Oh my wow! I can’t believe we’re finally here. We’re graduating guys. We’re graduating from THE world famous Dallas Comedy House (DCH)! Saying that still feels so surreal to me. I keep pinching myself to try and wake up from what has felt like the most fantastic and exhilarating dream, well a dream minus flying cats and an encounter with a shirtless Chris Pratt because at times I think there’s no way this has all been real. But, I’m not dreaming, I’ve indeed reached the end of the whirlwind journey that has been my improv education at DCH.
If you would have told me a year ago that I’d not only be taking improv classes but also come to be part of some amazing troupes, performing in front of actual people, I’d have said, “Shut yo mouth fool, you’ve lost your damn mind!” Or more likely, I would've have stared at you with a skeptical look and quietly thought that in my head. At that time, I was incredibly shy and anxious (plagued by horrible stage fright), and I wanted nothing more than to simply be a writer who could fade into the background of life, content with letting anyone else read my words and soak up the limelight.
But as I sit here, in front of my computer screen today, trying to wrack my brain with what exactly to say to all you fellow DCH graduates, I know that I’m not that same scared person I was when I started this whole improv thing. I’ve come a long way. My once frozen feet have begun to thaw out and my feelings of dread and panic when facing an audience have started to substantially fade away. Hell, I’m now part of two sketch comedy productions, I’m performing with my Big Stupid Fun crew, and I’m continually adding new delicious and exciting items to my ever-growing comedy plate.
I never expected any of that to happen, though. The thing is, when you embark upon a new endeavor nobody has an idea what’s going to happen next. NOBODY. None of us. Not even Neil deGrasse Tyson who is a literal genius and knows the complete inner workings of the universe, dark matter, and why waffles are so insanely delicious. Therefore, all anyone can do in these situations is go in with a positive mindset, hope for the best, and see where the journey takes you. Ugh, that sounds so cheesy, but it’s true.
Along the way, however, you accumulate knowledge and new skills (or arrows for your improv quiver as Kam De Haan would phrase it) and you start to realize the things that matter most to you, that helped you reach your end goal, that inspire you to keep moving long after you’ve crossed that finish line. So, I thought I’d take this time to share the three concepts, or pieces of pseudo-wisdom, that have come to matter most to me as an improviser and human being.
You’ve probably heard people telling you time and time again to “do what you love” or “follow your passions,” but that’s crappy half-advice and rather cliché, so I’m not going to do that to you fine readers and fellow graduates. Maya Angelou—poet, civil rights activist, and overall kween—once wrote, “Pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” It’s fair to say that this may be better advice than simply, “Follow your passions, young Padawan, the future is yours.”
What Angelou’s quote suggests is that rather than “follow” your passion, take the time to “cultivate” your passion. Once you know what you’re passionate about it’s time to hone it, to water it, to nurture it, and to spend time learning as much as you possibly can about every facet of your craft. Whereas “following” implies something that results in an end, “cultivating” is a lifelong process. When cultivating plants, for instance, you don’t stop watering them or tilling the soil when you get a single bud. Nope, you just keep on watering and tilling, watering and tilling, even after the bud has blossomed, so over time, the whole garden can continue to flourish. In writing as in gardening, one dedicates a great deal to cultivation.
From a young age, I discovered my passion for writing. I was the weirdo elementary kid, constantly lost in a daydream, who carried a journal around and filled it with silly stories and whatever ridiculous other things popped into my head. On paper, I felt freest to express myself and I knew that whatever I did in life, I wanted it to involve writing in some form or another. I wanted to write and I wanted to make people laugh, simple as that.
I spent most of my time in graduate school studying the craft of storytelling and journalism, trying to wrap my mind around proper narrative structure and the use of figurative language and what it meant to expose universal truths through prose. All of those things are great to discover, I suppose, but as someone who was more interested in entertaining readers and writing funny things (praying desperately to have a Freaky Friday experience with Dave Barry or David Sedaris or Tina Fey or Jon Stewart my comedic literary gurus), I still felt incomplete as a writer. There was so much more out there to learn.
That’s when I started searching for sketch writing classes via the Internet and I came across DCH. I was so excited. Then my excitement turned into panic because I discovered that I had to take improv before I could set foot in the writer’s room. A terrifying prospect for a performance anxiety suffering individual. Initially, I scoffed at the idea of taking improv, thinking, “How could that possibly help my writing? These people don’t know what they’re talking about. This is just cray cray.” They weren’t cray cray, though. I was cray cray for thinking that they were cray cray.
Ten months and five levels of improv later, I’m still an incomplete writer, but an incomplete writer who has a new set of skills and new friends and new ways of thinking about storytelling. Improv not only significantly helped my confidence and allowed me to expand my creativity, but it’s also opened whole new doors of comedy wisdom and comedic approaches to writing. These are new doors that I will continue to open and voraciously consume all that’s behind in order to keep cultivating my passion.
But you see, a strange thing happens when you’re out, busy cultivating. You start to find yourself surrounded by an amazing group of individuals who share your passions and want to see you succeed in all your undertakings. These are the people who celebrate your distinct weirdness and want to learn from you as much as you do from them. The art and literary world call this wonderful phenomenon “finding your tribe,” which happens to be my second point.
In its simplest form a tribe consists of two parts: Tribal elders, those who hold and pass down their knowledge from years of experience, and the tribal juniors, those who learn from the tribal elders and bring with them fresh, innovative ideas to the tribal community. Eventually, the tribal juniors will learn and experience enough to become elders themselves, making room in the tribe for new members, resulting in a magnificent and cyclical process that inspires creativity and interconnectedness.
DCH is a wonderful tribe, with elders and juniors constantly swapping knowledge and ideas. I am so very lucky to have found and now consider myself a part of that tribe. There’s never been a place where I’ve felt as unconditionally loved and accepted, and for that I can’t even find the right words to express the amount of gratitude I feel. It’s rare to find a tribe quite like the one at DCH, so I urge my fellow graduates and tribe-mates to cherish it, continue fueling it with positivity and encouragement, and remember that no matter how far you drift away from it your tribe will always be there with open arms to welcome you back.
I once read a Tumblr blog post that said, “You can’t do epic shit with basic people,” and that is so true. No one in this DCH tribe is basic. You’re all incredibly complex and passionate and wacky (shout out to the wackiest of them all, Danielle Seright) individuals who inspire and amaze me with your talents. Continue doing epic shit. Remember me when you’re famous.
Because the DCH tribe is so awesome and may become your home away from home, it’s also very easy to get sucked into spending all your time cultivating and dealing with tribal affairs, which isn’t a bad thing per se. But it’s important to remember that it’s also perfectly fine, even recommended, that you step back from the tribe every once in a while. Take a break and live your life. That’s my final piece of “wisdom,” fellow graduates.
Go out and do stuff. Ride a roller coaster, go bungee jumping, tell someone you love them, run butt naked through the street, climb a mountain, save a neighborhood from foreclosure by going on an adventure to find the hidden treasure of a one-eyed pirate (which coincidentally is also the plot to Goonies), whatever you do just do something. Live your life and experience amazing things...then come back to the tribe and tell us all about it so we can live vicariously through you.
That stuff that you experience away from the tribe is going to fuel your creativity even more and foster new ideas when you return. The more you go out and experience life, the better improviser, the better writer, and the better-rounded you you will become. In the words of the ever wise Rihanna, “Just live your life! Ay ay ay. No tellin’ where it'll take ya, just live your life.”
As I near the conclusion of this commencement post, I feel that the only thing left to do is thank the members of the tribe who helped get me to the end (of my improv journey, not the post, otherwise I’d be thanking caffeine and the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks). Truman Capote wrote that “anyone who gave you confidence you owe them a lot,” so with that said, I have a lot of thanking to do.
First, I have to thank all the teachers, TAs, and coaches who I’ve had the pleasure of learning from.
Sarah and Brent, thank you both for having the patience and kindness to get me through Level 1 improv and for not letting me run out the door on my first day. Because of you guys, I came back for more. Ashley and Scriven, both of you continue to inspire me, and I learned so so much from you two. Thank you for watering my seeds of excitement and showing me that even a quiet, gentle voice can make a loud impact in the right situation. Mike and Stephanie, thank you two for always coming to class ready to have fun and for teaching me what exactly a “Ewing” is. Without that knowledge, I would be nowhere.
Tommy and Jennifer, we cried together, we laughed together, and we certainly grew together. I think this was the level that I truly saw strides in my performing ability, and I thank you both for always being supportive and giving me the courage and push that I needed to come out and play more. Kyle and Allie, you are both so incredibly passionate about what you do and I think that’s a beautiful thing; don’t ever lose that spark. Thank you two for pushing me to make smarter improv choices and giving me a good dose of tough love at a time when I definitely needed it. I feel stronger and more confident than ever!
Amada Austin, thank you for seeing something in me and taking a chance by putting me on a Ewing team. I am eternally grateful for that experience and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful group of humans to play with and call my improv fam. Maggie, my Big Stupid Fun coach, we’ve had a lot of big stupid fun moments together. So many good laughs. Thank you for showing all of us the power of laughter and positivity. Each practice, I’m energized and comforted by the positive energy you bring. You are a gem, and I’m lucky I get to be coached by such a badass and supportive lady.
Second, I have to thank Chad Haught. C-Haught. C-Dog. The Chadster...wait, scratch that last one. No one should ever call you The Chadster, that just feels too weird. Chad, you answered my frantic email before I ever signed up for classes at DCH. I was worried about being surrounded by stuffy thespians and not having enough performing experience, but you put my mind at ease. You also laughed at what I wrote. Because of your kindness and your laughter, I signed up for Level 1. Without you, this blog post wouldn’t even exist right now.
Last but certainly not least, I especially want to thank all the homies I’ve gotten to play with since day one, fellow graduates or not. Whether you’re a Brew Ha-Ha-er, a Nood and Dump (reheated or original), or part of my Big Stupid Fun fam, I LOVE you all dearly! I would do just about anything for you. I probably wouldn’t kill for you, but if you needed someone to help you hide a body or play lookout while you’re up to nefarious activities, hit me up. I learned just as much from you guys, as I did from any teacher or coach. Thank you all for just bein your bad selves. *Virtual hugs for all of you!*
Alright, I’ll wrap it up. I can hear the orchestra warming up to play, which is the universal cue to step down from a soap box.
So fellow DCH graduates, again, may you continue to cultivate your passions, learn and grow with your tribe, and keep on experiencing life. Congratulations to all you guys, the DCH Class of June 2016.
We did it!
Lauren Levine is currently a Level 5 improv and Sketch 2 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.