Just Do It

We are told improv is great for finding your voice. Everyone who markets improv uses that phrase, but until recently, I really didn’t know what people meant by it.

And surprisingly, I am learning this through another art form — storytelling.

After a bit of break, I am back to doing storytelling and I am really loving it. It’s taken years to apply what I’ve learned in improv and to my storytelling, and I can tell it’s working because I am having fun.

I’ve realized that the telling of story is more important than memorizing the piece word for word. Instead, I need to make the connection with the audience and listen to them like I would to my scene partner.

What’s taken me so long to learn is that if you want to find your voice, you have to put yourself out there in all of your imperfection. You cannot plan out your voice like you cannot plan out your next improv scene. It happens by doing it — that’s the secret ingredient in all of this.

You will not find it from talking about it.

You will not find it by over-analyzing your last show or class.

You will find it by doing the work and putting it out there.

If you are a writer you write to find your voice. If you are an actor, you act. If you are a photographer you need to take pictures. If you are an improviser, you need to improvise on a regular basis.

Take classes, look forward to going to rehearsal with your group, and most importantly, do mother fucking shows.

When you are starting out and trying to find your voice, it’s not about quality, it’s about quantity. The quality part will come later.

Just put yourself out there on a regular basis, and then, when you least expect it, your voice will emerge. The sky will part and your confidence will move mountains.

You maybe unaware of this yourself. That’s totally normal. Your teammates, teachers and directors will definitely let you know that your voice has emerged. Some people will be threatened by it. Others will be blown away by it. Beware, for better or worse, you will get attention — the thing we craved in the first place. And that may be uncomfortable. You may have strong feelings of wanting to die. (True story). Get used to it and know these are all signs your voice is getting stronger and more clear, and that is a good thing, not only for you, but for everyone you work with and everyone who comes and sees you perform.

Your voice is your gift to the world. So, let’s not waste any more time and get to it.*

* This line was for me. If it helps you great, but this is what I need to hear.

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Finding Your Authentic Voice on Stage

I am a slow learner. And I’m conflicted about learning new things: My soul loves to learn while my ego hates it.

Last week, I wrote and performed a new solo piece for a storytelling night called Louder Than a Mom. It was about when I was growing up and we’d go out to dinner as a family and my mom would ruin it by embarrassing us.

The last time I did Louder Than a Mom, I felt I could have been better prepared. So this time, I really wanted to do a good job.

I was willing to put in the work, which meant doing things differently.

So, I found an open mic in my neighborhood in the back room of an Irish bar to try out the piece before going up at Louder Than a Mom.

The day of the open mic, I had the thought all day of blowing the open mic off, but I made the mistake of calling my friend Darryl, who talked me into going.

Walking in, I felt as terrified as when I did when I was 18, walking into my first improv class. By the time I got up there to do my piece, there were only about eight people left sitting in the audience in folded wooden chairs. I didn’t care. I told my story, and because I didn’t have it timed out, I had to rush the ending.

It was far from perfect, but I got a sense of what worked and what needed to be cut from the story for Louder Than a Mom. More importantly, I was proud that I did not bail on myself, a habit I’ve had since I was a kid.

A week later, I was on the stage at Louder Than a Mom, and the audience was packed and my performance went really well. The piece still needs work, but it was a huge improvement over the open mic.

I remember interviewing Mike Birbiglia for an episode of Improv Nerd and he commented on why creating a one-person show takes so much time. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant. But now I do.

Writing is its own process. It’s pen to paper. It is controlled. But then when you take what you’ve written and put it up in front of an audience it takes on a life of its own, and hopefully, if you’re lucky, you will lose control of it.

When you perform something you’ve written, it shows you things you didn’t know weren’t on the paper. It will surprise you. It is exciting and scary, and mostly it is messy.

I had forgotten that you can’t find your authentic voice without putting it up in front of people — that is where the courage comes in.

When you’re writing, very few people see your rough drafts. But when you’re doing solo work, hundreds of people see your rough drafts as you work out what the story is really supposed to be.

Recently I read a great quote from Micheal Keaton that he said during a commencement speech at Kent State University that summed up what I went through perfectly: “You have to take risks. Put yourself on the line. Don’t be afraid to look foolish, makes mistakes, take chances. It is one of the best things you can do. And what that will lead to is self-discovery, and it will lead you back to your natural, authentic self. And I really encourage you as you get older to go back to who you were when you were a kid, because that was the most authentic you there has been.”

What will make you stand out is your authentic self. That is the thing that will attract people and opportunities to you like magnets. And to get there, you must look foolish and make mistakes, which as improvisers we get, but when I do anything outside of the realm of improv, I have to be reminded of. And that’s why I’m such a s-l-o-w l-e-a-r-n-e-r.

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Thank you, Universe

I am delusional. I usually think that if I want to make more money in the performing arts, I just have to work harder. But the truth is when I do what the Universe wants me to do creatively, the money usually comes in, and usually not how I expect it.

For the last several months, I’d been wanting to write and perform a piece about my dad’s funeral, but I’d been sitting on it out of fear. Out of embarrassment. Out of whole bunch of unresolved trauma.

Anyway, with a lot of help from my friend, Gary Rudoren; my wife, Lauren; and my group therapy, I finally put it up at Louder Than a Mom, one of my favorite storytelling nights in Chicago. And it killed. I am tough critic of my own work, and even I thought it killed. I was so proud of it. I had a performance high for a week. I didn’t get paid, but that’s not why I did it. I did it to try out new material. I did it because it builds my confidence. I did it because it was an investment in myself.

And that creative investment really paid off, because the following week I had six on- camera auditions for parts in TV shows and commercials. Six! Then out of nowhere, my agent e-mailed me asking if I was available to shoot a commercial on Tuesday. “Of course, yes, I am available,” I wrote back. This was a commercial that I hadn’t even auditioned for! And guess what? I got it off an old headshot.

Was all of this just a coincidence, or was it directly related to me putting up my piece about my dad’s funeral?

Lauren kept saying it was “dumb luck” that I got the commercial. I don’t see it that way.

I have seen this happen time and time again — when I put effort into something that fills me up creatively and let go of “trying” to make money, the money comes. The problem is I keep forgetting it. I keep losing faith because I am too busy trying to control or predict the outcome.

I had put myself out there with my piece and then I showed up to all those auditions —some of them I even showed up to early — and the Universe took me seriously because I took myself seriously. Even if it was only for two weeks, it was working.

Of course this is easy to say in hindsight. It’s totally different when you are in the thick of it, schlepping back and forth from auditions and getting frustrated trying to figure out why you are not getting cast.

As you know, I have many talents, and telling stories is just one of them. It’s the one I struggle the hardest with because it’s the one where I am the most vulnerable, but it is also the one right now that is bringing me the most rewards, even if I cannot always see them immediately.

Want the Universe to open things up for you? Focus on your art in Jimmy’s next Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, happening Dec. 30. Only $79 if you register by Dec. 14!

196: Kelsie Huff

Kelsie Huff is one of Chicago’s hottest comedians. She has studied at iO Chicago and Second City and she teaches the popular Feminine Comique, which is a stand-up class geared towards woman. Jimmy talked to her at this year’s Chicago Women’s Funny Festival about how she uses improv in her stand-up, how to make the transition from storytelling to stand-up, and how she has been able to transform pain into comedy.