Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Decade in Harold: a Love Letter

Most of my identity as a twenty-something was tied up in performing at iO Chicago.

I started classes at the age of 21 in 2004. I studied under John Lutz, Peter Grosz, Susan Messing, Bobby Mort, Jason Chin, Jeff Griggs, and finally Noah Gregoropolous, plus a whole bunch of subs whose names would make that look like even more of a murderer's row of talent than it already does.

When I was in classes I obsessed over improv. I lived with other improvisors (Mike Carr and Ryan Murphy) and when I went out, I hung out exclusively with other improvisors. I spent more time than I care to remember drinking at Mullen's and talking about how great a Fox Force Five show was or arguing whether James Jackson or the Reckoning was a better team. I met some of my best friends in those classes. Rob White and Pete Aiello in particular have turned into lifelong friends who were both in my wedding.

I spent too much time at the theater and I drank deep of every Armando, Carl and the Passions, Whirled News Tonight, and Late Night Late Show that I could catch.

I remember at my 5B shows, Charna Halpern (iO's owner) pulled me aside and told me that I was definitely getting placed on a team. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. A Harold team? It was all I had wanted since I was 18 and first started doing improv. It was an honor.

A few weeks later, I got placed on my first team which eventually was named Rumpus, and I had my first coach Evan Makela who taught us to do improv that was simple, honest, focused, and supportive. When our team got cut after just two schedules, I got put on a new team, but most of my friends were cut and I remember feeling terrible survivor's guilt. It hadn't even been a year! How could this be happening?

Megan Diemer was my second coach and the Beelzebuddies were my second team. Rumpus had kind of been like a first girlfriend- I had loved her unconditionally and was destroyed when she broke up with me. Beelzebuddies was like a second relationship where it just never seemed as good as the first, and suffered for the unfair comparison.

When that team got cut (after doing one of the best harold's I was ever in as our last show. The suggestion was "Dragon") I was placed on The Washington Generals and that was the team that ended up being the love of my improv life. Our first coach was Steve Kaminski and our second was Danny Mora and that team was all about WORK. Danny in particular pushed us to push the art-form, and while the shows weren't always great, they were always aiming for art, which is what this whole Harold thing is supposed to be about, right? Plus, I got to play with some of my favorite performers. I will always remember playing old Jewish couples with Rachel Lewis in every scene, and I will always remember the tracksuits. Guys, I still have mine. It has a big hole in the arm, but it's still in my closet. The Washington Generals, unfortunately, were just too pretty to live.

I almost quit when the Generals got cut because I was so angry. I was 25. Fortunately, Jason Chin talked me out of it. Jason was an incredible mentor and friend to me at iO. He let me sit in with Whirled News Tonight, and cast me in Our Feature Presentation which was another amazing improv experience where, even if the show crashed and burned, we always aimed for art.

So Jason talked me out of quitting and I ended up on War Dove. War Dove was a disaster from the start. We had half a dozen coaches in half a dozen months and the roster was in a constant state of flux. When War Dove was taken out back and put out of its misery I ended up on Mike Helicopter, and THAT was a great fucking team.

I have never played with a more talented group of individuals in my life including (but not limited to) Paul Brittain, Lauren Lapkus, Brendan Jennings, Mark Piebanga, Rich Sohn, Gianni Cutri, Rex Graff, Katy Fullan, Jay Olson, and my three improv sisters, Kristen Studard, Sarah Maher, and Melissa Cathcart. We did so many great shows. That team lasted for four years. Four great years.

During Mike's lifetime, I coached Thank You, Dr. Science which is still my proudest achievement as an improvisor. I always wanted to coach a Harold team, and I couldn't have asked for a better group of humans. TYDS lasted nearly three years and had one of the greatest final shows I was ever witness to. I love you guys and I miss working with you every day.

I was on the Harold Commission for a couple of years, helping decide which teams got to live and die.

I found out that Mike got cut the day I got back from my honeymoon. By this point, I was thirty, married, and for the first time ever I got put on a team where I was a wily old vet instead of the quick-witted young guy, Coup de Grace. For a year and a half we went through quite a few people, and coaches but in the last 10 months or so it really felt like we settled in, figured our shit out, and started cranking out some really quality work. So today we got cut.

When Coup got put together, I decided that this was going to be my last team. The average lifespan of a Harold performer is probably about one year. I've been doing this for almost exactly nine. I love the Harold. I love the scenework, and the callbacks. I even love organic openings. Love them. I love iO. I love playing in the Cab and sitting in the green room shooting the shit and seeing old friends by the bar. I love the Del Close Theater with it's windows and doors and other weird features.

I love iO. And I want to keep loving iO. I want to keep this incredible theater locked in a place where I love it. I don't want to get old, and bitter, and angry at iO because it's never going to be exactly what I want it to be. Plus, I'm nearly 32. I have a wife. I have a job I actually really like. I have tons of other creative projects (check out the Improvised Star trek I will never stop doing improv, or being an improvisor.

But Coup is going to be my last Harold team. It's fitting that the team name translates to "the killing blow" or "the blow of mercy." If I was on one more team it would have to be called "Denouement."

I'm turning in my badge, and leaving the force.

Seriously, it's been a truly incredible decade. I couldn't have asked for a better one but as I said earlier today to a friend, "It's time to make a room for some new hotshot 23 year old with an overly large reference level and a dream."

I love you iO and I always will.

PS- Coup de Grace's last show is January 31st, and I'd love to see you there. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Improvised Star Trek is Not a Podcast About Star Trek

If you know me then you probably know that I'm part of a podcast, the Improvised Star Trek.

When I tell most people about Improvised Star Trek, they say something like "Oh that's cool. I'm not really into Star Trek." This is how some people say "I'm not interested in listening to your podcast because I am unfamiliar with, and lack a passion for the subject material."

And lacking passion for Star Trek, or improv is totally cool! I lack passion for lots of things! Like football! And place settings! And military intervention in the affairs of foreign countries!

We don't all need to like the same things is what I'm saying.

If you have been hesitant to listen to the Improvised Star Trek after I excitedly describe it to you at a party, I'd like to give you just a little information here that will MAYBE persuade you to give the podcast a chance.

Here are some facts:

1. Most Star Trek podcasts are about Star Trek. They usually feature fans of the show sitting around and talking about Star Trek. They talk about individual episodes, themes, and characters from the shows and movies. Improvised Star Trek is not a podcast about Star Trek. It is not a talk show. Improvised Star Trek is a completely original show that takes place within the world of Star Trek. We create a new narrative adventure each week featuring original characters and situations. If you are a fan of Star Trek, there are lots of Star Trekky things for you on the podcast. If you have never watched a single episode of Star Trek and can't tell a targ from a tribble, there is plenty for you to enjoy on the Improvised Star Trek including great characters, funny situations, and compelling storylines. Improvised Star Trek is a show about characters who happen to live in a Star Trek world, but it is not about Star Trek.

2. I am more proud of Improvised Star Trek than I am of anything else I have ever had a hand in creating. I have played with comedy groups at world-renowned theaters. I have had groups I've been on listed in "best of" lists of major magazines. I've played with people who are now famous, successful comedians. I think that Improvised Star Trek is the best thing I've ever helped to make. I think it's really easy to write off a show with the name of a pop culture property in it as a gimmick. IST is not a gimmicky show. We put a ton of work into creating something that is driven by the relationships between the characters we create. We try to stay true to high-minded improv principles like "truth in comedy" and "playing to the top of your intelligence" as much as possible. I really think we are one of the hardest working, smartest improv groups out there. IST is art just as much as any other improv or comedy show out there.

3. If you don't like improv (and I know there are people out there who don't), you might still want to give the show a chance. Generally, people don't like improv because it can be sloppy, and bad improv groups tend to miss more than they hit when it comes to doing great shows. We are not a bad improv group, and our hit rate is really high, but I'm going to let you in on a secret of the show: you will never hear the bad episodes we record. In fact, you will never even hear the mediocre ones. Why? Because the show is a podcast and not a stage show, we record many more shows than we release. If a show just doesn't work, it never airs. You will never hear it. We only put up a new episode if it turned out great. And on the sloppiness front, we have a team of incredible editors who add music, sound effects, and other elements that gives the show a professional feel. So, if you aren't a fan of improv, I'd still encourage you to give the show a try, because you may find that we have addressed some of the main criticisms that people make of the art form.

So, if I have managed to sway you, check out, or look for us on itunes, stitcher, and other popular podcast platforms.