Forced To Have Fun - A Robot's Tale

I was in a cat fur party scene in a show recently.  I was a cat playing with another cat among other various animal couples on stage.

The only person left on the sidelines walked on and said it was time for the dancing portion of the convention. And then all nine people in the troupe instantly knew to break into the choreographed dance we had performed before our actual improv show – in honor of our namesake St. Patrick’s Day – but this time, we danced it as our animal characters.

I’ve never been more on an improv-love-insanity high than after that show, and that night I shot off an email (subject line: Thank you for putting me on this Ewing Team!!!) to Chad Haught, Dallas Comedy House's (DCH) training director and one of the Ewing judges who cast me in the student troupe.

I gleefully signed off my thank you note with, “I don't get when weird works and when it doesn't, but who cares! I get to do it!!! Thank you, sir!!!!”

Clover Dance Pic

I've been doing improv for a year and a half. I've spent the majority of that time questioning everything and trying to Figure. Out. Improv. In Billy Merritt's pirate-robot-ninja categorization of improvisers (explanation one and explanation two), I'm obviously a robot. I don't do anything on stage that hasn't been fact-checked, full-body scanned, and FDA cleared by my robot brain…and because of my inexperience, lack of imagination, and slow processing system, that typically means I don’t do much during improv runs.


And then I made Clover, one of the two DCH student house teams for the March/April term. Where I get to learn how to have fun. Where I get to play with crazy, hilarious people. Where I get to be coached by someone who says, "Weird is always good" and stresses the importance of having fun on stage and supporting the heck out of each other.

Once during notes, upon my flabbergasted response to my coach’s heightening example that nearly short-circuited my robot brain, she also had to remind me, “Christy, you can do anything. It’s improv.”

I cannot tell you how thankful I am for making Clover. My default setting has me standing back and watching and not being weird. Clover stretches and pushes me and puts me out of my comfort zone because I am forced to have fun and be in crazy scenarios due to moves made by my troupe mates that I would never think to make myself as Improviser Christy 1.0.

This band of merry cats masquerading as a Ewing team is exactly what I needed at this juncture of my improv journey. Learning the crunchy improv rules and logical moves is really easy to seek out; learning how to have fun is something else entirely. The more I’m encased in my troupe’s style, the more my deeply-ingrained firewall defenses of “here’s how to think and act” break down and the more I’ll grow as an improviser.

Clover Group Pic Before Show

One part of the equation to having fun is a team’s intangibles. A group either has chemistry or it doesn’t. Clover obviously does, and I love my troupe’s energy that makes us uniquely us. The warm-ups alone are one of the highlights of my week. I can’t tell you what goes on because writing it out in print would only make crass the specialness that happens in those five-to-15 minutes of highly-supportive, anything-goes, unjudged wackiness…that will probably involve us behaving as felines at some point during it. Because obviously.

And so I want to thank a) my troupe mates for being their wonderful kitty selves and possessing whatever it is they have within that contributes to our team’s chemistry, b) our coach Amanda Austin for nurturing the group’s fun and weirdness, and c) the Ewing audition judges for not only putting this specific group of people together but also for giving me the opportunity to play with, learn from, and be associated with this particular bunch of crazy, hilarious fur balls. My robot brain can’t think of a better improv gift and training tool I could have received as a budding improviser than being cast into Clover.

I still don’t do much during improv runs, but believe you me my improvising system is being updated constantly. Look out for the release of Improviser Christy 2.0 coming soon!

Clover Group Bow

Christy Vutam is a graduate of the Dallas Comedy House program. One of her life’s ambitions is to conquer improv. She can often be seen on Friday and Saturday nights in the front row, middle-most seat in Tharp Theater with a notepad, pen, and blankie.

My No Good, Very Bad, Totally Embarrassing Audition Story

First, I want to start this blog post off with a big “Happy Birthaversary!” to Dallas Comedy House (DCH). Seven years and going strong, that’s *cue Donald Trump voice* huge! After seven years, DCH has more students, more classes, more shows, and more opportunities to perform than ever before, which conveniently brings me to my next point. This Saturday, Ewing auditions are upon us. With that in mind, I have a shocking (to me at least) announcement. I...am...going to audition for a Ewing team. There, I said it. Now it’s real. This is happening, people. Normally, the thought of auditioning makes me über anxious. In fact, I’m usually the first to play out, in my head, all the different traumatic kinds of fail scenarios that could occur at said audition.

For some inexplicable reason, I’m feeling slightly less worrisome than usual. It could be that I’ve finally grown a pair of proverbial improv cojones, or simply that the mission I’m about to embark on hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Regardless, I know some of you homies may currently be aboard the audition-anxiety train and I understand those feelings all too well. Thus, I thought I would share with you the tale of my most embarrassing audition—not to freak you out, but to let you know that no matter what happens Saturday, your audition experience will at least be 10 times better than the unfortunate chain of events I’m about to report.  

Let’s jump right in, shall we.

can't singIn high school, people do crazy things. My temporary lapse of sanity happened to be trying out for a musical. I can’t sing, I’m not fond of public speaking, and I’m by no means a great actress. So, why would I audition to be in a musical, you ask? Well, obviously it was because the flyers called for dancers and extras without speaking lines. At the time, I thought to myself, “Now that’s something more my speed. I can dance. I can be an extra. I love the idea of not speaking in front of other humans. Sounds perfect!”

The weekend of tryouts finally came around, and I was a rollercoaster of emotional energy—nervous, excited, and perspiring in multiple undesirable places. After filling out a form to state my desired roles, extra and dancer, the director began splitting us up into smaller auditioning groups, separating the non-speaking role desiring underachievers from the more serious thespians.

Either I must’ve had some really bad karma or I was on somebody’s naughty list, because somehow my name didn’t get called out to go with the other dancer/extras and I was left sitting in an auditorium with what look liked the cast of Glee. And, being my shy and extremely passive self, I kept quiet and didn’t do anything about it. Instead, I looked around at my “competition” and suddenly felt the urge to puke. I came to the frightening realization that I was the blundering William Hung amidst a sea of angelic-voiced, teen Pavarottis.

side eyeAfter what felt like an eternity of waiting, the director escorted us to another room for the singing portion of the audition. (I didn’t even know I was going to have to sing, all I wanted was a non-speaking role!) Called up to the plate first, you guessed it: me. I inched my way up to a music stand in the center of the room, staring at the audition panel and the piano accompanist while trying not soil my pants. I glanced back over my shoulder to see the young Chaka Khan, the little Aretha, and the white Gladys Knight and all her freakin’ Pips giving me major side-eye.  

“Please, state your name for the panel and what type of singer you are,” the director requested.

“Lauren. Uh...a good one.”

“Excuse me?”

Apparently that was the wrong answer. I was supposed to say “alto” or “tenor” or “I usually sing baritone, but I thought I’d change it up and try mezzo-soprano today.” Oops, my b.

“How many years of singing experience do you have?”

“A few, but it’s mostly in my shower.”

The panel was not amused.

The pianist started and I began to inevitably butcher my way through what should’ve otherwise been a nice-sounding song. Think a dying goose, a 13-year-old boy going through puberty, and an un-tuned oboe and you’ve got something comparable to the sounds that came out of my mouth. While I’m fairly positive that everyone’s ears started to bleed, I was suddenly more preoccupied by a strange, wet sensation radiating from my crotch.

Yes, my nerves had given in and my bladder had decided to release the entirety of its contents. Hell hath no fury like a nervous bladder holding a Sonic iced tea. At that point, I would say my embarrassment level fell somewhere between Ashley Simpson getting booed at the Orange Bowl and Jennifer Lawrence tripping up the stairs at the Oscars.

Wet pants, hands shaking like I was a Parkinson’s disease patient, and what was likely the world’s worst rendition of Holding Out for a Hero to boot, yeah, I think I made a real good impression on the panel. As the audition went on with the dancing and acting bits, I was shunned by the group to wallow alone in my pee-pants shame. Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), I didn’t get a part.

crushed itOn the bright side of things, I survived that horrible audition and I can now look back on the experience and laugh...maybe cry just a little...but mostly laugh.

So, whether you’re heading to the Ewing auditions for the first time or the thousandth time, and you’re filled with anxiety, know that it’s OK to feel that way. As you can see, I’ve been there with you before. But lucky for us nervous nellies, the great thing about improv is that everyone is out to support you and nobody’s going to purposefully give you side-eye or expect you to sing pitch perfect like Adele or Mariah. I guess, when it comes down to it, all you really need to do is show up, have fun, and maybe pee before you go in—damn, that’s solid advice, remind me to follow it!

Hope to see all you cool cats at the Ewing auditions, Saturday January 30...OK, now it might be starting to sink in. Eeeeep!

Lauren Levine is currently a Level 3 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.

The DCH Diaries: The Notes - Part Trois

Stuart Smalley Feedback is damn scary. The annual performance review, the D-minus on the final exam, Yelp, the bedroom partner asking, “How was it for you?” There is always the fear that no matter what we do, how hard we work, or how much we change, we will not measure up. Don’t we all have a little Stuart Smalley inside trying to convince us that we really are OK?

Unfortunately, after the (ever so slight) sting of not making a Ewing team had faded, Stuart turned on me. Instead of his usual mantra of “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough. . .,” I was plagued with that annoying little voice saying, “You’ve deluded yourself into thinking you did a credible job. But, really, you sucked.” (Actually, it more like, “You sthucked.” So, okay, I couldn’t take it that seriously.)

Fortunately, I didn’t have to hear that too long, as the Ewing gods promised to provide a glimpse into why I had not been picked. I received an email inviting me to respond if I wanted feedback on my performance.

Raise your hand if you like criticism. Be honest. I’ll admit that I don’t like it at all. I’ve taught college classes in which I never read a single student critique. RateMyProfessor.com terrifies me. When I make a presentation before a group of lawyers, I never look at the evaluation forms. I work for myself, grateful that I might never endure another annual performance review.

I am, however, committed to seeing these classes through. When I watch my friends and favorite improvisers on the stage, I want to be up there with them. There is no place I’d rather be than in class or in the theater on Jam nights. Perhaps because I suffer negative feedback so, I have become addicted to the laughter I hear from the stage. I want someday to teach in the training center to help further expand the reach of this cult. Doggone it, I like this stuff. So, how could I ignore a chance to find out what would make me a better player?

A week later, I found out . . . sort of. Here’s what they said, verbatim from the email and anonymous so that I would not know which quote could be attributed to which of the four judges:

"Stick with what you start with at the top of the scene and commit with bigger, bolder choices; being a bit louder would help, too."

"With Carron, I felt like all the right moves were being made but there wasn't enough emotion behind them. Walk the walk, not just talk the talk."

"This player certainly knows and understands the rules of improv, but I felt like I was watching someone tick off boxes, and not play a living, breathing scene. She might benefit from forgetting everything she knows once in a while, making a big, bold choice and just sticking with it to see what happens."

By the improv gods, they were not horrible admonitions to never set foot on a stage again. Not horrible at all. They also seemed to be remarkably consistent. Commit; make bigger, bolder choices; show more emotion.

The only problem is, I’m not sure what that all really means. I thought I had shown emotion and made good choices. Was I playing it safe? Was it too low-key? Was I afraid to act? Or was it something more fundamental?

These are not rhetorical questions. I want to know, I really want to know. What does it mean to commit and make bigger, bolder choices? How do I apply that to my improv? How do you apply it to your improv? Comment here or on the book of faces, email me, stop me at the Jam, let me buy you a drink in the bar. I want feedback, people!

Carron Armstrong is currently in Level 3 and has been obsessed with improv and DCH ever since she discovered that someone can actually take classes to learn this stuff. She is currently negotiating to purchase the naming rights for the brand new stairs added to ease access to the stages of DCH’s Main Street theaters (Thank you, Amanda and Kyle). During the day, she’s a lawyer.

The DCH Diaries: The Audition – Part Deux

Michael Jordan As I write this, the Golden State Warriors are one game from winning the NBA championship over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Michael Jordan never played for either of those teams, but over his 15 seasons in the NBA, his Chicago Bulls won six championships.

So, what does Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, have to do with Dallas Comedy House Ewing team auditions? I'll get to that, but I have a story to finish first.

As I was saying last week, I participated in the latest Ewing team auditions. (To read about the audition process itself, please read Part One.) After the audition was over, I thought I had done okay for a Level 3 student. Not brilliantly, but I held my own, I guess. Then again, I also thought the other members of my group were in top form. I was impressed with the level of competence I saw across the board. I could not imagine how the judges would narrow the field down.

We hung around until Amanda Austin emerged to tell us that the judges did not need any call backs. She also provided comforting words for those who would not make a team this go-round. I paraphrase: “We’re not looking for a particular type. Age, gender, and color don’t matter. We’re looking for a group we think will work well together. That doesn’t mean that you’re not good. In the entertainment business, sometimes you have to audition many times before you make it.”

Did I say comforting? We all know that the words are true. The test is in what we do with them.

Two days later, the email came. The judges had formed two Ewing teams, but my name did not appear on either one.

You know how sometimes you don’t realize how much you wanted something until you find out that you can’t have it? Honestly, I can’t exactly say that I grieved, but I was definitely disappointed that I did not make a team. It took me a little while to process it. Remember, I've never been on any kind of audition before. I went from thinking

“The judges do not think I had the right qualities to mesh with the pool of candidates.”

to . . .

“The judges do not think I am ready.”

to . . .

“The judges think I suck.”

to . . .

“Maybe I ought to give up this crazy idea that I could actually learn to do comedy improv, stop traveling so far out of my comfort zone that I am in danger of falling off the edge of the earth, give up my super cool new friends, and let the world continue to believe that the joy of being goofy on stage is just not appropriate for anyone over 40.”

Ummm, that sounds a little over the top, right? Gotta regroup, I thought. Being a compulsive list-maker, I ticked off all the things that I’d miss if I walked away:

  • all those super cool new friends
  • fun classes
  • the Jams
  • my blog posts
  • being on stage
  • future Ewing auditions
  • learning and doing new things and taking chances
  • getting that email with my name on a Ewing team list

In the end, I knew that it was just not yet my time. But, that doesn't mean my time won't come. I thank the judges for considering me. I will audition again in July. Count on it.

In the meantime, I will console myself by printing out the following list and taping it to the bathroom mirror:

  • Twelve publishers turned down J.K. Rowling’s manuscript about a boy wizard.
  • Of Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the MGM casting director wrote, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”
  • The list of extraordinary talent who unsuccessfully auditioned for Saturday Night Live includes Louis C.K., Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Lisa Kudrow, John Goodman, Kevin Hart, Kathy Griffin, Marc Maron, Geena Davis, Dave Foley, Richard Belzer, Zach Galifianakis, and many more.
  • Harvey Keitel auditioned for the Actor’s Studio for eight years before he was finally accepted. Now he serves as its co-president.
  • Steven Spielberg applied three times to USC Film School. They never let him in.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school freshman basketball team. Yeah, that Michael Jordan.

We close with one of my favorite quotes, conveniently supplied by the great MJ:

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

Next time: The Audition, Part Trois (the Notes) (yes, I’m milking this audition).

Carron Armstrong is currently in Level 3 and has been obsessed with improv and DCH ever since she discovered that someone can actually take classes to learn this stuff. She is currently negotiating to purchase the naming rights for the brand new stairs added to ease access to the stages of DCH’s Main Street theaters (Thank you, Amanda and Kyle). During the day, she’s a lawyer.

The DCH Diaries: The Audition - Part One

Ewing OK, so I’m just a Level 3. Nothing special. I’ve got a ways to go before I even finish this series of classes. So, when I learned that Ewing auditions are open to lowly Level 3 students, I was excited and trepidatious (a word I had not heard in a long time until last night’s LYLAS show. Improv can be educational, too.)

Ewing Teams are troupes formed through an audition process judged by experienced improvisers and Dallas Comedy House Training Center faculty members. Typically the process produces two troupes, each with eight or nine members. Those troupes spend a month in rehearsal with a coach, then perform on Thursday nights at 9:30 for eight weeks. Basically, it means more stage time, professional coaching, and maybe even the beginnings of a honest-to-goodness troupe.

But for me, like so much of this improv journey, Ewing involved a step into the unknown. You see, I have never auditioned for anything in my life. Ever. I have never done anything remotely like an audition -- unless you count piano recitals, which don’t count because at those everybody is required to at least act like they like you. Heck, I had never even tried out for a sports team.

But, since I am all about the “experience,” and I have resolved to take everything from this improv adventure that I can (all the while baring my fears and triumphs for all my loyal blog readers), the decision to throw my hat into the audition pool was a no-brainer. Well, it was a brainer, but I figured I had nothing personally to lose and everything to gain on behalf of those of you who might consider a run at it next time.

About 35 of us showed up at the theater that Saturday afternoon. There is no preparing for the audition beyond the practice we receive in class or at the Tuesday Jams and a certain command of the fundamentals. But, we were required to complete a fact sheet. It had three main questions: Why do you want to be on a Ewing team?; what can you bring to a Ewing team?; and the fun one: something about who you’d like to go on a date with, where you’d go, and a direction to “draw the date.”

Milling around the bar, I was surprised at how anxious I felt. I didn’t really expect anything to come of my first audition, green as I am. I was doing it for the experience, right? But then, I also knew that being picked was not out of the realm of possibility. Maybe I wanted this more than I had thought.

Amanda Austin counted us into four groups, and as luck would have it, before we could even warm up she called my group. At least I wouldn’t have to stew in the bar. In the theater, she invited us to take the stage. Our only audience were the four judges on which our Ewing fate rested.

Amanda explained that she would call out two people at a time, give us a one word suggestion and edit us. After we’d all taken a turn, we would go around again with a different scene partner. Great, I thought, that part will be easy. No decisions on when to step out and less pressure to fashion an initiation out of whole cloth. All I had to do was nail the scene.

Then, before I had a chance to get complacent, she called my name.

Next up: The Audition, Part Deux

Carron Armstrong is currently in Level 3 and has been obsessed with improv and DCH ever since she discovered that someone can actually take classes to learn this stuff. She is currently negotiating to purchase the naming rights for the brand new stairs added to ease access to the stages of DCH’s Main Street theaters (Thank you, Amanda and Kyle). During the day, she’s a lawyer.