Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What A "Trill"! Comedy, Craft, and Community in Houston, TX!

Station Theatre - Houston, TX

I just returned from the Trill Comedy Festival in Houston, TX.  I'm glad to be in my own bed but already miss the great friends I've made, the colleagues sharing their passion for improv, and the support I was shown while I was there.  It was an experience for my personal history book thus I want to document it here while it's still fresh on my mind.

Talking Taboo -  Playing with Race, Gender, and other No-Nos
I got the honor of doing my inaugural festival workshop Talking Taboo, a workshop designed to allow players to play characters and situations that they don't feel they can due to societal norms and conventions.  Here's a description of what it addresses:

"Ever wonder what it’d be like to play characters, relationships, and situations that you’ve always wanted to but others told you not to? Have you shied away from exploring new creativity because of how you may be perceived? This workshop is to discuss and play with the taboos of improv such as race, gender, religion, politics, sex, mortality, and language among many others to break down the barriers to unlock realism and depth to your scene work based on every day human experience."

They gave me two workshops to do over the weekend and they both went splendidly.  We spent time coalescing skills that may have already had regarding "truth in the scene" where the players play characters with wants & needs with respect to the reality they initiate in the scene.  Although this concept is not novel, what was was adding a layer of playing characters and addressing situations that the community normally avoids.  I felt that the folks got something out of it if not just on their work on stage but as a way to begin talking about these things to explore areas formerly closed off to us actors/improvisers.  There was one individual who really had some breakthroughs both personally and artistically in the class.  

I was so happy to get the chance to do these workshops.  It gave me a place to give back to the community by addressing something that I feel has been hurting us collectively.  I also liked accomplishing a goal of being "that guy" who taught something at a recognized festival!

Impro Español
Me and Blad Moreno
I was fortunate enough take Impro Español, my English/Spanish two-man show with the über talented Blad Moreno, down to Houston.  We were given a headlining slot for the Saturday 7 PM show featuring Freudian Slip, the College Improv Tournament champions from Texas A&M, along with local sketch duo Ned & Kelly bringing out the best humor with a Redbox influence.  Our show was off-the-hook!  In the span of 35 minutes, we were able to not only able to showcase fun Spanish & English scenes with no translation included but had a very well-received silent scene Blad commanded along with a scene where I took a many risks of bodily harm (walking on chairs, over people, and staking unstackable chairs to get on top of) that sent the audience into a frenzy.  We topped it off with some characters showcasing the concepts taught in the Talking Taboo workshop as well as by pulling up someone up on stage to help us with a callback.  IT. WAS. AWESOME!!!

Silent Mime Fight Scene During Impro Español's Set
Here're some of the comments I heard from the weekend on that show (I really wish I could document these things so that a] it doesn't look like they were made up b] I don't come off too bragadocious):
  • "You guys were DEFINITELY  the headliners for that show." - JB
  • "I've never seen anything like that before. It was so cool that even though I couldn't understand the Spanish, I still understood what was going on." - Asif
  • "You should come back next year!" - TJC
  • "Why aren't we doing this more often?!!" - Nelson & Blad

Having such a great show and such fantastic support really made this trip memorable.  But there was definitely more to this experience than one show.

One thing that I must admit is that I don't do a lot of "experimental" improvisation.  I've been playing it safe with trying to just get good at the "standard" forms out there (short-form & long(er) form).  Houston seems to be very open to trying out all kinds of improvisation.  I learned just how much more I have to learn.

One form that I've heard about but not really given second thought of performing personally was the monoscene form where the entire show is one continuous scene between static characters in a static location.  It's more like a one-act play than a traditional improv show.  I got the opportunity to try it out in a non-performance fashion with a Houstonian who I sat down next to in the green room on a couch.  She had taken my workshop previously that day. She was drinking the remaining maragarita mix straight from a bottle when  I struck up a conversation with her playing my beloved "bum" character "Cecil". She played along and we did what felt like a 20-25 minute set of improv between the two of us going back and forth.  We covered everything from politics to religion to medical ailments to societal ills.  We even got the chance to practice concepts from the Talking Taboo workshop by bring up/playing things we knew could offend but if played from a position of truth, would be forgiven/ignored.  It was so much fun!

It went so well and I got so inspired by this exchange, I was tempted to ask if we could pull up the couch on stage after the last show so we could try it out at the festival.  Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and instead it's got me thinking about what I need to do/learn to do this show in the future.

Houston's Scene's Got A Leg Up on Chicago
Houston,TX Skyline
One thing that struck me as being so different than the scene of improv I'm used to was just how closely knit the Houston scene was.  Everybody semeed genuinely happy for each other to succeed and were willing to help others to get ahead.  I cannot say that about the Chicago improv scene.  I feel that we're 80% haters and 20% okayers with regards to supporting each other(FYI, I'm guilty of hating too).  When I was there, there was genuine interest in what was going on and a sense of pride as to what their scene had to offer.  It's left an impression on me to bring that attitude back to foster amongst my projects back home.

Everybody was super nice and were willing to bend over backwards for the performers. Usually I find someone to not like at these festivals for some reason or another but I left Houston loving everybody.  No one was rude or dickheaded - everybody was chill.  It was "yes and" personified!

I can't wait to go back next year. Special shout out to the curators, the theatre owners, staff, performers, and audiences that came out this year.  You helped me grow both as a person and as an artist.  THANK YOU!!!!

P.S. Special thanks to Jessica Brown, Zak Kinnaird, Roger Anderson, and Steven Saltsman for their super hard work, awesome hospitality, and most of all friendship!


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rediscovering The Pumpkins

Everyone knows I'm a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan for 20+ years.  Many accused me of leaving the confines of Texas to head up to Chicago to stalk Billy's every move.  It just turned out I must've put it into the Universe and it delivered me to the grace of the "city by the lake".

I've been looking at putting together a set of Smashing Pumpkin covers for open mic/performance opportunities.  I went through all of the 540 tracks I've got and weeded them down to the following:

The interesting thing is that as of late I've been waning a bit in wanting to do things Pumpkins related.  Per previous blogs, I've always stuck up for Billy even when he's challenged my own fandom both musically and artistically. However, I haven't been to a live show since 2011 as I don't sense the passion and fire in his performances as I have in the past.  Yes, I realize he's not in his twenties anymore and can't run around the stage around like a madman but it's more than that.  I just can't hear the passion in his singing (as challenging as that can be at times) that made me attracted to the Pumpkins in the first place.  I feel like half the time he doesn't want to be there and when he does, I sense a brooding, dark man on stage.  I have been down with the records as of late and have cherished older live stuff where I hear the hunger of a band that thought could really change things.

I recently watched Billy do a broadcast on Periscope and got inspired to do the same.  I've done some live streaming in the past via Youtube ans UStream so the concept isn't new.  However, people are on their devices now and Periscope provides a way to integrate it into my portfolio of social media.  I figured, "Hey, why not do some concerts?"

I chose the Pumpkins as I haven't really been enjoying writing my own stuff because I get to conscious of my own stuff and want to be happy just playing songs I knew well.  Why not use the Pumpkin fandom to my advantage, right?  So, that's what I'm starting to do.

If you want to check out the fruits of my labor, follow me on Twitter at nelsonvelazquez and wait for the announcement of the next gig.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I'm An Alien

Note: I started this a couple of months ago.  I decided to finish it today.

Last night I posted up the following:

I went down memory lane for a bit in that moment which brought up another memory as well:

Ah yes -  Halen's 1984 - one of the most seminal records from my early youth.  When I wasn't jumping, panamaning, or being hot for teacher, I was break dancing on linoleum floors and polished concrete foryers.  I absolutely was enthralled by the videos on MTV and thought they were the quintessential rock band of all time (which they were).

Another memory from 1990 popped into my mind shortly after the post.  My buddy had "Live: Right Here, Right Now" Van Halen record featuring singer Sammy Hagar.  I, for one, was a David Lee Roth fan because of my loyalty to what I had seen on MTV as a kid and never really got into "Van Hagar".  However, they did try a couple of songs off the 1984 record so I was willing to listen to just how inferior Sammy's version was to DLR's.  Not being satisfied with the live version, I decided to grab my crunchy cassette copy 1984, rewound the tape tightly within its spindles, and pressed play.

The first track came on aptly titled "1984" - an armada of synthesizers tracked on top of each of other making all kinds of lush bleeps, bloops, and wongs in harmonious fashion.  I was so moved by this track being so futuristic sounding (even in 1990), a light bulb went off in my head.  I looked at my best friend square in the eye and in no uncertain fashion told him, "We're going to start a band.  We're going to get a couple of synths and play this song!"  I had absolutely no doubt in my mind a band would made.  My friend went along with me on this assertion half-heartedly, but I was so convinced of achieving my goal that if he decided to start faltering on supporting my dream to make this Van Halen synth cover band a reality, I would force him into conforming.  That very week, I got a cheap Casio keyboard and started learning the song by ear even though I had no idea how to actually play it fathfully.

Leadership By Design Or By Default

That band starting memory triggered a whole bunch of earlier memories.  I remembered how in 4th grade I was appointed as an officer of our "patrols" crew as Lieutenant (2nd in charge).  In 5th grade, they promoted me to Captain.  I took a sh*tload of pride in knowing I was in charge of making sure kids actually wore their bright orange patrol belts, helmets, and got the responsibility of raising the Texas and US flags on the prominently featured flag pole in front of the school.

In 6 & most of 7th grade, I was an absolutely horrible trumpet player.  Then half way through 7th grade, I finally figured out how to play my trumpet well.  I then quickly moved form last chair to being almost first.  Then in 8th grade, I was first chair all year.

In high school, I was 3rd chair my freshman year and then became 1st chair for the rest of high school.  I started as a regular band member my freshman year, then became section leader, line leader, and eventually the drum major.  I was also the president of the computer club, the consul of our Latin club, on the student council, and a better-than-average student (I wasn't an all AP student or anything but I was pretty good academically)

In college, I was the president (or webmaster) of the local chapter of ACM (memory's a little foggy), lead a series of bands, and was a lead developer at a local computer business.  

In my current every day life, I am in no particular order a lead IT architect, lead developer, project manager, artistic director, producer, writer, videographer, recording artist, graphic artist, husband, and a father.

Fitting In

I spend a lot of time talking about high school.  It's effectively the crown jewel of everything I learned about social interactions and the measuring stick I use to see just how far I've grown.  I'm sure it looks like I peaked in high school (I probably did).

After taking inventory of all of these things I had done in life and never really thought twice about, I realized, "HOLY CRAP!  I've been in charge of my own things for almost my entire life!"  Many of those vaulted positions were not because I wanted to actively be in charge but because somebody had to be and I was many times the only one willing to do it.

I've never been down with "the cool kids".  Thinking back over the years, I've never been super popular; I made my own peer groups to get by.  High school was pretty traumatic when the group of friends I had my freshman and sophomore years decided to effectively go their own ways.  I truly thought we'd be BFFs in eternity.  After licking my wounds from a sense of abandonment,  I struck out my junior year on a perilous quest to find a new group - and floundered. I was adopted by a group of misfits, dorks, and geeks (who in hindsight I probably should've appreciated a lot more than I may had back in the day).  They took me in and friended me only to the point I would let them; I was a bit of a tool.  But by my senior year, I had figured out my coveted friend structure and put together a pretty good group of people to spend my remaining year in institutionalized learning.

I don't really talk a lot about fitting in college as I was pretty much a loner.  My goal was to get in and out as quickly as possible and move out-of-state.  The only life lessons I took away from college were:

  • fitting in would no longer be an issue for me as everybody was forced to make their own way in life.
  • my journey in defining who I was wasn't over but it was in a way a lot easier.  Without depending on friends to tell me who I was, I was forced to define who I was to myself.  This is something I continue to do every day.

I Am An Alien
While looking around at my peers, colleagues, family, and friends, I feel abnormal - where no matter what is accomplished, how it was done, or how it was perceived, it's always different than how everyone would've/should've/could've done it.  I can't shake that feeling.  I'm sure it's a sign that serious therapy is needed, but I seem to be doing fine without it (for now).

I'm a Mork.  The world's a Mindy.  We'll make the best of it.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

It's All About The Numbers...

I have to admit that waiting around for acceptance confirmation from a local improv festival has been nerve-racking.  I submitted two groups; one got in and the other, which got submitted to two different categories, has been rejected for one and no word from the other.  Being on Facebook sucks because I see all kinds of groups announcing their acceptance but I have yet to sit and wait.  I'm incredibly anxious - I just want to know yay or nay.

I got to thinking about it and asked myself, "Why do you put so much stock into it?"  It's because deep down inside I feel it would be a small bit of respect and validation to what it is that I do.  I can't deny I want the respect and validation from my colleagues even when I shouldn't.  When I do shows, audiences are entertained, people get more than their money's worth, my peers who do see the show love it, and I feel a huge sense of satisfaction.


I strive to be deemed "worthy" by the cool kids :(.  I hate that I feel this way.  It's coming from a deeper sense of never feeling good enough.  And I know that even if we do get into the festival the way I'd like, I may not be ready to shake this feeling.

I'm hyper-focused on it right now because I don't have anything else truly eating up my thoughts.  I remember when I was in my training days doing 5 shows at the same time.  It may not have been my best work in any one show because my focus was spread pretty thin; however, I loved it because I felt wanted and if I had a bad night/rehearsal with one, I didn't dwell on it because I had 4 other chances to do good work.  I was too busy to give a fawk.

At the same time, being so busy may have been masking this sense of emptiness I feel when I've got 1 or 2 projects going on.  I have to find a peace regardless of what I'm working on and just "know" that I'm good enough no matter what others may think.  I have my moments where it's possible but it's never permanent.

So, I'll continue working on feeling worthy and loving myself even if I perceive the rest of the world doesn't recognize it.  I do hold onto the hope that one day it'll happen the way I want it to; maybe, it already has and my narcicism/pride/ego get in the way of seeing it.  At least, I'll avoid jumping into more projects just to fill up that hole I feel.

Sorry end on a downer.  I'll lick my wounds, process, and move on :)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Moving On Up - The First Time I Made The Audience Mine

Picture it - San Antonio - 1991.  A curly headed Puerto Rican/Brazilian trumpet playing teenager prepares himself to visit Kerrville, TX for band camp to become the leader he always knew he'd be - a section leader.  He looked forward to the good things in life: his friends, his music, and the chance to see hot girls in bathing suits...
I was/am a band geek.  I love the idea of taking the disciplines of military drill & marching, the creativity of theatre, and the wonder of music and mashing them together to produce a 10 minute half-time show.  The Mighty Alamo Heights High School Marching Band took refuge in a town roughly 90 minutes northwest of San Antonio every summer for a week.  For many of us, it was the first time we were allowed to go away from home so we made the best of ever opportunity to act a fool as we could without getting caught or in trouble.  Most of it revolved around the pool and our dorm rooms.  We'd shoot for scoring with girls when most of the time it would end up being a male bonding experience where we strengthened our beliefs in the band's prospects to put on a great show and place well in competition.  It was also a great place for us to showcase, i.e., show off, our skills and prove that we were the "best" at what we did.

When I went to band camp as a sophomore, I was full of arrogance.  I was a section leader which meant I taught others how to march and play.  I also was in contention for first chair which came with all kinds of personal bragging rights and pride (none of which make you cool as an adult later).  I also had my best friend Ricky on-board as a freshman who I would help shape and mold into my protege (remember, I was really arrogant).  Ricky and I lived in the same neighborhood, were both trumpet players, and both supported each other.  It was awesome.  We were an unstoppable force to be reckoned with and along with our buddy Dan, we were the Three Amigos reincarnate (except Dan played tenor saxophone but we'll let that slide).

One of the rules we followed at band camp was that we were to keep every place we visited tidy.  If you left behind anything of importance, you got punished with running laps, push-ups, or public admonishment.  Once you served your punishment, you got your item back.  One morning Ricky and I left our music on the field when preparing for morning block and some upper classman found it.  We didn't even know it was gone until lunch time when we had a meeting after lunch to go over our afternoon activities.  Once we found out, we were asked if we wanted it back.  We both said "Yes." and walked up to the front of the group to receive our punishment.  We hung our heads down expecting the worse punishment possible when all of a sudden the Drum Major David Henslee says, "You have to sing a song in front of everybody".

Sing a song?


Seriously?  What kind of punishment is that?  perform in front of everybody?!  I look at Ricky and without hesitation bust out into the theme song form The Jeffersons.  People start laughing which was impetus for us to go all out with it.  I dug down deep, channeled my best Sherman Henslee attitude, and belted the song out even louder.  Then at one point, in an almost possessed state I point at the crowd and yelled, "CLAP!"  We got the back beat going in the room and we finished the song in a Christina Aguilera-like "We finally found a piece of the piiiiiiiiii-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!"  We got a massive applause and cheer at the end of our performance.  We accepted our music back, sat down, and both had red faces and huge grins on our faces.  We did it.  We rocked the party!

Afterwards, Ricky and I were reliving our moment and he goes, "That was awesome when you yelled out 'CLAP!' and got everyone in it."  I tried to be cool about it with a meek response of "Yeah" but inside, I knew I had tapped into something greater about performing for people; when people are involved in the performance and are having a great time, it just makes those coordinating it that much better.    That philosophy and fun is what I try to bring to my performances now.  Los Improviachis is the perfect amalgamation of what I started 20 years ago.  Rapture also has an audience element in it as well.

My CPCTIF2 classes have a show coming up.  I get to pass on this nugget of wisdom onto a new generation of actors.  It's awesome to see something so powerful continue for all to make their own.