Improv 250: Long Stories Are Just A Series of Short Stories

It can be daunting complete something large. (long form improv, a novel, heck even a short improv)

Like the saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time.

With larger projects consider each small moment a small story in and of itself.

The basic plot of any story I can think of is this: There is some sort of discontentment, let’s work on fixing that. That’s the story. It also covers pretty much any action people do moment to moment.

“He was discontented and tired, so he drank a cup of coffee.”  

Is the same as:

“He felt discontented with his life as a moisture farmer on a distant desert planet so he took off with an old mystic, a couple robots, a space smuggler, and a giant walking carpet beast to save the princess.”

… Pretty much the same story, right? The one about the coffee is pretty good. Could probably add some more details, but the point remains.

Telling big stories is the same as telling small stories. Epics are constructed the same way as going to get coffee. Discontented character wants something, and does things to get it. You can get all Hero’s Journey about it if you want, but I feel like complicating things does just that, complicates things. Complicates until you’ve given yourself enough false justification to not create a story at all.

In improv, don’t think about the whole scene, just tell the story of each moment within the moment.

*Thanks for reading. Please check out my new book The Continuing Adventures of Byron & Bing: Sunset Gold.  You can get it on Amazon, although, honestly I see more profit if you contact me directly: mike.eserkaln@gmail.com

 

Writing Advice E-mail to Dan

I don’t have much reason to believe I know what I’m talking about when it comes to writing. However, almost a year ago now a friend of mine (Dan Van Dellen .. not to name drop or anything) asked me for some advice on writing a novel. I sent him this e-mail. Today, while cleaning out my email inbox (yes, I still have emails older than a year in my inbox. I’ve got one in there that’s going on six years old,… do something!) I found this e-mail exchange.

Since people don’t exchange letters anymore, this writerly advice would just disappear into electrons… and actually probably still will, but posting it here will keep it alive for a little longer anyway.

Oh, and the Ira Glass video I mention IS brilliant, and inspiring… you should watch it too. Here.

Anyway, here it goes:

Dan-

Good to hear from you. Yes, the answer is as simple as you think, just do it. However, there are some bonus tips within that simple statement.
1. While it’s great that you’ve got an outline and notes, don’t feel tied to them. As the story progresses it may change. When you’re doing your first draft don’t worry at all if you stray from your outline… unless you’re OCD, then I have no idea why you’d be asking me for any kind of advice.
2. The first draft is the fun part, so let it be fun. I worked for 2 years on my first draft and it was a lot of fun (some days weren’t, but 90% of the time it was.) Currently I’m at the 2 year mark of the rewrite and it looks like it’s going to be another 3 – 6 months. In other words… the editing and rewriting are the hard part and the actual “work.”
3. Momentum is an amazing thing. I wouldn’t suggest a daily word goal (once again, unless you’re into that sort of thing.) I personally found that when I used a goal of a number of words a day I would tend to ad filler stuff that ended up getting eliminated from the final draft. Be that as it may, it did get me writing. Some sort of goal and rewards system to get the momentum going. That’s the most important part; Momentum. If you get enough of it, you’ll be writing for an hour and won’t even notice the time going by.
4. Definitely write for the first draft for one audience person… you. First draft, fuck everyone else’s opinions. Don’t even bother asking if it’s a good idea. Just do it for yourself. You’ll have plenty of time to try to please everyone else (impossible) in the rewrites.
5. Even if whatever you write absolutely sucks, remember that before you wrote it down it didn’t EXIST IN THE UNIVERSE AT ALL… that’s a fairly amazing idea that often keeps me moving.
If you haven’t seen this Ira Glass thing before, check it out. It’s like 1 1/2 minutes of brilliant help for beginning any art project.
I was going to make a video today discussing this topic, but had some technical problems. Hoping to do one tomorrow. If/when I do, I have you to thank… so, in advance, Thank you.
Let me know how it goes. The other thing I found that helped to no end was to have a fellow adventurer.
Oh, and one huge thing you could do for me, is to share/promote my web-site to anyone and everyone. My marketing is all just word of mouth right now. You’ve got a large mouth… use it.  www.eserkaln.com
Thanks!
Talk to you soon.
Mike
 

250 Improv: React Like a Human

There’s a lot of pressure to “be funny” when doing improv. Especially if you’re performing on a stage, with lights and a paying audience. People paid real money to see some funny, so you’d better be funny. That’s a lot of pressure.

 

Unfortunately, this pressure makes us not act like normal humans. The term we improvisors use is “getting stuck in your head.” Thinking too much. Worrying about what witty thing to say next, or funny face to pull instead of being present in the moment. What you should be doing is; Listening with your eyes and ears. Reacting to your fellow performer like a human.

 

When in doubt, just react like you would in everyday life.

 

Forget there’s an audience. Forget that you want to make funny. Just be REAL. If a girl asks you to dance, do what you’d do in real life (ie. look shocked, stutter/mumble something like “mmoohokey”) Don’t bother trying to figure out the funniest thing to say at the moment. Just do what you would do. It’s both the easiest and most difficult thing to do.
You instinctively know how you’d react in most situations, if you allow yourself to really listen and be there. (pro-tip hint: most of the time the most human reaction is to not say anything.) If you react like you normally would, that means you’re reacting like a human, and you’re performing in front of humans. They LOVE that. They love to see people acting like real people.

 

250 Improv: Suggestions from Fear

I’ve been performing improvisational comedy for more than 25 years. Only recently I’ve noticed something about getting suggestions from an audience.

Here’s the theory; when we’re put on the spot, it’s frightening. Not scary like being attacked by a lion, but there’s the feeling that everyone is looking at you. That you’re suddently the center of attention. Most people don’t like this and the response is fear.

The audience wants to impress us. Individuals want to impress other audience members. This causes further panic in their minds.

When we’re frightened, try to comfort ourselves. We revert to childhood.

We find a time when we were happy, stress-free and didn’t care what others thought of us. Our minds go back there and we answer with what a child say.

Examples:

  1. If we ask for an occupation, we invariably get “Doctor” or “Teacher”  The two occupations that we first encounter as children. It used to baffle me. How many doctors or teachers could be out there in the audience? Then I realized (and I’m amazed it took me so long to realize this) that people weren’t suggesting their own occupations, they were reverting to childhood.
  2. If we ask for a word that starts with a specific letter, we’ll get a word they learned on those flashcards for kids. “A” Apple. “F” Fish. “D” Dog, etc. etc.

It’s interesting the group mindset of an audience. We have hundreds of different people through our door every week and we still get the same suggestions.

 

It was 20 years ago today….

Well, not quite. A little more than 20 years… missed it by a couple weeks. Anyway, way back in February of 1995 a recent graduate of St. Norbert College (that’s me!) had his first full length play produced. The original title was “Dill”. I believe this is also the first full length directing job by one Mr. Matt Sloan. I like to think I gave him his start.

I have so many fond memories of writing this play and getting it on stage;

– I remember starting it in my dorm room with a short idea of someone writing a play without a plot (actually, an even earlier draft was called “Plot”, then I believe it was called “Spice”) with his imaginary friend.

– I remember sitting for hours in another dorm room with Matt Sloan and drawing out and untangling all the plot threads (a gag in the show is that even though he tries to write something with no plot, he ends up writing the most convoluted plot you could imagine…. so convoluted, that I had trouble keeping track myself, so Matt had to help.)

– I remember coming up with the title “Lustful Youth” sitting in my now ex-girlfriend’s parents car on the way north for winter break.

– I remember receiving a couple spice bottles of “Dill” as an opening night present and saying “The next play I write will be called ‘Whiskey and Cash’.”

Oh, the memories go on and on. I could go on for hours…. Oh! I also still have the prop Alien Baby that’s featured in the second act.

Since then this play has been fully rewritten (I actually went through the entire thing and rewrote it by hand, then retyped it in. That’s how thorough the rewrite was. I also changed it from a cast of 9 to a cast of 6.) and retitled to the much more marketable name “Lustful Youth”

This play has been produced a bunch more times. Twice in De Pere and once in British Columbia, Canada. It even had a staged reading in Perth, Australia.

It’s a good read, check it out here: Lustful Youth

Here’s a review:

Dill 20th

 

Things Getting in the Way: Rambling Rant.

Hey there. You know how it’s difficult for you to create something. You know, Art of some kind. How it’s difficult to come up with a concept that’s exciting to you, then to teach yourself the skills of whatever craft you’re working for. Then overcoming the self-doubt that whatever you’re going to create. Then actually doing that thing. Risking criticism from even your best of friends. Yeah, all that is pretty difficult.

So, it’s hard enough. Creating something. Difficult enough just to motivate your own brain to move your own hands.

And, now, for the rant.

Here’s a quick list of roadblocks that stop me on a regular basis.

1. Phone calls (or other interruptions.) I own my own business (I don’t recall seeing those two words “own” and “own” so close together… I had to go look it up to make sure I was using it right… I’ll homophones and misspellings to the list of distractions.)  Anyway, because I’m self-employed and I’ve got a cel phone, customers can reach me 24/7. Sure I can ignore the phone, but there’s always the nagging sensation that the person calling is someone with 25 reservations for an upcoming show, or they want to book us as entertainment for a Caribbean cruise (‘nother hard word to spell) Both of these things aren’t out of the realm of possibility. So, when the phone rings, I stop whatever creative venture I’m working on and answer the phone so that I can continue to make money so I can have the freedom to do the creative thing that I had to stop doing to answer the phone. Sometimes it’s a telemarketer… I don’t hate them. I hate their companies and higher-ups who’ve hired them to do their shitty job. They can go to Hell.

2. Technical problems. The original impetus for this post was my USB ports suddenly not working. After 20 minutes of troubleshooting… they’re still not working. I was supposed to have a picture up of a drawing I made (“Fish Stilts” if you’re interested.) 1/2 an hour ago. But, tech has let me down. That’s on the hardware side (I’m pretty sure.), but there’s also endless things that can go wrong on the software side. Constant upgrades. Old Man Eserkaln can’t keep up with all the new technology. It makes him grumpy and sleepy and not wanting to do creative things.

3. Minor life distractions and responsibilities. I’ve got to pick my kid up from school in 30 minutes. I over-slept this morning because I set my alarm wrong. I was going to record a video in the kitchen today, but my roommate, who’s normally not home at this time of day is, and while I’m not blaming him for living his life, I was hoping for alone time to record the video. (not sure if that sentence is grammatically correct… grammar will be addressed in #4.)

4. Grammar. And spelling.  At this point in this post I’ve stopped 5 times to look up a word I didn’t know how to spell.  Just learn how to spell the words, Mike! I’ve looked these words up multiple times… the lesson does not stick in my head. Vowel problems usually. Also, Grammar. This should be a free flowing idea post, but the Grammar Nazis are out their and their ire is constantly in the back of my mind. Causing me to doubt. To stop the flow.

5. Audience. With all the above frustrations, why bother doing something creative. The images in my mind and the way the scenes play out in my head are so much better than the reality. While I’m not looking for a huge audience. I don’t need “Fame” to validate doing something. I do need *someone*. Some audience. I don’t have a significant-other, so the only audience that I for sure have is my kid, and some of this stuff is too mature for her. I realize that if you’re reading this now, you’re part of my audience. And I love you all, but you are etherial. You come and go as you please.. which is your right. Maybe it’s better to phrase it this way. I currently lack a “Muse.”   I end up being my own Muse, and I’m not a good one to myself.

6. Distractions. You’ve heard of the internet right? Yeah, that thing’ll suck your attention away like *that* (finger-snap)

7. Killjoys. Okay, this was one of the original points of this rant. The other day I posted about an event we had called 24 Hour Theatre Collective. What I didn’t tell you about was the e-mail I got from a group in New York called 24 Hour Plays. Informing me that they created the 24 Hour Theatre format and that we couldn’t use it without their permission and/or paying them royalties. I chose to ignore it because,… well because it just seemed too ludicrous to consider that one group of people own the rights to the concept of doing something within 24 hours. (had to look up ludicrous just now, btw.) Who knows if they have any claim on what they say. (side story; Years ago the Marx Brothers got a letter from saying they couldn’t use the title “A Night in Casablanca” for their movie because of the movie “Casablanca”. Groucho’s response was that the Warner Brothers (producers of “Casablanca”) couldn’t use the term “Brothers” because the Marx Brothers were born before them.) Anyway, I ignored them, we’ll see if anything happens. Like I said in the previous post, we actually do our writing and producing in 19 1/2 hours.

7b. (continued) Killjoys also include people who say something’s been done before. And, people who nitpick your first concept with factual details (I do appreciate those people for the final draft.)  People… they’re the worst.

Add to this, weather, hunger, money troubles, headaches or sickness, random depression, lack of sex, poor diet, lack of exercise, and it’s a minor miracle that anything ever gets produced.

*whew* Thanks for reading, you certainly didn’t have to. I just had to get that off my chest. What sucks the most was that I was riding on a high after the 24 Hour Theatre and was hoping to ride the wave. I should know by know that riding the wave is really really difficult and it’s usually best to let myself crash off of my metaphorical creative surfboard and swim back out after a bit.

 

 

Opinions

One of the best things about being a writer is quoting yourself. If done right, and people recognize it as a some sort of quote but don’t know it was you who originated it, you’ll seem brilliant. You can’t quote it wrong because you wrote it. If anything you just did a quick re-edit of your own work.

I’m not famous enough yet for people to be quoting my works, so if someone recognizes it as a quote that I originally wrote it’s more than likely that that person was involved in the production and probably had the role that said the line. (I’m going with plays and monologues here which is what I’ve written most.) In that case I won’t come across as egotistical. In that case, the person who recognized the quote will feel part of an exclusive club. We all want to be a part of an exclusive club.

Anyway. One of my favorite quotes comes from this little chunk of dialogue from my play “Lustful Youth”.

====

DEB

(Looks around, surprised he’s talking to her.) Me? What do I think?

TONY

You’ve earned 5 seconds to give me your opinion. Bang.

DEB

I’m a little concerned with all the sex and violence.

TONY

Totally wrong.

DEB

Sir, you wanted my opinion.

TONY

Your opinion is wrong.

DEB

Yes sir. Thank you.

====

The line “Your opinion is wrong.” has been cracking me up for 20 years now.

“Lustful Youth” is the first full length play I finished (had a couple of other false starts before this one.) and it’s been produced the most of the plays I’ve written (that might just be a mathematical thing with it being around longest.) It’s been produced in Green Bay three different times, British Columbia, Canada and had a staged reading in Perth, Australia.

Give it a read. Forward it to theatre directors you know. Or just enjoy it for yourself. If you love it, tell others. If you hate it, keep your opinion to yourself… because in that case your opinion is wrong.

 

The Carpet Was Hungry

Here’s another in the series of “Bad Stories for Bad Children”. After you read it, I’ll let you know what the original title was, if you’d like to know. Let me know if I made the right choice.  “The Carpet was Hungry”

I wish there was a way to over-come the crippling loneliness of winter in Wisconsin combined with the solitary occupation of… whatever my occupation is (it’s a bunch of stuff, but it mostly involves me working at home alone, or in a coffee shop), combined with my general social anxiety of talking to people. I guess maybe this is it. Writing stuff for other people to enjoy. I like to hear people react. I like to see people smile at something I created. For this story, it was great fun to see my daughter open her eyes wide in shock at the ending of the story. Really, think about that… they’re just words on a page or screen, just lines and dots but they combined into a meaningful thing and created enough of an image in her head that her face reacted like something real happened.

That, by the way, is the power of writing. This isn’t a claim that my writing is great, it’s serviceable. This is more of a celebration of what writing does. More than movies, television or internet.

Philosophical ramble:  A couple of years back, my daughter was assigned 1/2 an hour of reading every night. She didn’t complain, she likes reading, although being told she HAD to read rubbed her the wrong way. First, no one likes to be told what to do, secondly, she could already read why did she have to keep doing something she’s already learned.

Here’s what I told her. She wasn’t learning how to read, she was learning how to exercise her imagination. That’s what reading is, it’s like going to the gym for your imagination. You read words, your brain converts them into images and emotions and your body reacts how it should. The human imagination is perhaps the most powerful force in the universe. We should all work it out a bunch.

Ramble done…. actually, this whole post has been kind of rambly, but that’s what happens when I’m left to my own devices.

Keep sharing this site with friends, and keep letting me know what you think. I love to hear from all ya’all.

 

USS Bonzo

We used to play a game when I was a kid. This would’ve been when I was 9 – 11 or so.  3rd through 5th grade. We’d play the USS Bonzo after school.  The Bonzo was an imaginary space ship of our creating. It was equal parts inspired by “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”. It’s name came about, I believe, because of our limited knowledge of then President Ronald Reagan. He was in a movie called “Bedtime for Bonzo” featuring the future president acting with a monkey named Bonzo.  I’ll let you fill in your own political jokes here __________

The main three players of the game were myself, Sean Gahagan, and Chris Rivera.  We would later add Pat Maloney to the crew and that’s a little bonus story unto itself.

We’d get together at Chris’s house after school and go to the basement. He had a partially finished basement with a tile floor and a bunch of furniture. There was a large leather easy chair that I would take the cushion off and prop in front for the pilot seat and front control panel. (I was the pilot, by the way.) To the left of me was the navigator and weapons station, Sean was in charge of that. He had a stool and a table on it’s side in front of him. The table on it’s side gave him a four-pronged laser cannon. To my right we lined up a row of dinning room chairs that served as a side of a ship as well as the air-lock and entrance to the cockpit. All along the back wall there were built in cupboards, that I don’t think had much in them because we’d crawl inside to repair the engine or hide when enemies took over the ship.

The over-arching plot was a combo of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”.  Sean and I had built the Bonzo, it was “our” ship, but due to a galactic war of some sort, our ship was pulled into military service and was assigned Chris as our commander.  But he was from the Galactic military and was a rule follower. I always pictured that he was dressed in the crisp red uniforms from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, very professional, whereas Sean and I were dressed as twin Han Solos. (Han Duo?)

Sean and I also had individual “computers” that would help us out, give us answers, but mostly forward the plot of the story. His was named Simon (it was the electronic game “Simon”, you know that plastic circle with four big buttons on it) Mine was called Herbie (it was knock off of the Simon game.  It was basically the same thing, but smaller and rectangle shaped.)

I recall spending hours sitting in the cockpit/leather easy chair a couple of feet away from a wood panel wall.  Staring at the knots in the wood, pretending they were astroids or enemy ships. Often I’d get an alert from Herbie about upcoming dangers.  I’d make a beeping noise and pretend that a paper slip came out with a printout of whatever warning. Sometimes, if I didn’t know what to do or say, I’d print it out and say “oh oh, Sir, read this.” and hand it to Chris or Sean.

The day would usually end with the Bonzo crashing so we could go through the exciting drama of knocking our ship apart.

We had played it a number of times, when our friend Pat Maloney wanted to play with us as well.  I never felt like I was a popular kid in school, or a bully, or anything really.  I seem to recall comparing myself to Charlie Brown in that I was just boring and/or normal. But, when I look back on how we treated Pat, it makes me think that bullies come in all shapes, sizes and methods.

We made him second in command under Chris, so he never really got to do or decide anything. There was a raised cupboard to the side of the Bonzo set-up that you could enter from the bottom. We’d sometimes use it as our escape pod or landing craft to explore planets. What we’d do is constantly assign Pat to go on mission outside the ship in the Pod.

So, basically, we’d lock him in a cupboard by himself and continue to play without him. Every so often he’d give us an update by yelling from inside the cabinet and I think we just ignored him.

I don’t know how long he stayed with the crew. I only recall one day’s worth. I can’t blame him if he did leave.

Sorry Pat.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s a story. I find it entertaining and interesting. There’s more I could, and probably will say about this time of my life (a lot happened around that age.).  But, the original reason I thought of this was using it a story.  I was reflecting on a pile of stuffed animals that my daughter has. We call them “The Crew”, and they’ve all got individual personalities and could potentially go on all sorts of adventures. I was thinking about them and the adventures we could create when the USS Bonzo floated to mind.

I had started writing a story about the Bonzo when I was in college. It would be about us as kids playing this game, but then we grew up to be actual space adventurers. As with most stories (I’ve got notebooks full of false starts) this one is shelved somewhere to be brought to life someday, or not.  Perhaps this is the only form it will be told.

 

 

 

What was the point??

About 3 1/2 years ago a couple things happened simultaneously.  I turned 40 and my girlfriend of 3 years broke up with me.  Guess which one hurt more?

The break-up still haunts me to this day.  Every other previous relationship I’d had either broke up because I did something stupid and/or detrimental, or I had stopped the relationship … usually because I was about to do something stupid and/or detrimental.  This time…. I did nothing wrong!  In fact, I don’t think she ever formally “broke up” with me.  Just put us on a permanent “break”.  Terminology aside, it amounts to the same thing.

So, that sucks, but a lot of things in life do.  What’s been strange to me, however, is this now 3 1/2 year lull.  I’ve been in relationships (dating, married, etc.) since I was 18.  There was a stretch of about a year when I was 20/21 where I was not with anyone by choice.  And, other times a month or two, but always because I didn’t want to have someone with me at the time.

Side note:  Sometimes it’s difficult to say when I was in or out of some relationships as there was some overlap… put that on the list of stupid and/or detrimental things.

So, the combined whammy of: Turning 40, losing a steady relationship for no apparent reason, and being out of the singles scene for 20 years has thrown me for quite a loop.

What has happened to the dating world in the past 20 years?  A lot.  And, I don’t quite know how to navigate it, or if it’s even navigable.  But, I’m getting off the original reason for this post.

What has happened to me.  In the past 3 + years without a woman in my life, I’ve accomplished A LOT of things.  I’ve taught myself piano and performed one man show with said piano, I’ve written a novel, I’ve opened a bar, I’ve created a money making arts program at that same bar, I’ve become a featured performer in a popular YouTube series (Beer and Boardgames, look it up.), I’ve learned to ride a motorcycle, started this web-site where I give away works I’ve created (many in the past 3 years), started painting, I’ve started doing stand-up comedy, and I now run a stand-up comedy club.

It’s a lot of stuff.  Here’s the funny part.  Most of those things I did were a way to make myself more appealing to the lady-folk.  But, they’ve also made me so busy with things that I’ve no time to go seek out said lady-folk.  And, I don’t really know how to seek them out in the first place… or if I did find them, what to do to woo them.

When first heartbroken, the advice/platitude that many people give and get is “You just need some time to learn how to be with yourself.”   I’m pretty sure I learned that after the first year, maybe the first 2 years.  But, now I’ve not only learned to live with/by myself, I’ve gotten used to it.

To the original point (the title of this blog ramble.)  What was the point?

Some things I do distract me from the ever present threat of depression.  And, that’s worked real well.  I’m often too busy to be depressed.  However, as said before, being that busy also makes me too busy to pursue the lady-folk.

I feel like I’ve spent a long time getting a cake baked, decorated, and all lit up with candles, and there’s no one to enjoy the cake with.

I guess I can just eat the cake myself.

 

Whew— that was a lot to get off my chest.  If you read this, thank you, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.  If you didn’t read this far… well, I don’t blame you, but I also wonder how you’re reading this last line?  Are you the kind of person who reads the last page in a mystery novel?  I bet you are, you son-of-a-gun.

This post feels weird and awkward, so I’m not going to promote it like I usually do with other posts.  It’s a deep cut for the hard core eserkaln.com fans out there.   However, if you have found this post, this site and like things on it feel free to subscribe then you’ll be a super fan too.  If I get enough super fans I’ll come up with a collective name for you that you can tattoo on your bicep.

The other thing you can do if you got this far an liked it, is to spread the word.  I’m doing this for free.  Giving away writings for free… as a business plan it makes it difficult to pay for advertising, so I’m relying on you folks who think what I do is worth reading and sharing, to read and share it.  Share this site with someone you love. .. don’t cost you nuthin’.  And feel free to comment.  I love hearing from you and enjoy talking with fans.   Thanks!