Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Improvelution

I've been doing improvisational theater on and off for about 28 years.    My love affair started in 1984 when I got to take a class at the Florida State theater department.   I loved the non-structure of it.  You had to understand how to work with your scene partner but you were free to create any character, anywhere and at any time.   You were not stifled by the words of the playwright because second by second you were creating the character, the dialogue and the movement of the scene instantaneously.  It could be in Ancient Greece or modern times or a 1950's sitcom - it could be where ever your imagination took you because you could mime your scenery, costume and props.  Your partner had to take what you served them and volley it back to you so that you could both build a really good scene.   That's what I love about improv - it  can be as exciting as a tennis match.  You have control and yet absolutely no control at the same time.  You might come in with a strong idea of how the scene would go but then your partner would have a different idea and you had to go with that.    Good improv scenes are a lot like life - the best ones run on possibilities and acceptance - allowing yourself to say "Yes, and..."  not "No, that will never work."    And just like life, you will meet obstacles that will challenge how committed you are to really sticking with something that you love. 

I didn't major in theater when I went to college because it didn't seem practical and frankly I was afraid I wasn't good enough, even though I was the president of drama club in high school and got cast in plays.    So I settled for something that seemed to make sense for me - becoming a dietitian.   I was very conscious about nutrition and exercise so I figured I would be a good candidate to help counsel others on how to maintain their health.  I had left high school with a 3.8 average and was ranked number 21 in my class.  College should have been a great time for me - but because I was following my practicality and not my passion - I was floundering.   I was getting Ds and even failed a biochemistry class which had never happened to me before.    I was having crying jags for hours on a regular basis because I was so miserable - the only bright spots were the theater classes.  I did audition for plays at FSU, but found that most of the grad students and professors only wanted to cast theater majors and those that had been cast in shows before.    I knew people who had gone for a four year degree in theater and still didn't see any stage time because the same people kept getting cast.  I knew it wasn't me but the system, but it was still pretty frustrating.   So after four years of giving it the old college try - I left Florida State without a degree in anything and my spirits pretty low. 

I got back to Miami and started to wait tables which ironically would have been exactly the same thing I would have done if I had gotten my bachelors in Theater.   The world of food service had it's perks like tips, cute waiters and discounted entrees but I needed more from my life.   I went to see a group called Mental Floss to see what the professional improv acting scene in Miami was like.  They were extremely funny and just what I was looking for - they even had a few women in the group.  When they announced that they would have auditions I was totally there.   I remember that I got to do a scene with Marc who was a company member and it was really funny.   The feedback was very positive and I was asked to start doing workshops with the group which would eventually lead to performing on a regular basis.  

The workshops were led by the founder who was frankly the weakest person on stage, but I was hoping he'd be a better instructor then performer.   He gave some good direction but when the players from the group were there, they openly disrespected him which didn't set a good tone in the workshops.   I tried to stay out of it because I just wanted to start performing.   Finally, after a few months, I finally got my chance and got to do a show with the regular cast.  It was an amazing night - one of those times when everything flowed.  I was in half the games in the show and it seemed like one of those perfect tennis matches when you could hit the ball back with the same strength that you received it.   I left the theater walking on air and one of the guys, Patrick, asked me if I wanted to get something to eat with the company.   I felt so honored and accepted.   That night started my road to doing improvisation professionally. 

Patrick and I started dating shortly after that which at first seemed to be a really good thing.  He saw himself as my mentor - someone who had gotten his Master's Degree in Fine Arts at the Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota which ironically was a program of the Florida State Theater department.   He had very definite ideas about what sort of performer I should be and no matter how much the audience seemed to enjoy my performance, he never really had much positive to say - he never put me down overtly - but he never praised me when I knew I had done a really good show.   I should mention that my last boyfriend was a guy who got angry for no reason, insulted me and also hurt me on one occasion so having a passive-agressive guy like Patrick seemed like a step up. 

As time went on, I created characters like Fluffy La Puff, a stereotypical dumb blond that made Jane Mansfield look like Einstein, Billy Idol's little sister, Billy Jo Idol and Eunice Frump, a country bumpkin who was the creator of "Puddin' on a Bun."   I'd get great feedback from the audience after the shows - people would come up to me in the lobby and tell me how much they enjoyed what I did, that I reminded them of Carol Burnett or Gilda Radner (two of my comedy goddesses by the way), but I rarely got much positive feedback from the other guys in the group.   It wasn't just me, there were a few other women in the troupe that were also experiencing the same thing - always being made to feel like the weak sisters in the group.   In the years since then, I've talked to other women who have had similar experiences.  The comedy world can be extremely sexiest and hard on even the most talented of women.  Even John Belushi used to give Gilda, Jane Curtain and Laraine Newman a hard time on Saturday Night Live.  Belushi flat out stated that women were just not as funny as men.   And so it went, the audience loved the women in the group and the men just kept limiting what we could do.   It was like hitting your head against the wall.   I wanted to leave but since I was also dating Patrick, it felt like my entire world would collapse - no boyfriend and nowhere to perform comedy - who else would want me?  I felt really trapped and I didn't know how to get out. 

Then one day, I got a call at work from Marc who was now the director who told me that he and the other guys in the group decided to put me on inactive because I was not up to speed.  He told me not to feel bad that another woman in the group had also been asked to leave.  When I asked him why he never gave us any type of direction in workshop for what we needed to improve on - his reply was "You're supposed to know!"   I replied, "The whole point if you being director is to direct people who don't know - so if you're not happy with what  we do - then it's your fault for not acting like director!"  which probably was not what he wanted to hear.   Now I'll admit that I probably had areas that I needed to work on but if they are never brought to your attention, you'll never get better.  It also didn't help that the women in the cast felt like they were being singled out.   Amazingly, I still decided to help out working in the box office hoping they would put me back on stage again.   The best part was having people walk up to me and ask if I was in show that night and me telling them that I working behind the scenes.   "Man, that sucks, we wanted to see Fluffy," said one patron within ear shot of Marc.  That same week, I also has two people stop me in Dadeland Mall to tell me how much they enjoyed me in the shows.  My guardian angels were sending me signs that all was not lost and that despite the opinions of some of the guys in the group - I was a good performer - I just needed some solid direction.   

One night after a show, the guys came over to Patrick's to play cards.  It was raining pretty hard and they were out of poker snacks and expected me to go out in the monsoon to get them.  I should have said "Hell no bitches!" but instead I got my purse, my keys, and slumped out of the door.  I fumed in the car but then got a wonderful idea.  I came back and put out their food and then asked sweetly if I they would deal me in.   They condescended and figured that I probably hadn't played cards much so they could exploit that.   Unfortunately for them, I'd been playing cards since I was ten, when my Mom and Dad used to show us the ins and outs of five card draw, seven card stud and black jack during our summers at Fort Myers Beach.   I knew a straight from a dead man's hand and didn't need a ton of wild cards to win the pot.  At first I didn't bet much and pretended that I didn't understand what a good hand was.   They rolled their eyes and took my money in that first round.   I could see them chuckling - even Patrick was joining in.   I kept my poker face knowing that I would win it back and then some.    I won the second hand and pretended like it was pure luck - again betting a modest amount.    As the night wore on, I was winning the majority of the pots, folding every now and then to not let on that I was setting them up for that last big win.   Finally, we got to the last hand in which they all bet their money (which was about $60 bucks) and I had another $20 in the pot.    Everyone had to show their hand and Sal thought he had it with four queens which included three face cards a wild card (you can use wild cards to help substitute when you don't have enough of one card to complete your hand - it's a bonus if you're lucky enough to get one).   Unfortunately, I had four kings (without a wild card) and an ace which beat his queens.  Now, I know that guardian angels don't usually get involved in poker, but I felt that they worked through me to let those boys know that you should never assume that a woman is incapable of anything - whether it's improv or poker.   Their stunned faces were priceless and it had stopped raining when I got back in the car to drive home. 

A few months later, I had finally had enough and stopped going to Mental Floss altogether.   In the meantime, I started auditioning for other theater companies and got cast in almost everything I tried out for.   At one time I was in different stages of rehearsals for three shows and I met the love of my life - Max.    Patrick and I finally broke up.   It felt great to be free of all that negativity.  

A year later, I started my own improv theater group, the Eclectic Company because I loved the art of improv and wanted to do it my own way.  I got a top notch group of actors who later unbeknownst to me - had also been told by Mental Floss that they were not good enough either.   The Eclectic Company shows on South Beach were a huge success and word got back to the guys at Floss that there was a new game in town and it was being run by me.  That was the start of my journey as a woman who was willing to buck the trend of improv groups led by a bunch of white guys.  It has not always been easy - performing spaces and actors  have come and gone, but my love of the art of improv has always been there - whether I was actively performing or teaching it.  Today, as the Artistic Director of the OTC Comedy Troupe, I get to work with smart and funny women and men who just want to do good improv and support each other.   

So to those that feel like there are obstacles put in their way and begin to question their passion - I say stick with it and don't look at a roadblock as a bad thing.  Sometimes it's a guidepost that puts you on a different path.   If I hadn't left Mental Floss, I would have been trying to please people that just weren't going to give me a chance no matter what I did and it would have sucked the joy of improv right out of me.  I never would have met Max.  I never would have seen that I was capable of innovating the art like doing a live improv webshow that got over 225,000 views.    Those roadblocks ended up being the best things that ever happened to me.   As any smart gambler can tell you - you don't have to play every hand you've ever been dealt - you just have to stay in the game.   

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