Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Believe..

...that I have reached a time when my television has become one of the least important features of my living room. For getting my news and entertainment jones, it is being taken over by my Macbook Pro and my Nano. If you had told me this as a kid, I would have envisioned watching the news on my wristwatch TV while flying to work a jet pack on my back.

...that those who pointed up how Obama fired McChrystal because the general didn't agree with him missed the point and have forgotten the trail of unemployed "voices of reason" Bush left in his wake because those folks didn't tell him what he wanted to hear.

...that sleep rocks. I sleep well and have great dreams. Sometimes I only sleep 5-6 hours, sometimes I sleep eight. I never have what I would qualify as insomnia. If I can't sleep, I use the bonus time. I stay up and do something productive, like writing or the dishes or watching porn on my wristwatch TV.

...that it has been a very wet June with some amazing thunderstorms. But I'll take two days of thunderstorms for every one day of clear skies and temperatures in the 70s. Love it.

...that I find the economic downturns happening around the world fascinating, because when it comes down to it, the only people who say what value money has is us. Consider the tulip.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Believe...

...that any artist who makes the claim that they don't care about the audience is lying. Or an idiot. There's no point in telling a story, no matter how good, to a wall. The wall is nonplussed.

...that people stop thinking for themselves and for the benefit of others when millions of dollars are involved. Millions of dollars that go into their own pocket. See: BP oil spill, health care reform, mining and oil drilling "regulations," food and drug safety, trade deficit, foreign relations, etc.

...that art is designed to impact how we think and look at the world around us. And how we respond to it. Just as algebra develops how we think in school, so does art. Without art, all we'd have is math. Without math, all we'd have is art. Both are important. Equally important.

...that the general populous needs to wake-up and keep electing officials who are smarter than we are, like Obama. Stop electing people who are just louder and more inciting.

...there was a theater conference in Chicago? I was too busy not going to the Just For Laughs festival. There were too many Chicago plays and sketch revues outside the formal gatherings for me to see.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Write Every Day?

Well, if you're a writer, why not?

365 Sketches seems to have inspired debate amongst writers about the value of writing every day.


Some interesting reactions. Took me by surprise because "write every day" wasn't the point of me doing "365 Sketches." I don't believe in writer's block. There is simply writing or not writing. Got writer's block? Write something. No more writer's block. I also believe writing can be an act of improvisation. All you need is to start with something - a location, a relationship, a title - and begin writing. Discover the scene as you write. "365 Sketches" is my demonstration that writer's block is a load of hooey.

Does writing every day make you a better writer? I think it does. It develops your writing muscles and allows you to handle and process any ideas that come your way. It trains your brain to write and orient towards the writing process. There seems to be some misconception that this also takes a lot of time. It doesn't. Just writing ten-to-thirty minutes a day will do this for you. And even if you're just writing a sketch-a-week, that's plenty of time to develop and polish a first draft. During 365, I would typically spend an hour to an hour-and-a-half on a first draft and then leave it alone until it was time to post the scene before going to bed. Then I would format the scene and do whatever tweaking or editing I wanted.

But just like doing push-ups every day, there's a benefit, but you'll end up looking like Stretch Armstrong. There's other things to do to round out your development.

- Challenge yourself to write different things. 365 is a variety of scenes, songs, dada/absurdism, poetry, audio bits and monologues. Learn new things and use them. Take classes to learn new things, read books and magazines you wouldn't normally pick up. Be curious about the people you encounter. Readers of "365 Sketches" will get some education about Shakespeare, coffee, Viagra, morning after abortion pills, Robinson Crusoe and different genres. They'll also learn about things that happened to me and friends of mine. And write stuff you'll have fun writing. That's why you'll find 365 loaded with zombies, vampires, aliens from space and unicorns. Shut up about the unicorns.

- Get feedback. I posted my scenes live everyday and invited feedback in the comments section. Here's the thing about feedback - listen to it all and do what you want. Make changes because they resonate with you.

- Seek out feedback from people you trust and respect. In addition allowing myself to receive feedback from anyone, I also sought out feedback from Robot vs. Dinosaur. These are my peeps. They'll give it to me straight and make useful suggestions.

- Don't write every day. That's crazy! Be consistent. Write regularly. Treat it like a part-time job. But only write five days a week and give yourself breaks. Only write every day if you're trying to prove a point. Writing every day can lead to burnout. I did not write a scene on day 366. I took a month off before writing another scene and going back in to the archive to see if I wanted to rewrite any of the 365.

At the end of the day, did writing 365 sketches make me a better writer? Yes. When we put up all 365 sketches live at Strawdog, I was worried that the shows would simply diminish in quality. We did 26 shows, each one featuring two weeks of material. Happy to report that show 26 was one of the best of the lot.

But, Joe, you allowed yourself to rewrite. Any suck ass scenes you posted you made better during the rewrite process. Well, check it out for yourself. The originals can be found on-line and you can compare them to the book. Most of what I did in the rewrite stage is fix typos and trim or add a line here or there. Anything that received a significant revision is noted under the title in the book. So, what does that say? That I'm just damn good? Well, yes. But it's more a testament of the training and experience I have received in writing and improvisation (Second City, iO, WNEP, Robot vs. Dinosaur, Improvised Shakespeare, Chicago Dramatists, Columbia College). I know how to write scenes with interesting characters that have a beginning, middle and end.

Anyone can write a sketch a day for a year. Anyone. What made the difference for me was painting myself in a corner. I gathered support from my friends before starting it. I posted live on-line every day. I had the intention that they would all be performed live and got directors on board during the process. If I had just declared I was going to do it and then wrote them all on my own, I likely would not have finished. Or I would have cheated and crammed writing five scenes into a weekend most weekends. And most of them would have sucked. Posting every day and knowing people were reading them and that they would be produced gave me the drive to make them the best I could and to strive to not repeat myself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I Believe...

...that apples and oranges are both fruit, both round and both can be eaten by hand. Apples have a skin you can eat. Oranges should be peeled. Both have seeds you can eat, but they taste icky. Overall, I like them both. There. I did it. I compared apples to oranges.

...that America has become a really awesome place for rich people. And they like it that way. We do have the best health care and education, if you can drop the ten million dimes to afford it. Corporate leaders and stockholders steal from the poor to keep themselves rich.

...that theater is live and immediate. It is human beings sharing stories with human beings. And as long as the stories are well told and connect, there will always be a place for it.

...that when you put on a festival involving over 200 people putting up 26 shows in 11 days and can't think of a single hitch to the whole proceedings, it's because you've learned to work with people who are bright, creative, courteous and fun.

...that we have a war that has gone on longer than Vietnam, an environmental disaster that could destroy the lives of millions, health care reform that mostly isn't, laws that put corporations over people and...where am I going with this? Oh, yeah, good thing we know how to laugh or we'd all be lining up to get our government-issue straight-jacket and padded cell.

Monday, June 14, 2010

365 Sketches Written, 365 Sketches Performed

Pretty intense experience. This picture from the final show's curtain call seems to sum it all up. (photo by Dianna Driscoll)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sketch Zero

My friends at Robot vs. Dinosaur are doing their part of 365 tonight. Back in January, at the end of the 365 writing process, they presented me with this...

I Believe...

...that as much as I mock Facebook, it was very useful in letting people know about my mother passing at a time when I had a lot going on. The outpouring of wall posts and personal messages was overwhelming, in a good way. I was especially touched by the people who have lost a parent who reached out with their empathetic support.

...that just having a good cry does wonders and feels much better than fighting having a good cry.

...that the magnitude of presenting 365 Sketches didn't fully hit me until we actually started doing it. The best reward has been seeing so many people have so much fun because of some stuff I wrote. What's also been great is that we chose the right directors who chose the right actors. Everyone has been exceptional to work with and from the very first tech, it has gone very smoothly. No divas. Except Don Hall.

...that even bald guys can get bad haircuts. You get what you pay for. On the other side, no reason for a bald guy to pay too much. There's not even material for the stylist to work with to justify it, even if you do offer me a latte.

...that success comes from taking risks and painting oneself in corners. Want to do a (fill-in-the-blank)-a-day for a year? Talk to a lot of people about doing it, gather a support system, do it publicly, and have not doing be more painful than doing it. And don't complain about it because you're doing exactly what you said you'd do.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Funeral

I have been to a few funerals, but this is the first one where I participated. I usually sit in the back and crack jokes and fight the giggles. It's what I do when facing the realities of life. When I was looking through pictures to post of my mother, I came across a letter from her. She sent it after her father's funeral in 1985, which I was unable to attend. It had a memorial card, a short note about the day humorously bitching about my aunts, and a typewritten page of a translated version of Psalm 23 from T. C. McLuhan's book "Touch the Earth." Father Olson, the pastor officiating my grandfather's funeral read it and my mother thought it was beautiful. Given my organizational skills, the fact that I still had this letter and the hard copy of the psalm seemed like a sign to have it read at my mother's funeral. Pastor Mike liked the idea and asked me to read it. My mother would certainly want that. I accepted, not realizing what a struggle it would be to get through without breaking down in tears. I made it through, teary-eyed and shaky-voiced.

The Twenty-third Psalm
- Native American Version -

The Great Father above a Shepherd Chief is.

I am His, and with Him I want not.
He throws out to me a rope,
And the name of the rope is love.

He draws me to where the grass is green,
And the water’s not dangerous.
I eat and lie down and am satisfied.

Sometimes my heart is very weak and falls down,
But He lifts me up again, and draws me into a good road.
His name is WONDERFUL.

Sometime soon, or it may be a long, long time,
He will draw me into a valley.
It is dark there, but I'll be afraid not,
For it is in between those mountains
That the Shepherd Chief will meet me
And the hunger that I have in my heart
All through this life will be satisfied.

Sometimes He makes the love rope into a whip
But afterwards He gives me a staff to lean upon.

He spreads a table before me with all kinds of foods.
He puts His hand upon my head, And all the "tired" is gone.

My cup He fills ‘till it runs over.
What I tell is true; I lie not.
These roads that are "away ahead"
Will stay with me through this life and after;
And afterwards I will go to live In the Big Tepee
And sit down with the Shepherd Chief forever.

After the service, I was chatting with Pastor Mike and showed him my mother's letter. He got a kick out of it and was blown away by the post script where my mom explained the psalm was found by Father Olson to be read. Pastor Mike's first funeral as a pastor was Father Olson's. I have a feeling this version of Psalm 23 is going to be getting a lot more air play.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Helen Janes 1935 - 2010

The early years...

With my pal Houdini...

Mom always had a quirky sense of humor, which should be of no surprise to anyone. She once lived on the second floor of a funeral home. I came home from college and stayed up late one night watching the movie Phantasm. It freaked me out a bit, so I slept on the couch. The next night, I got home late, went to my bedroom, and she had placed a poster board tombstone with my name on it at the head of my twin bed and arranged some pillows so it looked like a body under the blanket. Thanks, Mom. I miss you.