Posts Tagged "creative process"

My biggest influence caught me by surprise

When I’m a little kid I just want to tell funny stories like my Uncle Andy. He’s the one in the middle of the picture — below my mom and above Aunt Mika — with his tongue out.

You know someone like him. The whole space brightens when he walks in the room and everybody laughs before he leaves, whatever the situation.

Eighteen years ago at the wake for his mom, my Baba, we’re all shell shocked, the room is silent. Baba was a force of nature, a crazy, super-talented artist — emphasis on crazy — and an academic with a work ethic no one should try to live up to (I won’t bore you with the details of the 11-volume encyclopedic history of Ukrainian music she assembled). So much talent, so much ability. And wonderfully incompetent in the role of doting mother and grandmother.

But she tried hard.

Andy breaks the silence at her wake by saying, “When I quit drinking, Ma comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve been talking to Mika and she explained how important this is for you, and I want to help. So I’m going to quit drinking too.’ But Ma, I says. You don’t drink. And she says, ‘I was going to quit coffee, but that would be too difficult.’”

Andy brought Baba back into the room for me. For all of us, because we all had a story like that about her, and somewhere under the sadness we understood that she’d always be with us. Laughter heals. Andy never said that but he knew it to his core.

The day Andy dies, about a month ago, my cousin Alana and I are sitting at the kitchen table in the Toronto house where my grandparents lived, having tea and talking. This is what my family does. My Baba and Dido sat at this table having tea and talking. My mom, Alana’s mom (my Aunt Mika), and our Uncle Andy sat around this table having tea and talking. We’ve seen this our whole lives and now it’s our turn.

Sitting there with Alana, I have a revelation but don’t want to say it out loud because it feels a little self-centered. Then she says it so I don’t have to: “You and Andy have a lot in common.”

How is it just occurring to me that my Uncle Andy is my biggest influence?

I write my first song because of Andy. This is in Atlanta where my parents live. Andy’s at Oglethorpe University, I’m four, my sister Krissi’s an infant. Andy’s babysitting us. I’ve got the kitchen sink full to the top with water, soap bubbles, and my boat collection, and I’m flooding every corner of the room. Krissi is busy flooding also — diaper after diaper after diaper.

Sorry Krissi.

When my mom calls to check on us, Andy says, “Well, Dean wants to join the Navy, and this kid keeps shitting and shitting and shitting.”

At which point, Andy hears four-year-old Dean in the kitchen start singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” and keep singing it til the parents get home.

I still think it’s the best song I’ve ever written, and it’s got Andy all over it.

Maybe two or three years later, I discover the stereo in the dining room at my grandparents’ house. You remember those old stereo cabinets? Big wooden furniture, you slide the door to the right, you’ve got a stereo, to the left, the record collection? Andy’s record collection. 

I’m sitting at the dining room table, headphones on, stack of records in front of me, and Andy starts sorting through what I’ve missed. He hands me Taj Mahal’s Live at Fillmore East record, The Real Thing.

“You gotta listen to this one,” he says. “He’s got four tubas in his band.”

Now, six-year-old Dean is thinking the exact same thing you are: “Does anybody need to hear a band with four tubas?”

But if six year olds are experts at anything, it’s at tuning in to people’s energy, and you can’t look away from the electricity coming off Andy when he talks about music. There was no one I trusted more, and the music he played for me was raw and real and human, the type of music that heals in that same way laughter can.

To this day I still listen to The Real Thing. It’s that good. And he kept putting blues records in front of me, and then country, and then jazz. But it’s only now that I hear that early music in every song I write and perform. It’s now that I look back and understand he made that music so much a part of me that when I moved to New York City to go to college, I got cast as the blues singing plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

When I’m nine Andy catches me on the floor of his room reading through his collection of National Lampoons. “Kid, why you keep going through my stuff?” he says, but he can’t stop himself from showing me more, and it’s the same excitement he brings to music.

He hands me the Blues Brothers album Briefcase Full of Blues, and when he’s not explaining who’s in the band and where else I’ve heard them, he’s telling me about Saturday Night Live, and oh, you gotta listen to this Steve Martin record.

Nine-year-old Dean takes all that back to Atlanta and everywhere he goes. I write my first sketch comedy, a live bowling tournament broadcast by Howard Cosell where last year’s champion has a bout of diarrhea that drowns an entire city, performed into my dad’s Dictaphone. Okay that last part was stupid. Dad grounds me and I don’t get to go to Six Flags.

But that doesn’t stop Dean from taking his new love for comedy to fourth grade, which lands him in detention until he graduates from high school. In that time, Dean will only manage three days without some sort of detention or KP duty. 

All thanks to my Uncle Andy.

But within a year of graduating college, I land my first regular humor column in an international magazine, go on to write for publications on five continents, and when I stop doing that, I realize that my ability to write a punch line could pay a lot of bills in advertising.

And in the past two years, I toured a comedy and music show around the US and UK, all that time telling funny stories like my Uncle Andy, playing music that grew out of what he played for me. But I didn’t understand that’s what I was doing.

All those years ago when my dad grounded me for being silly, I understood why. He wanted what was best for me. And thank God my Uncle Andy was there to remind me, “No. This is the good stuff.”

He was always teaching me, always supporting my interests, especially when I worked for him for two summers in his general contracting business. Andy taught me how to build and fix things. One day we’re working on my grandparents’ cottage, screening in the front porch so Baba can get some peace from the mosquitoes, and he’s showing me how to cut molding. You want them just right, so they fit tightly in place and stay there without nails or screws.

“If you’re gonna bother to do something,” he says, “you do it right.”

I hear him say that every time I work on my house, and sometimes I’d call him for help, although I try not to call too often because I don’t want to be that relative. But when Alana and I are sitting at the table at my grandparents’ old house, my Aunt Mika says, “Andy would tell me every time you called. It really meant a lot to him.”

I wish I’d known that. I have so many more things I need to fix.

But he took care of that too, by showing me that the people you love don’t really leave. They’re still in the room, and every time I pick up a tool, or sit at my desk to write my next project, I can hear Andy’s voice and the whole space brightens.

“Let’s do this right.”…

Embracing Suicide Wednesday

(Live on the stage of Theater 3 at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, image by Chris Scott.)

Let me tell you about Suicide Wednesday. As prepared as I was going to Edinburgh Fringe, I did not know about Suicide Wednesday, and it’s important to share what I learned.

Imagine you’ve spent the past two years getting your show ready for the biggest arts festival in the world, a three-and-a-half week run alongside some of the best stage performers on the planet, roughly 4000 shows every day, all competing for attention. You come to a place like this to prove yourself.

And by that first Monday, you have. Yeah, preview audiences were slow. Of course they were, nobody in Edinburgh knows who you are. But by Monday, you’ve got this beast of a festival figured out: a raucous, nearly sold-out crowd and multiple industry people in the seats. At the end of the show, one of those people isn’t just tweeting about you, he’s emailing you about a UK tour. Let’s set a meeting he says, and you email him back immediately.

This wasn’t so hard. Some people just have it and you’re one of the lucky ones. Although it gets in your head a little. A lot. By Monday evening you’re an ADD tornado of whirling joy and ego, burning enough energy to light this town for the run of the festival. But it feels good. This is fun.

You have trouble sleeping Monday night – hard to come down from that – and when you wake up Tuesday, you’re starting to feel what they call Fringe Flu. No time to stay in bed though, you need to get out into the streets and flyer for your now-successful show. So get some LEMSIP, that’ll will help with the cold, and check your email to see what industry guy has to say.

Nothing. No email yet from industry guy. Shake it off, grab your flyers, head out.

But it’s hard pitching your show to people on the street today. All that energy you had yesterday? What goes up must come down, and you realize you’re feeling the onset of depression like an addict coming off a serious bender and looking for his next score, which also describes how people are seeing you right now. You’re not selling them anything in this state, except maybe your need for rehab.

That’s okay. One day of not flyering won’t hurt. At least that’s what you think until you walk out on stage and there are five people in the audience.

So far, today is less good than yesterday. But it feels more than less good. Your emotional swing has it feeling catastrophic. Doesn’t matter, you don’t want another empty house tomorrow, so you take your sickness and depression and flyers back onto the street after your show. But now something different is happening. Everyone you approach is saying the same thing.

“I’m catching the bus home today.”

Fringe’s first audience exodus has begun, and the new people haven’t arrived yet. You check your sales for tomorrow before you go to bed. Two tickets. Note to self: don’t check sales before bed again. You check your email. Still no word from industry guy. Note to self: don’t check email before bed again.

You lie awake and stew in self loathing over Monday’s hubris and today’s inability to recapture yesterday’s brilliance.

You wake up Wednesday quite possibly the most exhausted you’ve ever felt, and you use the term “wake up” loosely since you haven’t slept. Seriously, you can barely lift your legs, this isn’t normal.

But it is. The adrenaline that’s been carrying you since opening six days ago has just run out. What did you expect? You don’t have an infinite supply of the stuff. And to top it off, you make the mistake of checking your sales and your email again, neither of which have changed since last night.

You’ve been ghosted. Twice. By the Fringe audience and by your industry guy. Why did they even show up on Monday? You hate them. Unless they turn up again, of course, in which case, they are totally awesome.

You down more LEMSIP, put on your winter layers and rain jacket – Edinburgh in August – and drag your sick, depressed, exhausted ass out into the drizzle to see if you can find anyone to hear your story today. And the few people on the streets still say the same thing.

“I’m catching the bus home today.”

Before you walk out on stage to perform, you dose on throat spray and hope you can hit the high note in the second song. You walk out, the lights come up. Five people in the seats.

Afterwards you foolishly ask the box office about tomorrow’s sales. Zero, they answer. Zero advance tickets. And you have three more weeks of this.

Suicide. Fucking. Wednesday.

The full weight of Fringe has hit you. Right in your cocky mouth.

Full disclosure, this didn’t happen to you. It happened to me, and the crazy thing is, this is the reason I went to Edinburgh. Sort of. I went to prove myself, to find out if I can hold my own on a stage at a festival with some of the best performers on the planet. To learn if I have it in me to go out there every day and find the audience to fill those seats. To somehow connect myself to 5000 years of theater history and generations of traveling performers who’ve gone somewhere and put on a show.

Proving yourself comes with trials. That’s kind of the point. And while a lot of us ask the question, “Do I have the energy to persevere,” we don’t all get the opportunity to ask it about something we really want. Edinburgh was that opportunity for me.

But when you hit dark moments like Suicide Wednesday, what you want can become clouded. You’re suffering, you’re not having fun, you’re not making money, now you get to find out if this is something you really do want.

Performing at Edinburgh is something every young performer should experience. If you can make it through this moment and still want this, it’s what you should be doing. And if you realize it’s not what you want, there’s no shame in walking away. You’ve discovered something valuable.

The shame is if you walk away because you’re afraid of doing the work. As someone who spent years (okay decades) not doing what he wanted because he was afraid to find out whether he could, this was the moment I finally got to discover the answer.

Do I belong here? Do I have it in me?

And on that Wednesday, sick, exhausted, dejected, by myself in a city I don’t know, I had to decide if I had three more weeks of this. in me This is not a moment that is exclusive to theater. It’s the dark night of the soul. The oldest stories we have talk about this moment in our lives.

I want to tell you that I dug deep, grabbed my flyers, put a smile on my face and went back out into the street. But that didn’t happen for another 20 minutes.

And let me add this: just because you throw a tantrum, email your publicist telling her you’re done, you’re not flyering another day, you’ll still perform but from now on you’re on a theater-going holiday, it doesn’t mean you won’t feel differently when you’ve calmed down. In 20 minutes.

Then you’ll remember the question your mentor asked you: “Aren’t you willing to suffer for something you want?”

Then you’ll make another batch of LEMSIP, fill your thermos, wrap a scarf around your neck, grab a stack of flyers, and discover a deeper source of energy than you knew you had. You’ll go back out into the streets and make a couple dozen people laugh hard enough that they might buy tickets to your show.

There have been other moments like this in my life, where I had to take stock of myself and ask if I had it in me to do the work even when it looked like there was no hope of success. And there are times that I didn’t have it in me. I walked away because it was clear this wasn’t something I wanted.

I feel zero shame about those moments, and those were some of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. But I’ll never be as proud of them as I was of the moment I picked my depressed, sick ass off the floor of my Edinburgh apartment and walked back out into the street with those flyers.

And two days later, my Friday house was nearly full. I have never appreciated a group of people so much in my life, never been so humbled to share my story, and so determined to keep going.

By the time my last week rolled around, just five shows left, I had …