An Actor Mentally Prepares

SlingsAndArrowsOut of curiosity at work, I searched “tips for performing with” on Google. The phrase is finished with various words like “a cold” or “anxiety.” Believe it or not, most of the responses to this question are simply, “Get over it. If you want to be on stage, just do it.” Well, that’s not helpful advice, I thought.

I’ve been in the spotlight my fair share of time. In the chorus at the community theatre, high school plays, workshops for directing courses in college, a few student films--trust me, “getting over it” is not as simple as it sounds. I developed a routine and set of rules to be as comfortable as possible before an audition or show date. I find this is the best way to cope with stress, anxiety, or simple stage fight. A routine is unique to a specific person depending on their needs. However, I feel like I have a few basic ideas that could be the starting point for a modified pre-show anxiety plan.

Find a Quiet Spot

I "charge up" best when I’m alone in quiet areas, therefore running errands or going to a loud restaurant for a pre-show lunch is a horrible idea. What I do instead is reserve one to two hours of uninterrupted time to focus in a more-or-less quiet spot. This may be a park, a library, or the comfort of your own home. I prefer coffee shops for the ambient noise and easy access to pre-show tea and pastries. I use this time to stretch parts of my right brain that are unrelated to the stage, like writing in my notebook and doodling in the margins. This allows me valuable time to get out of my head about the oncoming call time and be present in a safe space where I can think and breathe.

Do. Not. Drink. Caffeine.

An instructor may have told you (or will tell you in the future) not to drink alcohol before a show. That’s a good tip. Another one from me: if riddled with anxiety beforehand, don’t drink caffeine before class or a jam or a show. That will just worsen the anxiety, and I’m speaking as an admitted coffee addict. Personally, if I absolutely have to get my “fix,” I go with green tea. While it does have caffeine in it, it has a much lower caffeine content than a cup of coffee. The best beverage for nerves (and voice) is always water, but drinking ginger or chamomile tea with a bit of honey and lemon helps too.

Meditate in Stillness, or Perform a Soothing Activity

Meditation is highly recommended for pre-show prep. Ten-to-15 minutes of being still and focusing on the breath has been proven to relieve stress and anxiety in most cases. That being said, I’m a very, very fidgety person, so I find a physical act that keeps me calm and occupied instead of focusing on the panic. My choice of activity is knitting or crocheting. I grab a pair of needles, a crochet hook, a ball of yarn, and lose myself in the repetition of stitching together a scarf. Take note, I have been asked if I’m knitting for my future baby. If by “baby” they mean the “growing ball of tension and doubt welling up in my chest and stomach,” then yes! If “baby” equates to “tiny human,” I burst into hysterical laughter that was meant to be a polite “no” and then get back to knitting. No offense to the tiny humans, of course, but I like to think they would be offended by the stereotype, too. #NotAllKnitters

Channel Your Energy Into Your Performance

Yes, yes, this sounds like some self-prescribed hippie-dippie pagan bull for theatre students. I mean, that’s not incorrect, me being a theatre major who prescribes to the hippie-dippie pagan bull. However, it’s as simple as mindfulness, being aware of the emotions and adrenaline pumping into the mind and body. Instead of bottling up that energy, use it for a character. I’ve done this during classes on depressive days and stage fright-driven showcases. Instead of tamping that down, I use mindful thinking to electrify my performance. If I can only handle two or three scenes in a 25-minute show? That’s OK. As long as I did not ignore the well of inspiration offered by my own immediate anxiety, then I call that a win. Performing is how I exorcise my personal demons, so why not make them tap dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz?”

Like Exercise, Don’t Forget to Cool Down

True fact: the nervous-turned-positive energy I have after a show really messes with my circadian rhythm. To get the full night of sleep that I desperately need, I have to be smart and play ambient music on the way back home. Then I lay down in my bed and re-read a familiar book like Rebecca until I finally drift off. This is an admittedly difficult thing for me. I’d much rather play songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: A Hip Hop Musical at full volume on the way back home and dance around. (Imagine tiny, ol’ me at the wheel of a Honda Accord wildly bouncing in my seat and rapping, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwin’ away mah SHOT!”) Although, the melatonin gummy chews from Kroger help, too. Never doubt the power of melatonin gummy chews.

While my suggestions are not ingenious and original tips, they are formed off of building blocks that I’ve had to search out and experience for myself. Honestly, some of the worst advice I’ve ever received is “getting over it,” whatever the circumstance is. Not necessarily because it is insensitive (which it is), but because it is so impossibly vague. When it comes to many things, especially something as terrifying and enthralling as performing on stage, a pre-show anxiety plan is the best way I’ve learned to manage my life as an actress, an aspiring comedian, and a functioning human being.

KC Ryan is currently a Level Three student at DCH. An office worker by day, she spends her nights writing, improvising, recording podcasts, and having existential crises. She’s a co-host of Parsec Award-nominated podcast Anomaly Supplemental about general sci-fi and fantasy topics. Her greatest achievement so far is convincing her husband to watch Project Runway.

What We're Loving: Elton John Fans, Edith Wharton Allusions, Perfect Writing, Dynamic Performances

Each Friday, DCH performers, teachers, and students offer their recommendations for what to watch, read, see, hear, or experience. This week David Allison plugs without shame, Jonda Robinson catches up, Amanda Hahn looks back, and Ryan Callahan watches a master at his craft. elton_johnI’ve recently gone through and absorbed much of Elton John’s career in preparation for an upcoming show at the Dallas Comedy House on 8/23 at 10:30 pm (Shameless plug). Because he’s been around for like forty years, it’s easy to forget just how much stuff he’s done in his time. Yes, you know that he wrote “Tiny Dancer,” but I bet you didn’t know that he performed a show in Japan in a Godzilla mask? I’m sure that you remember his scores for movies like The Lion King, but I would imagine you completely forgot about his appearance in The Country Bears. And I bet you’ve heard his Marilyn Monroe tribute song “Candle in the Wind,” but were you aware that he re-recorded a version upon the passing of Princess Diana?

If you don’t believe that Elton John is great, ask the internet. Because of his amazing talent and theatricality, Elton John has long been a favorite of humans. And due to the wonderful existence of the internet, we can all enjoy the absurd efforts of these super fans. This one started out strong enough with a singing Sun, but quickly ran out of steam when I remembered it was anime. Set to the same song, this next entry is much more watchable, but lost me about halfway through when I failed understand if the robots were holding hands or passing robot pills. The true gem is this Christmas video, created by a Russian fan. Simply entitled “Merry Christmas to all Elton John fans!” this little number was inspired when a to be fan attended her first Elton show in Moscow. Part Holiday footage, part shots of curtains being pulled up to reveal Elton John at a piano, this one is a start to finish treat.

My favorite part about these strange fan vids is the effort that went into them. Seriously, real time and potentially blood, sweat, and tears were poured into a project that didn’t turn out that great. And they still posted it online, because they knew that other super fans would enjoy the work. That’s so cool to me! Elton John and the internet have created a space where anyone can be creative and they know that even if the end product isn’t as good as “Crocodile Rock,” their comrades will appreciate it. Let’s hope the Elton John fan club is out in full force on Saturday, August 23rd at 10:30 pm for my weird, fan vid of a show (Shameless Plug Shameless Plug Shameless Plug). - David Allison

Gilmore-Girls-College-Advice-11I’m hesitant to write about this, only because I’m super late to this party, but I might as well be honest and let you in on the thing I’ve been loving the past few weeks: Gilmore Girls. I was only recently introduced to Lorelai and Rory by a friend, and ever since I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Stars Hollow having coffee at Luke’s and getting to know all of its quirky residents.

There are many great things about this show that I could point out: the cozy setting that lends itself to a cast full of interesting characters, the relationship dynamics at play, or even the sheer amount of food that is consumed in the course of an episode (I only wish I could live on cheeseburgers and cookie dough and still look like Lauren Graham). One of the things I enjoy most about this show, however, is its abundant use of allusions. That’s right, folks, if you want me to get hooked on whatever you’re writing, throw in some quality literary/historical/pop culture references and I’ll jump right on board. The dialogue moves so quickly that if you blink you might miss one (ok, not blink, but whatever is the equivalent word for your ears), and I enjoy every fleeting reference covering topics from English monarchs to Edith Wharton and so many things in between. Even if there are many I don’t get right away, I appreciate the smart writing.

If you like Gilmore Girls, and love allusions like I do, I offer a book recommendation: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  And If you ever want to discuss all things Gilmore with me, I’m totally up for it now that I’m in on the jokes. I do, however, respectfully request one thing: no spoilers, please! - Jonda Robinson

024325This week I took a walk down memory lane. My friend/stand up/current DCH improv student Tyler Simpson and I were talking about terrible poetry. Which led to his very own poetry of his younger days.  I loved it. I love all of his poetry and writing because it’s perfect. It’s such a perfect example of a time in our lives that most of go though. It’s that time period usually after high school, or sometime in the early college years, where we all think we have life figured out. We can feel ourselves flubbing about, but we find romance in feeling like we’re lost or helpless, or that no one else gets the world quite like we do.

During that sweet little time period, we think we understand everything: philosophy, love, hardship, art, poetry, people. We get it all. We (or at least I did) joined clubs to try to change the world because our ideas really mattered. We (...or at least I did) teamed up with a couple of Marxists to try to combat racism all by ourselves. We joined a group to support the gay community at our college because we really thought we, as an individual, would make a dramatic difference at how people perceived homosexuals.

That feeling lasts until we mature, just a little more, and realize we don’t know a thing.

I don’t necessarily want to go back to that time in my life when I thought I could conquer the world. I do like knowing my limitations, but it was invigorating at the time, and so humorous now to look at now, what I created back then than I thought was not only decent but high quality. So this week, I’m putting out my third call to action (I’m starting to get straight up bossy up on this blog, y’all): Walk down some memories. See how far you’ve come. Or see how far you haven’t. Either way, you’ll learn a little something about yourself and hopefully have a few laughs at your terrible attempts at creating something cool or profound. - Amanda Hahn

112_0805_01z+adam_west_celebrity_drive+batman_and_robin.jpgOver the past week I've had a lot of time to myself. My girlfriend was away on a trip and I was home alone, much like Macaulay Culkin in that movie, My Girl. Unlike young Mr. Culkin I did not attempt to fill my down time by defending my home from an invasion of bees only to get stung by the bees and die tragically (Spoiler). I chose to spend my time home alone watching hours of the old Batman TV show.

For those unfamiliar, Batman ran for three seasons in the 1960's. It starred Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as Robin, The Boy Wonder. For the first two seasons, the show aired twice a week, with the first episode ending on a cliffhanger that was paid off in the next. The show was originally meant to be a serious action tale but once the producers read the comic they decided the only way the show could work was as a camp comedy.

When I first watched the show, as a child in the 80’s, I had no idea the show was a comedy. Now I watch it and I see it as the source for many of my ideas about comedy. It’s a comedy show about crime fighters. If you know me, you probably know that is something of an obsession of mine. It turns out many of my favorite comedy tropes – overly literal signs, super villains with themed henchmen, ridiculous gadgets that serve one narrow purpose – come from this show.

At the center of it all is Adam West, killing it as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Watch the way he struggles to keep his true identity secret. Marvel at the way he casually compliments Bruce Wayne as Batman and vice versa. Feel his pain as he tries to keep his hormones under control whenever Catwoman is around. We tend to stay away from hyperbole here in What We’re Loving, but I would like to say that Adam West's performance on this show was the greatest performance in the history of acting. Don’t believe me? See for yourself. IFC is running old Batman episodes every day. - Ryan Callahan

What We're Loving: Hacks!

Each Friday, DCH performers, teachers, and students offer their recommendations for what to watch, read, see, hear, or experience. This week David Allison turns hack, Amanda Hahn gets her hair hacked, Jonda Robinson might hack up a hairball, and Ryan Callahan learns some lesson from a LA hack. tina-fey3At this point, it's hack for a person who loves comedy to discuss the greatness of Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch. Ugh, we get it nerds, they're funny gals, under appreciated, could have been rocket scientists and once saved Earth by winking at an asteroid. It's quite common for each of them to be lauded with affection, especially from schlubs that like to do make 'em ups on stage for strangers. But this week has been especially kind for fanboys/fangirls of Dratch and Fey as their old Second City/UCB show has found it's way online. The quality of the footage is TERRIBLE. It honestly looks as if the uploader took a Beta copy of their baby steps, converted the footage to VHS, recorded the Dratch & Fey show over it, washed the tape in the dishwasher, hung it out to dry in the Death Valley sun and then decided to upload it to YouTube. Seriously, that's what happened. Even though it's not quite in HD, the quality of the comedy shines through.

Here's a link to the whole thing.

The show begins with dueling one woman shows, one with the intention of educating an audience to women's history and the other with the intention of educating an audience to women's anatomy. From there, Dratch and Fey delve into a really well put together combination of sketch, audience interaction, and monologues. Though the show only ran from 1999-2000, the complete package feels incredibly refined and tight. There's never much downtime and the whole set ebbs and flows so naturally that it's obvious why this sketch show is thought of in the pantheon of all time greats. Hell, the whole thing helped to inspire 30 Rock, so that alone makes it worth watching. The other part that really stands out to me is just how good Rachel Dratch is. That's not to say Tina Fey isn't great, but she's a movie star gosh darn it, we get to see her in stuff all the time. The aggressive innocence with with Dratch plays makes every one of her characters likable and will leave you convinced as to how underrated she is. And then you can finally join us in the chorus of people clamoring for more Dratch & Fey. -David Allison

tumblr_n9jvg93aIB1thkqcyo1_1280I don’t want to seem divisive or political with what I’m about to say, but I need to get it out there: I am a fan of cats. Many times I have said that if reincarnation is a thing, please, make me a cat so I can take naps for days. I recognize that not everyone is a fan of felines, though, such as my friend who believes that they are evil and the only thing keeping them from taking over the world is their lack of opposable thumbs. If she’s right, and they someday do rise up, I like to think I’ve given enough belly rubs that they’ll show some mercy on me.

All of that is to say that when cats are involved in something, it usually catches my attention. And this week that was the case when I stumbled upon the Tumblr “Confused Cats Against Feminism.” Now, when I first heard that women were against feminism and had their own Tumblr dedicated to the cause, I wasn’t really interested. Frankly it sounded boring to me, and I like getting to vote and stuff, so I was like “nah.” But then when cats got in on the party, I was like “yes, please!” There’s one with sage advice about who and what to trust. One who is against both vacuums and the women who wield them. One who believes in equal oppression of all humans. And one who just wants his belly rubbed, dangit.

You should check them out so you can enjoy their cuteness, be more informed about this cat cause, and also so, in the event that they do overpower humans and take over the world, you’ll be in their good graces. Also, if you have an anti-feminist cat in your life, get him or her in on this movement! - Jonda Robinson

1382258215Exciting news, everyone: I got a haircut this week. No, I’m not so vain as to write about how much I love my haircut. I’m here to write about the woman who cut it because I fell in platonic love with her. What I thought would be a normal conversation as she cut my hair turned into a fascinating talk with a fascinating woman named Alexis Lu, AKA Queen Lex Lu. It’s possible that you’ve heard of her already because she has her feet dipped into a million things around Dallas and Texas. She’s a hair stylist, make up artist, photographer, stylist, wig maker, rapper, actor, and a warm, funny person in general.

I warned her that I would stalk her all over the internet, but I did not tell her that I would be writing about her on a public blog. It’s okay though because it’s illegal to get mad at someone for writing about you if it’s nice things, right? …Right?? Right! Good, because I only have rave reviews for Lex Lu. I liked her so much that my new goal is to find reasons to hire her for various things. Do I need my makeup done before the next time go to a coffee shop to write in a corner by myself? No. Do I need to hire entertainment to rap for me while I get dressed for work in the morning? No. But I want to anyway, because not only does she do great work, she’s so pleasant to be around. Plus she has a song called ‘CAN’T FEEL MY FACE’ which makes me giggle because that’s a little too relatable.

I’ll end my post with week with another call to action: Hire this woman. She’s excellent. And just more proof that talking to strangers is the best possible way to spend your day. -Amanda Hahn

03Last weekend, my girlfriend and I watched Collateral, the 2004 crime thriller starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, directed by Michael Mann (Heat, Thief). I lived in LA when Collateral came out and I always thought that the film did the best job of capturing the way LA looks at night. It turns out, that was director Michael Mann's intention. He shot the film in DV, and even had the taxi cab that Foxx's character drives painted a particular shade, to capture the golden hues of Los Angeles streetlights.

I did not remember how much the film was about the nature of improvisation, not just on a thematic or performance level, but in the nature of its structure. The film has the structure of a great long form improv show; diverse elements and characters eventually come together, scenes mirror each other, there are call backs, and everything from the beginning is brought back at the end and tied together.

There are so many parallel scenes in the movie that play off each other - the twin cab rides of Jada Pinkett-Smith and Tom Cruise, the visit to the jazz club vs the visit to the night club, the two run ins with the patrol cops, the two visits to the first informant's apartment. Throughout the film, the same locations and characters are visited and revisited, but each time the suspense is heightened, new information is added. Old scenes take on new meanings. Like a great improv show, the movie does not endlessly invent new things; it takes what it has and escalates and escalates until the everything reaches a fever pitch.

The movie even has a scene of actual improvisation. Foxx's meek cap driver must impersonate Cruise's cold-blooded hit man, and acquire a hit list from a cartel heavy (Javier Bardem) at a night club. Foxx does not know what he's walking into or what to say. His only choice is to "Yes, And" the hell out of everything and hope that he's committed enough to his character to pull it off. That scene is one of the best in a movie full of great scenes, and rewards an engaged audience with its call backs and in-jokes.

I always thought Collateral was a brilliant crime movie, another example of Michael Mann's mastery of the genre. I had no idea it was also a brilliant improv show. - Ryan Callahan

7 Ways to Survive Improv

Yo, yo, yo, yo, I'm back. Wait, what? It's true. I'm not a ghost. I just play one on the USA Network. But that's over now, and I'm ready again to regale you with my blogging sass. Let's get started.

Last month, Clifton and Nick shared a story on the Facebook. It was such an important story that I saved it in my Diigo library, thinking, "Man this would be a good blog entry." Let's see if it still holds up like a good red wine.

The story is "Oscar Nominee John Hawkes Gives Seven Tips for Surviving the Film Industry," by James Kaelan. These tips, though, don't have to apply to just the film industry. They hold true for the improv world, as well.

1. Trust Your Gut -- Improvisation is about spontaneity, and the first ideas you come up with are usually the most honest ones (and sometimes the funniest).

2. All Arts Connect and Inform Each Other -- Go out and see more than improv shows. Go see some ballet. Visit an art gallery. Check out a church choir. The more artistically well-rounded you are, the better your performance and storytelling skills will be.

3. Loaf Occasionally -- I've know several performers who have taken an improv break over the years. If you're feeling burned out, take a breather. Improv will still be here when you get back. Promise.

4. Make a Vital Life Outside of the Business -- This tip similar to No. 2 offers a different focus. Do things that aren't improv or arts related. Perhaps volunteer at a homeless shelter. Maybe read to people at an assisted living facility. Just do something that gets you around non-improv people and learn more about life by interacting with them.

5. This Business Will Knock You Down -- Any type of arts community has the potential to erode individual self-esteem.  Take Chumbawamba's stance, though: "I get knocked down / But I get up again / You're never going to keep me down." The most successful performers are the ones who refuse to stay down no matter what odds they're up against or setbacks they've had in the past.

6. Be Kind -- This should be an easy tip to follow. Most improvisers I've met are nice, genuine people. The ones who aren't don't last long in this community.

7. Nobody Knows Anything -- Take what you want from all the advice you receive over a lifetime and build your own toolbox, because no one knows everything. Adopt a curious attitude, and you'll have fun the rest of your life.

Have any other tips? Please share them in the comments.

Andy Daly and Character Acting

Andy DalyI've been really getting into Fast Company's Master Class series online, which interviews successful people in a variety of creative jobs for their tips and tricks. Last night, I read one that I thought would interest improvisers. In "Master Class: Andy Daly on How to be a Character," Daly shares some ways that can help you become a better character on stage. And we all know that character work can be challenging for a lot of performers (me included).

For example, a lot of people think characters always have to speak with an accent. Not true, Daly says.

Characters should have different ways of moving physically, and different ways of speaking. It doesn’t have to be dialect. People have different modes of speech, but there are no rules. I can imagine somebody being a great character comic who doesn’t follow my rules at all and in some way presents every character as a variation on the same guy.

Daly also suggest using your surroundings to influence your character choices.

Some of my characters were inspired just by where I was. Improv Olympic, for instance, was practically on Hollywood and Vine, which was such a seedy, dilapidated area then. The guy who’s new to Hollywood, that character grew out of just being in that part of town...

The whole article is worth a read and will give you ideas about character acting that you can bring to the DCH stage.

Other Master Class articles you may be interested in:

How to Develop Bits Like a Late Night Talk Show Writer How Tig Notaro is Finding the Comedy in Tragedy (Without the Time) How to Write for Any Medium (From a Guy Who's Written for The New Yorker, Saturday Night Light," and Pixar)

What are some suggestions you have for creating characters and maintaining them throughout a scene? Please let us know in the comments.

Reading is Cool

The other day I passed along to my friend, Jude, a recent book I read called Sanford Meisner on Acting. As I handed it to him, several people said it is a great book. I agree. While it's not specifically about improv, the book does include advice and exercises that are germane to this art form that many of us are passionate about. Meisner's beliefs such as "acting is the reality of doing" and "acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances" are the root of improvisation.

There are other books out there that aren't specifically about improv but still teach us valuable lessons concerning it. One that comes to mind, and one that several people have read at DCH, is The Inner Game of Tennis. Another one that I recently read is The Chairs are Where the People Go. Check them out if you haven't yet.

The Inner Game of TennisThe Chairs are Where the People Go

What are some other non-improv books you've read that can be applied to the improv world? What did you learn from them? Please let us know in the comments.