inspiration

No, but...

Here’s a crazy thought:

I realized this week that I’m coming up on a decade of being a full-time, professional entertainer. A decade! TEN FREAKING YEARS.

I never had another option or a backup plan; it was always going to be what I’m doing now or some form of it. So I set out ten years ago with no real plan - just grit and the desire to get paid for doing something that I’m passionate about.

It took maybe 6 or 7 of those years to even feel like I’d made any progress. Then, I started getting more creative with the show, taking risks, and exploring more outlets for performing like producing my own shows or doing fringe festivals. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to tell people I’m a professional entertainer and really believe it myself.

I didn’t really know what I was doing back in 2009, so I just started saying “yes” to everything. I figured being the person who always made stuff happen would lead to good things.

Them: “Can you do a show outdoors on the side of a hill?”
Me: “Absolutely.”

Them: “Can you do a show during halftime of a basketball game?”
Me: “No problem at all.”

Them: “Can you put a different show together for us by next week?”
Me: “Yes, of course!”

Over the past ten years I’ve said “yes” to more things then I can remember. I’ve moved across the country for jobs, driven overnight, lost money, lost sleep, and given more than I’ve received. But somehow I was convinced I would eventually get something out of it.

Many years ago I started changing my approach. I changed my answer from “yes” to “no, but…”. And suddenly, things started getting better. I started enjoying my work more and people started to take notice.

I had said “yes” to a job at the Disney World resorts but what I thought was going to be a full-time gig ended up being only a fill-in, part-time gig. After a year of being on-call and seizing every opportunity, I decided I didn’t really like a) performing outdoors and b) performing for children/families. I decided I would stop doing both of those things moving forward, so when Disney called to offer me the full-time position I thought they’d given me a year before I turned down the offer and moved back to Chicago a month later.

Disney: “Do you want to go on full-time at the BoardWalk next year?”
Me: “No, I don’t think it’s for me…but I know someone who would do a great job for you.”

I haven’t done a single gig for children/families since then and only a handful of outdoor gigs - but always on my terms. It was life-changing.

“No, but…” are real-life magic words. They get you out of things you don’t want to do. They keep you sane. They help you make decisions that will benefit you long-term.

The key is to give an emphatic “no”, then follow it up with a “but…” where you offer a detailed explanation or offer to help in some other capacity.

I get random calls all the time. People want to pay me less than I’m worth. People want me to work for free or for (oh-fuck-off) exposure. People (usually friend or family) want a favor and expect it of me.

I respond with a “No, but…” and explain my rate or my schedule or my value or why I can’t just fly across the country for a freebie. Then, I put them in touch with a friend who can do it or help them brainstorm some other options. I do about a hundred shows a year and I probably turn down about twice as many. Not every gig is for me and realizing which ones are has made all the difference. The truth is, my best opportunities have come from saying “no” to things, not from saying “yes”.

I’ve been slowly eliminating things I don’t want to do from my life the past few years and I’m nearly there. 2020 is about to be the year of saying “no” to as much as possible.

This isn’t advice only for performers. “No, but…” (or perhaps “No, because…”) works in any situation.

Your friends want you to go out for a late night bar crawl, even though they know you’re training for a half marathon? (“No, because I have to wake up early…”)

People keep taking advantage of your expertise but refusing to pay you? (“No, because I have bills to pay and can’t keep offering my services for free.”)

People want you to do a thing you don’t want to do at a certain time at a stupid place? (“No, but maybe next time.” while you’re actually thinking “No, because it doesn’t make me happy.”)

The irony of preaching “No, but…” in the city of “Yes, and…” is not lost on me. But I stand by it. Saying “no” to things you don’t want to do is the secret to having time for the things you want to be doing.


Other Thoughts:

  • Warren Buffett seems to agree with me.

  • I’ve been enjoying this lately. You probably will, too.

  • Have you joined my Thursday Thoughts mailing list? I won’t be on social media much longer so sign up so you’ll never miss a post.

  • The banner photo is from my appearance last month on Pittsburgh Today Live. Watch it here:

Transaction

In the past week alone I’ve had to ask three people to put their phones away during my show. And that’s just the past seven days. This is an all too common occurrence at my performances but people should know better.

First of all, it’s simple theatre etiquette. When you see a show you’re supposed to arrive early, silence your phones, and be respectful of the performer. Common. Freakin’. Sense.

Plus, there’s a big announcement at the beginning that strictly prohibits photos and videos during the performance. It’s not a voiceover recording - it’s a human person that literally says “There are no photos or videos allowed during the show, so please take a moment to silence and put away all electronic devices.”

But somehow, people still feel the need to take out their phones and try to record a part of my show. It’s usually when their boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife is onstage. I see them reach into their pocket or purse and can sense that they’re about to start filming my act. Some of them try to be secretive (which means they know they aren’t supposed to be filming!) and others just hold it up in front of their face without even trying to hide it.

I’m not polite about it. I don’t say “Oh, excuse me - hahaha - if you don’t mind, would you please put your phone away!” No way. I make it weird.

I stop everything I’m doing and put all attention on the person. I say “Put your phone away. No videos or photos. Didn’t you hear the announcement earlier?”

Then I wait. I watch in silence as the audience member has to turn it off in front of everyone and put the phone down.

Then I usually tack something on like “Isn’t it enough to be here right now? This is for us! Can’t we just enjoy this together?” and let it linger in the awkward silence I’ve created.

I don’t think people expect me to confront them, let alone to create such an uncomfortable energy in the theater. But I love it. I have no problem leaning into that strange feeling and forcing people to reckon with their actions.

I know some performers who encourage people to take photos/videos during the show and share them far and wide. “Don’t forget to tag me!” they say, forgetting that the immediacy of live theatre is better than any post, hashtag, blurry photo, or shaky video could ever be.

Maybe those performers are better self-promoters than me, but all I care about is my show. I’m only interested in what’s happening in this space right now, with the audience that came to see me on any given evening. I’m not asking you to leave a like, subscribe, buy my merch, or more - I’m just asking you to hold up your end of the deal.

You come to my show to make a simple transaction. You pay your hard earned money for a ticket and give me your time and attention, and I’ll give you a night you’ll always remember. Those are the terms of our arrangement and I will always uphold them.

You deserve the show you came to see and if that means making it weird or eliminating distractions as I see fit, then so be it. But I’m not here to mess around - I’m here to hold up my half of the bargain.

What about you?



Other Thoughts:

  • I’m deleting all social media soon. If you want to keep up with this blog, join my Thursday Thoughts Mailing List.

  • I’m in my final week of shows at Liberty Magic in Pittsburgh. Only five shows to go and there’s just a handful of tickets remaining.

  • I did some mind reading on the radio in Pittsburgh last week. Check out a live performance here:

What's Next?

When I first moved to Chicago in 2011 I didn’t know anyone here. I spent the first year struggling to get my name out there and find gigs. It was a year of trial and error, with way more failures than successes.

For some reason, that autumn I decided to put together a run of shows at a small theatre near my apartment. I would be self-producing and performing four shows over four weeks. I spent hours canvassing the surrounding neighborhoods with posters and flyers, inviting strangers, and trying my best to get the word out.

But on opening night we only had 7 people in the audience. It was a massive disappointment. I was embarrassed and discouraged and began questioning everything that had led me to that point.

The next day, I got an email from WGN TV wanting to feature me on their morning show the following week. As a result, the next three shows were packed and I felt like I had gotten my first small break in Chicago.

It was also the first experience of many that taught me to push through a discouraging situation. From that moment on I’ve always remembered that when things get challenging there’s usually something positive waiting around the corner.

Since that first show I’ve produced a different run of shows every year since. Always a new show, always a new venue, always a learning experience. I’ve done shows in wine bars, gymnasiums, basements, restaurants, small rooms, and bigger theaters. I even put an international tour together, formed out of my favorite pieces from those shows.

This year, against my better judgement, I decided to do my longest run yet. Every Wednesday for the past six months I’ve been performing in Lincoln Park here in the city. It’s always a challenge to build buzz for a show and keep that momentum going, but I can easily say that this has been my most successful run yet.

We sold out for much of the summer, got featured on Windy City Live, WGN, multiple times on WGN Radio, and reviewed by nearly every major publication in Chicago. The show received rave reviews and even won a Chicago Theatre Award, perhaps one of my proudest accomplishments to date.

Every run of shows has been building up to this point. Every small audience, every misstep, every frustrating producer or theatre staff I’ve worked with. Venues have closed or changed management mid-run. There’s no guidebook to this, especially when you’re producing the show yourself. As a result, I’ve made more mistakes along the way than you could possibly imagine.

I’ve never been the kind of person to let failures stop me. If anything, they just make me work harder and keep moving forward. Each show has taught me something new and I can see a noticeable improvement in my ability as a live performer.

Next Wednesday will be the final performance of this run of shows. I couldn’t think of a better end to the run than having closing night on Halloween. If you haven’t seen the show yet, there are still a few tickets available here.

After next week I’ll never do this show again, so don’t miss your chance to experience it for yourself. In the meantime, I’ve already started writing the next show and I can’t wait for you to see what’s next.