What I'm Thankful For

Many Thanksgivings ago-- or it was perhaps Christmas, or just a summer morning on Cape Cod, all I know is that we were sitting around as a family at my grandparents' table; it's hard to remember what's what since so many days of my life feel like Thanksgiving-- my father told a story. He'd gone to a private school in New Jersey (this fact itself was always remarkable to me, since he raised three public school kids and it was impossible to imagine his life there), and when he got engaged to my mother, moved to Hoboken to renovate a house. One day in New York he ran into a man who was disheveled and schizophrenic. Because of his schizophrenia, he was homeless. My father immediately recognized him as one of his rich friends from his private elementary school and, right there on the spot, invited him to live in the house with my parents.

The friend, being mentally ill, struggled on a daily basis there. He would yell at them and give my mom a hard time, and while they were on their honeymoon he stole all of their wedding presents.

My dad told this story dramatically, with my mom chiming it at intervals with details about specific breakdowns, until we got to the moment of the clear moral of the story. I was certain it would be "don't invite strangers to live with you," but instead my dad leaned across the table, looking in turn at his three kids and his two nieces, and said: "you never know when you might be homeless." He paused for a long time. "You could be homeless, kids. You think you can't, but you could."

This was just one of the many ways my parents practiced compassion and gratitude. They were nice to everyone and everything. They would take us to animal shelters to rescue dogs. They made us say "thank you" to a palpably awkward degree-- my dad would not drive through a tollbooth without making us thank the attendant. His best friend, it seemed to me when I was nine, was a middle-aged exhausted waitress at Friendly's. My dad's compassion and gratitude is loud and deliberate but just as genuine as my mom's, which was a much simpler equation of the fact that she just loves everyone on the face of the earth equally.

I'm more like my dad. I am annoyingly expressive. I struggle against my own ambition, which is a form of greed. I'm greedy for my own experiences and I strive to prove to myself that every day is better than the next in every way. Of course, that almost never works out, but I shoot for it every day. Being ambitious like that can be very distracting-- it can be hard to remember that even my worst day would be a day someone would hope for. So my gratitude is something I practice like a prayer, and compassion is something I try to actively identify in others when I see it, so that I can emulate it. What I didn't realize is that empathy is not something you can win and frame; it has to be constantly renewed, planned for; it must be planted in the fall, when everything begins to die, like a flower bulb and left to bloom in its own time. You've got to let your gratitude stay alive underground during the hard winters and let it break out in the good summers.

But I digress badly. I'm writing tonight because a few months ago my improv company, Sea Tea, was approached to teach an improv class to the homeless of Hartford. These great people write a newspaper called "Beat of the Street," and that newspaper has blossomed into an entire Center for Creative Learning. The students (homeless, formerly homeless, and the unlabeled) had requested improv as an arts activity and as skills training, and so they came to Sea Tea.

We've taught eight classes and all of them were fantastic. We rotated through our team, letting everyone teach (everyone wanted to, even though it was a volunteer gig), adjusting our curriculum to the needs of our students, who had to come and go from case workers, their kids, and potential housing meetings. When they had to come late or leave early for things like that it was impossible to be mad. In the first five minutes of my first class, one of our students, Anne, picked up her phone during warm-ups and found out she had been accepted for a place to live. I was just happy to see it. These students are hilarious and cool and I try to be as funny as they are. The cool thing is that the classes were so small that the teacher/student boundaries were pointless, and it was more like they joined a professional improv team for an afternoon, playing with us instead of for us. Playing like that actually made the classes much easier to teach because in improv everyone must start on an equal playing field anyway.

The students were awesome people and I never would have been able to guess that any of them was homeless-- some were young single moms living in shelters, some were older guys who had great clothes and hilarious laughs. They knew a strange amount of Stevie Wonder songs. I don't want to launch into some heartwarming tale about a scene they did that made me cry, or revealed something about homelessness I didn't know. Mostly we did improv-- we played silly games, made each other laugh. They did scenes about smoking pot, clingy girlfriends, and annoying Jehovah's witnesses. Just like every other improv class I've ever taught. But that's disingenuous too-- it wasn't like every class I've ever taught, not in the "we are the world" way. We're not all just the same. Some of us have gotten really lucky, and some very unlucky. Some of us make bad choices that have no consequences and some make bad choices that have terrible consequences. That's a kind of luck itself. We all run some red lights by accident.

Tomorrow night (Tuesday the 26th) we're doing a show with Sea Tea Improv and our students-- since there were so few consistent students (the homeless are busier than any group I've ever worked with) and we're not sure who will show up, we're just going to mix all together. We barely have a plan but I know it's going to work. It's a fundraiser for Beat of the Street, specifically for hot drinks and staffing costs. Coffee for all: that's a cause I can get behind. My dad would agree.

I'm excited because improv is all about empathy. It requires it. You must listen to whatever your partner is putting out there, no matter what happens. You must make your partner look good, whoever they are, or your scene will fall apart. The whole team will be there and we want to see at least fifty people in the audience. If you live in Connecticut, please come. It's important. Make our partners look good. The best reason to come: make people feel like a million bucks by laughing at their jokes. It's the best feeling in the world and I want to make sure these guys have that experience.

Is this a shameless plug for a show? Yup. Is this the corniest thing I've ever written? Likely. But I'm not really worried about that tonight. What you, my readers, think of me is not a real problem in the grand scheme of things. I mean, I'd like you to like me, but that's ambition distracting me from what is more important. What's important is that it's fucking cold outside (you said it yourself, today, if you live in the northeast), and that you likely got to go home to your fireplace, your blankets, your space heater, or your family. Of course it's a shameless plug. What I would be more ashamed of is not plugging it.

Come to Charter Oak Cultural Center at 7:30 tomorrow night. I promise it won't be too heartwarming-- mostly, it'll be hilarious. Plant a bulb of gratitude for your own life that might bloom at some other unexpected time. Help somebody else who might not be doing so great right now. Support a program where they get to screw around and be silly and be listened to.

Because the moral of the story, no matter what happens at the show, is that anyone could be homeless. And what am I thankful for this year? That I have people in my life who remind me of that all the time. That I have people in my life who give me opportunities to be good and do good. That I get to meet so many cool people through doing improv with them. That I have to work at gratitude, because that means I always get to discover it anew. That I have a place to sleep tonight. Sometimes it is that simple.

Happy holidays and see you at the show.

-- Julia

PS I apologize to my many non-local readers. I'm dedicated to my community and sometimes that manifests in a hyper-local way. Feel free to transfer any feelings of goodwill to the (undoubtedly) similar circumstances wherever you live.

Oh, This is the Stage

The stage at La Paloma Sabanera is about four inches high. You could barely call it a stage at all. It's a step, really, a raised platform butting up against the windows right next to the door. Before closing time, there are two round tables and four chairs stationed there, and if you want to put on a show you've got to wait for the locals to finish their coffee and gossip before you can move the tables. Sometimes this takes a while, because lots of people use La Paloma for the kind of meeting where you really just want to hang out with a colleague in a pleasant place and say at the end, "Great meeting," with a jokey expression on your face that means that it didn't really feel like work. You got an excuse to hang out at La Paloma, that's all. I've seen this expression on the faces of the unemployed and on the face of the mayor at La Paloma on the same day. Everyone knows it's a relief just to be there. Once those tables are empty, you have to lift the tables down onto the floor and rearrange the room a little bit. You throw your bag of books, or your guitar, or your clipboard, or your cables on the couch, and then you get down to the pleasant work of turning every chair in the room to face what was a second ago a restaurant and is now a STAGE. You're going to do something weird up there, something a little too big for its narrow depth. I've always loved watching people see La Paloma's stage for the first time. "Oh," they say sometimes, if they're musicians or actors, imagining a grand theater. People are always surprised or disappointed for a second, and that's the moment that they have to get down to the real work of being the artist they want to be. That very moment, they have to realize that they're going to make the best of this cafe/stage and that they're going to be absolutely fine. For some people, that moment is a millisecond, so short they don't even feel it; for some, it lasts too long and they start to panic. But everyone has that initial thought: oh, this is the stage.

The first time I performed at La Paloma Sabanera was as an improviser, and I stood in front of the door, one foot hovering on the stage, one foot off, deciding when to enter. I was blocking the door and a couple of times I had to get out of the way so that people could come in and see our show. My improv company Sea Tea was just starting to do long-form, experimental stuff, and we booked a few days with La Paloma to force ourselves to put it in front of people. Up until that point, we'd mostly done it in the living room of two of our players, and every time someone died during a scene and ended up on the floor, a corgi named Penny would run over and like his or her forehead. We were all really young and were rehearsing around dogs and roommates, or we lived in studio apartments with no space, or we were driving over from our parents' houses an hour away just to do some weird improv in a living room. It was a great time, but it was also a hard time, because just about all the improv we did was terrible. Just awful stuff, confusing or pretentious or something we vaguely remembered from old SNL episodes. But two or three nights a week we hung out in living rooms or restaurant basements, trying to get better at something we were pretty sure we would eventually be good at. In retrospect, it was insane; in retrospect, it was impressive that we beat on against the current of our own imperfections.

At some point, somebody said a phrase that I now realize is Hartford's "open sesame," Hartford's "Speak Friend and Enter." Somebody said, "I'll talk to Virginia."

We talked to Virginia. She said, sure, do a show here. She always does. We did a couple of shows that went like this: we'd do a few short, easy improv games; a band would play; we'd do a long-form set with a few scenes that were just ok and a few scenes that were a little more than ok, and then the band would play again. We took the scenes the audience of fifteen or twenty-five people liked, the little places that they laughed, and we built our style and our company off of that.

At every show we had to explain what improv comedy was. That's how it goes in a little city where you're trying to do something new. But at every show at La Paloma, the audience would nod and look open-faced at us, gazing at us, heightened four inches off the ground, and treat us with respect and buy into the grand illusion that we were towering over them, professionals, artistes. "Sure," the audience seemed to say every time, "it sounds perfectly reasonable that you're going to mime eating turkey-flavored ice-cream while wearing matched t-shirts. Show us more!"

I went to so many events like that at La Paloma. Events that had to be explained, events that were rough around the edges. Sure, play this song you just wrote last weekend. Sure, read this thing that's half a poem and half a blog post and half a video game script (and sure, it's three halves, who cares?). Sure, this is a wind-machine made out of a trash can, let's see if it works. Sure, yes, I will close my eyes and listen to the radio with you.

At one point a few years ago, when I was hemming and hawing around about being a writer with a capital W, no doubt complaining and whining to myself that there was just no space for me, that there was no community of writers here, that I couldn't get published so what was the point, wah wah wah, and I used to go to all these awesome reading series in New York and why didn't those exist in Hartford, someone said to me, "talk to Virginia." And I walked over to La Paloma after work and I said, "Hi Virginia, I'd like to start a reading series," and she said "Great!" and then for two hours, one night a month, for twenty-two straight months, ten writers would read their work. That is two hundred and twenty readings. That is two hundred and twenty instances of a writer stepping up on a four-inch stage and putting their work out there, because someone said "sure." And the readings got better and better and better. The writers kept coming back, even when there were only six or seven people in the audience, and even when there were fifty new ears they had to put their work in front of.

Virginia says "sure." She's said that to so many bands and musicians I have trouble keeping count of them all. She's maintained a space where doodling as an art form and all-night novel-writing sessions are perfectly normal.

The times I have felt most moved in La Paloma, though, are during the improv mixers organized by Sea Tea's Vlad the Improv-er. If you haven't been to a mixer-- and why would you have, if you aren't someone with a secret dream to try to do one little improv scene over a warm beer-- then it's hard to describe why it's so great. It has something to do with people coming into Hartford from far, far away, sometimes out of state, because they are desperately hoping to meet someone else who's kind of funny and fun to do scenes with. Vlad calls people up on stage, matching them up-- a veteran who performed in New York for ten years and was on an award-winning team, paired with a mom who's never done it and finally got a babysitter-- and then they shake hands and they do a scene. They just do a scene. They step up on the stage, they think oh shit, this is the stage, and then they think oh, everything's fine. And then the music comes on and they step down. It ends up being so simple that they love it, and then they come back. Some of those people are on excellent professional teams now.

This all makes it sound so easy, like La Paloma is a magical place and Virginia is some wizard who makes it all happen. But that isn't true at all. La Paloma is the place where you put your money where your mouth is. Since it exists, and since Virginia always says yes, you have no excuse. Make your art. Get your ass in there and pull out your calendar and pick a night. If you don't, it's your own fault. Nothing is more liberating than that. Do it. Go. Make it happen. Bring your audience. Explain what you're about to do. Make some bad art. This is the place for it. You're going to have to make bad art before you make good art, and that's what this place is for. It's an excuse-evaporator, a community-maker, a screen, a chapbook, your first LP. Really though, what it has is your first audience.

It works on the other end, too, the spectator end. If you think there's nothing to do in Hartford, no one trying new things, no one putting themselves out there, no individual artists, no risk-takers, no political action, no real conversation, no debate-- go to La Paloma. And if you still don't see what you want, maybe it's time to stop being a spectator. Get off the table, get out of the chair, move them aside-- oh, you're on the stage. Oh, this is the stage. You were on it the whole time.

La Paloma is many more things-- food and coffee and conversation and the best place in its neighborhood and everything else you've heard, if you live in Hartford, and everything you're imagining, if you live somewhere far away. I have made so many friends here that I can't remember specific meetings any more; those friendships have all blurred into one mellow memory. I had a friend who had moved away to Ecuador four years ago, seemingly forever, and just last week I ran into her at a La Paloma event. She's moved back and that's one of the places she went to first. Of course. Of course it was. I was overjoyed to see her but it felt so inevitable.

La Paloma is closing down. You must have heard by now. If you're from here, you heard it directly; if you're not from here, you heard it echoed in some other messy little space where people gather. A place where you know someone must be pretty cool just for showing up there. A place that answers that little call in your sternum that we so rarely acknowledge out loud: I need a place where I can try something new, where I can show up alone. I need to have a night that is truly surprising. I need the possibility that I am something more than what I was yesterday, even if I'm broke, or an alcoholic, or an introvert, or depressed, or just here in Hartford all of a sudden for god knows what stupid job transfer or family obligation or accident. I need a place.

When someone asked me where I'd move Syllable, my reading series, I went unusually silent. "I need a place," I said, "where if five people show up it's not embarrassing, but if sixty people show up, they can fit."

So it is with gratitude that I say goodbye tonight to La Paloma, and thank you for being my secret garden. I admit that when I came to Hartford the city seemed dead and full of weeds, depressed and angry and fraught. And I was, and still am sometimes, those things too. There were many fertile grounds in Hartford where I was able and allowed to repair and grow my garden, but only La Paloma has felt like a skeleton key. I wish I had made better use of it. I wish I'd been less selfish with my time, and spent more money here so that it would not be closing down. It's so hard not to feel personally responsible for its closing, since this place and this person gave me so many chances every day to make something of myself, and it. It is a reminder to me that there was always a first stage and a person who said "sure."

I have played on many bigger stages since those first improv shows at La Paloma. We had to move the mixers because we opened our own studio and we were overjoyed to fill it. We don't have to explain what the hell it is we're doing any more. We did that work at La Paloma. And so many of the bands that played their first shows here have moved on to New York or were playing earlier today at internationally acclaimed festivals. Or the radio producers who frequent this counter continue to broadcast to a hell of a lot more than thirty people. Or the films that were screened here were played for rooms of hundreds. We outgrew you, La Paloma, because that's what you allowed us to do. And we are so grateful. And we're so sorry that we didn't make it easier for you to stay here forever. And we promise that we will make that space somewhere else. And we recognize that it's our job now to do so.

There is something here, in this last 24 hours before those doors close, that I want to make sure I remember. In this little space, even if we went on to bigger stages, we were not discovered. This was never a place to show up and be recognized and made famous or talented. We had to move the tables ourselves. And then we pointed out to others: this is the stage. But, despite all I've said, it really never was a stage. There are no wings to wait in, there are no stairs to sneak up. At that first show, I was standing with one foot on, one foot off, ready to rise when the scene needed it. That's not a stage. That's a step. And when you're ready, you take it on your own.


La Paloma is closing tomorrow, June 27th. Tonight, in celebration of five years of incredible programming, there will be an awesome marathon performance of 40 bands, writers, comedians, radio producers, storytellers, artists, filmmakers and doodlers. Free, of course.

Why You Should Go

Many years ago-- twelve years, actually-- I auditioned for a college a cappella group. I walked into the rehearsal room-- the room in which I'd later spend hundreds and hundreds of hours, pretending I could read music better than I could, hearing harmonies lock in, struggling to be a better musician and a better friend to these women who would change my life-- feeling very confident, like I was destined to win this thing, to be in this group, to slaughter this audition before me. I could call my attitude aggressive, or arrogant, or just confident, but however you want to put it-- I wasn't good enough. I failed. I didn't make it. And I knew it, too; had high enough standards and enough musical taste to know I didn't deserve to make it. So a couple of days later I auditioned for something else: a tiny AIDS Benefit club that nobody really cared about, which did musical reviews that each raised about $300 for a local AIDS coalition. The club had just been dumped, both artistically and administratively, on one poor, nice little sophomore guy. The auditions for this one were in a run down little chapel on the outskirts of campus. This club had no flash and really, nothing but the nobility of its "benefit" status to recommend it.

You know what happens now. I did the benefit show; I'm marrying the nice sophomore guy. I also went back to the a cappella group six months later and did a better job and made it in. I did both. My life was all and, and, and. The initial rejection made me go out and get some other yes's, so that I could bounce up to and's.

It was too much. I took too many classes, I joined too many clubs. I had too many friends and spent too much money going out to too many restaurants ordering too many appetizers to split. I read too many books for too many hours and had to get up early to write too many papers with too many citations. Then I graduated and agreed to go to China too quickly, where there were too many people, and I traveled to too many cities, which I could only get to by transferring on too many buses. I went to New York, too loud, too hot, too expensive, too expansive, too absurd. I quit my first job there because it was too corporate and I worked as a dogwalker because that was too ridiculous of an opportunity to say no to; I specialized in dogs that were too aggressive or too big. I had to walk them even when it was too cold, too hot, too rainy, or too snowy, and if I was too tired from  staying up way, way too late the night before.

It became something of a joke. Julia was the person you could get to do anything. She'd say yes to it all. I was open to suggestions. I was a braggart about doing new things, stupid things, real things, things I hadn't even imagined before. I've only actually applied for a job once in my life, and it was for being a restaurant hostess. Everything else was just me agreeing to do something for someone.

And then I found improv (because Greg asked me to go with him one day, and of course I agreed), and the whole philosophy just exploded. Yes, yes, yes. And, and, and. By the rules of improv, everyone had to do what I'd been trying to do all along: be bold, be impermanent. Find joy in piling on.

My class became my team became my company, and now we're winning competitions. Tonight we have a show in New York at the Upright Citizens Brigade. It could be our last, our only. It's a competition; we could get knocked out tonight, or, should we keep winning, we could perform every Thursday in New York for months.

I'm writing this post because I think you should come. You have a hundred reasons not to. It's late at night, it's far away, and the show is sold out. But you know what? Since it's late you have no conflicts, and there's a standby line that guarantees you entry. And this show will never happen again. There is no other chance.

All this preachy stuff just for a little show? Yes. Because it's the little shows, and the long nights, that make a life. I'm tired and I'm busy and I'm stupid sometimes, but the only real "too" in my life is that the hours are too short. I don't make lists of pros and cons. I make lists of pros, and then I pick the best pros.

You should go to this show because you can drink a cheap beer while you watch. You should go because the seats are delightfully crappy and you might end up sitting on the floor, crotch-level with the actors. It'll make you feel young. You should go because we have no idea what the show will be about; you should go because it'll cost you five dollars. You should go because the drive down from Connecticut will be only a couple of hours, and the traffic will be great because it's so late, and tomorrow's Friday and it's a three-day weekend. You should go because it's too far away, too late, and you'll be too tired tomorrow-- which is the basis for any adventure.

And, if you're from Hartford or Connecticut at large, you should go because there once was a band of seven stupid idiots who did something badly and then got better. And better. And lost other Cage Matches with horrible scenes about porcupines, and came back. And those people have multiplied, and they're pretty good now, and they beat a bunch of New York teams in the Indie Cage Match, proving that Sea Tea Improv is just as good as a bunch of people who moved to NYC to make careers as actors. Maybe on another day one of those teams would have beaten us; but there was no other day. There is only the thousand little yes-and's that got us to that moment. And Connecticut is killing it right now with our yes's. If you're from Hartford, you should be proud of that, and you should brag about it as if it were a personal achievement, because Hartford made Sea Tea possible.

But Julia, you're saying, I live in Seattle and the show is tonight and I don't even know you personally. Ok, that's a good reason. But then, instead, go out and do something else. Find a better pro. The next thing that someone asks you to do-- hear in your head all the little no's you're saying to yourself. Recognize them so that you can realize how dumb they are and then ignore them. Go support someone who is doing something good for your community, even if it makes you tired. Find a way to make every no a yes. You can't plan your life. You're improvising. That's what improvising is: going into something cocky and not good enough, getting rejected, and then turning around and making it good.  You thought you were a singer, and maybe you're not right now. Go be in an AIDS Benefit. Are you meant to be a singer? No. You're not "meant to be" anything. You're meant to go on with whatever you've got. Go find something else and marry it. Go all the way.

In every no, a yes. Is that corny? Is that arrogant? Is that completely unoriginal? Yes. And it's true.

And now I need to go, because someone has just asked me to do something a little bit nuts. So I must leave you. Go.

-- Julia

Show info here.

Why I Can't Write About Improv

Shortly after I'd been beheaded in the knife fight, I heard a whisper in my ear. "Just your head," John said, after doing something indiscernable with his arms. We were standing against the back wall-- in improv-jargon, The Back Line-- of the studio we co-own with a bunch of other people. We do not usually speak on The Back Line, so I knew he had some major idea he was attempting to give me for my character. Obviously, when we'd cut away from the knife fight just at the moment of my beheading, I hadn't died. My head was up for another round at fight-to-the-death-summer-camp-- that's what we'd been doing, that had been the fun idea, that had been the game. Improv-speak again: The Game. Or the GAME, as it is the all-important thing to many, many people trying to do something simultaneously spontaneous, fun, intelligent, and sensical all at the same time. Trust me, that is very difficult to do. I have spent four years in a permanent quest for two-minute spans of time that meet those requirements. My head, cackling and ready for a fight, danced out into the scene atop a stool. I blow-darted (blew-dart?) my opponent, somehow we ended the scene, then the Harold, then the night, and half an hour later I was sitting with John having a beer and he said, "what I was thinking," moving his arms like Vana White, extending and wiggling his fingers, "is that you'd be your head, and I'd be your arms, holding the head." He passed my invisible head to one hand while gesturing with the other. "But I couldn't figure out how to do it."

"Goddamn it!" I said. "That would have been great." I took a drink and gazed into the distance like the great Artist I am. "Goddamn it."

We continued on with our night, laughing our heads off about some more successful ideas (improv term: Moves) of the evening, including a CIA agent's surveillance of a neighborhood dog and the line "toenails aren't like snowflakes. They're not all unique." We swept over the night like we always do, spewing out positive judgements and negative ones only for ourselves. That's how we fight off the bad blood: never say someone else's idea is bad. Because it isn't. It is up to you to communicate with your team, live onstage.

That night I lay awake-- I really did-- thinking: how would you communicate "put your head in my hands"? How do you say: in this scene, the audience can see my head, and your arms, but nothing else? I am certain John, on his drive home across town, was working through the same question. It was like "Somewhere Out There," but of infinitely more consequential.

This is why I can't write about improv comedy, the thing that consumes more hours of my life than any other single thing. A couple of times a week, I unlock a door and close it behind me, and in that one small room, in about fifty square feet, there are so many things. There are swimming pools full of shedded skin, there are airports in which a mystery is afoot, there are ladies at brunch. In the room adjacent to the studio, we have an office which is cluttered with posters, a sewing machine, Diet Cokes, cleaning supplies, grant applications, and books, but which to my mind is empty compared to the technically empty room. In that empty room so many people have fallen in love, so many neighbors have gotten competitive, so many animals have been able to speak. But in that room a floating head had never been rolled from evil hand to evil hand, and that was pissing me off. I have trouble writing about improv because I see all of those invisible things and to describe them would be strange and seem of no importance.

Let me back up in case you don't know, because this isn't explained enough: theatrical improv consists of at least two people inventing scenes, characters, and yes, Games without any prior planning. The most popular incarnation of improv was "Whose Line Is It Anyway" with Drew Carey, but that show performed only short-form improv (Short-Form forthwith), which is performing short games with some kind of pre-arranged structure or gimmick. For example, everyone's at a party and someone has to guess who everyone is. Then there's long-form improv (Long-Form), in which the actors figure out their own games and generally do something more organic, with no interruptions from the audience. There are lots of long-form structures-- The Harold is one, but it is only one, it is not THE one, as some worship it as.

But none of that is really important. People will say it's important but it isn't. What's important is the precise moment that you step forward, away from the group, normally alongside only one other person. There are two reasons to step forward: you have an idea, or you have no fucking idea but you'll go with whatever the other person might be thinking. If you're both in the first category, if you're both in the second category, or if you've got one of each-- it shouldn't matter, because everything after the first sentence should be near-pure listening and reacting.

Here I am lecturing, as if I were teaching right now. I do teach. I love the theory because it gives language to things that should be true in real life but often aren't. "Listen before you respond," "make sure you are all in the same reality," "find the unusual path and follow it." I say those things in my classes. Sometimes I say them in my head when I am out in the world with regular people.

But really, all of that bossy stuff, all that theory, all of these fine points that improvisers make in classes and in their interior realities-- all of those things are exercises and zen mediations that we are working on to get to another level. And that other level is: how do I trust this person to hold my head in their hands? And how do I tell them that that's what we should do?

It would be cheating to step out and say "remember that time you held that head in your hands." That's not what the audience wants to see, and that's not what we want to do. All of humanity wants to see the spontaneous holding of heads in hands, and, what's more, all of humanity wants that to be surprising and delightful. If you are saying to yourself right now, "no I don't," well then, you weren't there the time Dan figured out onstage how to perfectly puppeteer/possess Summar's body, and you didn't see the time Greg and I got possessed by each other's spirits. You didn't see the ghosts riding the seesaw on the playground (and you didn't see that no one else could see them). When that sort of thing takes you out of your sense of reality-- when you really, really see that happening before you-- it's really wonderful. And it's not just mystical things. When you really believe in this mother and daughter, or this office tension, it's the same sense of magic.

The trick is to improvise with a team you know, trust, and love, in that order. The question is: who can you communicate with? On the outermost circle, all people on the earth, who at least recognize that you're another person and can read basic emotions. Then go one circle in and I'd say that's all the people in the world who speak the same language as you do. Then your region  your actual acquaintances  your friends and family. The challenge for an improv team is to be even closer than that.

The other people in Sea Tea know a lot about me. They don't know exactly what I was like in high school, but they do know when Julia has an idea, or when Julia doesn't know exactly what you meant so you should clarify that, or when Julia is bringing back that thing you said earlier. And I know when Joe is about to deliver a monologue, or when Laura's going to dance. That is, for me, the real joy of improv: knowing other people. No, no. The real joy is: learning other people so that someday, somehow you will know what they're going to do.

I have talked about improv for hundreds of hours, and could write the same. But I won't. I will just say this: improvising with my team is like improvising with my glasses on. With everyone else, I'm squinting. Sometimes I get to the same place, but with my glasses on, there's a sense that everything is perfectly made and detailed.

But sometimes something comes into the peripherals, soon to make its way into a better field of vision. A hand is flickering, trying to figure out how to hold your head. But if those hands already hold your history, if those hands know for sure that this idea would really, really delight you, if those hands have lifted a beer in toast to you a hundred times, if you know when those hands are talons, old woman's hands, and holding an invisible basketball-- those hands have a much greater chance of holding your head while it laughs.

The Lottery, Part 2

Last week I performed in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Lottery show.  In the Lottery, students in the UCB’s education program are randomly selected to perform alongside members of the theater’s house improv teams. When you’re selected, they call a few days before (see previous post) and then you simply show up the day of the show. Perhaps the best way to describe the experience is to break it down hour by hour.

3:00  I leave work, in Hartford, early.

3:30 I meet Greg, my boyfriend and the only person I know who will witness this lucky performance, at the Megabus stop.

4:00-ish: Bus leaves, commence fretting about the show.

6:45: Gobble down a sandwich in midtown.

7:00: Arrive at rehearsal studio, meet other students selected. There are students from all four levels here; I’m in the highest so at least I have an idea of what’s going on. One of the 101 students is in a 101 intensive so he literally just started doing improv a week ago. My good friend Vlad was also selected and we keep grinning at each other.

7:10: During warmups we, the eight selected, learn that one person has just gotten off a flight from LA, two of us came in from Connecticut, and we’ve got marketers, teachers, and the usual hodgepodge of occupations with us tonight.

7:20: Porter Mason, our instructor, is boiling down all of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s sixteen-week curriculum into a three hour workshop.  “This is what a Harold is,” he says, “Someone will do a monologue. Then three scenes. Try to find a pattern. Then a group scene. Then revisit the first three scenes. Then another group scene. Then short scenes where you can tie things together.”

7:30 – 10:00: Rehearse, bond, try to develop group mind in this very short time.

10:05: Walk over to the theater. We pick up iced coffees along the way and chatter nervously about the show. I feel very close to these folks already.

10:30: Enter the theater. Harold Night (an evening of five back-to back house team improvisations) has one Harold to go—up on stage they’re playing with  a pattern of famous Italians.  I’m too nervous to watch and slip back through the crowds to the green room, which, in my nervousness, I can’t find for a minute. There are something like 200 people int the audience.

At this point time falls aside because I’m sitting backstage with improvisers I have long admired. I can’t bring myself to be witty enough to break into their banter so instead I turn to comforting the 101 guy.

Just before we go on, we stand in a closet to warm up. Trying to be bold, I request a specific warmup. In my group are Kevin Hines from the Curfew, Andy from Sandino, and Ellena from CAPTCHA.  Kevin’s the model of professionalism, Ellena is warmer than warm, Andy is being silly. All three points of view are a relief.

We’re the first of two Lottery teams to perform. We are standing behind the curtain. For the UCB experts, this is an ordinary night. Porter Mason goes out and explains what’s about to happen, and selects an Advanced Study student right then and there to perform with us. Although the rest of us have only been together for four hours, and we’ve only been with the experts for thirty minutes, the Advanced Study student feels like an intruder. How could I possibly come to trust this person? I didn’t even hear his name. But now I’m coming through the curtain, clapping (I have a problem—I almost always clap if I hear clapping, even if other people are clapping for me and I’m supposed to be acting cool about it).

We start. The suggestion is Metallica. Three quick monologues happen, and I hear an idea from the first monologue that I love (“I worked security but I was small so I just was just mean to people”), and within three incredible seconds I know I have a great scene initiation and I start to smile. In my head I’m thinking “Keep listening, keep listening, you need to hear it all and have many ideas and at the very least be able to work with other people who were listening better” but now the nervousness has vanished and I just want to knock this one out of the park.

The second the third monologue is over, I step forward to indicate I am ready, here we go and another student steps out, too. I initiate my scene about a high school mean girl who works security in an airport, and just when I think I haven’t planned any further than the initiation, I have no idea where this will go, Kevin Hines is in the security line, too, supporting us and making the scene about emotional relationships. The scene is happening under my feet and it is easy, it is gliding along, and maybe it’s funny; all I know is that it feels good.

The other two scenes happen—a shitty band and an addictive tag-sale—and in the group games, I’m along for the ride but don’t contribute anything worthwhile. I’m just a part of the blob. Again, feels good. We do our scenes again and now it’s going by fast. I don’t feel the ideas pinging around in my brain, but in a way that’s good; it forces me to listen and respond to my scene partners, some of whom have better ideas than I do, and I’m grateful.

And then it’s over, the lights are killed, I immediately think of ten better moves I could have made, but I’m smiling and I don’t care. There’s a little high fiving and tripping backstage. I come out into the audience and watch Vlad work a scene about fasting, and I realize that they don’t tell the audience who are the teachers and who are the students. They’re all just out there, together, finding patterns and games and hanging out in groups. For this night they are one group, levels be damned.   The best scenes are the ones where the students are the stars and the instructors make all of the support moves.

Conclusion: the most advanced form of improvisation is support.

And then it’s really over, and we get notes that are really just compliments, and we walk outside and I find that two friends I haven’t seen since high school showed up, and we giggle and catch up, and we all walk down to McManus and have a beer with the leftover performers from Harold night, and revel in our glory. Vlad and I pump Greg for audience perspective.  We keep saying, “This is awesome.” Simple and dumb, but who cares. It was.

12:50: “Oh god, it’s 12:50, we better get going.”

1:15: Metro North train to New Haven. We try to sleep but we’re too excited and rehash both Harolds and the workshop ad nauseum.

3:00: Off the train in New Haven, jump in Vlad’s car. Greg demands food (nobody has eaten since 6:30).

3:30 AM: McDonald’s fries and gas station milkshakes for all.

4:15 AM: Arrive home, full of milkshake and improvisation joy.

4:20 AM: Asleep.

8:30 AM: Working away in my cubicle, preparing for another ordinary day.

The Lottery (Prelude)

The following is a self-indulgent look at how I ended up in the Lottery Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade this week. In subsequent posts I will talk about how it actually went. Only read this if you're a super geek like me. Less than a week ago, Greg and I were having a lovely dinner of couscous and something else (it was good, so I don't think I'd personally made it), without phones, without radio or music, without a rush to something afterwards, without anything but each other. It was nice and, sadly, an unusual event. So when I got up and saw this chat from my dear friend John/Vlad the Improv-er...

6:31 PM John: guess who just got selected to perform at the UCB lottery show!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
6:34 PM HELLO!!!!!
... I cursed the ill timing of my romantic interlude. I had a feeling. I just had a feeling. I looked at my phone.

9 minutes
 John: shut the fuck up!!!!!!
  thats what it was!!!!!!
..... I'm not normally a big caps lock user, but I was really upset. I think you should know at this point what the Lottery is. The Lottery is a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade (founded by Amy Poehler, one of my idols) where I am currently a level-4 (of five) student. About every six months they have a show in which they draw students from each level of their classes and have them put on a show with members of the UCB House teams. It's an opportunity to play on their stage, to have their superstars get to know you; it's an opportunity, in short, to feel like you won the actual lottery.  The chances of getting selected are slim, and the chances of John and I, good friends and members of the same team in Connecticut, were pretty much nothing. But it happened. But I missed it.
 me: but i MISSED IT
 John: call back
6:46 PM me: I did
 John: and?
 me: voicemail
 John: how did we both get called
  they leave a message?
 me: no
  I think they just call the next person
  I missed it
 John: oh no
6:48 PM they call a bunch of people
 me: I totally missed it
...At this point, you can obviously tell, I was extremely sad. Greg was finishing his couscous and watching me pace around. I called the number back twice. Generic UCB voicemail.
 John: what was the number?
 me: it's the ucb number, I called it right bak
6:49 PM WAIT
Thinking about my recent "If You Don't Ask" post, I called back one more time. No harm in being obsessive. No harm in listening to voicemail and self-flagellating for a while. This time, someone picked up. Greg got on my computer.
 me: It's Greg. She called again and got someone.
  They're talking...
 John: cool
  that would be cool to do it with someone i know
6:50 PM me: She's pumping her fist in the air victoriously
Here's the conversation I had:
Confused girl: Hello?
Me: Hello?  Is this... who is this? (an actual voice picking up completely disoriented me)
Confused girl: Who is THIS?
Me: This is.... this is Julia. I got a call from this number. I just called it back. (Good time for nonchalance, me. Slick.)
Confused girl: Um... do you do improv? (I hope that the UCB voicemail just forwarded straight to her phone and that the UCB line is not actually this awkward.)
Me: Yes! Yes I do. I'm in 401 with Eric Tanouye.
Confused girl: (shuffling around and long pause) Oh, ok... yeah... you've been selected to be a part of the lottery show on Tuesday. Would you be interested in that?
 me: It's Julia again!!!!
 John: whats up???
 John: WTF
 John: im calling u in a min
 me: dude
6:51 PM this is fucking crazy
END GCHAT, commence excited phone call with John, which I don't really remember.
Why do I copy and paste this chat here? Well, I was very excited to be in the show, of course. But I was even more excited that my persistance paid off. Had I not called back three times, I would not have been in the show. Opportunities come but when they do you have to use every part of the buffalo, and not feel sorry for yourself until it is truly, truly too late. I'm often in denial about that part so I'll take things just one step further, ask one more question, call back one more time.
Next post will be a reckoning of the show itself. Spoiler alert: one of the top ten experiences of my life.
You out there: keep calling. Keep asking.

I said hey! What's going on?

Dear readers, I hope you've been enjoying my periodic whimsical rants about whales, radio, books, and the like. I think it's about time for a real update on what's going on, don't you?

1) Sea Tea Improv continues to grow at a breakneck pace. We just did a great show at ESPN's campus, our 2nd birthday is today, we're on the lookout for new places both to perform and to teach. All very good! If you're at all interested in improv, comedy, theater, Hartford, or small businesses, I encourage you to keep up with us. I never thought I'd be a part of something so grassroots and satisfying. Oh, and I completed the 3rd level (of 4) of education at the Upright Citizens Brigade. So much fun.

1a) I've started recording a Sea Tea podcast. 5 episodes recorded but not posted yet-- stay tuned for that. I'm trying to learn how to edit audio and interview people well and then when I have a decent product ready I'll post a few to get started.

2) The Mark Twain House & Museum is, as always, a daily dose of random. I'm coordinating a Tom Sawyer Pirate Day, a Victorian Tea Party, events related to a Steampunk Exhibit, an Oktoberfest, a traveling Mark Twain Game Show, the silliest twitter feed, a booth at the CT Book festival... I could go on forever.  Someday I will write about this.

2a) I'm also about to start another radio project relating to the history of the Twain House as a historic property. It will involve inspirational women. I'm thrilled to pieces, especially to be working with Catie Talarski, quite an inspirational lady herself.

3) I picked up another little job teaching a combination of theater and Twain History to a gaggle of kids at the Hartford Children's Theatre. Kids! It's been a while. Can't wait.

3a) Speaking of theater, I'm in a top secret puppetteering production for Real Art Ways' Odd Ball (out of towners: that's an indie cinema & art house in Hartford).

4) I'm still writing and submitting things here and there, but it's slow going because of all my other commitments and projects. The Writers Fellowship I won last year is almost up and I've used much of the time to research an essay on Ghanaian Fantasy caskets, brainstorm a new piece about technology and my relatives, and write short pieces intended for radio. The writer's life is a slog sometimes and I wish I could create more time out of thin air.

4a) I was in Washington for the AWP conference and won a little short fiction contest via the Coachella Review. That was fun! For more writing news poke around this whole site.

5) I'm trying to shave an hour off my half marathon time. Ha ha ha. Really.

5a) I'm also trying to get back down to fighting weight so I can go on some  scuba and rock-climbing weekends with my wonderful and athletic siblings.

6) I'm about to launch a reading series at La Paloma Sabanera (a local coffeehouse) because, frankly, there should be one, and if I've learned one thing about Hartford it's that you should just do it yourself and stop complaining. Right? I'm VERY excited about this project.

6a) My reading life has been spotty lately. I need someone to recommend a great book I will tear through in a week or less.

7) Finally, this blog is going to get a revamp. I've played around, I've posted here and there-- it's time to knock this sucker up to twice a week and get some actual subscribers. Therefore: please subscribe, tell me what you like and don't like, and come along for the rest of my year of new projects.

No Business

The other night I was telling a friend about walking straight and simply out of the theater world when I was seventeen years old. In my public high school my reputation had been tied to a stage persona (I actually have an essay about this, "High Status," that I've been shopping around to no avail) but as I approached graduation I realized that theater had wreaked havoc on my body image and personality. In short, after too many musicals I had become sort of a jerk, and it was a relief to head to college as a nerd instead. Only very recently have I realized that I am almost fully submerged in the theater world again and have felt none of the same anxieties as I did ten years ago.  Surely some of the difference is the difference between being seventeen and twenty-seven, but I also have come to realize how immensely proud I am of the particular work my theater collectives are doing.

HartBeat Ensemble is a group of professionals who have been poking their noses around the issues that Hartford is sometimes a little too squeamish to address.  HartBeat interviews all sides of the community and creates new work based on those interviews. They also run a wonderful program (called Youth Play Institute) in which kids from different schools write a play together.  I think I would have had a very different view of what theater could be to myself and to a community had I experienced YPI in my own high school.

And then of course there's Sea Tea. Even though improv is clearly a theatrical  discipline, I feel entirely like myself while doing it.  Being onstage requires only basic stagecraft, respect for your audience, listening, and responding. That's basically it. Any concern about showing off  is only a hindrance.

The basic principle we use in Sea Tea is "make your partner look good." Every moment onstage we are attempting to make the other players look good by accepting what they're offering and going with it. We're also trying to make our audience look good/feel smart by using their ideas and suggestions to create hilarious scenarios.   Come to think of it, HartBeat is making their partner look good too- every good work they do is reflected right back into the city.  HartBeat makes Hartford look really, really good if you ask me.  And Sea Tea too.

Today I'm going to try to figure out who my partners are around here, and how to help them do their best. That's the kind of theater I'm into these days.

Wit and wisdom

I am dying to be on a panel at the Twain/Tolstoy symposium at Boston University late this summer.  This morning, I'm writing and submitting an abstract to speak on Mark Twain's wit as a representative of The Mark Twain House.  I'm hoping that my day to day operations at the Twain House, my MFA in Writing, my recent grant, and the shocking fact that I am now a semi-professional improviser (we do get paid, after all) will add up to a new and simple fact in my life: I might be an expert on this topic. It is strange to think that I might be an expert in anything at all-- I am so often the least-informed person in the room.  But I traffic in wit now.  I use wit to entertain and contribute to Hartford's revival; I work with the wittiest team that ever was; I am employed because of a writer who we only remember because of his incredible wit during his lifetime.  My academic interests have always been wit-related (anybody remember me waxing about Oscar Wilde?) and I have informally been making a study of wit in pop culture in order to improve my improv.  I seem to be taking wit a little too seriously.

The academic question is: what is wit?  As I work on this abstract, I notice that wit is usally in tandem with either wisdom or brevity (thanks, Shakespeare).  I believe that both of these are true, that wit derives from intelligent observation, and that there are quite a few more subtlties I will think about all day.  Can't wait.