If you've been entrenched in the Chicago comedy scene long enough, it's hard not to look at our little, endearing biodome as a haphazard collection of mini-cliques, many unintentional and some very, very intentional. We have our Breakfast Clubs, our Heathers, our Alpha Betas, our Goonies and our Garden States.
Thus, it's very easy to focus an inordinate amount of your energy on the groups you're not a part of, as opposed to the ones you are. After all, we're all here essentially playing a complex RPG, doing whatever shows and taking whatever classes we can to level up and grow stronger and cast bigger and badder comedy spells (you guys, I'm a fucking BOSS at metaphors).
I suppose this isn't very different from most corners of civilization. However, in a system dependent on the eagerness for advancement held by the underlings, the feeling of not belonging can be crushing. It can also be easily conflated for rejection.
Even for someone like myself, who has been here for eight years and has had many amazing opportunities and been a part of some incredible shows, it's easy to slip into a schoolyard mindset and cast myself as a loner, a rogue, a square peg. It's easy to see cool hipster cliques everywhere, and feel sorry for myself for not being a part of them. It's easy to see something great like The Jangleheart Circus and think "Well, that's another uber-insider thing I'll never be a part of" instead of "How cool, good for them!"
I try to counteract the more self-defeating viewpoint by looking for ways I DO belong, the groups I am a part of, the friends I've made along the way. Because, just as I once looked at people who made Harold teams or got callbacks for Playground incubator auditions as basically God, I know there is someone newer and greener than me who would look at where I am and I want to go to there.
Personally, I think my feelings of isolation come from my extreme introversion. Every online test I take, I am 100% introverted. I like being alone, on my couch, playing video games. This has made the necessary social aspect of being a Chicago improv comedian difficult.
I also have pretty advanced social anxiety, the fun special flavor that allows me to deliver a glowing, earnest compliment to a colleague and then walk away convinced I just mortally wounded them with a heinous insult and that they hate me and that I am horrible. This basically makes doing insult-bits, the social backbone of many improvisers, virtually impossible.
So, even when I am social, sometimes I am not the right kind of social. Huzzah!
Anyway, years and years ago, I clearly remember a well-intentioned friend tell me, after I didn't make a Harold team for the third time, that I needed to be more social. I needed to show my face at the iO and play the game. I hated this notion. Either the comedy Gods wanted me, or they didn't. I wanted to be thought of as a good improviser, not a good sit-at-the-bar-and-do-bits-and-hope-people-notice-iser.
So many years later, I understand this is simply a truth of the world we inhabit. If you want to be a part of those "cliques" you see, you have to be out, be visible, have an answer to the question "what are you working on?" and make yourself known. You have to build a buzz. Build a brand. It doesn't always feel great, but it's necessary for a lot of the leveling up we seek.
You can't join the Kiwanis Club or Carol's monthly book club without showing up. It's simply part of the bargain.
I don't get asked to do a lot of shows, and that's okay. I write my own. I don't sing very well, let alone musically improvise, so that world remains foreign to me. My Facebook will always be littered with comedy-scene in-jokes I'm not a privy to, experiences I won't get to have, but the simple fact is, none of them are preventing me from making my own.
And if I'm a perpetual outlier, or an insider who just doesn't realize it, it doesn't matter. I have my friends, my allies and my creative collaborators, and with them I am invincible.
Don't have a clique? Build your own. And then make it a force for good.
When You Eat Shit At An Audition
I'm awful at auditions. I always have been, and even though I'm planning to take some workshops to alleviate this, I imagine it will never be my strong suit. I find it very difficult to translate my strengths into a 60 second monologue, or a couple 30 second improv scenes.
Like any actor who has been around long enough, I've failed far, far more than I've succeeded. A lot of my auditions, however, have been improv auditions. For groups and teams and touring opportunities. And, I've eaten shit at about 95 percent of them.
The first audition I blew was for an acapella group my freshman year of college. My singing voice was once called "one of the worst sounds in the world" by some high school classmates, so needless to say I didn't succeed. Fortunately, this failure led me to audition for an improv group, and I succeeded because they liked my chain-smoking sexy grandma character, and I never looked back.
When I lived in Southern California, I auditioned multiple times for Harold teams at the iO West. I failed. I failed at four improv auditions for the Playground theater, many for writing and directing shows, touring opportunities, Boom Chicago, Mission Improvable. And I've bombed regular auditions for commercials, agents, Columbia College films, and so many other random, independent things that I've lost count.
I'm not that bad at improv, or acting, I just audition like I am.
It's funny, in improv auditions, the auditors often say things like "We're not looking for you to be funny, we're looking for strong improv skills, support and teammwork." So you make leafy ruffly sounds in someone else's scene about an orchard and dive in as the footstool in a scene about a grandmother and you think "I'm scene painting! I'm a supportive player!" And then some innocent-looking 4-foot 11-inch girl steps out and initiates a scene by saying something like "I got shit in my cunt during my last abortion" and the auditors laugh hysterically and everyone fingerbangs themselves and she gets called back and you're like "But I was a footstool."
You were also clearly not having any fun, which auditors notice as well.
In theater and commercial auditions, I'm even worse. Because I look like Thor, but really only play manically unhappy fiftysomething women from the year 1993, my monologues always come off hilariously stunted. I have to at least act like a normal dude if I want to get the normal dude part, right? And then I'm given a side that was clearly written by a four year old, read aloud by a Scottish octogenarian with a stoma in a wind tunnel, and then translated into text by voice recognition software. And I when I look at the nonsensical side, I suddenly can't read anymore, and after I eat shit on my first try, out of pity the auditor gives me a vague instruction for a second read ("Be yourself, but more cautiously unconcerned") and then has me read it again, and I eat shit again, and then they smile grimly and say "Great, thanks for coming in, we'll be in touch," which means "We'll send you a polite thanks-but-no-thanks email in two days."
No one is their best self in an audition. Years of work, of proving yourself otherwise, mean nothing if you can't get the tone right reading three sentences about a fake body wash. Or be Stephen Colbert levels of brilliant in a 30-second improv scene with a person you've never met.
I get it. If you can't succeed in the contained pressure of an audition, how can you be expected to succeed when the cameras roll, or the stage lights go up?
And, truthfully, looking back, I wasn't ready for a large number of the opportunities I auditioned for. My task, then, has been to find ways to show the unique abilities I feel I do have in alternative mediums. And to be patient. And to take each failure and recast it (pun intended) as a learning experience.
And so, these days, I like to look at each audition as practice for the next one. And if I succeed, all the better, but no matter what, I'm getting something positive out of it besides the brutal feeling of eating shit in front of important people and hating myself for days. Though, that's fun too.