Push Through

“Any big plans for the weekend?” my trainer asked me last Friday.

“Just have some writing projects I’m working on!” I replied.

“Oh, that sounds like fun,” she said. “How do you work? Like, what’s your writing process?”

I told her exactly what I tell you now:

My writing process is that I tell myself “Tomorrow I’m going to write as much as possible!” and I carve out as much time as my schedule will allow so I can get creative and finish some projects.

Then when “tomorrow” comes I think about my writing all day, telling myself that I should probably sit down and get to work. I pace my studio, drink too much coffee, and do anything I can to avoid the task at hand.

Then, around bedtime, I finally sit down and write two or three sentences. Another successful day of writing in the books!

Since I started keeping a consistent blog 18 months ago a lot of people have asked me about my process. But the truth is…I don’t really have one. All I do is just think about writing as much as possible.

Most of the time I struggle to put my concepts into words, let alone a series of paragraphs worth reading. The key is to not give up. I know by now that if I just push through my creative roadblocks then a good essay is waiting to be discovered.

The same goes for my show.

I rarely rehearse it start to finish. Instead, I start to work on a new idea but barely get anywhere. So I’ll work on bits and pieces at random moments. I’ll talk through the script in the shower. I’ll pace through the blocking while I’m on the phone with a client. The new piece slowly comes together in sections, often over many months, but only if I don’t give up and push through.

A couple weeks ago I was trying to come up with a slogan for a special event. I wanted something catchy and to the point, so I started brainstorming with a friend. Everything we came up with was either incredibly stupid or had already been done before. Before I knew it, I was frustrated beyond belief. I decided to abandon the whole idea and hung up the phone in disgust.

I turned to leave the room and stopped dead in my tracks as the perfect slogan popped into my head. My good idea had only been minutes away and I had nearly lost it. I just needed to push through to the other side.

You can call it writer’s block or discomfort or rejection or the creative struggle. You can get frustrated when you run out of ideas and mad when you don’t have any to begin with. You can admit when you don’t know what to do next…

But whatever you do, don’t give up. Don’t give in to the struggle. Don’t give up on the work. You never know when your best idea might be one more sentence away. Push yourself to keep working. Push past the fear. Push aside your doubts and know that you’ve been creative before and you’ll be creative again.

Push through.

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.

Do Over

Here’s a secret:

Everyone has bad shows. (Or days or games or whatever is applicable to your life. My life is onstage so I’ll stick with what I know.)

When you see other performers posting a constant barrage of fancy hotel rooms, large venues, enormous audiences, and rave reviews it’s easy to think that they are nothing but successful. It’s easy to forget that they have bad shows, too.

Oh, but they do. And so do I. Horrible, awful, cringe-worthy shows.

How do I know? Because I’ve been there. I’ve sat in their audience or watched them live on the internet. And, as for myself, I’ve bombed horribly. It’s just the way of life when you work in the entertainment industry.

If you’ve ever slept through an alarm on the first day of a new job or seen the look of disappointment on your boss’ face, then you’ve experienced the same thing. I’ve spent hours traveling across the country to do a show, only to fail miserably in front of a room of strangers.

I can usually sense it from the first moments onstage. I start sweating and the lights seem to grow hotter. Every uninterested face in the room starts to stick out like a Tr*mp voter at a Lady Gaga concert.

“Is my client massively disappointed? What do they think? They’ll never invite me back…”

Sometimes it’s not as bad as I think. And sometimes it’s surely worse.

Albeit, I haven’t had a show that bad in years. But I still have bad shows all the same. It’s just that now when I have a bad show it’s discouraging because I know how good I can be and I’m disappointed in my performance. It’s a different kind of bad.

Years ago I booked my first out-of-state show. The fee seems laughable now but at the time it was a huge milestone. My wife-to-be and I loaded up the car and drove nervously across the border from Kansas to Nebraska.

The event was for a small tractor dealership in the middle of nowhere with a group of about 50 employees just getting off work. The show was held in the company cafeteria - a long room with bad lighting and poor sight lines. 

The employees entered, rudely elbowing their way to the buffet, and took their seats. The client motioned for me to begin.

Unsure of myself and too inexperienced to control the room, I gave one of the worst performances of my life. There were too many distractions to contend with. People were talking in the back, loud music was playing down the hall, and a group of noisy men were (I KID YOU NOT) building a giant pyramid of beer cans at the very front table.

I wish I had taken control and demanded their attention. I wish I had known that was an option. But when you’re 20 and you’ve never done that kind of event, you don’t know what to do.

So I tried to persevere. I pushed through and did my act. It was painful to watch, I’m sure. My last-ditch effort to be mystifying during my final routine was destroyed by the loud clatter of no less than 100 beer cans falling to the floor. The men roared with laughter as I sheepishly finished the show and scurried from the room.

I left as quickly as I could, utterly humiliated.

A few weeks ago I entered a similar venue with a similar demographic. Suddenly I flashed back to that time in Nebraska and felt the wave of embarrassment rush back over me. Then I took a deep breath and let the hundreds of shows and years of experience I’ve had since then take over. And I crushed that show.

I felt like I finally had a chance to redeem myself. A much needed do-over, if you will.

I needed that.

So yeah, I have bad shows. All the time. And so do all of the other performers you follow. They may be too busy crafting their successful online persona to remind you of that, but don’t forget that we all have to start somewhere. We all had to go through awkward, embarrassing, painful situations to get where we are.

I needed every one of those bad shows to get the rave reviews I received from Chicago Fringe last week or go on tour this summer. Good shows feel great but bad shows make you who you are. Bad shows are your education.

Embrace the bad and get better. Soon you’ll get a chance to redeem yourself, too.