Friday, January 6, 2017

Growing Up vs Growing Old

Tomorrow Salsation Theatre Company, NFP takes the stage at The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (more commonly referred to as "Sketchfest") 2017.  We've put together what I consider to be a really good show and I am hoping the audience appreciates the hard work everybody has put into it.  As we're on the eve of Sketchfest, I'm reflecting a bit before going to bed.

Back From The Dark
Salsation has been pretty quiet over the last couple of years.  We had Los Improviachis keeping the name out there but it pretty much became its own monster of an improv team known for putting on really fun, audience interactive shows.  Salsation has been more known for sketch than anything else and as a group, we were tired.  Plain and simple.  The senior members of the ensemble had a lot of changes come into their lives and continuing on in the same manner we had been operating over the years was taxing us to the point that we couldn't continue delivering quality material.  We needed a break and decided to "go dark" vs. just abandoning it since Salsation does have a place in the history books of Chicago improv & sketch comedy for being the longest lasting Latino theatre company doing the art-form.

My break took me into new places within the improv community.  I began teaching, touring, and playing a ton more.  I got to run workshops, attend improv camps, start new teams, showcase my existing teams, and be featured in improv festivals.  With all of the unscripted joy, I knew at some point I would want to get back to doing original scripted work.  With the advent of Improñol and continuation of Los Improviachis, I also started mining more of my heritage.  I started speaking a ton more Spanish and having to incorporate it into my art.  The political season of 2016 made me face some realities about Latinos in this new era that I felt needed to be explored.  All of these things culminated in bring Salsation out of hibernation and into the light.

The Writing Process
One of the biggest changes for this show was that it basically started as a two-man show.  One of the other members of the group was jonesing to be more involved artistically and since I was feeling the pull of sketch comedy, I decided to take a chance on just having some fun.

Most sketch comedy shows are put together in the following way:
  • A group of people get together and want to produced a sketch revue
  • They might find a director or writing coach to start writing a bunch of scenes.  They also might go at it themselves for a bit.
  • They spend weeks getting those sketches up to par with what they find funny.  
  • They then get a venue to play and start blocking scenes, memorizing lines, and rehearsing.
  • They do the show for 4-6 weeks and then do it again at some point down the road.
I'm leaving out a lot of other things that happen but creatively I feel I've captured the gist of the process.  This takes typically 3 months to put together.  I didn't want to feel that weight on my shoulders because I've been there/done that with this process enough and its exhausting.  I decided to put on new rules for this endeavor:
  • Sketches will be written from improvisation.  All improv will be taped and posted for others to review.
  • If a sketch was brought in, it'll be table-read by everyone involved then we will immediately re-improvise it (aka known as "drop script").  Revisions will be written based on what major things were memorable from the table read and any new gems gathered during improvisation.  The process is repeated until the team deems it "good enough" to perform.
  • Sketches that are not fully completed are able to go into any show deemed fit.  The expectation is that getting these kinds of premises in front of people might bring some goodness out of the people acting them out.
This process isn't novel.  The Second City mainstage productions pretty much does this as their method of writing material.  I found this process to be totally freeing and very collaborative.  Too many times have I been part of shows where I am put in a position to write material only to have my 10-15 sketches completely ignored by a director or a group that doesn't see value in my voice.  This method  would give my material at least a better chance to make it viewable by an audience.   It also makes the process more organic and reduces expectations and disappointment because everything is much more collaborative.

The Results
We started with two people.  We then brought on another once they had heard of the process and the ease of expectations from me which was much more laid back and easy going.  Then we brought on another who was willing to just be a part of it.  With this group of people we were able to put up two shows at Second City with good feedback on the new material.  Then later to my surprise we brought on another person who I thought would never want to deal with another sketch show again after being in the trenches like me for so many years and feeling unheard.  After reconciling rehearsal dates and schedules, I found myself having a really good group of fun, smart people who put their all into putting together a great show for Sketchfest.

What I Learned
Improv (and age) has really helped me chill out on my intensity and need for control in the creative processes.  I've done so much improv that I see how much more fun letting go and going with things can be.  It doesn't mean I'm a push-over; rather, I see that when I don't force things to happen, magic normally occurs.

I hope you're able to join us for the showcase.  For more info, visit

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Literate Ape Is Just a Jackass With A Blog

I disagree with 99% of this jackass the Literate Ape's rant regarding how "thin-skinned" the Second City and its actors are regarding bad reviews on their shows and unruly audience members.   It's written in the beginning of the article to be a reaction to how Second City has responded to the reviews they received and how combative audience behavior has forced productions and its members to assert themselves in a way to try to ensure that the show is presented in a manner it's intended to be seen.  I found it pretty hard to read because the author (who remains anonymous) tries to be sarcastic and funny with questions posed every 3rd or 4th sentence in order to make his weak arguments stronger.  All it does is slow things down when reading it.

This Ape Missed The Branch
In the piece, the author's very much attached to the idea that when one performs "comedy" that there are certain occupational risks that come with it that are acceptable and are to be expected.  He asserts that heckling is one of them and if the production can't handle it, they shouldn't be up on stage.  What the article seems miss about what they do over at Second City is that the scripted art being staged and maybe even marketed as isn't "comedy" but rather "satire" - work looking at making fun of interesting social, political issues that patrons should have some cursory knowledge in.  The improv being performed isn't "comedy" but rather "unscripted theatre".   Since "theatre" is being presented, the rules of "comedy" don't exactly apply.

For example, there are comedic Shakespearean plays.  It would be rude and tacky to stand up in the middle of The Merchant of Venice and shout out, "YOU'RE NOT EVEN REALLY FROM ITALY, YOU JAGOFF!"  That might illicit some laughs at a 2 AM open mic in a bar somewhere but first and foremost, Second City is a theatre (with the "re" ending vs. "er") which means there's an implied level of sophistication required from the audience to recognize what they're watching.  It doesn't mean that a patron needs a P.H.D. to get what's going on on stage but rather they need to understand what they are watch has deeper meaning than what it looks like on the surface.

The Second City and its artists have every right to try to steer their to a place where they can present their work as intended and give the audience a chance to soak up that experience and interpret it any way they choose.  Placing signs in the lobby asking audience members to be respectful of the artists, the theatre, and each other - however sad that these rules even have to be explicitly stated - is perfectly fine.  If that offends your sensibilities, you shouldn't go see it.

The presentation of material is typically not a two-way street.  It's one way. I, the performer, get to tell you how I feel.  You, the audience member, choose to pay for the chance to see what I have to say in the way that I say it and absorb it.  That's it.  Your viewing dollar doesn't buy you the opportunity to talk back or become part of my show. 

Owning Up To Being a Performer
The 1% I do agree with is the notion that many improvisers/actors are unprepared for heckling unlike stand-up comics. Stand-ups deal with it way more often than we do and see working examples of how to handle it at open mics and shows. Improvisers tend to learn the art of the craft but not necessarily the skills needed for reading a crowd, changing things up when things when the crowd turns against them, and how to empower themselves to deal with a-holes messing up a good show.

I realize that I stated previously that what we do is "art" and "theatre".  However, our audiences think we're doing "comedy" which lumps us into a loose association with stand-up comics.  Many of us perform improv in less than ideal locations such as basements, bars, karaoke rooms, and personal living rooms which don't elicit the decorum of a traditional theatre goer.   That requires us to have to straddle both sides of "art" and "comedy" and be able to not only improvise well but also make sure our audiences are with us.

I myself still need to master these skills but having played with Los Improviachis over the last four years I learned these skills on stage since we do a ton of audience interaction. It's taught me to own my stage when I go out there. If you're going to be a dick, I will turn the audience against you. Does it ruin the show? Sometimes but more often than not all it does is change the show to be something unexpected. We just work with the new circumstances and move on. We did a show where I handled a dude getting crazy during one of our games:

After the show, the dude and his girlfriend came up and apologized and we hugged it out.  Everyone I spoke to who saw that show felt that dealing with that guy in the manner done was entertaining and succinct.  

What Can Be Done?
First, read the article and make your own decisions.  Go see the current Second City mainstage show and make your own decisions.  Go see more improvisation and stand-up and make your own decisions.  Most of all, keep your cot damn mouth shut until you out of the theatre.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Improv Tip: How Do I Know If I Had A Good Show?

In this installment, Nelson provides his philosophy on how to determine if he had a good show or not.

For more, visit his website at

Monday, December 5, 2016

When Not Being On the Bandwagon Helps You Out

Ever since around the 7th/8th grade, I began an attitude of exerting my individuality.  My whole life until then, all I really wanted was to blend in and be accepted just like everyone else.  Now, I want to be accepted as the individual I am.  As a part of exerting my individuality, one of the things I do a lot is try to avoid hype wherever possible.  I automatically want to hate whatever is currently popular or the "in" thing to sport or do.

For example, Pulp Fiction came out in 1994.  When it came out, EVERYBODY was recreating pivotal scenes from the movie or talking about how bad ass Samuel Jackson was in the movie or how Quentin Tarintino was a gift from the filmaking gawds and how revolutionary his movies were.  Hearing all of that, I automatically knew I was going to hate this movie - not because it in itself was a bad movie - but rather because I wanted to be different from everybody else and that meant espousing the opposite opinion on everything.  In order to avoid all of that, I decided to just not see the movie until I felt I could judge the movie on its own merits.  It took me 21 years later to finally watch it.  Yeah, it was a good movie after all.

I'm currently doing the same thing with Hamilton.  I've purposely avoided listening to the soundtrack, mixtape, or going to the theatre to see it (however, I almost auditioned for it during their last cattle call...hey, it's a paid gig!).  It sounds absolutely awesome and very much in the vein of the two things I like - hip-hop and theatre.  However, with the circles I keep, I've had to endure countless Hamilton references, social media rants and raves, people acting out scenes from the show, and folks telling me that it will change my life to see it.  All of those things engaged my avoid-at-all-costs mechanism and thus I've been ignorantly living in a Hamilton-free bubble for the last year or so.

I decided to audition for a show based off Hamilton recently.  I figured that since it was by a local improv company known for fantastic improvised long-form musicals, I would have a decent shot at maybe throwing down with them (many of whom I've worked/studied with).  So, I went up the city to check out this audition to see what I could do.

While waiting in the lobby, I listened to people talking about Hamilton with the same reverence and enthusiasm as I was accustomed to.  Once they were all done, I mentioned, "I haven't seen it yet nor have I listened to the soundtrack."  As soon as I said that, I felt like I got written off by those folks - not in necessarily a conscious way - but rather in a "Dude, why are you even auditioning for this?" kind of way.  We went in and I hoped for the best :)

I ended up having one of the best auditions I've had in a while.  We did a lot of things I ws already exposed to or that my skills let me answer the call for.  My favorite part came when the director asked "Who has seen or listened to Hamilton?"  I was the only person auditioning who wasn't raising their hand.  The director took a look at me and said, "Don't worry. You'll get it" and proceeded to describe what he was looking for.  He was right. I totally got it.

It's cool to get recognized for skill even when you weren't necessarily on the wagon with everyone else.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Future of Our Country Will Be Led By The Likes of Kanye West

2016 has really sucked for America.  We lost Prince, Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Gene Wilder, Mohammed Ali, and Pat Harrington (look 'em up!).  Black people (and other unpublicized people of color) who have been victim to corrupt police state final broke through to mainstream status when the media had no choice but to cover their stories and force all Americans to face the fact we as a nation have a race problem.  And, of course, most of all, we have a reality star as our President-elect who alienated so many people along the way during his campaign that the country has canonical proof that we're divided as people.

And then there's Kaney West...

Kanye has been speaking his mind ever since he started his career; he's outspoken and feels he's the voice of a generation because his artistry is "genius" and thus gives him an advantage over everybody else in all subjects including politics.  He's been outspoken about how blacks were not a concern to the Bush administration during Hurricane Katrina, how blacks are not welcomed or respected in the fashion world, and his feelings about how racism caused Taylor Swift to win an award over Beyoncé.  It would appear that Kanye is in tune with how race plays into our every day lives (or at least within his reality warp bubble) - until now.

Kanye decided to rant at a concert earlier this week.  Check out the footage below first:

Kanye West told a crowd of people that he would've voted for Donald Trump - IF he had voted.  Many people booed him for making this statement based on the principle that many feel Trump does not have their best interests in mind.  Kanye further tried to explain that he didn't necessarily would've voted because he agreed with his policies, but rather he feels kinship with how Trump ran his campaign and eventually won - it was "absolutely genius - because if fawkin' worked" - and he "fawks with that".  Here are my problems with this logic:

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...

Trump ran an 8th grade president of the student council campaign:

This is promising people things you cannot personally deliver but sound good.  Oh, let me translate the statements above into Trumpese:

Can't be any clearer...

Lots of promises with no real, transparent plans on how to do them. 

Kanye, you respect the "game" being run and figure that is more important than the results of having that game run on everyone?  Your narcissism and megalomania then knows no bounds.

You got knocked the FAWK out!!!

I Will Choose Freewill!

Kanye didn't vote. Granted, that is a vote in a way (as Rush says, "you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice"); however, it's difficult to take him seriously as he chose to not vote - not even for Trump. The fact remains he didn't vote for Trump (or anybody else). To me that knocks him out of the conversation of having any valid point to really make. It'd be like someone saying "If I had trained hard enough, I would've totally kicked Mike Tyson's ass in his prime." The truth is you'd get your fat ass knocked out in the first 10 seconds of Round 1.

What would Hall & Oats Do?!!

You're Out Of Touch. I'm Out of Time.

Kanye seems to be a bit out of touch with the plight of the common black person (or person of color in general). Later on in the rant he basically told his fans to stop talking about racism.  He said, "This world is racist, OK? Let's stop being distracted to focus on that as much. It's a fucking fact. We are in a racist country."  The intent behind this statement was have blacks stop dwelling that it's racist and be motivated beyond identifying the problem.  However, the message was not conveyed this way but rather asked blacks to stop talking about racism all together and accept that it's "just the way it is".  I instead would rather have blacks continue bringing up race.  Obviously we as a country have tricked ourselves into believing that we made it further along in race relations than we actually have.  We need to keep talking about it until we have no choice but to accept it as a whole society and move to end it.

His position as a celebrity, multi-millionaire, and part of the Kardashian Klan has skewed his perception of the real world for many of us.  Part of his appeal was that he was (at the beginning?) somewhat down to earth with his approach to music.  However, lately, he's gotten more obnoxious condescending, and narcissistic in his pursuit of his art that he's alienating anybody who could actually relate to him in a real-world sense.  It's a big reason why I'm not  fan - as much of a narcissist as I am, I can't fathom to be at his level of self aggrandizement.

What scares me now that Trump is office is that we collectively are willing to follow versus lead.  People like Kanye West are ready to take advantage of this fact.  He will help lead this nation in the future.  Is that what you want?

Oh, and remember, he's running for President in 2020...