performance

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”.

Numb

It’s easy to think that what you do doesn’t matter…especially when you get paid to tell jokes and read minds onstage. It’s tempting to trivialize it, especially when other people are doing such important work around the world.

But I think that what I do does matter…especially now. I’d argue it may matter more now than ever before. I’ve seen a shift in my audiences lately and it all started last November.

A year ago I muted the TV and stared out my apartment window in total silence. If you’ve followed me for any amount of time it should be obvious that I’m a progressive liberal atheist artist and I didn’t handle the results of the 2016 election well. 

For the past 365 days I’ve woken up fearful of what I’d find on the news or read on twitter. Most days, the alerts are too many and the negative actions of this administration are too much to handle. I’ve done my best to stay informed and take action but after a while I started to grow numb to what’s happening in the world.

When terrible things happen but you can’t do anything about them, it makes you feel helpless. It seems pointless to sign petitions or protest or raise awareness when it feels as if nothing ever changes.

After the most recent mass shooting (in Texas at the time of this post) I found myself silencing my phone and ignoring updates. I couldn’t bring myself to read about it for fear of feeling the crushing weight of the world bearing down on my shoulders. When things get really bad you have to step away for a while. We aren’t programmed to handle this much sorrow.

That’s why my shows are more relevant than they’ve ever been. People need a respite from the tweets. They need relief from everyday life. It may sound cliché, but I have a chance to give people that escape. I have a chance to let them step away for a second, then get back to the real world. And giving other people an escape is my way of escaping, too.

A woman approached me after a recent show to let me know that her son had died a year ago and she was looking for a way to get out of the house around the anniversary to forget about things. Somehow she ended up at my show.

She told me she hadn’t laughed that hard in a really long time and thanked me for a fun show. Then she turned and walked away before I could say anything else.

I was flabbergasted.

It’s easy to forget that what you do matters. But it does. And we should all remember that when things are too hard to bear. 

Things may seem bad at the moment but that doesn’t mean they won’t get better. They already are and it’s up to us to keep the momentum going. There’s so much you can do and it all matters, no matter how small it may seem.

Stay informed. Stay involved. Donate. Volunteer. Run for office. VOTE.

And find an escape when you need one, whatever that means for you.

Just whatever you do, don’t let yourself grow numb.

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.