An Open Letter

To The Man In The Third Row:

I rarely feel the need to confront an audience member, sir, but suffice it to say you were that rare case.

It wasn’t hard to notice you were on your phone. When you’re onstage any little change in the environment sticks out like a sore thumb.

So, while I was trying to give a good performance tonight all I could see was the glow of your face, lit up like you were about to tell a scary story. I found it quite distracting to the moment I was trying to carefully craft onstage.

See, I’ve performed this version of the show over 100 times in the past six months. It’s rock solid. So that means I get to play with it now. I set the script to auto-pilot and go in search of new discoveries. I try to make more eye contact and find new ways to connect. Now that I understand the skeleton of the show I get to make something artistic out of it.

But that means I’m hyper aware of any little change to the theater. And so I couldn’t help but notice you were in the third row, on your phone, playing a game while I was trying to work.

For the past two months I’ve spent every day either onstage or in an airport. (Some days both.) There have been days when I’ve woken up and forgotten what city I was in. I’ve battled allergies and depression. I’ve lost my luggage and lost my voice. All in the name of the craft.

So tonight, running on no sleep, I knew I needed to focus extra hard. I wanted to give a good show. And after 20 minutes I was well on my way to one of my greatest feats - creating an audience out of a random group of strangers.

Then I saw you. And I couldn’t help but call you out.

I needed you to know that you were being disruptive and that being on your phone was disrespectful and a major distraction. I don’t regret that and I don’t regret making you sheepishly put your phone away while everyone else watched.

I did so knowing I would lose every ounce of momentum I had worked so hard to build. But it had to be done, so I channeled my inner Patti Lupone.

The point isn’t about being on your phone or living in the moment. The point isn’t that you embarrassed your wife or really made it awkward for everyone in attendance. (Not for me, though, I’m already thinking about my next show.)

No, the point is that the audience is an essential part of my performance. Without them there are no minds to read or thoughts to send. Without the audience there is no show. So I expect the audience to hold up their end of the bargain. I expect you to meet me in the middle so I can give you the show you deserve.

And if you do, I promise I’ll show you something that you can’t find anywhere else. Not even on your smartphone.

- MT

Advice

I once drove over five hours to watch a show because I had heard good things and wanted to introduce myself to the performer. We’re about the same age, have a similar approach to the mystery arts, and I wanted to connect on a professional level.

The show was mediocre at best. My wife - my ever patient, infinite amount of magic shows audience member of a wife - leaned over to me ten minutes in and mouthed the words “I’m bored.

I was, too.

It just wasn’t a good show. It didn’t captivate me and I didn’t leave feeling differently about anything than when I walked in. In fact, until I started writing this post this week I hadn’t thought about that show since we attended.

But the show wasn’t the part that bothered me. It was the way the performer treated me afterwards. I viewed us as mutual performers - colleagues, if you will. I wasn’t putting either one of us on a pedestal. We both had our credits and respective projects. We were equals.

So I introduced myself and he said he knew me and had heard good things. All cordial, all good. And I said I would send him my number so we could connect and I would show him around Chicago the next time he passed through.

The day after, I shot off a thank you message for the show and my cell number so we could connect down the road. 

I never got a response back. I still haven’t.

That’s what really bugged me.

It seems these days that everyone has advice they want to offer. I have friends in their early twenties posting words of wisdom on Twitter, as if they already have it all figured out. Social media gives everyone a platform to be an expert.

As a performer I receive a ton of advice - good and bad - from other performers, teachers, parents, friends, and even audience members. I keep a folder on my hard drive of the quotes and ideas people have shared with me and all I’ve learned from the advice I’ve collected is that nobody has a fucking clue.

Everyone likes to pretend they have it all figured out. They post quotes and share deep thoughts like it’s an epiphany that will connect the dots for everyone else in the world. Those quotes may look really good on a greeting card but most of them are dead wrong. It’s just a way of looking busy, of posturing so you can seem important.

I try to take the opposite route. I rarely give advice. If people ask me about something I don’t know, then I tell them I don’t know. If people ask me about how to become a mind reader then I tell them the basics and that I’m still figuring it out myself. I tell them it takes time and it’s a lifelong pursuit. I don’t pretend to be a prodigy or a “self-proclaimed expert”.

So let’s break it down. Here’s some of the worst advice I’ve ever received:

  • Do What You Love And You’ll Never Work A Day In Your Life - Not true. If you do what you love, you’ll end up working more than you ever thought possible. You’ll work 80 hours a week, weekends, and evenings. Not because you love it but because there’s no other option. And yes, it will be work. You’ll balance the books and design websites. You’ll send invoices and chase clients for money they owe you. And occasionally you’ll get to do the thing you’re passionate about. But don’t pretend you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s simply not true.
  • Have A Backup Plan So You Have Something To Fall Back On - A lot of people told me a theater degree was a waste and I should double major in something. The suggestion was usually Business or Entrepreneurship. But I didn’t want to be a businessman. I wanted to be an artist. I realized that if I had a fall back plan then I would most likely fall back on it. So I didn’t give myself a safety net. I decided to set my sights on one thing and never wavered.
  • You’re Only As Good As Your Last Show - Some performers I know like to say this phrase as a reminder that you need to give a good show each and every time. I don’t agree. I think you’re only as good as the sum total of all of your shows. There will be bad shows and good shows, but it’s the impact you leave over the breadth of a career that matters. You can’t give a bad show on Thursday and suddenly say that the standing ovation you got on Wednesday night is moot. One show can’t make or break a career.

Those are just a few pieces of advice I’ve heard over and over again. The best way to handle those moments was summed up perfectly by Robert Downey, Jr. when he said “Listen. Smile. Agree. And then do whatever the fuck you were going to do anyway.

The best thing I’ve learned about advice is that you don’t need it. If you want something badly enough, you’ll figure it out. Yes, people will give you really useful tips on doing your taxes or buying the right car. But when they get into all that over-the-top “hustle-mentality”, “create-your-best-life”, “you-can-do-anything-you-want-if-you-set-your-mind-to-it” mumbo jumbo, they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Just do you. And know that they’re just as scared as you are.

Oh yeah, I guess there is one piece of advice I can give you.

Always return people’s messages. You never know when you’re going to need something from that person in return. And if you don’t, they just might write a blog about you someday.

Learning

The road is never more lonely than after a bad show. The economy rental car silently cuts through the night, guiding you back to your room on its own. Your mind is elsewhere, contemplating the minutiae of the show, reliving the performance word-for-word, beat-for-beat.

A bad show is like getting turned down by the girl you asked to prom - except this time it's in front of 500 strangers. A bad show is like forgetting your sixth grade book report over and over again for 45 minutes. A bad show is like watching your coffee mug careen off the counter in slow-motion, crashing into a million pieces on the kitchen floor.

Don't be fooled. When you're bombing, you're completely aware of it. You know you're bombing and you do your best to tread water and get through it. A slight laugh or a hint of energy in the room gives you hope to continue, even though you may have lost the crowd 30 minutes ago.

Sometimes it's the audience. Maybe they weren't your demo. Maybe they were too drunk, or not drunk enough. Maybe they were too tired.

Sometimes it's the venue. Maybe the room was too big. Maybe it was too small. Maybe the sound system was outdated and people couldn't hear you. Maybe the client changed the floor plan at the last minute.

Sometimes it's the event. Maybe it went too long. Maybe there was too much going on. Maybe they were distracted by the company raffle or the dessert the caterer just laid out on the opposite side of the room.

The excuses echo in your hotel room as you stare at the ceiling. You question every decision that led you to this point. But the only person to blame is yourself.

It's always your fault - no matter what. 

You failed to educate the buyer or vet the client. You failed to effectively plan the layout. You failed at something.

It's always your fault.

You get into performing for the good shows: the applause, the standing ovations, the packed houses and rave reviews. 

Good shows are what you dream of on those early morning flights around the country. Good shows are the answer to every half-baked creative equation scrawled in your notebook. Good shows are the destination...but bad shows are how you get there.

Bad shows are your education.

A bad show stops you in your tracks. You're distraught and depressed but everyone else is going on with their lives like nothing happened. The sun still rises and sets, just like any other day.

At first it's hard to sleep and hard to move on, but developing a mental suit-of-armor is a must for a career in the arts. You keep the good and fix the bad, then move on to the next gig.

This isn't about a bad show I had recently. It's about something else. But you're supposed to write about what you know and I thought that the necessity of learning from bad gigs was a good metaphor for life. For every experience, you have to keep the good and fix the bad. You have to wake up tomorrow and get back to work.

Life will go on. It always does.