Black Box Acting Studio – Review

Yesterday I finished B4 at the Black Box Acting Studio in Chicago. It’s the fourth and final level in what is a terrific program. It’s only been around for a few years, but the curriculum is solid and the teachers are passionate and smart. I feel like I’ve learned some new tools and sharpened some old ones, but most importantly I’ve now got a process for auditions and rehearsals. I also feel like I have a new home base, so that when I do get cast in a show and I’m running into roadblocks, I have a community of people I can call on to help.

What is the program?

Like a lot of programs in Chicago and elsewhere, they start with exercises used in Meisner classes. You learn to observe your partners behavior. You do repetition. Repetition is something that I’ve done for years. I thought this part of the curriculum would be old hat for me. But I certainly did learn new things.

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Better

So I have moved back to Chicago. I’m renting a nice one bedroom condo. It’s definitely the nicest apartment I’ve ever had. It has central air and a washer/dryer in the unit. I feel almost spoiled now. I think it would be hard to go back to most of the closets I rented in Chicago and New York.

You might ask, why am I here? I’m here to get better. I feel out of shape as a performer. As an actor, I never really nailed down any particular process. I’d get a script, memorize it, go to rehearsal, try to absorb the blocking and direction, and try to figure out the best way to say my lines. It’s not a great process and it doesn’t seem to take advantage of all that early training which encouraged me to work off my partner. So the first priority was to find a studio, go back to class and figure out a process–a real process that starts with a script and ends with a full, dynamic, grounded and improvisational performance.

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I need a montage

I’m in class again. Actually I’m in a lot of classes again. I decided to move back Chicago and to retool. It’s like that part in the movie where the guy has to train for the big confrontation in act three–the montage. I needed a montage. In my montage, I’m taking acting classes, learning to play guitar, studying at the Annoyance and inventing activities that I can practice deeply and which will make me a better performer. Of the classes I’m in, the acting one is the most challenging.

Years ago I took a series of acting technique classes. The instructors didn’t mention Meisner, but it was obvious that the exercises and methods were similar. We used repetition. We improvised scenes using imaginary circumstances. It was exciting and visceral and raw.

I took those lessons and tried to apply them to my improv. It taught me to be present, to pay close attention to the emotional life of my scene partner and to act on my gut impulses. For years, I’ve taught workshops that try to bring those ideas from Meisner to improv. I’m teaching one of those workshops this weekend.

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It’s not too late

Recently I was talking to a guy who I have been coaching. He is probably 19 or 20. We were walking into a music room for rehearsal and he said something along the lines of, “I wish I had taken more music classes,” as if it were too late for him. I’m sure I’m taking his words a bit out of context, but it made me laugh, because I couldn’t help thinking of John Ward.

John “Dr. Wimpy” Ward, was a very dedicated and passionate member of the New York improv scene over the last eight years. He took classes, performed and was a huge supporter of others. He often appeared as an agent with Improv Everywhere. He was a funny man and by all accounts a joy to play with. He started doing improv in his mid 50s. This last Sunday he passed away very unexpectedly.

Auditions for improv teams were held the weekend before he died at the UCB Theatre. It’s a collective freakout the community goes through every year as hundreds of UCB students compete for a handful of coveted spots on Harold teams. Continue reading “It’s not too late”

Getting my first motorcycle

I’ve always wanted to ride motorcycles. It hasn’t been a burning passion, more like an interest that I never had time to indulge in. When I was a kid, one of my friends had a dirt bike. I only rode it once that I can remember, and it didn’t go well. I don’t think I got it out of first gear, and I’m pretty sure I stalled it a least once. So for the next 20+ years, I never attempted to get on a motorcycle again, thinking that while I liked them, I just wasn’t cut out for them. And if I hadn’t moved home, I may have left it at that.

When you drive around central Illinois in the summer, motorcycles are everywhere. Harleys seem to be the standard, but there are plenty of others as well, including big cruisers as well as gangs of 20 something Ninja riders screaming through downtown Peoria at night. For me, there seems to be a dearth of things to do around here, but I’m beginning to realize that if you live here, you need to make your own fun. Boating, dirt bikes and street bikes are all popular choices.

Last summer I started thinking about getting my license, but I didn’t get around to it. At the local community college, they offer a subsidized class to learn to ride. They even give you the actual test at the end of the class, so you can get your license without any further hoops to jump through. The problem is that the class is such a good deal that all the spots fill up many months in advance. If you don’t sign up for one by the beginning of May, odds are you might not get in one. My schedule is so hard to predict, that it was close to impossible to pick a weekend to take the class.

I kept thinking to myself, there must be a place where you can sign up for basic riding classes a week or two before. Sure, you will probably pay considerably more for private classes, but there has got to be a market for people like me who find themselves in the middle of the riding season and can’t get into the ones held at community colleges. Sure enough there are two such places in Chicago, Motorcycle Riding School and Ride Chicago. There may be more. I went with Motorcycle Riding School mainly because their class fit into my schedule (the whole thing takes place over a weekend) and because they had decent reviews on yelp.

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Roads I’m Not Going to Take (an explanation)

I’m at a curious point in my life. Up until a couple of years ago, my life seemed to be on a particular path. I moved to Chicago to become an actor, discovered a passion for improvisational theatre and began a lifelong pursuit of teaching, directing and performing in the theatre. Then life started throwing me some curve balls.

I realized that I was unhappy in my administration job at the theatre where I worked, so I quit (although I kept teaching). I started winning at poker and began to think about pursuing it professionally. I found another new source of income when a hobby became a business. I left New York to spend some time with my father in Arizona, and finally I moved back to my hometown to take care of my mother. My old life has been completely interrupted.

This is not all bad. I’m very glad that I’ve been able to spend time with my family and being a caregiver for a parent does have many rewards. It’s hard not to feel a little lost at times though. Eventually, I will leave again, pick up my life and start over. And I’ll have many options in front of me.

Do I return to the theatre? If so, do I go back to Chicago, return to New York or join many of my friends in Los Angeles? Maybe I should go back to Arizona where the weather is amazing and theatre culture is still young, or perhaps I should reconnect with some of my oldest and best friends in Seattle. Do I teach for someone else like I have before or do I teach my own classes or even start my own theatre?

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Kindle as Digital Printer?

In my search to find relevant scientific research on various diet and nutrition subjects, I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching for papers published on the internet. Often this is frustrating because many (most?) scientific journals keep their articles behind some sort of subscription firewall. Since I’m neither a scientist or a student studying science, it doesn’t seem practical to subscribe to these journals just to read one or two articles.

However, since I’m taking some classes at the local community college, I do have access to their journal resources. I decided to check out what’s available at the library. When I got there, I started by searching for some of the articles I had found before, ones which only had the abstract available publicly. When I brought of the article on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could read the whole thing online. Apparently if I access the article directly from these computers, I don’t need a subscription.

Next I noticed that the article was a bit long and I only had a few minutes before I needed to leave. I considered printing the article and then I remembered that if you send HTML documents to your Kindle email address, the document will be sent to your Kindle for only $0.10, a lot less than printing it out on paper.

I was very excited as the first few papers showed up on my Kindle only a few minutes after I had emailed them to be processed. I’m guessing that I’ll be doing this quite frequently in the future. If I have a document that I need to bring with me, I’ll send it to my Kindle instead of printing it.

A Shout Out to ImprovEverywhere

I want to let everyone who works on the ImprovEverywhere missions that you are definitely penetrating the zeitgeist in the rest of the country.

When I was in Phoenix, I was attending a book club fairly regularly and struck up a friendship with the facilitator. We met for lunch one day and because she knew I was an improvisor, she brought along a friend who had also done some improv. The friend knew that I had worked at ImprovOlympic in Chicago and for the UCB in New York, but she didn’t want to know those theatres. Instead, the only things both of them wanted to hear about were the missions I had done with ImprovEverywhere.

Now tonight, across the country in Illinois, I’m sitting in a computer programming class at the local community college and the teacher spontaneously brought up ImprovEverywhere. He talked about the Frozen Grand Central mission. He was giggling with delight as he told us about it.

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I am a geek

I have always been a geek of sorts. As a child I would ride my bike to the local Radio Shack and lust after the TRS-80 computers. I would sit for hours writing programs in Basic. The sales guys loved it, an 11 year old kid typing away in the store. When a customer would ask about the amazing new computers (with 4KB of RAM!), they would point at me and say how easy it was to program one of them, “See even a kid can do it.”

Not long after this, I begged my mom for an Atari 800 computer. I spent so many hours programming it in my basement. I made all kinds of visual experiments, writing programs which exploited the incredible graphics modes like 160×96 screen pixels and even 320×192 pixels (these modes only allowed for 2 colors at a time). I attended an Atari computer camp in Minnesota the summer of 1983, where I completed my first computer game, a text only ripoff of Risk but with a more geographically accurate map.

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