life lessons

Mentors

I received a few messages after last week’s post from people saying “Who was that guy? I need to know!” (If you were thinking that, then you kind of missed the point…)

Sometimes when I have exchanges like that I start to wish I had a positive influence in my life as a performer, someone who could teach me and help me get better; a mentor. When I was younger I just sort of thought that one day someone would take me under their wing and give me guidance to get where I wanted to be.

However, that never happened. Over the years I just kept to myself and tried to forge my own path. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never have a mentor and that my experiences with more experienced performers would always be similar to the one I wrote about a week ago.

See, it’s so easy in life to remember the bad things that happen. A bad experience clouds your memory of everything that happened. When one negative thing occurs you tend to latch onto that moment and forget about the good stuff that happened, too.

A perfect example of this is when I have a heckler in the audience. (Luckily, I rarely have a heckler at my shows but it does happen occasionally.) Sometimes people are downright rude and don’t care that their actions are ruining the show for everyone else.

When that happens and you’re all alone on the road, you tend to dwell on it. You drive an hour back to your hotel and replay the interaction in your mind. Even if you handled the heckler like a pro you still wonder if there was anything you could have done differently and you forget about the good stuff that happened, too: the great joke you made with that couple onstage, the great reactions that you received moments before the heckler spoke out, the overwhelming standing ovation that you worked so hard to earn.

Which brings me to back to mentors…

Those bad experiences I have with other performers have clouded my opinion of other people in my field. I started to convince myself that everyone was a jerk because of a few people who were disrespectful. And I’ve realized a couple of things:

First, the truth is that most of the people in my field are incredibly supportive, respectful, and knowledgeable. They mean well and do everything they can to lift each other up and improve the art.

Second, and most importantly, I’ve realized that having a mentor in 2019 isn’t what I imagined it would be 25 years ago. It’s not having a single person taking you under their wing and showing you the ropes. It’s not being someone’s apprentice for two decades and shadowing someone 24/7. That’s just not how it works today.

Having a mentor now is being lucky enough for someone to share their wisdom, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time. Having a mentor now means someone was willing to take some time out of their day to support you in some fashion, no matter how small.

Once that thought occurred to me I realized that I’ve had some amazing mentors over the years, and I don’t want a post like last week’s to cloud my positive experiences with some truly caring and thoughtful professionals who have offered me encouragement over the years.

So, let me share some positive examples of mentors I’ve been lucky enough to learn from over the past decade. (I’ll only use first names to preserve some anonymity for my friends. But, take it from me, these are some of the finest minds in the business and I’ve been lucky enough to learn from them all.)

Mentor #1 - KEN

If you learn anything about Ken from this anecdote, you should know that he is one of the smartest minds in my field. His thinking is in high-demand, not for his illusions but for how he provides help from a director’s point of view, pushing artists to a higher standard of performance and helping them to improve their shows. (His book on performance is the most-read book on my shelf. In fact, my new year’s resolution was to read one book per week this year. I’m on a six week trip right now so I brought seven books. One for each week and Ken’s for daily reference.)

He once came all the way across New York City just to watch my show in a crowded, hot, black box theatre. He sat quietly in the back of the theatre then gave me notes and ideas for a solid hour. As soon as he left I scrawled everything onto the back of a napkin so I wouldn’t forget anything. Those notes were the building block of the last two years of my touring show. Ken truly helped me find ways to maximize the level of entertainment in my performances.

Mentor #2 - CHRIS

In college Chris came to my campus and gave a mind blowing show. I watched in awe. Here was someone doing things that I did could not fathom, yet wanted so desperately to learn. He was easily the highlight of the year for myself and the other students at my college. After the show, I approached the stage to say hello. I was probably a bit of a know-it-all back then, but if it bothered Chris he didn’t let on. He generously sat with me on the stage for a solid half an hour, giving me a few pieces of advice and asking about my interests.

Years later I was attending a booking conference on my own. I was terrified. I didn’t know anyone and had no idea how the business worked. Suddenly, I heard a voice.

“Hi, Mark. Mind if I join you?”

I looked up to see Chris standing at my table with a drink in hand. “He knows my name?!” I thought. I couldn’t believe it.

Chris sat with me for a long time that day, offering encouragement and telling me stories of his experiences when he was in my same position. By the end of that afternoon I felt confident in the direction I was headed, all thanks to Chris.

Since then, Chris has attended a few of my shows, let me shadow him a couple times at his own, and offered advice anytime I’ve needed it. I owe a lot of thanks to many performers, but esp. Chris.

Mentor #3 - NEIL

Neil is an incredibly supportive friend of mine, a fellow performer, and a wise thinker and creator in my field. Not only is he a great thinker but he’s an incredible performer, too.

One of my favorite videos of my show is from a performance I did in a small room on the north side of Chicago. It’s a dark room and the footage isn’t that great, but throughout the show you can hear Neil laughing at my jokes just off camera. Every time I watch that video I remember when he came up to me after the show and took five minutes to offer encouragement and support. I’ll never forget that.

When Neil speaks people shut up and listen, because if you aren’t paying attention you’ll miss the beautiful ideas hidden in each and every sentence. There have been times I’ve learned more from Neil in ten minutes than I did in all of high school. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Neil’s wisdom is supernatural.

Mentor #4 - MICHAEL

Several years ago I was attending a convention in Las Vegas. It was past midnight and most of the other attendees were drunk and rowdy. It was chaos. I was completely sober and all I wanted was to talk about performance. That’s why I was attending in the first place!

From the middle of the chaos emerged Michael and I believe he could sense that I had more on my mind. He sat down at my table and started asking me questions about my act. My answers led to more questions, which I struggled to answer. I found myself getting frustrated as Michael easily picked apart my artistic decisions. I’d never been forced to confront my thoughts before, especially not in front of a legend like Michael.

Michael has a way of making you question everything you’ve ever done. At first, you say what you think he wants to hear but soon you realize that’s not what he wanted at all. What he wants is for you to find the confidence to defend your ideas and opinions. That’s why he’s so hard on you in the first place.

Michael sat with me over 4 hours that night. I walked away discouraged and frustrated, thinking that maybe I wasn’t good at this after all. But the next day, I had a creative breakthrough. Then another and another. I started to solidify my onstage persona and my scriptwriting dramatically improved. It was all thanks to Michael.

I wasn’t smart enough then to understand how much help he was willing to give. But Michael, if you’re reading this, you were a real lifesaver.

Mentor #5 - SHAUN

In one of the lowest points of my life I met Shaun. I had recently lost my father and transferred colleges. I wasn’t happy or especially motivated at the time.

Shaun didn’t care about any of that. Well, he did, but he didn’t let it keep me from succeeding. He expected my absolute best. He demanded that I show up on time, work hard, and give 100% to everything I was doing. While other people in my life were questioning my dreams, Shaun was daring me to dream bigger.

Shaun was so important to me that I affectionately have him as “Dad” in my phone. He became a second father to me because he invested in me and what I wanted to be doing. If it wasn’t for Shaun I would have never found my voice.

* * * * *

There are numerous people who have inspired me over the years but these are some of my favorites. I can never thank them enough.

When you get discouraged or someone tries to bring you down, try to remember the good. And always remember that mentorship presents itself in many forms…you just have to be open and willing to learn.

Finally, always remember to be patient and willing to offer people advice anytime they need it. Always treat questions with respect and be forthcoming with your advice and ideas. You never know how meaningful a few minutes of your time might be for someone else.


Other thoughts:

  • I was just on Pittsburgh Today Live on CBS Pittsburgh this week to promote my show! Check out my appearance below:

Show Notes #2,347

Got in a fight with the audience tonight.

Not a literal fight. Just a push-and-pull-back-and-forth-all-out-brawl for control of the room.

The crowd was split into sections - like cliques in a high school cafeteria.

There were the drunks. Unruly and loud, unfocused and proud. You just ignore the drunks.

There were the coworkers. A tight-knit group, out for their first work event together. It takes effort but with a little finesse the coworkers can be pulled apart for an hour or so.

The couples were there, on first or second dates, resting their high hopes for a good night out squarely on my shoulders.

And how could I forget the newbies? The noobs have never been to the theater before. They don’t know they’re supposed to turn their phones off. They don’t know when to be quiet and when to react. They don’t know how to behave, so you have to teach them.

Things happened tonight that have never happened before. I have a Plan A, B, and C for the most likely scenarios but I’m pretty sure we made it to X, Y, and Z before coming back to the beginning. As Murphy said, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” - I just didn’t realize he was specifically talking about tonight.

I guess things didn’t go wrong - they were just different. When you get in a fight with the audience you have to pull out all the stops.

You duck. You weave. You dance around the ring, slowly closing in on the ultimate goal. You keep the drunks at arm’s length while simultaneously connecting with the newbies. You split up the coworkers and smile at the couples.

A well-crafted joke is a punch to the gut; a dramatic moment hits them like an uppercut. It’s an unending barrage of every trick in the book, but you still have to act as if everything is going according to plan.

And maybe it was. After all, by the time it was all over I was still standing.

And so was everyone else. A room of strangers, briefly unified in applause and mystery.

Got in a fight with the audience tonight. Went the distance and I won.


Jump

I went skydiving this week. For real.

I jumped out of a plane at 13,500 feet with a guy named Adam who I’d never met until the day of the jump. We fell for 60 seconds at around 120 mph before he pulled the chute and we floated back down to the drop zone at Skydive Chicago.

It was unlike anything I’ve done before and I’ll definitely be doing it again.

The whole morning everyone kept asking me if I was nervous. They wanted to know if I was freaking out or going to be sick.

The truth is, I wasn’t.

I really hadn’t had much time to think about it. I’ve been so busy with my summer tour and my weekly show that I hadn’t had a moment to get nervous.

So when it came to the big day I was just excited. I signed the waiver, got suited up, and next thing I knew we were jumping out of a plane.

Piece of cake.

Those questions reminded me of when I moved to Los Angeles after I finished college.

Back then, I was on a quest to go to Hollywood and follow my dreams. So the second I finished school I packed my bags and headed west. I left my wonderful girlfriend (now wife!) crying in a parking lot and my gorgeous mustang convertible behind, all so I could pursue my passion.

All I had with me was a suitcase of clothes, my computer, my props, and 500 bucks. That was it.

Everyone I talked to had a version of the same question:

When did you know you were ready to move to LA?

My answer was always the same: I was never ready.

At the time, my show wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have enough money or a good plan for when I got to SoCal. I was completely alone. But I knew I had to move or else I might never go at all.

Moving right away meant that before I could get nervous I was already there. I was immediately immersed in a new city with new adventures, so I put my head down and got to work. The next thing I knew, I was taking the bus to gigs in all corners of LA. I found an agent, booked a commercial, and started to build momentum.

I still approach things this way. I dive into something and figure it out as I go.

Sometimes I do shows for several thousand people. It’s a huge responsibility to entertain such a big audience, but I don’t think about it. Instead I do my sound check and preparations like any other show, then head to the dressing room. Next thing I know, I’m being introduced and running onstage. There’s no time to be nervous.

Sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and just do it. Go see a movie without reading the reviews. Take a trip without planning it out. Venture out into your city and find something new.

You’ll never be fully prepared for anything. You can sit around and plan all you want. But at some point you’ll have to just go for it. You’ll have to make your move, take a chance, and jump!