Momentous Monday: Curtain Down

Although my days on stage are probably over, I can’t believe how formative they’ve been. I will miss them.

It has now been approximately one year and seven and a half months since the last time I set foot on stage to do an improv show and, at this point, I think I really have to resolve myself to the fact that I will never perform in front of a live audience again.

It’s sad, but it’s reality. The first big block happened when COVID shut down the theaters, including the improv theater I’d been performing at. We sort of went on hiatus, with most of the four companies still doing Zoom shows or meeting regularly that way, but then at some point the parent company basically dissolved everything else, so that the Sunday Team, College League, and Rec League were officially disbanded.

I’m not even sure at this point if the Main Company still exists or not. By a fluke of timing, the company had decided to give up their too expensive lease on their old space effective on April 1st of that year — a decision made before COVID would have wound up sticking them in an arrangement they could not have afforded had they stayed.

Ever since that time, though, I’ve been meeting weekly with Rec League members via Zoom, and for a long time we would have a quick catch up, followed by an hour or two of various Zoomable improv games.

In the last few months, though, the group sizes and enthusiasm for doing games seems to have waned a lot, and it all seems to correspond to the second shut-down after that single week at the beginning of July when it looked like we were going back to normal but then the Delta Variant reared its ugly head, even threatening the fully vaccinated.

Also, our fearless leader, who used to also be the education director for the improv company and Rec League Coach, has taken on a new career as an audio book narrator and, since he can do that from anywhere with a home studio set-up and an internet connection, he’s leaving town and moving far away in January.

A lot of my friends seem to be moving out of California as well, although I don’t think it’s so much a knock on the state — which is wonderful — as it is the realization that they can suddenly do what they in a place that is a lot less expensive because they’re suddenly not tied down to a physical office location.

Hey, I’m considering it myself. I just have to decide whether I want to move in-state or out, whether I want to be closer to my mom’s family and make my ancestor’s journey in reverse, or whatever. I do think, though, that I would like to be some place more rustic, where I can have a nice house, a few acres of forest, and multiple large dogs, and where nature can recharge me.

One thing I’ve learned on my summer and winter camp trips in the last couple of years to Big Bear: When I go to a place like that, I sleep much more easily than I do in the city, wake up with the dawn, and find nothing more enjoyable than to wander off into the woods on my own as the sun is just rising and the morning mist is lifting, perhaps to encounter a stray deer who seems just as curious as me as I do about them.

Not that I’m not really into city living, either, but I could use a balance. Let’s say… 67/33 rural to city? But also 99/1 liberal to a-hole.

Yeah, hard balance to manage, I guess, until enough of us disperse and turn all the red places purple.

Back to the original thesis, though: Even if the improv company comes back and starts up its education department and the Rec League again, I’m still not sure that I’d go back, or be able to. The main reason there is that this having been sheltered in place for so long has reverted me to who I was before I found improv, and that’s not good.

When it comes to performing on stage, that has been a part of my life since forever, despite my being a total introvert. Well, once upon a time, until I figured out that I was an ambivert.

But from when I started doing elementary school plays all through drama and band in junior and high school and college, and then bands after college and theatre as an adult and improv way too late in life as an adult, the thing I realized was this.

Sure, I was an introvert in person, afraid to engage with people, except that I could be an ambivert when I was dealing with people I had already made friends with and trusted.

I only became an extrovert, though, when I had an instrument and music or a character to hide behind.

“Okay, so I get to put on this costume and play with these props and say these lines that aren’t mine? Cool. So I don’t give a flying fuck of what those people out there think, because they’re thinking it about my character not me.”

Or… “All right. So I’m standing behind these keyboards and playing notes and singing back-up and I’m half-naked because that’s just the band style right now, and we’re surrounded by screaming fans. Fuck it. They love us, and I’m having a religious experience with my bandmates anyway because, music. So I am invulnerable!”

And this is really why performing was such a big part of my life for such a long time. It was something I never expected that I’d get into and yet I should have figured out from the get-go that I would have. After all, I had my first music lesson when I was seven, and one of the first awesome “toys” my parents bought me was a rape-recorder with a microphone, so I started impersonating radio DJs and creating my own characters.

That, and lip-syncing to records in my bedroom, most of which were Broadway soundtracks. Yeah, that should have been my parents’ first big clue right there.

Although, after my career as a playwright and writer took off, if you’d asked me, “Are you also an actor?” I would have said “Oh, hell no.” And I would have been lying.

More honestly, I should have said, “Yes, but not a really good one,” and that’s certainly the case. I never did do leading roles, but I never wanted to. Why? Leads have to learn way too many lines and work far too hard. Much better to be the weird background business, and I kind of made it my specialty to play “weird background business.”

I’ve done way too many police officers and guards, random monks, a dozen ensemble roles in one piece, Jesus-y stand-ins, depressed bears, other animals in general, a raft of “Christmas Carol” characters culminating in the Ghost of Christmas Future (i.e. The Grim Reaper), and roles on and off stage in far too many musicals.

So how I could have not really considered myself both an actor and a playwright this entire time is kind of beyond me. However, there’s one big note. Until I started learning improv, which wasn’t all that long ago, I never applied my acting skills to real life.

There was me on stage — Extrovert. And me IRL — Introvert. And never the twain shall meet.

Or did they?

Actually, after I got into improv was when my introvert personality began to slip way IRL, and I became so much more of an extrovert that it was ridiculous. Why? Most likely because that’s when and how I learned to play myself as a character — maybe. Or, barring that, it was when I learned how to apply the insulation of a stage persona IRL.

And it all got better after that.

But, sadly, as I said, I have to believe that those days are over now. I have no idea what’s coming next, only that this plague has changed us. Maybe I’ll take to the stage again some day — but it may be far away and in a very different context. Wish me l….

Nope, sorry. Tell me to “break a leg.” Thanks!

Rewind

If you could go back in time to your younger self — say right out of high school or college — what one bit of advice would you give? I think, in my case, it would be this: “Dude, you only think you’re an introvert, but you’re really not. You just need to learn now what it took me years to understand. No one else is really judging you because they’re too busy worrying about how they come off.”

But that worry about what other people thought turned me into a shy introvert for way too long a time. At parties, I wouldn’t talk to strangers. I’d hang in the corners and observe, or hope that I knew one or two people there already, so would stick to them like your insurance agent’s calendar magnet on your fridge. Sneak in late, leave early, not really have any fun.

It certainly didn’t help on dates, especially of the first kind. “Hi, (your name). How’s it going?” Talk talk talk, question to me… awkward silence, stare at menu, or plate if order already placed.

Now this is not to imply that I had any problem going straight to close encounters of the third kind way too often, but those only happened when someone else hit on me first. Also, I had a really bad habit of not being able to say “No” when someone did show interest. I guess I should have noticed the contradiction: Can someone really be an introvert and a slut at the same time?

What I also didn’t notice was that the times I was a total extrovert all happened via art. When I wrote or acted, all the inhibitions went away. Why? Because I was plausibly not being myself. The characters I created or the characters I played were other people. They were insulation. They gave me permission to just go out there without excuse. (Okay, the same thing happened during sex, but by that point, I don’t think that introversion is even possible or very likely.)

However… the characters did not cross over into my real life. I was awkward with strangers. I was okay with friends, but only after ample time to get to know them.

And so it went until I wound up in the hospital, almost died, came out the other side alive — and then a funny thing happened. I suddenly started initiating conversations with strangers. And enjoying them. And realized that I could play myself as a character in real life and have a lot of fun doing it. And started to not really care what anyone else thought about me because I was more interested in just connecting with people and having fun.

The most important realization, though, was that I had been lying to myself about what I was for years. The “being an introvert” shtick was just an excuse. What I’d never really admitted was that I was extroverted as hell. The “almost dying” part gave the big nudge, but the “doing improv” part sealed it. Here’s the thing. Our lives, day to day and moment to moment, are performance. Most muggles never realize that. So they get stage fright, don’t know what to do or say or how to react.

But, honestly, every conversation you’ll ever have with someone else is just something you both make up on the spot, which is what improv is. The only difference is that with improv you’re making up the who, what (or want) and where, whereas in real life, you’re playing it live, so those things are already there.

Ooh, what’s that? Real life is easier than performing on stage?

One other thing that yanked me out of my “I’m an introvert” mindset, though, was an indirect result of doing improv. I’ve been working box office for ComedySportz for almost a year now — long story on how and why that happened — but I’m basically the first public face that patrons see, I’ve gotten to know a lot of our regulars, and I honestly enjoy interacting with the public, whether via walk-ups to the ticket counter or phone calls. Young me would have absolutely hated doing this, which is another reason for my intended message to that callow twat.

And so… if you’re reading this and think that you’re an introvert, do me a favor. Find something that drags you out of your comfort zone. Remind yourself that no one else is really judging you because they’re too busy worrying about themselves, then smile and tell way too much to the wait-staff or checker or usher or whomever — and then don’t give a squishy nickel over what they might think about it.

(Note: “squishy nickel” was a fifth level choice on the improv game of “New Choice” in my head just now. Which is how we do…)

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