inspiration

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.



Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining my "Thursday Thoughts" mailing list. It's the best way to make sure you never miss a post. No spam, just a new thought shared with you every Thursday. Click here to sign up.

This Is What I Do

Recently a lady was dead set on trying to embarrass me during one of my events.

“You seem uncomfortable,” she said, surrounded by a group of friends. “Are we making you uncomfortable?”

I wasn’t uncomfortable. I’d just finished my show and was standing calmly at the side of the bar waiting for the party to end. I wasn’t nervous or bored, I was just being patient until it was time to depart.

There’s always one person at a gig who is too cool for my entertainment. They’re defensive or confrontational. Typically they’re used to being the center of attention and don’t like that a new person might have the spotlight for a few moments.

There’s another person at my gigs. They’re the one that gets it - the type of person who just wants to enjoy the mystery and not ruin the entertainment for others. “Wow, you really know how to work a room,” they say, curious to learn more about my craft and how I ended up being at the party with them.

Those people are a joy to perform for. They’re engaged and intrigued and easy to talk to. They make my nights fun and memorable.

People like that woman, however, are quite the opposite.

I used to become defensive or upset when people would accost me. One person’s actions would lead to a minor confrontation and end up ruining my whole night.

It took me a while to realize that it didn’t have anything to do with me when people behaved that way. It’s not my fault they are being rude or negative. More than likely, it has something to do with their own insecurities. After years of talking with people at events, I get that now and choose to respond differently.

“You seem uncomfortable,” she said smugly, “Are we making you uncomfortable?”

In a flash, my mind went to the very beginning. I flipped through my mental rolodex, remembering how I’d ended up in front of that lady.

I remembered my early shows at schools and nursing homes and libraries and churches.

I thought of the plays and musicals and speeches and improv games.

I recalled the writing and acting classes, the rehearsing and practicing.

My years in theatre school flashed through my mind, along with every role I’d ever performed.

I remembered the two dozen TV appearances I’ve had, many live on air in front of millions of people.

I thought of my sold-out tours, my weekly shows, my corporate and college gigs, and everything else in between. There was the time I worked for 16 people on a rooftop under The Empire State Building and the time I got a standing ovation from 6,000 students on a college campus.

I remembered being in front of audiences around the world, sometimes using props as a shield and sometimes having nothing to hide behind at all.

I thought of writing and delivering my dad’s eulogy. Or speaking at my best friend’s funeral after he killed himself.

I thought of the gig I’d had the night before and what I was doing the night after.

I’d been here before - many, many times.

“No, I’m not uncomfortable.” I said. “This is what I do.”



Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining my "Thursday Thoughts" mailing list. It's the best way to make sure you never miss a post. No spam, just a new thought shared with you every Thursday. Click here to sign up.

Halfway

Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to reach the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert. Some people take exception to this rule, but for my purposes this week let’s just analyze the magic number: 10,000.

Gladwell is talking about “dedicated practice” - focused training on a skill that helps a person continue to improve over time. You need to push yourself out of your comfort zone, seek feedback, and dedicated yourself to continued practice on a regular basis for an extended period of time.

I think about the 10,000 hour rule a lot. It gets thrown around in pop culture, on TED talks, in magazines, and referenced in numerous self-help, motivational books.

So, I was curious…how many hours do I have?

Being a mind reader is a tricky thing - it’s difficult to practice without an audience. Most of my practice time is onstage - learning the ebbs and flows of a live performance, understanding the connection with an audience, and working on my material.

Given that each performance meets the “dedicated practice” metric, I calculated how much time I’ve spent performing for other people.

I started doing magic when I was 3 years old. That was 29 years ago. Growing up, I did magic every year at family celebrations (Christmas and Thanksgiving) for probably 10 minutes. That’s fifteen years of holiday performances.

When I got in school I would do magic each week at Show & Tell during Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades. That’s 5 minutes a week for 30 weeks over 3 more years.

I also did a talent show many years (5 minutes a year for six years), shows at nursing homes and local libraries each summer (10 shows for 60 minutes for 10 summers).

So far that’s as follows:

• 15 years x 10 minutes = 150 mins over the Holidays

• 30 weeks x 5 minutes = 150 minutes x 3 years = 450 mins of Show & Tell

• 6 years x 5 minutes = 30 mins at Talent Shows

• 10 shows x 60 minutes = 600 mins x 10 summers = 6,000 minutes of Summer Shows

Altogether that comes to a total of 6,630 minutes or 110.5 hours.

THAT’S IT?

So what about college? I did dozens of shows during my time at both USC and WSU. I ran the numbers and it comes out to another 5,000 minutes of stage time while I was getting my degree. That puts us at 11,630 minutes or nearly 194 hours of stage time.

At this rate, this is going to take forever…

Since school I’ve been doing close to 100 shows a year. Some years more, some years less but let’s use a nice round number. Also, the shows vary in length, from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, so I’ll stick with 60 minutes just to keep things simple.

• 100 shows

• 10 years

• An average of 60 minutes each

That’s an extra 60,000 minutes of stage time or 1,000 hours.

A whopping total of 1,304.5 hours.

So that does it for my stage time. It feels like I’ve done so much more but the reality is there are only so many hours in a day and so many shows I can do each year. Even if I did 500 shows a year it would still take me 20 years to get 10,000 hours in front of an audience.

The good news is…it’s not all about stage time. Doing shows is clearly a big part of what I do but not the whole part…there’s more that goes into it.

I spent several hours a day writing, rehearsing, studying, and creating my shows. Plus, I attend other performances, lectures, and workshops to improve my skills. Additionally, I’ve taken theatre, improv, storytelling, and writing classes to implement new ideas and knowledge into my shows. And there’s all the other plays, musicals, storytelling shows, and cabaret showcases I’ve been a part of.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the numbers here but believe me, I’m way closer to the 10,000 hour rule than I originally thought. However, the more I tallied up my practice time the more it struck me that 10,000 hours is not a hard and fast rule. It’s a guideline.

The idea isn’t that you reach that threshold and suddenly have all the answers. It’s that you put in the hours each and every day. If you want to get better at something it all comes down to a continuous pursuit of personal improvement.

I’m far from an expert at what I do. Some shows I feel like I’m firing on all cylinders and other times I’m left stumped, wondering why I didn’t connect and how it could have been better. There’s always room to improve and new things to understand.

However, the more shows I do the fewer bad shows I have. And I think that is the best part of this whole process. I can actually look back and note a visible, positive change in my work. That excites me and motivates me to keep going and striving for each new level of mastery. I can’t wait to see what the next 5,000 hours have in store.



Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining my "Thursday Thoughts" mailing list. It's the best way to make sure you never miss a post. No spam, just a new thought shared with you every Thursday. Click here to sign up.