with it — was long since converted into a Target Express, a sort of mini-version of the bigger stores. I visited it once, and bought a DVD about twenty feet from where my desk had been.

But, the point of the story: In this video, I was interviewing coworkers and narrating and I was once again reminded of how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I hear it coming from anywhere that isn’t inside my own head. This is not at all uncommon. In fact, when I googled it, I only had to type “Why do people hate” before it auto-filled with the rest of the question — “the sound of their own voices.” Basically, when you talk, the sound you hear isn’t coming through the air. It’s coming directly through the bones in your ear, so the voice you hear is probably deeper and richer.

In my case it’s even weirder than that. The voice I hear in my head lacks two things that are very obvious when I listen to it recorded. One: I’m a lot more nasally than I think I am. Two: I actually have a noticeable accent, although I really can’t place it. I won’t count one other bit as three, though, because it’s true of everyone — the voice outside my head is probably half an octave higher than the one in my head.

The other noticeable thing, to me at least, though, is that despite being gay I absolutely do not have “gay voice.” And yes, that’s a thing. And despite being Californian, I do not have surfer dude voice or Valley guy voice either. I also exhibit none of the vowel shifts that are apparently part of the “California accent,” whatever that is. Another complication is that, since the entertainment industry is centered here, the standard accent of film and TV is also pretty much how Californians, particularly of the southern variety, talk.

But, to me, the non-California accent I apparently have is really baffling. Well, at least the part about not being able to place it. I was born and raised in Southern California and so was my father. However, his parents came from Kansas and my mother was from Northeastern Pennsylvania. As a kid before I started going to school, I spent a lot more time with my mom. Meanwhile, my dad’s accent was clearly influenced by his parents despite his growing up here.

The best way to describe my mom’s accent is Noo Yawk Lite. That is, while a lot of it was flat, there were certain words and vowels that just came out east-coasty. For example, a common household pet was a “dawg.” You dried your dishes or yourself with a “tahl.” The day after Friday was “Sirday” — which I think is unique to where my mom came from. Then again, apparently, the whole state has a ton of different dialects.

Meanwhile, the Kansas side contributed a very flat, plain, and tight-lipped manner of speech, and I certainly heard this quite often from my dad’s mom, since we visited her more often than my mom’s mom, who lived ten times farther away. And although my dad’s grandfather was German, I don’t think he had a lot of influence because great-grandpa died just before my dad turned 22, and my dad’s own father sort of abandoned the family when my dad was 12. (Long story. Don’t ask.)

And none of any of this explains the way I talk. Or tawk. Oddly enough, when I’m not speaking English, I’m pretty adept at doing a Mexican Spanish accent (casi pero no completamente en el estilo chilango), although that’s probably not all that weird when you consider that the major (but not only) Spanish influence in Southern California is, in fact, from the country that used to be most of California. On the other hand, when I speak German, it’s in total Hamburg Deutsch despite my German ancestors being Alsatian, mainly because my German teacher was from that very northern town. And, to be honest, I never met any of my German ancestors because they all died long before I was born — Sie sind alle gestorben bevor ich geboren werde.

To complicate things, when I’ve listened to recordings of myself speaking either Spanish or German, the most notable thing is that I am not nasally or half an octave higher at all. Or, in other words, my voice only sucks in my native language. Funny how that works, isn’t it? And the weirdest part, I suppose, is that none of that nasal thing happens in my head, even though, technically, nasal voice happens entirely in one’s head due to that whole sinus thing.

So, back to the beginning. When I speak my native language I hate the way I sound, but when I speak a foreign language, I don’t hate the way I sound. Then again, that’s also true when I’m performing onstage and playing a character. I just forget to play a character in real life, but maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a book by Dr. Morton Cooper, first published in 1985, called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life, which posits exactly this premise. Ironically, though, he specifically mentions the flaws in voices — like Howard Cosell’s nasality and Barbara Walters nasality, hoarseness, and lisp — as their strongest points. Although his references are dated, I guess he has a point, stating that, “These personalities have all managed to project voice images that are— however unattractive and displeasing to the ears— distinctive and lucrative.”

Then… maybe I should change nothing? Hell, if Gilbert Gottfried (NSFest of W) can get away with talking the way he does, maybe I’m onto something. And maybe it’s not so much a matter of changing my voice as it is changing my feelings about it.

And that’s really the takeaway here — surprise, this was the lesson all along. There are certain things we can’t really change about ourselves, like our height, our hair, eye, or skin color, our looks, or our voices. (Okay, we can change hair, eye, or skin color through dye, contact lenses, or tanning, but those are only temporary and, in some cases, really obvious.) But we are stuck with our height, looks, and mostly our voices, unless we want to go to the expense of physically altering the first two, or learning how to alter the latter.

Or… we can just learn to accept ourselves as we are, flaws and all, and realize that we do not have to be some perfect ideal media version of a human in order for someone to love us. And the part I intentionally left out of this up to now is this: Plenty of people have told me that I have a sexy voice. I may not agree with them at all, but if they think so, then that’s good enough for me. I mean, I got to be the Pokémon they chose before they threw their ball at me, right? And, in the end, that’s the only part that counts.

So… stop judging yourself for the flaws you think you see. Instead, listen to the flaws that people who love you clearly do not see.

The stage fright paradox

Long-time readers know that in addition to being a writer, I also have some background as an actor and, for the last couple of years have been doing improv. I originally got into acting bass-ackwards in college. My first semester, one of my professors found out I played keyboards, and asked if I’d be in the ensemble for a musical another professor was directing. I agreed, did the show, and had a great time, plus made a lot of friends in the theater department. The next semester, I was invited to the theater department intro meeting and those friends dared me to audition for the show right after the meeting. I did, figuring no way in hell would I get cast.

I got cast, then went on to become a theater minor, doing a few more shows and directing some and really enjoying it. Plus, it was a good experience to help my playwriting ambitions, and here’s advice I’d give to any aspiring playwright: Even if you think you’d suck at it, act in a stage play at least once. It’ll make you a better writer because you’ll understand what actors have to go through to bring your words to life.

As for the improv, it was one of those things I’d always loved to watch but the idea of doing it scared the crap out of me. Then the chance to actually learn it from brilliant teachers came up, and I figured, “Okay. I’ll either totally suck and it’ll justify my fear of doing it, or I’ll get over that fear and have some fun.”

Option two ensued, and now, instead of it scaring the crap out of me, I live to do some improv onstage — which led to another really interesting realization recently. But first… some background.

What do you think is the most common fear among people? Death? Spiders? Heights? Germs? Snakes? Nope. Time after time, surveys show that the most common fear humans have is… public speaking! (Insert dramatic chipmunk music.)

That’s right. Most people would rather die, kiss a tarantula, walk on the ledge of a skyscraper, lick a sidewalk, or make friends with a boa, than get up in front of their fellow humans and talk. And that’s just weird. Well, at least it is to me.

Full disclosure: My three big phobias are death, amusement park rides with long vertical drops, and being the cousin who draws the short straw in the “Go with Nana to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” contest. (You fuckers… next year!)

So there’s the context. I have no fear of public speaking or going on stage and performing. But I recently realized something even weirder: The more people there are in the audience, the better. It’s almost like that many faces looking back at me from the dark just makes my brain lock into some weird super-focused zone. The more people there are watching, the more chances I’ll take — and that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in improv. Make bold choices, take big chances.

For some reason, it also makes me spin off into characters that aren’t me — something I have trouble doing with small houses — as well as get emotionally connected and crazy in a scene. Again, what I should be doing, but what it takes that extra set of eyes to get going.

And it’s something I never would have suspected I could have done before I took the chance and started studying improv (which scared the hell out of me, remember?) in the first place. And making up characters and lying is something I’ve done in this article, if you’d like to go three paragraphs up and drop one phobia from that list.

Yes, that’s right. What do improvisers do? Get up on stage and lie to people convincingly. And the bigger the crowd we can lie to, the better. It’s kind of like how believing in fairies resurrects Tinker Bell. The more the merrier and all that. Although it does make me wonder whether politicians become consummate liars precisely because they have large audiences.

I asked some fellow performers, and they all seemed to agree: When it comes to audience size, the more the merrier, especially if they don’t know the people in the audience. One friend told me, “I find it more enjoyable for me as a performer when there is a larger audience rather than… small,” adding that an audience of strangers can be easier, because “In front of strangers there are no expectations and they can be surprised; whereas in front of friends, they already expect you to be funny or do something weird.”

I can definitely relate to that one. If I don’t know the people watching I actually feel more comfortable because I’m coming at them as a blank slate. They don’t know who I really am or what I really sound like, so I can ratchet up the characters and voices and such. Another thing I’ve found is that the bigger the house the better, as in theater size. The largest house I’ve ever performed for was at the L.A. Theater Center downtown, to a capacity crowd of maybe three or four hundred, and, surprisingly, every ounce of anxiety or stage fright just disappeared. Another friend concurred on that, saying that it’s “easier to perform in a large house with strangers. The audience feels more removed. It makes it easier for me to escape into the world of the play. In a small house, I can see and hear everything from the audience. It’s very distracting to me.”

Not everybody agreed to the large house theory, though, and one of my fellow improvisers split the difference, preferring a medium house. “A house with a dozen or fewer seems to suck the energy right out of the room. A house with more than a hundred seems to disburse the energy in a million directions.” They also didn’t preclude friends, although with a qualification: “It’s harder for me to perform in front of other performers; I feel like I’m under scrutiny. It’s much easier to perform in front of non-performing friends. I feel like they’re there to support.”

My sentiments were perfectly echoed in one other comment, though: “I love performing for strangers. I can really let go of ‘me’ and be a larger character.” Yep. Give me that room full of strangers, and I will get so large it scares even me. In a good way.

One other improviser put it nicely: “I prefer performing for strangers. There’s less consequence and no grudge match I have to deal with afterwards if they tell me they loved or hated the show.” I’ve experienced the same thing as a playwright, and I remember one fascinating conversation after a short play of mine, when I got into a discussion with an audience member who didn’t know who I was and who started ripping specifically on my piece. I could see my friends out of the corner of my eye ready to dive in and pull me off lest I started beating his ass, but to me it was actually very helpful and not at all an insult to hear a stranger speak honestly about their reaction to my work because they didn’t know it was mine. It was clearly just a matter of my piece was not a fit for his taste, and there’s nothing I can do about that, after all. Right? He didn’t hate the craft so much as the subject matter. It’s like my utter disdain for gory horror movies. A lot of people like them. I don’t. My dislike doesn’t mean they’re crap. It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

Exception: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, which  I love. The film is so classy that it transcends the genre. But I do digress…

One other notable comment from one of my respondents, regarding pre-show angst: “Much of that anxiety goes away once I’m on the stage,” and I have to agree. Actually, almost everything bad goes away once I go on stage. Am I feeling nervous? Under the weather? Stressed? Angry? Insert negative emotion here… Yep. Stepping out of reality and into that other world tends to take away everything but the immediate relationship between fellow performers and the audience and it is wonderful.

Performing is really the best therapy in the world for all ailments physical and mental — and I’m not kidding. I’ve gone on stage with the flu, sprained joints, right after a nasty break-up, in the midst of a panic attack, and during or after who knows how many other setbacks and infirmities. And, in every case, as soon as the lights went up and the show started, bam! The thousand slings and arrows of the real world melt, thaw, and resolve themselves into art.