Focus

Recently someone called to book me for a really cool event. It sounded like a fun conference for the kind of people who enjoy my show and I was available. But I turned it down.

They didn't have the right stage and the venue didn't work well with my requirements. I always make sure my sound, lighting, staging, and scheduling fits in with what I do. And if I can't make it happen I always try to recommend someone who can. It’s far easier to point the organizer in a better direction than try to alter what I do to fit their event.

I turn down a lot of gigs. If it doesn't fit my act, I really don't want to do it. I don't want to give people a sub-par performance. I want to do the types of events that allow me to give the best performance possible. Plus, eliminating events that stress me out has really improved my mental health.

In the past few years I've been struggling with extreme anxiety and depression. Dealing with difficult clients and unsatisfactory gigs has only made it worse. I care so deeply about giving people a memorable experience that I end up having a panic attack whenever anything goes wrong.

Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, my heart and mind racing because of something small that happened during a recent show. When there are too many variables out of my control, I know it's going to affect me in negative ways.

So I've been removing those variables. I’ve been screening my gigs more thoroughly and only taking the ones that won't make me anxious.

I hate giving advice, but here's what I've learned: You don’t have to be everything at once for all people everywhere. Find your niche and focus your efforts on doing whatever that might be. Saying “no” to stuff that makes you unhappy will always end up making you happier in the long run.

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.

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.”