art

Repetition

I had a music teacher growing up that used to say “Repetition is the key to success.”

He’d wait five seconds then say, “Repetition is the key to success” and keep repeating it until we caught on.

I love jokes like that, where you have to pay attention to the clever (albeit silly) word play to understand. As a result, I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m not sure that it’s the only “key to success” but I think repetition is an important component. I think he was mostly trying to remind us to practice our instruments when we weren’t in class but I still never did. That explains why I’m reading minds for a living now and not playing tenor sax...

When you perform for a living it can start to feel a little pointless. The days start to blur together because of the repetitive nature of life on the road. Usually it goes something like this:

Wake up early (I have alarms for 3:30 am and 3:45 am that I use every week) to head to the airport. I take the same bags, packed the same way, through security on my way to the first flight out. Then comes sleep, baggage claim, rental car, coffee, hotel, venue, set up, soundcheck, show. Then I re-pack everything in the same way and head back to my room for a few hours of sleep before I get up the next morning to do it all over again.

I will follow those steps today and tomorrow and the next day indefinitely for as long as I continue the current trajectory of my career. I keep setting my alarm and boarding the planes. I keep testing my microphone and saying the same words onstage every night. I keep hoping that putting in 10,000 hours will lead to mastery and mastery will lead to nothing but beautiful, theatrically resonant performances.

Over time you start to enjoy the repetition. An early flight means fewer delays and more time once you arrive. A good sound check puts my mind at ease and usually means I’ll have a good show. And packing my stuff the same way each time means I never leave anything behind.

Repetition provides the framework to the rest of the day so I can be in the moment onstage. Since everything else is the same during the day, I can set my mind to autopilot. I’ve been through airport security so many times now, that I could probably do it completely blindfolded. (Maybe I will for a future show…)

Once I take the stage, I’m in search of new discoveries in hopes of truly connecting with tonight’s group. Maybe something exciting will happen. Maybe I’ll have a creative breakthrough or reach a new level of proficiency. Maybe tonight will be my best show ever. Maybe I’ll be even better tomorrow.

That’s why I keep doing the same thing day after day, show after show. Rise early, read minds, rinse, repeat. Repetition is (one of) the keys to success.

There’s that old adage that says “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" is the definition of insanity...but I prefer to call it a “career in the arts”.

Evolve

This essay was inspired by a joke from my show.

The joke happens when I have a lady join me onstage and think of the name of her first crush. The joke itself is irrelevant. It’s the wording that matters here - specifically one word.

I used to make a joke about the volunteer, referring to the crush as “him”, but one day after the show my wife gave me some insightful notes on the drive home. She had the brilliant observation that saying “him” was making an unfounded assumption about a volunteer that might someday put me in an awkward position on stage.

Ever since that conversation the joke has changed. Now I refer to the crush as “them” so I won’t offend or embarrass my volunteers.

It was only one word but it’s made a huge difference for that small moment. It's still funny - possibly funnier - and better than before.

There was a similar moment during my tour this summer that made me rewrite a small section of my show all over again.

At the time I was referring to a drawing of a stick person as a “stick man” but I didn’t realize I had a transgendered person in my audience that night. They politely called out “Stick person!” and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I made a small joke and continued with the show, but that night I stayed up late rewriting my script so it wouldn’t happen again.

The goal of theatre should be inclusivity. I don’t want a single member of my audience to be personally offended by something I say during the show. I may make political or topical jokes, sure, but I don’t want to make an unnecessary comment at someone’s expense. I don’t want a single person to feel singled out.

It seems we’re at an impasse in society where we can either say “I wish things were the way they used to be!” or we can consider other people’s feelings when speaking to them. If the choice doesn’t seem obvious, then I don’t know how to convince you that you should care about other people.

When someone makes an off-color joke at my gigs now, I make it obvious I’m offended and I walk away. I refuse to put up with any degrading, deplorable “locker room talk” or offensive comments. 

You can say I’m being a “snowflake” or call it PC Culture run amok, but the truth is society is going to keep changing whether you like it or not.  If you want to stay relevant, it’s up to you to embrace it and evolve with the times.

Another Show

I overheard the following exchange between two performers recently:

“Hey, how was your show?”

“It was fine. Just another show…”

Maybe I look at this differently but I didn’t spend my childhood dreaming of being onstage so I could just do “another show”. I didn’t spend my twenties sleeping on couches and pounding the pavement so I could just do “another show”. And I refuse to take the obvious path towards “another show” in my thirties.

I want more.

I want people to view what I do differently and I want them to talk about it for weeks after. I want them to leave the show feeling differently than when they arrived.

When I was younger I remember seeing a production of “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” that left me transfixed. It was one of the earliest memories I have of watching a show and saying to myself “I have to do that.

After the performance I tracked down all of the performers - local high schoolers - in the lobby and had them sign my program. I’ve been a collector of playbills, autographs, ticket stubs, and theatre mementos ever since.

I was only 7 years old but I still remember that show. Why?

It was perfect timing, I guess. I was young and seeking inspiration. I was encouraged to try new things. And I had a vivid imagination.

And now, nearly 25 years later, I have an incredible opportunity to take the stage on a nightly basis and do the same for someone else.

Maybe there’s a youngster in the crowd who has always wanted to perform but didn’t know how to get started. I could be the spark of inspiration that sets them down their personal path to success.

Maybe someone hates magic because of how it’s presented in pop culture. I have the chance to do something different and change their mind.

Maybe someone is having a bad day or needs an escape. Maybe someone is a big fan or seeing me for the first time. Maybe they’re on a date or celebrating a birthday. I have an opportunity to create something special that they’ll always remember.

I have a chance to be their “Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe” moment.

I hear the naysayers now:

“You’re just an entertainer. This is a little over-the-top, isn’t it?” 

No, it’s not. Not for me.

That’s why you’ll never hear me demean what I do. You’ll never hear me call it “silly” or shrug it off like it doesn’t matter. 

It does matter. It matters to me.

You can take what you do seriously without taking yourself seriously. You can demand respect for your profession and refuse to fall into the same patterns that other people do. 

What do you do best?

For me, it’s mystery and amazement. I’m in the business of blowing minds.  My show is funny, yes, and hopefully entertaining. But the real point is to amaze. The real point is to show someone something truly impossible.

Comedians have jokes and singers make music, but I work in the medium of jaw-dropping, pure, unadulterated wonder. That’s what I always return to. And I refuse to give it any less than my best.

If you treat what you do with respect then people will take notice. They’ll do a double-take and sense that what you do is just a little different. They’ll get it.

Before I take the stage, before I say my opening words, before the host finishes their introduction and my walk-on music plays, before I walk through the curtain and start the show, I remind myself that I’m about to take a roomful of strangers on a journey. I’m about to show them something special.

I don’t want to be another line in their calendar. I don’t want to be an easily forgotten night or exactly what they expected.

I refuse to be just another show.