Improv 101 — Being Somebody Else

Every year, when I meet the new class of high school kids I teach improv to, I always give them a lecture. Most times I’m teaching it’s a gauntlet of “what game is he teaching us this week”, but the first week is always different, because I mostly just talk. About me. You might think that’s asinine or narcissistic, and well, maybe it is, but I think my story with improv is important.

I was always the introverted kid in class. Okay, I am the introverted kid in class, but in high school it was even worse. I was so bad I would be reading fantasy novels in my theatre class any chance I could, as long as the teacher wasn’t talking. And yeah, I got my book taken away by multiple teachers over my high school career. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly fast friends with anyone I met.

But then my soon-to-be improv coach started coming into the class as a guest teacher. He’d teach imrpov games just like on Whose Line is it Anyway?, and I loved when he came because then we’d get to play improv. You’d think the story ends there right? I jump on stage, come out of my shell through improv, then I started teaching, right?

Well, no. It took a lot more work than that. I wouldn’t even go on stage to play games when he asked. I just liked that he was there because I enjoyed watching improv, not because I wanted to do it myself. Me? An actor? Yeah, okay buddy.

A few months go by, and he eventually states that he’s recruiting students for an improv team. Nothing school related, but we would be joining a non-profit that helps high school kids perform on stages (most often by singing, but well, that part of the story isn’t really important). Against my better judgment, I signed up. I could watch more improv that way, at least.

And so, Kollin the audience member was forced to become Kollin the improviser. I’m not going to pretend I was the best on the team, (in fact I would argue against it), but my best moments tended to last the longest in our minds.

After a few years of our improv team doing great and going strong, old faces leaving and new faces joining, our coach told us he was moving. We had two options: hold our own or quit while we were ahead. We made the mistake of trying to hold our own. The only people that were left were just out of high school, after all, and neither of us had the resources nor the charisma to lead a team of teenagers.

But, I did accept the mantle of improv coach. And so Kollin the improviser became Kollin the teacher. Freshly graduated, I started joining my coach as he went into the high school to teach, and when he did move, soon it was just me.

A few years of that and here we are. An introverted Kollin standing on stage talking to a bunch of high school freshmen about what improv is. This is only the first half of the lecture, but I think it implies a lot about what improv can be. Yes, I’m still the introverted guy who won’t speak to a stranger unless spoken to. But through improv I’ve gained the ability to don a mask. The mask of who Kollin would be if he was extroverted. I wear it well. It suits me, in a way, and though I can’t wear it for long, people are often surprised when I tell them I’m introverted. I’m still working on being able to pull out that mask in non-teaching environments, but it’s the only time that version of me is really comfortable.

Improv really helped me find myself. For some people, it takes them out of their shell and they blossom into an entirely new creature. Sometimes it’s just a confidence shift. I think I might of changed the least of all the people from my improv team, but the new skills of being able to pretend I’m slightly different versions of Kollin would make people think I’ve changed a lot.

Improv changes you, but it’s always positive. I’ve never seen anyone negatively impacted by the experience, and though I’ve certainly seen people so embarrassed they’ve cried, they really did learn a lot and had some profound personality growth because of it. Improv is one of those things that I think everybody should try for a while. Even if it’s just a simple college class later in life.

Me — Outer Perspective

Lately I’ve been giving thought to the perception I give off to people. This isn’t abnormal, as I’m constantly looking for ways to improve myself, but this time it’s a bit different, because I’ve been thinking specifically about how people perceive me as well as how they feel when they’re around me.

I’ve always considered myself a nice person. I think most everybody does. But I would also be the first to admit that I can be a bit egotistical to the point of being annoying. Sometimes I don’t even see it, and that’s the thing I hate most about myself. I’ve been told I’m so self confident I’m intimidating to talk to, and that’s the opposite of what I want.

It’s hard to change aspects of your personality that you can’t readily perceive, but what I’m trying to do is frame things in terms of how somebody might feel based on their being around me. I can compliment somebody all I want, but it won’t mean anything if they feel inadequate. And believe me, I do know what that sentence sounded like, I’m just not going to spend time trying to rephrase it.

Ideally, I want to people to be totally comfortable around me, tell me when they’re upset, and not have to worry about what I think of them. I want to be somebody that’s confident enough in themselves that people can look to for advice or solidity. When we part ways, I want that person to feel better about themselves than they did before.

These thoughts come in conjunction with a few things I’ve seen on Reddit in addition to the overall theme of the current Critical Role campaign. Leaving things better than when you found them is a noble legacy to pursue, I think.

Also along these lines, (and a quote from Critical Role): “People aren’t good or bad, they’re just people.” While I don’t wholly agree with that statement, I would say one thing in favor of it. I think a lot of us like the people we surround ourselves with simply because we’re social creatures and people are often nice to those around them by default. The people in our lives aren’t really special, the only meaning we attach to them is because they were there. If I had less siblings, my life wouldn’t be better or worse, it would just be different. With that logic, I can’t honestly say whether my life was made better having had them around me, because there’s no way to know.

That said, I’d like to be different. When I’m gone, I want people to think about the lives my presence had enabled them to have. I want them to feel like my being there made a positive impact on their lives. If I did die today, I bet people would say that, but I wouldn’t be so ready to say it’d be a true statement. So whatever my actions, however I pursue my own happiness, I hope I can bring others with me on my way there, that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise.

D&D — Dungeons & Dragons as Escapism

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while now. Technically, at least eight years, but I’ve only been serious about the hobby for the last two or so. I would attribute two things to this. The first is Critical Role, which I think is self-explanatory. If you play D&D you probably know what that is. The second was a surprising amount of interest when I offhandedly commented the possibility of running a campaign with my improv friends. Those two things put together suddenly made D&D a much bigger part of my life, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the untapped potential the game had for me.

Before I got serious, D&D was a hobby; an incredibly complex board game in which you made your character and then cast the spells you picked out on the monsters the DM picked out. But then I realized that it didn’t have to be simply a video game. It could be a stage. It isn’t just about numbers and statistics and jokes. It could be a place to become somebody new and then behave as they do. You work in a headspace not your own in a world so different from the one you live. It isn’t the natural 1s or 20s that interest me anymore, it’s the choices the players make at the table because of a world we all created together.

I had a dream recently where I ran down a steep hill and turned into a bird, gaining speed as I swooped down and feeling the air press against my wings as I soared upwards and over everything else. I have never flown in any of my dreams. The closest I’ve gotten was jumping like The Hulk or being thrown from point A to B. But the feeling of flying was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I am under no illusions: it is because my current D&D character is a druid that can shapeshift.

I don’t play to win anymore. In fact, the concept of “winning” D&D seems silly to me. Even if you and your friends are playing through a story that has a definitive beginning and ending, you can’t really “win” in the same way you don’t “win” when watching your favorite movie. It’s just an experience.

So nowadays, when I make decisions in this imaginary world, I don’t think “what is the optimal play”. I don’t even think “what is the optimal play given the information my character has”. Instead, I think “what would Taldarrin do in this circumstance?” For me, I get the most out of the experience by making the situation as believable as possible.

For example, at level 2, Circle of the Moon druids are basically the most powerful class in the game. Among other things, they can turn into a brown bear, which could probably fight off 3 other level 2 characters at the same time. Taldarrin has only ever turned into a brown bear once, and this was for intimidation, not power. He used to turn into a giant spider a lot, but every time he has, he’s rolled very poorly. So canonically, Taldarrin simply does not understand how to accommodate for all those eyes and legs, and thus doesn’t turn into that anymore. I think that makes for much better story telling than “when we fight I always turn into a bear, and if I roll badly it’s just a bad day. I’ll turn into a bear tomorrow”.

I don’t begrudge other playstyles. D&D is amazingly versatile, and any way anyone likes to play is certainly valid. I’m merely stating that I got a lot more out of it when I moved it from “video game” to “acting” in my head. I think all of us like being somebody else every once in a while, and Dungeons & Dragons is a great way to do that.

Me — Family Dynamic

My family, like everyone else’s, is unique. I’m the youngest of six, and I’m very lucky in that, for the most part, we’ve all always gotten along. (Childhood was a different story, but once I was around 10, arguments over silly things like who gets the computer and whatnot stopped happening.) Basically, fights were very rarely ever constructed on a personal level. Especially today, things we argue about are both lighthearted and either opinion based or circumstantial (such as how X was “back then”). I would consider my brothers some of my best friends simply because they’re the people I spend the majority of my free time with, if I’m spending it with anybody. We’re a gaming team, and one day we may actually end up producing games as well as playing them. Who knows.

So generally speaking my family is pretty close. But I think that came with a cost, because we’re all very private people, and we keep to ourselves much more than other people, at least for each other. I don’t mean to imply that getting along and keeping personal stuff private are two mutually exclusive things, or that they are inversely related, but it does seem to be the case with my family in particular, and I do think there is some sort of correlation. We’re just not open with each other.

I think this is pretty much why when I make strong friendships (which happens rarely), I’m very open and very personal within a month. I like to get to the “where do you want to live when you grow up and why”s, the “what sort of traits do you look for in a long term partner”s, and the “what would you want to change about your childhoods” as fast as possible. Part of that is probably because I want to share my own answers to those questions, but the concept of having a conversation like that with my siblings is… actually very weird to me. Plus, I use those deep questions as a means of getting to know the other person, so I wouldn’t really need to know the answer to those questions with my family, because I know them at a more subconscious level.

For perspective, I’ve written things on this blog I have never told my family. It’s not that I want to keep it from them—posting sensitive information on the internet would be an interesting method of keeping a secret, after all—just that having any level of personal conversation with my family would by its very nature be forced and inorganic.

I’ve written before about in high school I fell in love with a girl that never had any feelings towards me, and we were good friends for five years. I’m sure you can imagine how many situations and stories that circumstance would foster. But I don’t have any idea how much my siblings know about it, or even my parents, because the only time I would ever share anything would be on a need-to-know basis in regards to venting and my own personal sanity, which over the course of those five years probably only happened two or three times. And I’m the vocal one.

I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing. For me personally, I think I handle myself relatively well, so I rarely need somebody to talk to. But it does leave this gap in what should really be basic knowledge. It’s as though I’ve been practicing fetching water from a well a mile away when there’s one a hundred feet away. I’ve been doing it the long way for so long that the knowledge of the closer well doesn’t even bother me.

Note: That analogy is awful because it implies that I’m being illogical and inefficient, which is very much not me. However, I will do the efficient thing in this circumstance and not waste time thinking of a better one. So there.

 

Life — August ’17 Update Pt. 2: What’s New

Last week I discussed the changes I was making to my blog schedule, which are all already in place. So this week, I’ll just talk about everything else I usually put in an monthly update post.

Monthly Update Topic Order: blog, writing plans, video games, reading/listening, school, and other things. (Though I’ll skip the blog part, since I already went over that last week.)

My writing plans are fairly straightforward for the time being. My fiction output is purely focused on the Spear Gate novel I’ve been working on these past few months, and I don’t plan on that changing anytime soon. Of course, I’ve historically gotten bored with long term projects that get too long, and this one is nearing that point, but I’ve gotten no warning signs yet. It seems the tactic of “Only plan as far ahead as the next chapter” is keeping me pretty interested in the story so far, so let’s hope that doesn’t change.

As far as video games go, I haven’t been doing that a whole lot lately. My computer died a few weeks ago, and my laptop isn’t good enough to handle anything like that, so my gaming has been almost exclusive to Dragon Quest Heroes II, of which I already have over 70 hours of. It still doesn’t seem like much in comparison to how much time I’ve put into Dragon Quest VIII, so maybe the figure I told people (about ~300 hours) is a bit larger than I remember it being. But in any case, by this time next month I may or may not be back to my regular games. We’ll see.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and listening to media lately. I’m about three fifths of the way finished with Two Towers (and I hope to be done by August 14th), but mostly I’ve been listening to a good amount of Running the Game, a YouTube series on being a better dungeon master, and Critical Role, which I’ve already talked about a lot. It’s the D&D weekly stream of the adventures of Vox Machina. I’m still about seventy episodes (and therefore 200+ hours) behind, but maybe some day I’ll be caught up… I will say though, the original drive for watching Critical Role stemmed from me wanting to watch and indirectly experience more D&D. Now, because of some interesting story bits, I’m watching it for the narrative, because it’s actually getting very exciting. I just wish there was a faster way to get through it!

The fall semester hasn’t quite started yet, but my classes are all set up and taken care of. This time around I’m taking two theatre classes (which will be my first in years) and I’m overall taking more hours in one semester than I ever have before. This means that I will, once again, be busy (in some form) every single day of the week. I’m not excited about that, but it is what it is. I just hope I don’t hate all my classes. I’ll settle for only hating three of them.

In other news, the old leader of my writer’s group has moved away, leaving me in charge of the group. It doesn’t actually add much responsibility to my plate as far as what’s going on in the writer’s group, but I do treat it very seriously. If nothing else, it’s an acknowledgment of both my writing ability and my leadership skills that I was the one entrusted with it, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like having people listen to my direction.

And lastly, I’ve decided to make some small changes to my outward appearance. As a consequence to my closed off personality, I historically don’t make friends. But this school semester I plan on changing that and reinforcing what I call the “Charismatic Introvert™”. A lot of people that don’t know me very well are surprised to find out that I’m a very introverted person, probably because I’m not socially inept like the stereotypical introvert is. So I’m going to make a conscious effort to be more amiable and introduce myself to people, and hopefully I can find people I share things in common with.

That’s all for this month. I’m excited to see where I stand come September. It’s my favorite month (for more reasons than just “It’s my birth month”), but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Review — My Biggest Problem (400)

Instead of doing a conventional Review post, I thought I would make the Daily Dose’s 400th post special by talking about me and where I’m at. “Isn’t that a Me/Life post?” you ask. “And shouldn’t you talk about this next Monday where the May Update should be?” These are both fair questions, but I’ll actually be reviewing myself today. My personality. Looking at my life, and especially where I can improve. It’s good to reflect every once in a while.

First things first, I’ve gone through a lot of personal growth since I started this blog in February. And it’s all amounted to me being confident enough for me to introduce myself to people as a writer and not feel like I’m just pretending. It’s only a matter of time before I publish now, and that is really important. But I’ve talked about my growth there before.

Six years ago, I was an introverted elitist. I didn’t talk to anyone because I assumed strangers were beneath me. In fact, everyone was beneath me to a certain extent. Talking to them would just be a waste of time. But then improv came along and I came out of my shell. I’m still introverted, still a little narcissistic, (but I try to express that part in simple confidence these days). I teach high school kids. Being in public and socializing with people I don’t know well takes energy, but I can do it.

But I’ve pretty much spent my entire adult life lonely. I’ve spoken about this vaguely and briefly before, but when I’m talking to my few friends about this, I often describe it as the one source of failure and frustration in my life. Safety is a privilege I’ve always had, success is (in my eyes) inevitable, and the only thing I’m truly lacking is a feeling of attachment. If anything, I should be thankful that it’s the only real problem in my life, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s prohibiting me from being truly happy with where I am right now. It’s a bit difficult to describe, really. I’ve boiled it down to this: I want to feel like people are personally invested in my life. I know friends and family care about me, but I don’t really feel as though anybody is genuinely interested in anything I’ve done or tried, and this feeling isn’t exclusive to my writing.

Yes, you could just say I’m looking for a significant other. That’s bound to curb the loneliness away, but really, I just don’t have any close friends at all. I have friends I’ve known for a long time, and friends I know I can talk about anything with, but none I really spend quality time with to make a true bond. I don’t feel as though I would have lost anything if I packed my things and moved across the country without telling anyone. I doubt many people would even notice, to be honest.

This is the part of me that needs the most work. I’ve talked to a therapist about this, and the conclusion we’ve come to is simply to talk to strangers even when I don’t want to. In fact, I’ve gotten all sorts of advice on “how to make friends”, but knowing what to do and taking action are two different things. I’m afraid of becoming friends with somebody I don’t actually like and forming social obligations, really. I have gone out and done social activities I wouldn’t normally do in order to fix this problem, but it still feels fake.

And unfortunately, I think all of this is starting to affect my writing. The number of times I have gone to bed at a reasonable hour in the last two weeks is zero, mostly because I’ve stayed up late doing writing that should have already been done (this post included). The worst part is, even the writing I do get done is meaningless. I simply don’t have anything to say these days. I have nothing to teach with the Learning! Posts, and nothing to new to talk about in the Review posts. The only thing I can talk about is me, and all it amounts to is whatever this sounds like, which I assume is pointless whining.

So, I imagine this means I need a break. It’ll be the first one since November. Two weeks every six months isn’t bad, and it will also give me time to breathe as I focus on schoolwork as well as some (much needed) free time. My constant fear of failure is driving me to make irrational decisions, putting production and writing over personal health, and it’s time I recognize that and put a stop to it.

All that said, this is the last post for a while. Two weeks, I imagine, but it could be longer, so I make no promises. But exciting news is on the way. Until next time.

Life — Criticism

One thing that I’ve noticed lately is that society has very specific (although unstated) rules as to how things are judged. These rules seem arbitrary, and could admittedly derive as a direct result of my experience, but my understanding tells me otherwise.

When somebody performs, through singing, acting, or playing music, their actions are to be met with unquestionable praise. Now, the amount of resulting praise is obviously quite variable, but even if somebody doesn’t like an orchestral performance, an audience is only allowed to give one vote, so the only opinion you’re expected to provide is the same one as the rest of the audience, really. If I go to a play or a choir show, society doesn’t demand that I tell everybody that I loved the show, but typically I’m expected to say it was at least “Really good!”

If there are bad things that I typically didn’t like, and I’m talking to somebody about it (especially one of the people that performed), most often the blame will be put on somebody. One person didn’t learn their lines, or one group of people didn’t prepare for that specific part. In this circumstance, the problems are always referred to in the third person, because you’ll never be allowed to tell a specific person what they did wrong in a performance.

This is a little aggravating for two reasons. As an instructor that works in a high school theatre program, I’m sort of expected to go to school plays. Any time I talk about a specific play afterwards I feel obligated to point out how amazing it was and specific things that I like about it. Now, I know why this is–small talk is usually very positive, and when it’s negative there is an “antagonist” in that conversation, even if the bad guy is mathematics in general.

But here’s where my frustration with this lies. By virtue of what is happening, everything that’s happening is positive. Now, I won’t pretend that many blood, sweat, and tears are shed for virtually every performance that you go see (most of those things not positive), but the result of such effort is. But when it comes to something that is obviously more subjective, such as writing, drawing, painting, or anything that involves art, games, etc., negativity becomes a far more common and acceptable result. It’s okay to criticize somebody’s creative work because feedback is important and they should always try to improve. So after spending hours upon hours on end making this thing, you still risk harsh criticism, whereas with something like a performance, it isn’t okay to say bad things about it.

Now, I’m not saying the life of an actor is so much easier than the life of an author or anything ludicrous like that. In fact, my personal experience as a writer directly contradicts what I’ve heard being a writer is like, because I’ve gotten very, very few “bad reviews”.

My sole point is that, living in Southern California, ‘The Land of Famous Wannabes’, certain professions are more disheartening than others purely because of societal norms. I’m not arguing that things should be changed, mind you. I’m not advocating for positivity to be stripped from every day customs–there’s a very good reason it’s there. What I am saying is that honest, constructive feedback should be more available to everyone. All parties I’ve mentioned here could benefit from that, since performers could better understand where they can improve and creators can have a more consistent base of encouragement.