It Became More than That…

I first signed up for a Held2gether improv class to do something terrifying. I wanted to find a sort of rush that both scares the sh** out of me and also keeps me coming back for more. After my very first Level 1 class with Instructor Kendra, I realized that I had found the rush, only it wasn’t one of fear, but of fun! The kind of fun you didn’t think you were allowed to have as an adult. Being as silly and weird and goofy as possible in front of others, instead of proper and professional and safe. It was exactly what I was looking for – a place to escape the monotony. 

Our one homework assignment for that first class was to go see a Held2gether show. The first show I saw was a Hot Java show that just so happened to be the 5-year anniversary show for the troupe. There was a huuuge audience. The troupe obviously put on an amazing and inspiring performance, but then the Hot Java owner, Ken, came out with a big ol’ cake. Speeches were given byKenand by Darren through happy tears of gratitude and love for the past 5 years of bringing all of these people together. I saw that this was more than just some fun class. It was a community.

Throughout the years to follow I took all the classes I could and then repeated them all again and again! I wasn’t about to let the fun end just because there’s no Level 4 or 5 class! Through this process I was able to meet just about every single member of this community. And let me tell you… that is one amazing and diverse group of absolute weirdos! Then, one of those random Friday or Saturday evenings, I was walking along that Bixby Knolls sidewalk. I headed through those automatic sliding doors and through that looong Expo room that’s so big and dark and empty that you’re constantly second guessing yourself –  “wait, the show is tonight, right?” I slipped through those unassuming double doors in the back, into a room absolutely packed full of familiar faces eager to give everyone who walks through the biggest hug they’ve ever given, I realized that the word “community” no longer fit. This was a family. A home away from home. 

And then COVID-19 hit. We were all stuck inside hiding from each other and the world, except for the quick run to a grocery store with a mask on our face and a glimmer of hope in our eye – hope that just this once, there might still be a pack of toilet paper waiting for us on the shelf. The lockdown affected everyone differently, but not that differently. Anxiety, depression, anger… it felt like we were going through those fabled 5 stages of grief at the loss of our old lives; the loss of the world we knew just yesterday; the loss of the world with all of our old hopes and dreams and goals. Everyone had to find a way to reset. 

And reset we did! Held2gether quickly and seamlessly pivoted to the online sketch series – HeldApart. Suddenly I had new things going on every day. I had to quickly learn lighting, camera angles, “acting”, writing, editing, and directing for isolatedly filmed sketches. My mind was focused on creating for the next episode rather than the isolation and impending doom of the pandemic. Being in the YouTube chat room while watching each episode feels just like walking into that room in the back of the expo. The whole family is there! Giving each other the biggest virtual hug we can. Held2gether truly is improv for life, and in the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Life, uh… finds a way…” 

RAMBLINGS OF A HUMBLE NERD

As a human being of the nerd persuasion, I sometimes don’t know what is and isn’t a reference I can throw into an improv scene.  Thanks to superhero movies, the widespread acceptance of video games, and TV shows like “Game of Thrones”, nerdy knowledge is more accepted than ever and it might seem like I should be fine being Spock and saying “Live long and prosper,” in a scene.  And while this is true to a certain extent, I still sometimes grapple with the line between the colloquially accepted Batman reference and the super obscure Moon Knight one.  

And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I can be caught clueless when it comes to most contemporary pop culture.  More than once in a scene, I’ve been staring down the barrel of having to be a musician or movie star that I only have the most fleeting of ideas at who they might be.  

So why are you bringing all this up you may ask? Well, you probably didn’t ask that, you’re probably just reading this like a normal person.  I’m sorry for being presumptive.  But I bring this up because it has come to my attention that I’m not alone in this.  Maybe not specifically the nerd culture stuff, but that we’re all individuals and have our own separate interests that may or may not overlap.  And that’s okay.  

No one can know everything…or at least, I’m pretty sure that no one knows everything.  But we do the next best thing.  We cobble together what we can out of context clues and vague memories and run with it.  By “Yes and-ing” each other and staying in the scene, we can continue, no matter what curveballs are thrown our way.  And for audience members who do know, they’re just happy the reference is there.  Are we gonna mangle it?  Probably.  But is it gonna be entertaining?  Well that’s a solid maybe!!  

And if you’ve ever been to an improv show where I was in the audience, you’ve heard me in the audience yell out “Mad Max Thunderdome” or “Jedi and apprentice” because I want to mix it up.  How many times have we heard “siblings” for a relationship?  Or a “kitchen” for a location?  If we shout out the crazy things we would normally keep to ourselves because they’re too “weird” we could explore a whole new side to our improv.  

I guess what I’m saying is, go for it.  And I need to internalize this more myself, to be honest.  Depending on the suggestion (especially with time periods when I think about it) I sometimes use my ignorance as an excuse and become afraid to add information.  But when I shout out “Klingon Blood Brothers” as a relationship at a show, I don’t need the players to know about bat’leths and birds-of-prey.  In fact it’s probably more entertaining if they have no idea about Klingon culture and focus on what is going on with these Blood Brothers as opposed to if I got the suggestion and exposited about the Sword of Kahless and its significance in DS9.

Now that I think about it, how often have I been given a time period, and the first thing I did was try to make as many timely references as I could rather than establishing the things that matter to the scene.  Maybe I need to stop worrying about what I don’t know, and live in the scene that’s in front of me.

Well dear reader, thank you for listening to the ramblings of this humble nerd.  Just by being there as a sounding board, I’ve gained some insights on myself, and for that, I thank you.

Are We There Yet?

Are we there yet?  Imagine your 6 year old self in the back seat of the car.  Now whine it to your parents.  “Are we there yet?”  Admit it, as grown adults we seem to be whining those words, if not out loud, at least in our heads, as we cope with our pandemic lives.  

The toll COVID19 has taken can’t be understated.  People of all ages, working and interacting face to face, shoulder to shoulder with others in the community- From teachers to waiters- Sales people and salon workers-  Shaking hands, getting and giving high fives and hugs- Sitting close at the table with family and friends.  We really did all that.  Now we don’t.  Now life events from Weddings to Funerals take place on Zoom.  It’s surreal on a good day and unbearable at its worst.  

Those of us who participate in live performance have had to pivot. There was no other option.  For theatre artists, musicians, stand-ups, club owners, profit and non-profit theatres –and anyone who makes their living in the world of performing arts- well, it continues to devastate.

We at Held2Gether are managing to hold together.  With the leadership of Darren Held and Richard Martinez we did even more.  We pivoted and got back to work.  We became “Held Apart”, producing digital content and streaming for the community with a variety of shows.  Classes came back.  Zoom of course.  But we plugged in and kept moving.  The irony is now that we are Held-Apart, we couldn’t be held more together.  Working this way is not what we signed up for, but honestly, it’s been wonderfully gratifying.  Making the effort to connect with each other, troupe members and extended community, has been a ball.  Creating our online content- improvising, sketch-writing, jamming, meeting to play games, to share strength, to be vulnerable- it’s been a comfort and a joy.  

Someday, whenever that is, we’ll be back in that dusty little theatre with the broken chairs and the sub-standard air conditioning.   We’ll schlep the cans of soda, the beer and wine.  We’ll set up the bar and put out the tip jar.  The audience will schmooze while the troupe pretends to warm up backstage.  Darren will welcome everyone.  The lights will go down and then come back up to reveal a group of people doing what they do best-  breathing on and listening to each other.  And it will be grand.

No, kids in the backseat.  We’re not there yet.  But we will be.  Until then, keep creating anyway you know how.