It’s not uncommon for someone to ask me, “How long have you been improvising?” and then, when I answer “almost two years now,” to seem shocked and impressed. “Wow, you’re really good for being so new!” they’ll sometimes say. I’m flattered, but I don’t always tell them the full story: that before coming to improv, I spent the previous 14 years onstage. Improv wasn’t my introduction to performance, and so if I ever seem halfway decent at this, it’s only because I’ve had a bunch of practice.
Many of my improv peers, like me, did theater in high school. I played Mr. Green in a dinner theater production of Clue in our cafeteria. I gave myself a perm to play Casio in our senior-year production of Othello, which made it all the way to One-Act Play State Finals before being disqualified for going three seconds over time. And I affected a nasaly British accent to play the lead in Blithe Spirit by the genius Noel Coward (also in the tiny cafeteria).
But my true love was speech and debate. From eighth grade through my senior of high school I spent most weekends competing at speech tournaments. At first, as a debater, I was pretty terrible. My adolescent brain couldn’t seem to handle complex philosophical arguments, despite spending the summer after 8th grade at a fancy debate camp at The University of Kentucky (which I spent mostly lusting after an older girl named Hilary who didn’t shave her legs). But I competed hard, and I loved dressing up in a fancy suit every morning and carrying a leather portfolio.
In my senior year I switched to the “speech” side of “speech and debate,” which consisted of a number of competitive performance events. There was “Dramatic Interpretation,” which was a 10-minute solo performance from a monologue, play, novel, etc. There was “Humorous Interp,” which was the funny alternative. There was “Duo Interp,” which was basically at 12-minute two-person cutting from a play, which was usually dripping with melodrama. There was “Original Oratory,” which is where I really shined. You mean I get to write a ten-minute speech on anything and deliver it to a room full of people who have to watch?
When I moved to Austin to attend UT, I was psyched to join the speech team because it was one of the best in the country, having won multiple National Championships. It was like a football player going to Alabama—this was the big leagues. And, like the big leagues, the demands were ferocious. We traveled nearly every weekend of the school year, from Friday through late Sunday. I had a part-time job, a full load of classes, and, occasionally, a girlfriend to attend to. But I was young and passionate, and nothing seemed better than competing with the finest forensic performers in the country, and being coached by some of the wackiest, most passionate people I’ve ever met.
Then I discovered Slam Poetry at the end of my freshman year…
One of my speech teammates dragged me to a charmingly scuzzy bar called the Electric Lounge (RIP), which held Austin’s only weekly poetry slam. (A poetry slam is spoken-word poetry competition, in which performs write and perform their own original work, which is then judged on a scale of 0 to 10 by five randomly selected audience members.)
I was hooked. I went every week. I sidled up to the older veterans who were doing fascinating, funny, courageous work. I was a kid in a sea of old pros, and I was still far too young to drink, but I didn’t care. I was living the life.
When I graduated from college, I dedicated myself to honing my slam poetry craft.
And before I knew it I was dominating the slam. I made my way on to the Austin Slam Team, which went to the National Poetry Slam and took third place, allowing me to perform in front of 1,000 people at Navy Pier in Chicago. HBO called me up and flew me to New York to appear on their show Def Poetry Jam. I made a couple more teams, started nabbing the $50 weekly prize money for the slam winner, and becoming one of those “vets” I once so cloyingly admired. I started hosting the slam, which I did for several years.
I met a couple of girlfriends at the weekly show. I met improvisers before I even really knew what improv was, Andreas Fabis and Ruby Willmann. A documentary crew began following one of my teams around for several months, culminating in the awesome (and awesomely embarrassing) feature film Slam Planet.
I made friends. I drank a bunch of whisky. I wrote a couple hundred slam poems. I slept on couches. I traveled to London, NYC, Chicago, etc. I was a feature poet at the birthplace of the slam, The Green Mill.
I was a rock star in my own mind.
But after about a decade of slamming or hosting the slam 50 weeks per year I began to feel the burnout creeping in. The first sign was my complete lack of interest in the actual poems. I stopped writing for the most part, and when I did write, it was short, experimental stuff—stuff that would never fly at a poetry slam. And when others were on the mic? I was lounging in the bar’s back room, smoking cigarettes and chatting with friends. I paid almost no attention to the art, just all of its trappings. And then, even hosting, which was basically a free two-hour set to talk about whatever I wanted, grew stale. Ten years was enough. So I handed over hosting duties to others, and I faded away.
I’ve probably attended six poetry slams in the last three years. But it’s still going strong—stronger than ever, in fact. In the very capable of hands of the NICEST MAN ON PLANET EARTH, Danny Strack, the weekly Austin Poetry Slam pulls in about 150 audience members and the best performance poets in the world. It’s a mecca for spoken word artistry, and I couldn’t be happier to see it blossom into its current state.
But here’s the thing: I wish I’d discovered improv instead of slam poetry back in 1998.
As wonderful as slam was to me (and it was, hugely wonderful), it’s a largely isolating community. Slam poetry is, by design, a solitary endeavor. One person writes a poem, and that one person performs that poem, competing against other solitary folks for the “win.” Offstage, sure, you can make friends and lovers and flovers and lends (those last two are fakes). But there’s no collaboration in the artistry. It’s all “you vs. me.” And for some folks who take competition seriously (like yours truly) it can be tough to overlook the competition in favor of the community. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the poetry slam community isn’t much of a community at all—but a loose assemblage of kind, like-minded people who are out to get their own kicks. Ya dig?
For an activity I devoted 10 years to, I sometimes find myself thinking massive amounts of shit about slam poetry: they aren’t really poems, the poets are pandering to the audience, the scene has changed to reward cliches, it’s a young person’s game that doesn’t reward true originality, etc. I have a thousand complaints—some of them true, some of them born out of the mind of a veteran who thinks “everything was better back in my day.”
Improv is a motherfucking community, friends.
You literally cannot survive in improv without integrating yourself into the communal spirit that pervades every corner of this blessed activity. Sure, you could write a fantastic one-person show, but (a) nobody wants to see it, and (b) you probably won’t find stage time. Because while you’re holed up writing your masterpiece, we’re over here creating something new and fantastic together.
Look at all the improv marriages! And improv make-outs! Look at the number of theaters and cross-theater shows! Look at all the friends hugging! Look at Paul Normandin, hugging the fuck out of anyone he can! Look at Mandinka, developing a new format on a whim and bringing it to its feet! Look at that gorgeous Thanksgiving potluck dinner and all the love notes everyone writes! Look at the troupes packing up and driving across the state to do a show in Bumfuck, Wherever! Look at the online forums and Facebooks shout-outs! Look at all the Kickstarters getting funded, and the tears shed when one of us suffers a loss! Look at the baked goods that Taylor brought to rehearsal for no reason other than hey, why not! Look at all those people who didn’t win Maestro laughing at the person who did win Maestro! Look at the gorgeous email a troupemate sent me for no reason at all! Look at the new students and the old veterans onstage together! Look at us not giving a fuck about how ridiculous we look hopping around on one foot in the parking lot! Look at us having each other’s backs, for real this time.