Raise Your Game

My Mom and Dad have been avid golfers for as long as I can remember.  My Dad started playing when he was young but my Mom didn’t pick it up until she married him.  She also started skiing when they got married.  But I digress.  We were fortunate enough to live in a small town with several pretty good golf courses close by so they were usually able to play somewhere.  Even if for a hole or two or to shag balls.  My Dad really enjoyed the game and the release it provided him from his stressful career.  For my Mom, I think it was a wonderful opportunity for her to find a moment of peace and quiet amongst the chaos of raising 5 children.  It’s blissfully hard to answer a million questions and referee the multitude of battles when you are on the back nine!

I always thought it was great that they shared this common interest.  They took golf trips together, went to golf school together and played together several times a week.  My Mom, being the great competitor she is, really worked at her game.  She has a great eye for analyzing a swing and for putting what she learned into practice. It got to the point she could play better than my Dad, who was no slouch himself.  In fact she plays better than almost the entire male membership at their club.  There’s quite a bit of grudging admiration in the men’s locker room for my Mom’s skills.  All of us kids grew up playing, with varying degrees of success.  I like being outdoors but the time it took to play a full round was time I wanted to use elsewhere.  So while I am proficient, I haven’t excelled to the level my parents have.  But I always loved playing with them.  It was really fun and the laughs we had were priceless.  Best of all, I always played better than when I was playing in an outing or a league.  Both my parents would give me tips, and my Mom especially was great at fixing my errant swing.  I played up to their game and was the better for it.

I thought about that last night when I attended a table read for the latest project I’ve been cast in, a short film.  One of the actors there had really prepared for the read, our first meeting as a cast.  He’d really thought about all the characters and had read the script multiple times.  He’d mapped out past histories and relationship nuances I hadn’t begun to think about.  His work got me thinking about decisions I’d made about my character but hadn’t formalized.  Made me commit to certain aspects of my role and who I was in the story.  Made me work out where I was going in this story.  In short, improved my game during our brief meeting.

It had been a while since I’ve been in a collaborative effort like this.  Voiceover can be a solitary business with no one to bounce ideas off of.  I was excited leaving the meeting and reminded that I should always try to work with those better than me.  Push myself.  Raise my game.  How else am I going to get that hole in one?

Fail Magnificently

A project I recently worked on was an audiobook called Majestie, a biography about the King James of the King James Bible .  I really didn’t know much about this particular royal and the book, by David Teems, was written wonderfully.  It made the reading and directing it a bit of a dream.  The book dealt with the conflagration of events and people that came together at a particular time in history to shape not only the Bible in the title but the English language as we know it today. And this was all spearheaded by a misshapen redheaded king from Scotland who had a keen mind and a vision beyond his horizon.  As I was reading the epilogue this evening, in the last few lines, the author comments on how grandly King James thought, saying “when he dreamed, he dreamed big, like a king.  Where he loved, there were no half measures.  Where he failed, he was absolutely magnificent.”

That last part really struck me.  King James so committed to whatever project he did that if it succeeded, it was going to be huge.  Undertaking a translation of the Bible so the common man could understand and read it was no small task when books were so rare and so few knew how to use them. Hundreds of words were introduced to the English language that are still in use today.  It was monumental in it’s scope.  But in doing this he also took the chance that it was going to be a monumental failure and he might be dethroned or worse, as was common in those days, beheaded.  It was a big risk but he took it anyway.

I’m in the process of creating and producing a project with a colleague of mine, Maritza Cabrera.  It involves writing in a form I’ve never done before and using lots of dialogue something I’m unfamiliar with.  I was so panicked at writing my first episode that I thought and thought about it for over a week. I knew what I wanted to say, I was just afraid I wouldn’t know how to say it.  I finally gave myself a good talking to, saying that no one was going to mock and ridicule me, much less behead me, for attempting to write a web series.  At the very least, they would applaud the effort.  At long last I was able to put fingers to keyboard.

Reading those words about King James made me realize that in whatever I was going to attempt, there was always a chance of failure.  But if I hedged my bets, only sorta committed to it, kept my fingers in other pies, I’d produce mediocre work.  If I fully committed, it would be a magnificent success or a magnificent failure but either way, it would be magnificent.  And you can’t succeed magnificently if you don’t take the chance you’ll fail magnificently every once in a while.  I’ll take my chances.

Finding your Funny

One of the great resources available to creatives in Chicago is Improvisation training at The Second City.  This training center has been around since 1959 and has been turning out incredible talent since then.  They have a wide variety of classes available from writing to directing to performing to what’s probably the only musical improv curriculum in the country.  Chicago is known for it’s improv.  We have several other places for training, The Annoyance Theatre, Improv Olympic among others.  I went through the Conservatory at Second City and was very proud to “Get the T-Shirt”.  See, when you complete the training at Second City, you get a red t-shirt with the original logo on it.  The only way you can get that shirt is by graduating from the conservatory.  It means a lot to me that I have that shirt.  I’m not a improver by discipline but I was very interested in using what I learned to further my acting.  And I have to admit, it was a huge help to me.  Not only did my co-workers at my previous job think I was hilarious, it made me more present in my auditions and performances.

My training ended there almost 2 years ago.  I really miss the practice and the camaraderie.  I didn’t realize it until I was in LA a few weeks ago and was hanging with a fellow voice talent who is incredibly funny, Amy Snively.  Amy is great at the one line comments that reflect a situation in the perfect hilarious way.  Before long, I was adding my 2 cents to her riffs and the fun began.  It was a blast.  But it also made me realize that I’d lost my funny over the months.  All the changes in my life, the sadness, the uncertainty had left my funny hang-tied with no where to come out and play.  Amy helped me find my funny all over again.  I just have to make sure I don’t lose it anymore.

Those That Came Before

I was going to call this post Arrogant Ignorance but that sounded too harsh.  Attention grabbing but harsh nonetheless.  Recently I was in Los Angeles for some VO work and was able to take a tour of Paramount Studios.  They are one of the few studios that still do tours and since they keep the size down to 8 in a group, it’s a great way to see everything in an intimate group.  The history on these 65 acres is pretty astonishing.  RKO Studios used to be right next door.  RKO was purchased by DesiLu, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s studio.  She got the studio in the divorce and ran it for 7 years until she sold it to Paramount and they tore down the wall that separated the two properties.  Lucille Ball was the first woman to head a major studio.

The backlot has several streets that can be substituted for New York, Boston, Chicago.  Pretty much any major city east of the Mississippi.  Inside the facades you find a structure that is primarily built on what looks like massive telephone poles.  There are some steel i-beams but otherwise it’s all wood and it dates back to the early days of moviedom.  On each sound stage is a marker that lists the movies and shows filmed there.  I think each studio has a similar marker on their sound stages.  It’s pretty humbling to see the all the names.  My Dad and Mom are big old movie fans and they’ve passed that on to me.  So to be where all that magic was made was really cool.

That day on the lot was Betty White who was shooting a guest spot on Community.  There were several young people on the tour that had no idea of who she was.  I was astonished.  Betty White is having an incredibly resurgent career and is all over the media.  She is one of those who’s shoulders we are all standing on.  Like Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett.  You have to know the stories of those that came before you in order to appreciate where we are today.  Otherwise you are doomed to repeat it.

Imaginary Workouts

No I’m not talking about all those sit-ups I do in my brain while my tukhus is firmly planted on my couch next to the bag of chips and guac that will be my downfall.  Nor the half marathon I imagine myself completing with nary a bead of sweat on my face.  No I’m talking about exercising the imagination muscle.  When we were kids, we used to play all the time, engaging our imagination at every turn.  Like every Catholic schoolkid, we played communion and used pickle chips for the host.  Star Trek was a big game in my family and my communicator was my rosary case that my grandmother had brought back from being blessed by the Pope in Rome.  I’m pretty sure she’d have a heart attack if she ever found out what I was using it for and my lack of veneration for it.   Cowboys and Indians were popular as was War and then of course we have Barbie and her fabulous life.  My brother used to get really mad at me for making GI Joe take Barbie out on a date but he had a car, Ken didn’t.  It may have been a Jeep that shot missiles my Mom promptly took away so we didn’t shoot our eyes out, but it was a car nonetheless and that trumps everything in the dating world.

I was reminded of playing pretend when I attended the Dan O’Day International Radio Creative and Production Summit last weekend in Los Angeles.  Dan always puts together a great weekend of really talented people and this year was no exception.  Richard Horvitz was leading a session on increasing your business by learning to play.  Using your imagination to flesh out who you were, where you were and what you wanted in the story.  He didn’t call it a script but a story.  That was an important shift right out of the box.  All scripts are stories, even the worst screaming/auto/retail script ever written, you just have to find it.  Once you find the story, you have to imagine who you are, where you are and what you want in the story.  You have to play pretend. Be willing to enter a second reality.  Kids do it so easily but once you grow into adulthood, out goes the imagination.  Like a muscle that’s been allowed to atrophy from nonuse, our ability to tap into our imagination gets harder and harder.  It takes practice to find it with ease.  Playing with kids is one way to do it.  But another is imagining what you’re not and then making it so.  Like saying I’m not blond, but I’m going to pretend I’m blond.  Going to the second reality again and again so it becomes easier each time.

Imagining I’ve got a flat stomach isn’t going to make it happen but seeing myself with that flat stomach makes the sit-ups easier to do.  So too will becoming that person in the story.  Now if I could just imagine my way to Warren Buffet’s fortune.

Golden Nuggets

A very valuable resource and mentor in my transition to my acting career has been Kristine Oller.  I’ve written about Kristine before and the guidance she’s given me has been so invaluable.  She’s the kind of advisor that doesn’t tell you what to do, she helps you lead yourself to what you want to accomplish and where you need to go.  Networking is a big part of her success formula and it’s an element that so many creatives overlook.  They think that if they do good work, the world will come knocking at their door.  Why wouldn’t it?

Well it’s not that easy.  I share Kristine’s fantasy that when I go to an event the cool group with all the mojo will take me under their wings, introduce me to the people that will catapult me to the stratosphere of my career and give me all their client contacts.  <SIGH>  It just doesn’t happen that way unfortunately.  It’s work to get to know people.  You have to put yourself out there.  Make connections with folks.  Having been in sales for so long I’m very comfortable at meeting people and making acquaintances.  And I’m great at selling someone else or their product.  But when it comes to selling myself, the wheels come off the bus.  I had the same problem when asking for a raise but that’s a topic for another day.  One of the things Kristine taught me was her Golden Nugget game.  She says that when you go to a party or an event, she tells herself there is someone there with a golden nugget of information for her and she has a golden nugget of information for someone else.  She doesn’t know who she’s giving it to or who she’s receiving it from or even what the information is but she just knows it’s her job at that moment to find the giver and the recipient.  This helps take the pressure off of that first face to face meeting and the awkwardness that ensues.

Keeping this thought in the back of my brain has really helped elevate my encounters with people.  Sometimes I give out more than one golden nugget and others I get far more than I give.  It really makes an evening enjoyable and takes the strain away from connecting with people.  I’m still hoping for that elusive E ticket to the top, but while I’m waiting, this makes the A, B, C and D tickets so much more fun!

Stupid Tax

One of the shows I used to catch every once in a while was The Dave Ramsey Show on the Fox Business Network.  Dave is a financial guru who helps people get out of debt and stay out of debt.  I’ve read a few of his books and was saddened to see that FBN cancelled the program a few weeks back.  He had a great way of putting things that were no-nonsense and full of common sense tips to help one and all get their financial houses in order.  He was ardently opposed to credit cards and their use as a tool for cash flow.  He called the interest they charged a “stupid tax”.  This just made me giggle.  He applied the term to several other areas of finances, basically saying that to use or lose your money for silly and unnecessary reasons was just plain stupid.

I think the phrase can be extended to other areas of life and not just financially.  And I have a perfect example of how I paid the stupid tax the other day when traveling.  Let’s just start with the premise that traveling these days includes a certain amount of hassle, annoyances and endless supplies of patience.  The days of travel being a pleasant and luxurious pastime are long gone-alas!  Anywho, I was going to LA for a voiceover conference and had booked the first flight out so I could be in LA early enough to do a little sightseeing.  I wanted to do an official studio tour as I’d been on a lot but wanted to hear the history of studio.  So I was going to take the Paramount tour at noon LA time.  I get to the airport at 545am in plenty of time for my 735am flight and I’ve already printed my boarding pass.  No problem right?  Well for some reason I decide at the last minute to go to the bathroom and then oooo, wouldn’t a banana be good for the flight?  So I toodle down the concourse in search of a banana.  As I return to the gate, I notice the door is closed so I wait outside as the gate agents sometimes step away to take care of some business.  Someone finally showed up and asked if they could help me.  I said “I’m on this flight” and hand her my boarding pass.  “I’m sorry, the flight is closed”.  “But there’s 10 minutes until you leave, they plane’s still right there”  “But the flight is full”  wherein we got to the root of issue.  They’d given away my seat and they’d have to compensate someone in order to honor my seat.  So instead I paid the stupid tax of having to wait for the next flight and potentially missing my tour.

Fortunately I made the tour but the entire episode highlighted for me some of the ways that I short change my career and my life by paying this tax that I don’t need to pay.  Sure getting a banana was innocent enough but the result of my loss of focus could have been a lot worse than it was.  Staying focused is very important and not letting myself get sidetracked.  If I don’t, I may end up holding a boarding pass going nowhere instead of continuing forward progress.