8 years ago, I happened upon a show in Charleston, SC at Theatre 99 and had my mind blown. It was funny, but that wasn’t the part that truly impressed me. I was overwhelmed at the fact that these people, who obviously cared about one another, supported each other in an incredibly daunting situation: creating a world without premeditation, fear of the unknown, or avoidance of vulnerability. They would offer ideas about what was happening in the boundless space of their imagination and… the people they posed these ideas to would agree with them. I laughed at the show, but I also wondered “How the fuck do you get that?!”. I learned that the name of something that I had loved for years was improvisation.
We all lug around the emotional baggage that we have managed to pick up throughout the course of our life in every day of our existence. I was a creative child that never fit in with the rest of my family. I had a Best of Eddie Murphy SNL Video Tape that I watched everyday between the ages of 5-7. I created voices. I made up one-boy plays, in which I played as many characters as I could. I read everything I could get my hands on from Roald Dahl to Dostoyevsky and Webster’s to Britannica. I would spend hours imagining how the characters spent their time outside of the pages of the book, in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. I spent more time learning to create a reality than I did living in the one around me.
My mother had a nervous breakdown when I was 9. While she was hospitalized, my 6-year-old sister and I went to live with my grandparents. I spent hours at the wheel of granddaddy’s red and black 18-wheeler, parked in his driveway, pretending to be running various cargos across the country. My sister would “ride shotgun” on these voyages, playing navigator on series of road trips that had no true boundaries. My mother came out home from the hospital, but was ill equipped for taking care of children. As a consequence, we spent 18 months bouncing between sleeping in homeless shelters and in our car. I spent hours at the wheel of that 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix pretending to drive across the country seeing many things that were much more interesting than the parking lot of the New Market Mall. My little sister would be right next to me on these “drives”, serving as the navigator on a series of trips that had no visible boundaries. We spent more time exploring a created reality than dealing with the one around us.
In my teenage years, I lived in the Dickerson Courts Housing Project in Newport News, VA. I stumbled across creating rap music, and a great group of friends with whom I could do it with. We would come to school with a backpack full of notebooks in which we wrote our rhymes, of course there was no room for our school books. We congregated in the hallways, well after the bell screamed at us to go to class, giving each other assignments on how to make ourselves better at expressing ourselves: Write a rhyme using the following 20 words, make every bar rhyme with the one preceding it, fit as many references to cartoon characters as possible, or pretend to be a mouse who hates a cat. The exercises were endless. I went to class, annoyed with the teacher babbling on about “Crime and Punishment”, and focused on writing rhymes. We would spend hours, literal hours, freestyling in Dayo’s apartment with the TV Guide Channel moving in the background to give us continual inputs and allow us to be in the moment, sometimes in lieu of catching the school bus in the morning. We spent more time learning to master a world we had created for ourselves than learning from the one presented to us.
If you are an improviser reading this, I love you as a person. I have loved you since the first time I muted the television to create my own scenes between Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. I love you because before any of us knew what this thing was called, you had just as much trouble acknowledging the boundaries of the real world as I did. You were making a song out of everything you parents said, writing stories, drawing pictures, and pretending to be figures from your favorite books. I love you because you are conditioned to support your ideas and the ideas of others with very little question within the moment. I love you because you know what it feels like, in life and onstage, to be compelled to do things without knowing why it was the “right thing to do at the time”. I love you because you are infinitely more supportive of those around you than the average person.
We may never meet in person, but I love you as a friend. We have all come together, in our respective corners of the world, under the same basic truth: “If you agree that the people around you have good ideas, and that the addition of your own great ideas equal an even better idea… there is no limit to what you can discover.” This is more easily stated in the axiom of “yes, and…” You are my friend, because without any knowledge of your background, you are the only people who I can describe the frustration of the world in which people don’t agree and you understand why it is important. You are the only people can appreciate the liberation associated with embracing the unknown from my perspective, as you have personally experienced the reward that can come from doing so. You have also experienced the failure that can come from doing so, and this makes you supremely qualified to comprehend the risks associated with letting go of control in life.
As it stands, I am a few months from having to take a career break from performing. I won’t say that I am taking a break from improv, because I am of the opinion that every interaction and experience that I have in my life is in furtherance of my education in improv. However, as I stare down the barrel of a hiatus to go to my normal gig of working on a Submarine for a few years, I can’t help but think about the things that I hope for the improvisation community as a whole.
1.) As an individual, find your voice as a performer and sing as loud as you can with it.
When I was going through my period of self-discovery as a young rapper, there were three lessons that always stuck with me. Find your voice, love your voice, and define your own limits to what you can explore.
• Find your voice.
As a teenager, my cousin Harvey introduced me to rap. I had heard some stuff from the 80’s that I enjoyed, but Harvey gave me my first taste of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic”. I started listening to everything that I could get my hands on, consuming hip hop like it was my job to personally catalog its history in case the world ended. I started learning the lyrics to the songs of my favorite artists, not on purpose, but because I paid such close attention to their words. Eventually, without much cognizance, you start to become comfortable with the nuances of how those people craft their thoughts. The things they think to say, the way they say it and what makes you connect to them as artists.
Then there comes a day where it occurs to you that you could easily replace their words with your own. During this period, you have the technical ability to communicate an idea through rhyme but your viewpoint is constrained by the boundaries that you perceive based on the people you emulate. Then one day it happens. And this is a very literal day. There were about 6 rappers who my ideas of how to rap were patterned after: Redman, Busta Rhymes, Canibus, Sean Price, Biggie, and Jay-Z. One day, I was in the living room of my house with a close friend and we were freestyling and there was a very literal discovery of my voice. The voice coming out of my mouth changed, and the things that started coming out of my mouth had a very distinct point of view that I couldn’t pinpoint to any other artist. The pitch was lower, there was a bit of a growl to it, and I began talking about the Coriolis Effect on the trajectory of ballistics when trying to assassinate a clown (not a joke)…I had discovered my voice as a performer.
As this relates to improv, we go through the same discovery period as performers. Early on, we pattern our behaviors after the people that we want to emulate. We take pieces from our favorite teachers and performers to try to create a Frankenstein of improvisation in our minds. This is healthy. This becomes unhealthy when you spend your entire career wishing you were as good as one of the elites of our art. I love you, and I hope that you will listen for your voice to shine through. It is there, dying to be heard. And one thing that separates the people that we look up to from us is that they can hear their voice loud and clear.
• Love your voice
Once I discovered my voice in rap, I became very insecure initially. I started to become preoccupied with the notion that I didn’t sound like anyone that I knew or had heard of. This was amplified by people pointing it out, when they heard me. One night my friend Dayo and I were sitting on the corner of 22nd street near my apartment after a late-night studio session in which we had just recorded a song in which I had been kidnapped called “Ransom”, and I started having a crisis of faith regarding my newly discovered voice:
“Dayo, I just don’t feel like people will really get where I am coming from. Hell, I don’t even know where this shit comes from sometimes.”
“Do you like it?” Dayo asked.
“Yeah. I love it. I don’t know what will happen next, and that excites me”.
The thing Dayo said next has stuck to me forever.
“You are the most important fan of your work that you can have. If you don’t want to hear yourself rap, then why the fuck would anyone else want to hear you rap?”
I love you and I hope that once you become attuned to the sound of your voice, you are appreciative of it. You have to love what perspective, talents, and observation your voice brings to the stew of any project you are involved in. You have to value your thoughts and opinions on the subject of improv. Not necessarily above all others. It is imperative that you never lose the ability to hear, respect, honor and revere the voices of others. It is this quality is what allows us to form a chorus as a troupe, theatre, city and community at large.
• Define your own limits to what you can explore
For people who are not fans of hip hop, you have probably generalized the subject matter of the music to be constrained to violence, money, sex, and bravado. There was a point in my life where I would have been forced to agree with you. Not because it was true, but because I thought the boundaries were defined to limit you to those subject matters. Then in 1999, Marshall Mathers (AKA Eminem) released his album “The Slim Shady LP”. Now for many people, this album was just a cool thing to listen to. Great songs written by a super talented guy from Detroit… whom happened to be white (this was a big deal at the time). However, for me this album was something different altogether. Here I was, a kid that had an artistic voice, but felt constrained in how I could use it. Then I hear Eminem making songs in which he is discussing the effects of shrooms, being eaten by a woman who could swallow his leg whole like an egg roll, being talked into robbing a liquor store by his conscience, flicking off the audience at his album release party and killing his wife. I can understand how that subject list would make most people cringe, but consider it from the perspective of a 17 year old kid who was starting to be bored and frustrated with his art. That album taught me that you could make songs about anything, and as long as it was your truth, someone could relate to it. Most importantly, it gives you room to grow and explore.
**Our ability to do things in this work is only inhibited by two things: How little we know about what IS possible, and how much we know about what is IMPOSSIBLE. The resolution to the first part is education. Knowing the world around you. The solution to the second part, getting past the obstacle of what we think is impossible, is imagination. **
Take the time to learn the world around you. This isn’t limited to knowledge of trivia, facts and figures (although these things are also helpful). Take the time to learn about people’s relationships. Learn about the things that other people are interested in, especially if you aren’t interested. If it is interesting enough for someone else to care about, then it is interesting enough for you. Why? Because knowing what makes people care about things can help you to have an emotional connection to many things that you wouldn’t otherwise. It will also help open your eyes to the expansive nature of the universe. It will put you in a place where your understanding of what IS possible in the world will grow exponentially.
The second portion of that statement is equally important in defining your own boundaries. We spend quite a bit of times in our lives reminding ourselves of what is not possible. We are acutely aware of the things that we are incapable of doing. In our world of creation, specifically in improv, you decide what is impossible. Give yourself the license to discover the expansive nature of a universe where the laws of physics, matter and mathematics may not apply. Give yourself license to discover the immensity of a space where odd is normal and normal is odd. Dictate your own laws.
2. In your community find your voice as a company and city and sing as loud as you can with it.
Hip hop as an art form started in New York City back in the 80’s. It started in the Bronx as a way for kids to express themselves in the poor neighborhoods where they didn’t have money or means to be able to be involved in many other activities. Word about this great thing that was happening in the Bronx made its way across the bridges and tunnels of the City and before long there were scenes popping up in all of the other boroughs as well. Some popular artists (Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, Kool Moe D, etc) started getting radio and video play in the media which helped the rest of the country learn about what was happening with Hip Hop in New York. Then Los Angeles got a chance to tell their story when N.W.A. exploded onto the scene. Their music was filled with tales of gang culture and the associated violence. It was a reflection of the violent reality of L.A. at the time. N.W.A. became the representative voice of their larger community.
During my teenage years, hip hop became a world where many cities had their own voice. The voice of New York and L.A. were still present, but standing loudly in the choir were Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Memphis, Miami, and Philadelphia. Not all of the artists from those cities sounded the same, but they did have an element of common ground. You could tell if a guy was from St. Louis or Harlem. Using rap as a means of communication, people could understand the world from the view of different cities. It highlighted the similarities between us as much as the differences. We were telling similarly different stories using the same set of tools.
I love your individual cities and theatres. The logic from my feelings regarding the individual voice applies just as strongly to this idea. As a community (this term for me means city or theater), please find your voice, love your voice and define your own limits to what you can explore. Each community has its own story to tell. What can improvisation tell us from the perspective of life in Baltimore, Austin, Charleston, Miami or Philadelphia? Each community has its own voice that is dying to be heard. Get past the point where you feel the need to compare yourself to other communities. Learn who you are, and love your community voice. It is imperative that you never lose the ability to hear, respect, honor and revere the voices of other communities. It is this quality is what allows us to form a choir as a city and community at large.
And remember that the territory that you can explore with your voice is entirely up to you.
3. As an international community of improvisers, develop an appreciation for the other voices in the choir.
Hip hop is not a utopian culture, and please don’t get the impression that I believe so. We have had our share of infighting between communities, the most famous of which ended with the unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. The actual dispute that fueled this was a personal issue between two men who at one time were close friends. What it became for fans of the music was an argument over the legitimacy of the West Coast and East Coast Paradigms of the culture. People were essentially being told that their view of the world through hip hop was somehow less viable than that of the other coast… simply because of where they were born.
Since that tragedy, we have gotten infinitely better in the hip hop world at recognizing the pitch of all of the community voices in the choir. I was recently in Paris, staying in a small apartment in the 4th arrondissement near the Museum of Modern Art. One day, my wife and I, were walking out onto the street and I recognized what looked like a cypher (Cypher- a group of rappers, usually standing in a circle, taking turns rapping to share the rhymes that they have recently written). As we walked past it, I was confirmed as being right. A group of French teenagers, probably about 15 of them, stood on the street and rapped together. I stood there and watched for a few minutes, not understanding a single word that they were saying. When my wife managed to pull me away, as I assure you that I could have stood there all day, it took everything in me to not cry from what I had just seen. I looked in the face of these kids that were halfway across the world from the birthplace of hip hop 30 years previous, distant from the streets where my friends and I did the same thing 14 years before, and they were experiencing the same feeling that had sucked all of us in to this world of communicating your thoughts through rhyme. Here these kids were with a whole different cultural background, different national history, and a different experience in the world that were using the same tool to communicate their life to each other. This was easily one of the most touching experiences that I have had the good fortune to encounter.
Having been introduced to improv in a city like Charleston, I travelled to other places with the same sense of awe regarding people in other places doing the same thing as we were. I admit that that I was pretty disillusioned when I spent some time in Chicago and learned that there can be, and I emphasize CAN BE, a pervasive attitude that improv outside of Cook County, IL is less legitimate. I have heard the same discussion regarding the New York improv scene. No one would exhibit enough hubris to assume that if you want to be on TV or Film, you aren’t going to have a better chance of being discovered in one of those larger cities. If your dream is SNL, 30 Rock, or the movies, you have to go to one of the big 3 cities. That is just a reality. However, what does it say about us if we are unable to appreciate the wonder that is another community’s take on life through the lens of improvisation.
I love the improv community, and everyone in it, beyond all belief. I have only met a small fraction of the people in it, and I promise you, I am much closer to you on a personal level than I am my own family. We a ton in common even in all of our differences, we respect each other’s ideas, and want to see each other succeed. Try to find opportunities to see what the other communities have to say about the world through improv. Some cities are emotional in their play, some are very cerebral, some are still figuring out who they are. But watch and appreciate it as a common language that we speak instead of judging it and saying to yourself “That was shit compared to improv in my city”… it isn’t a competition. This is art.
Every practice and performance that passes in my life right now puts me another step closer to having to step away for a while. I want you to know that when I am out there reviewing the chemistry logs for a Submarine’s nuclear reactor, I will be thinking of you. I will be imagining what games are being discovered, what relationships are being found, and what voices are being expressed in the world of improv. I will remember how thankful I am to know that improvisation isn’t just a coping mechanism that I developed to try to keep myself and my sister from crying when we were huddled for warmth in a Detroit made automobile because we were out of gas. I will be happy that it is also a way for people to enjoy and make sense of the world around them. I will be thankful that my relationships in real life will forever be enhanced by the fact that I have been able to experience relationship and emotion from many angles in improvisation. I will be thankful that I have been able to meet, learn from, teach, and perform with some of the most amazing people on earth. I will be hoping that every performer, troupe, theater, city and community finds their own voice, loves their voice and stretches the boundaries around themselves. I hope that you will appreciate the voices of others. Enjoy what we have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to. There are many people who will never know the joy of having their ideas matter. Thank you.