Monday, May 18, 2015

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: The TJ & Dave Book (Energy is Beautiful)




If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

This photo above is that quote that I promised would make
make you jizz yourself in 
The Hardest Easiest Work!

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Writing The TJ & Dave Book (#10): The Hard Work of Juggling Clouds

By Pam Victor

["Writing The TJ & Dave Book" is the series plucked from the journal I kept while writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. You should buy the book here. (I mean, if you want to.) 

I suppose if every part of the process of writing this book was effortless and encrusted with the gold flecks of rubbing elbows with SNL players in private back room bars in Greenwich Village then there would be something lacking, right? You need a little adversity to make it a good story. Some tears. Some rejection to overcome. A whole chunk of worry and self-doubt. In that case, welcome to the rollercoaster of doing the real pedal-to-the-metal work of writing the book with Mr. Pasquesi and Mr. Jagodowski.

How I wish I could have known then what I know now about writing a book with TJ and Dave, what draws them out, what to expect from them as far as interpersonal communication goes, how to get the work I needed without bugging the shit out of them, how to better edit the work once it was on paper, how to write fluidly in three voices, how to make them laugh.

Making David Pasquesi laugh feels like winning an award to me. 

Those laughs were the ups. And there were some downs. To nobody's surprise, the work of writing a book was, well, work. Hard, sometimes terribly frustrating work. Writing a book with two other people is harder still. And writing about how to make art is like juggling clouds. It took
me many moons to become adept at funneling their complex concepts through my brain and onto the page. Eventually, I discovered that I could read over what we'd written, listen to what changes they wanted to make and what they really wanted to say, and after a momentary pause to let the sand settle, I could channel the proper phrasing out my fingertips and onto the screen. (I'm not sure how to put that skill on my resumé.)

Work. Laughter. Rejection. Publishing bullshit. Hard work. Long hours. Juggling clouds. But by August, 2013, it seemed like we were about three-quarters of the way through the book, I think. Maybe a wee be more - it was hard to tell since we didn't know when it was going to be complete. (It's over when the lights go out, right?) 

For the most part, we had settled into meeting once a week for two hours – almost always on a Wednesday, which was their preference because they said it put them in a focused state of mind for their show that night. Then I would spend the next week working full-time on the book, all alone in my home office in Western Massachusetts. Sometimes during our Wednesday meetings, I would interview them as fodder for new chapters, either by meeting all together on Google Docs or meeting through phone conference calls that I would then transcribe before wrangling it all into a semi-cohesive and hopefully coherent chapter. Other times, we would edit existing chapters in the manuscript online while we chatted via a three-way phone call. It was a long spell of productive, often fun work, and always, ALWAYS intellectually stimulating. Those guys are so fucking smart. Between trying to keep up with them, grappling to understand their concepts well enough to write about it, and managing communication skills over the barrier of the virtual world and the thousand-some miles distance, I always hung up from our Wednesday meetings thoroughly exhausted and spent; but nevertheless humming contentedly deep in my improv bones with the pleasure of sharing the minds, humor, and company of TJ and David for a couple hours every week. 

Many Wednesday nights as it neared 11pm central time - which was what time they played in 2013 - I would look at the clock and give a little sigh of longing, sad to not be sitting in the pleasantly beer- and adrenaline-scented iO Cabaret space, waiting with the other expectant audience members for TJ and Dave to take the stage. There is something different about the energy in the room for a TJ & Dave show. More excited chatter than a typical improv show. More nervous energy. More of a feeling of potential greatness hanging in heady swags around the small, tightly packed tables. I know I sound like a total improv-whore when I say this, but Wednesdays at 10:55pm in the iO Cabaret Theatre in 2013 is what the gates of heaven might feel like to me. 

Often, I felt sorry for myself that I wasn't there to enjoy the show that night. But then I'd remember that I had spent two hours in a meeting where Dave tried (often successfully) to make me laugh…while I got one or two successful chuckles out of him, though more often a smile I could hear across the phone lines (which was fine by me too). During one spring Wednesday meeting, he struck exactly the right spot on my funnybone's sweet spot when he started speaking alternately in his own voice and in a high-pitched silly voice, as if he were speaking to a puppet he wore on his hand. I spent most of that meeting in fits of schoolgirl giggles. I know. I know. I'm such an easy and cheap laugh sometimes. I guess you had to be there. But hours later, I was still giggling to myself at David Pasquesi's puppet voice.

I guess given the option of seeing TJ and Dave with the masses and getting my own private show every week, I’d choose …

Wait.

Can I have both?
*

If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Here's one about practicing non-judgment called
The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!"

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.




Scrumptious Improv Quotes: The TJ & Dave Book (The Moment Before Us)




If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Here's one about why TJ and Dave get annoyed with me when
I can them "masters" of improvisation:
Improviser's Mind, Beginner's Mind

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: The TJ & Dave Book (Listen to Your Foot)



If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Or perhaps you'd like to read about the story behind the book in 
Writing The TJ & Dave Book

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Zen of Improv: Extreme Geekiness, Non-Doing, and Clover

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about  the mind-expanding, groovy side of improvisation and other hippy shit. 


This may be the improv-geekiest Zen of Improv piece I have written so far. Though there may be some useful stuff in here for “Normals” (as Susan Messing calls non-improvisers,) this post is pretty flippin' improv-specific because I’m writing about the warm-up game Clover and how it serves as a practice of the most Zen-like skills in discovery-based longform improvisation. If you don’t know or care what discovery-based longform improvisation is, I love you and I respect you and you might like a less improv-dorky Zen of Improv piece, like this one here about how to make sweet love to your fear.

Ok, the Normals are gone, bless their dear hearts and audience-bound butts. Now let me tell you about a moment in class with one of my longtime students.  We’ll call her Lola. (That’s not my student’s real name; it’s my go-to fill-in-the-blank name because of the curvy way it rolls off the tongue and the deep hip sways it takes into the ear.) 

“But sometimes I don’t know what to do next,” Lola confessed recently as we embarked upon some scenework. At first I was flummoxed at Lola’s question because the main focus of our classes has been variations of the “just take the next little step” approach, which I learned while co-writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life with TJ and Dave. How could Lola not know that all she has to do is take the next little step by responding honestly and logically? But, hey, let’s give Lola a break. I realize that exploring improvisation (and life) is a continual re-visiting of the same basic questions over and over from a place of increased experience and awareness. So I looked at Lola for a beat, thinking about what brings her joy, before answering. Clover. Lola loves the warm-up game Clover. You’re in a scene and not sure what to do next? Think Clover, Lola.



Clover is a word association circle exercise in which we come back the original word three times, like cars putt-putting along a highway clover. The group stands in a circle. I ask for a suggestion, “Name a noun.” Let’s say someone responds, “Spinach.” The whole group says in unison, “Spinach.” Then Person 1 word-associates (yes, it’s a verb) off of "spinach" to the person to their right. “Green,” says Person 1 to Person 2. Now Person 2 associates off of "green" only; not off of "spinach," although, obviously, spinach and all words that are said will remain in our consciousness. That part is important: Only associate off the word said previously. So Person 2 hears "green" and wonders, “When I hear ‘green,’ it makes me think of …” and they say whatever pops into their head. Let’s say, Person 2 comes up with “Kermit the Frog,” which is great because it shows that Person 2 was just listening to the word "green" and not thinking about spinach. 

Then maybe Person 3 hears “Kermit the Frog” and says, “Miss Piggy.” Was that what you were thinking too? Good. The word association doesn’t have to be something clever or earth shattering. It’s just what comes into your head at that moment. There are no wrong answers. Your response should be the next logical, natural word that comes to mind. Which doesn’t have to be funny or entertaining or witty.

Though there are no wrong answers, I will say that the less-right answer would be a created joke or a forced return towards the original word. If Person 3 hears “Kermit the Frog” and goes straight to “leafy greens,” that feels forced because the association is not apparent (to me, at least). In fact, when the group finally does return to the word “spinach,” it should be such an obvious next-step association that the whole group says it in unison. It might take a while, but with careful listening we’ll always get back to the original word sooner or later. It usually takes 10-20 people to get there – and we don’t have to get there exactly when we’re back at the start of the circle. It happens when it happens, but, eventually, we will hear the words getting back almost effortlessly towards the reality in which spinach lives.

To follow our example, let’s say we associate around the circle thusly: Spinach -> Green -> Kermit the Frog -> Miss Piggy -> ham -> stage hog -> hook -> alligator -> lake …

Now some folks in the group might start getting bright eyes and little smiles at this point because they’re listening really carefully and foreseeing patterns of association. (Usually, the bright-eyed people are on the other side of the circle from where the word is being associated, and I’ll get into why that may be in a little bit.) They're getting turned on because “lake” could bring us logically and honestly to “algae,” which might get to or towards “spinach” again. (Likewise, earlier, “stage hog” could have lead to “eggs” which could land us more in the reality in which “spinach” might come up again. That's a little early in the game to come back around, but you never know how it's going to go.) The more Clover we play, the more a groupmind starts to develop in which we learn to connect the dots in the same way. 

Eventually, we’ll get back to “spinach” again. And then we’ll cheer madly and set off on a whole other round of associations until we get there again. Spinach -> Popeye -> olive oil -> Italy -> vino …etc., etc. until we get back to “spinach” a third time. 

All of this word-associating is done in an unhurried, easy spirit of effortlessness, where we’re discovering rather than inventing our way back to the original word. It’s a bit of a mind fuck – to get back to the original word without trying to get back to the original word. To me, the most beautiful element of Clover is what I call Skating the Razor’s Edge of Non-Doing. We are allowing ourselves to get back to the original word without engaging in actively doing or trying or striving. Non-Doing is different than not doing. As Chuang Tzu is said to have said, “Non-action does not mean doing nothing and keeping silent. Let everything be allowed to do what it naturally does, so that its nature will be satisfied.” 

Rather than trying to get back to the original word, we’re simply not making effort to get back to the original word. It’s a state of what I like to call “easefulness.” It’s not always easy to get back to the original word, but it should be ease-full. We are simply noticing what is happening already without judgment. We are listening for where the exercise is going naturally, and taking those opportunities to grease the wheels, so to speak, to make it easier to get closer to our original word. Skating the Razor’s Edge of Non-Doing in Clover is that eye-crossing balance of trying without trying. Of listening for opportunities that arise which move us naturally towards the original word. The razor-edgiest part is that eye-brightening sensation of recognition and natural association, which is quite different than an external, exerted force. 

This is where “good” and “bad” ceases to exist in our practice because oftentimes our mistakes teach us more than our successes in Clover. So don’t cringe after you say your word. I promise it will help us get us to where we’re going already. The only cringe-worthy move is when you allow your judgment or your need to entertain to get in the way of the exercise. Riding the Razor’s Edge of Clover is something you need experience over and over. You’ll need to make forced moves that feel a little icky in order to get the feel of easeful moves that feel naturally discovered in that lovely “Aha!” way. It's all good. Even the bad. (So it's neither good nor bad.)

To get to the "Aha!" in Clover, we need to open ourselves up to where the moment is going. Let’s get back to that first Clover leaf of “spinach:” Kermit the Frog -> Miss Piggy -> ham -> stage hog -> hook -> alligator -> lake … 

My dad lives on a lake where I swam a lot as a child. In order to get out to a comfortable swimming place, I’d have to squish through thick layer of ooey-gooey algae that reeeeeally grossed me out. So when I hear “lake,” I feel that oozy algae feeling between my toes. That’s a visceral, natural response for me. (Though for you, that association might be different.) When I heard “lake,” my eyes brightened because the association to "algae" magically lit up in my mind. The Razor’s Edge is recognizing the connection between “algae” and “spinach,” and greasing the wheels to make it easier to get us there, which might happen automatically or might take a few turns. 

Or it might veer away altogether without getting there, which is why you might sense a little deflating energy in the members of the group who were anticipating the connections. When that happens, it’s important to see where the associations are now going without judgment. Because judgment will only get us into our heads – “Ah, man! That dude said the wrong word!” No! If we’re having that thought, we’re wrong, not that dude. Because we’re not paying attention to the present moment when we’re so busy judging what’s right and wrong. So maybe “lake” took us to “boat.” That’s a good time to think, “Ok. That just happened.” (Not a screw up. It just happened.) Here we go back around the circle ...

Boat -> sailor -> rum -> mojitos -> mint -> greens -> spinach! 

See? If we hadn’t gone to “boat,” we wouldn’t get to experience mojitos. I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy the opportunities to think of mojitos because mojitos make me happy!

“Do you have the patience to waitTill your mud settles and the water is clear?Can you remain unmovingTill the right action arises by itself?”― Lao Tzu

Speaking of things that make me happy, let’s get back to my student Lola, and her concern that when she was doing scenework, she sometimes didn’t know what to do next. “You love Clover,” I told her. “So let’s just apply all the great stuff we practice in Clover to your scenework.” And that’s what lead us to discover a structure I call The Clover Montage, which is a round of Clover followed by a series of scenes in which all we have to do is respond naturally and honestly to what was said just before, while listening for opportunities to make connections. Again, all we have to do is respond to what was just said, even if that means we spend some time at first repeating what was just said by our scene partner during the scenes.

“I love spinach,” Person 1 says.

“You love spinach?” Person 2 responds with whatever natural emotion that statement produced.

Good listening! That repetition helps us focus not only on an emotional point of view but also on the last thing said, which is exactly where our focus should be in Clover. As my former iO teacher Lyndsay Hailey says, “The last thing said is the most important thing said.” And in Clover Montage, we practice discovery-based improvisation by simply responding one little step at a time, honestly and logically, without effort to the last thing said.


“Discovery is the path of least resistance, a state of not-doing and ease rather than force and effort … It’s a mindset to go with the simplest move. The show is a river we slip our canoe into and follow where it takes us. The path of least resistance asks, ‘Why would you paddle in some other direction? Let the river take you where you need to go.’”- From Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

The whole idea of the Clover Montage is that we use all the same muscles we used in the Clover exercise and apply them to our scenework. I'm in love with this process because it helps us practice easefulness and non-doing in improvisation, plus a whole host of lovely skills, such as:

There are no wrong answers. Your natural and logical association is valid. Just as “lake” might not get us to “algae,” it still will take us along another equally glorious path. (Mojitos!) Likewise, your natural and logical response to the last thing said by your scene partner is the perfect thing to do next. If you’re responding honest and logically in keeping with all that has come before it in the scene, it cannot possibly be the wrong response. Ah! That feels so goooood.

Practice Non-Judgment. In Clover, we’ll often see people give their honest association and then clench up like a little piece of poop almost popped out of their butt. They judged their answer to be wrong. But that’s preposterous because - as we just said - if we’re saying the next honest and natural thing, it can’t possibly be wrong. We don’t know where it will lead. The scene/exercise isn’t over yet, so we don’t know how it’s all going to all play out. Our judgment only puts us in our heads and takes us out of the moment, where we really need to be to hear what happens next. Clover gives us lots of chances to practice non-judgment and to unclench our butt cheeks.

The Other Side of the Circle Thinking In the exercise Clover, I often notice that we are at our most easeful when the word associations are taking place at the other side of the circle. It’s not yet our turn, so it’s easier for us to get into a state of relaxed, effortless non-judgment where we’re more open to where the moment is going. That’s what I mean by "The Other Side of the Circle Thinking." I wonder what it would be like to have The Other Side of the Circle Thinking when it’s our turn?

Take Your Time.  Clover isn’t a speed round. There is no rush to get back to our original word in the exercise or in the scenework. In fact, trying to hurry ourselves along only puts us in an unhelpful state of effort. Sometimes coming up with the next thing to say comes to us right away. And sometimes it takes a brief pause of reflection. Both are just fine.

Have Faith.  I have played Clover a lot, and there definitely have been moments with some groups who are first learning the exercise when I’ll sneak a peek at the clock because it seems to be taking us forever to get back there. (Surprisingly, it doesn’t happen a lot.) But  no matter how long it takes (or doesn’t take,) we’ve always gotten back to our original word. Always. And often it’s the most thrilling to experience that sinking feeling of look-at-the-clock doubt, only to have us soon find our ways back at our original word like magic. The same thing happens when we trust in the scenes to uncover patterns and connections. Clover helps us practice the faith and trust in the group that is necessary for skilled improvisation.

Listening Carefully to Where the Scene/Exercise/Moment is Going Already  Like that canoe from the book quote up there, Clover gives us the opportunity put our undivided attention where the words and moments are taking us. So we pull in the paddles and ride that river where it’s going, perhaps leaning gently from side to side to ride the razor’s edge back towards connections.

Honing Group Mind The more we do Clover, the more our group mind develops. We start to see patterns and connections in the same way. Do a round of Clover, then mindfully do a simple series of scenes (a Clover Montage). You may find that it almost seems as though you’re reading each other’s minds because you’ve gotten so good at learning how this group explores patterns that come up. Also when the circular nature of the exercise is applied to scenework, we find that our worlds take smaller, more honest steps from one moment to the next, so we're much less likely to wind up in Krazy Town. Our worlds stay smaller and connect more naturally when we're Clover along the way.

Maybe you might even want to sprinkle some Harold in your Clover Montage by doing a Clover exercise as the opening, followed by a first beat of three scenes, all starting from the original word. Then a second beat re-visiting those three scenes. And then a third beat in which we totally pull the paddles in the canoe and just ride the show where it wants to go by listening and responding honestly and logically given all that has come before. Maybe that's a Clover Harold? Maybe that's just what a Harold is anyway?

Listen with your mind, heart, and gut.
Respond honestly and logically.
Without effort or judgment.
Without trying to entertain or be funny.
With easefulness.
Discover the patterns as they emerge.
Ride the show where it is going already.
Have faith that we’ll get there.
Joyfully.

(Thank you, Lola.)

*


If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading more about non-doing:



Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?



Or maybe you're interested in getting the inside skinny on my experiences writing a book with my improv heroes?
The series Writing The TJ & Dave book starts here.
*



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Scrumptious Improv Quote: The TJ & Dave Book (Behave Honestly)




If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Here's one about practicing non-doing
which I learned from Dave while writing our book:
The Hardest Easiest Work

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Writing the TJ & Dave Book(#9): The Night the TV Came to Life

By Pam Victor

["Writing The TJ & Dave Book" is the series plucked from the journal I kept while writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. You should buy the book here. (I mean, if you want to.) 

A few days before that trip to New York City in 2013, I asked TJ if we could hang out at some point during the weekend in order to establish a bond in the interest of the book. So he kindly invited me to tag along with them after a show. Once we were down in New York, TJ was true to his word on Saturday night. As TJ was headed out after the show with his mom, dad, and Nana in tow, he was sure to include me. 

“I’m bringing my posse, I hope that’s okay,” I said as we were leaving the theater.

“I would expect no less than you rolling with a posse, Pam,” TJ said over Nana’s shoulder.

We went into a cute bar, where TJ hugged the owners as we were allowed into the back room. We arrived to spot David Cross and John Benjamin having a tête-à-tête at the bar. David Pasquesi sat down to share a meal with TJ’s family while TJ hovered nearby. I sat down at a table with my three girlfriends, and we ordered some ridiculously delicious cocktails of vodka, grapefruit, and mint in martini glasses. We clinked glasses and laughed - I had never felt so Sex in the City! The room erupted in whoops when a Sonic Drive-Thru commercial came on. The noise was just starting to die down when TJ’s partner from the commercial, Peter Grosz, walks in the door. It was a truly meta experience. How crazy would it have been if every time an improviser came on the TV in that bar, they walked in the door?

Well, we must have been living in the improv-friendly Twilight Zone because if Saturday Night Live had been on that night, that actually would have happened. Can you believe that following Peter Grosz came a line of folks from SNL? John Lutz - who I actually know from when we did "Geeking Out with: The Live TALK SHOW" at the Chicago Improv Festival earlier that year - Tim Robinson, Michael Patrick O’Brien, and at the end walked into the bar was the intensely dreamy Seth Meyers. There are very, very few actors on TV who could make me whimper with desire around that time in 2013. (And few still today.) Maybe George Clooney (though he’s not a comedian, so it’s not as sweet.) Then there is that guy who played Jim in “The Office.” And Seth Meyers. Around that time, it was not infrequent that my husband teased me for sighing with pleasure during “Weekend Update.” So I just about fell out of my chair with Seth Meyers himself - looking
Seth Meyers
at the 
Time 100 Gala, May 3, 2010.
Photo by 
David Shankbone
exactly like Seth Meyers from TV! - walked through the door. 

My girlfriends and I were trying to be casual at our little Sex in the Cityish table, with only moderate success. Ok, probably no success. We tried to sneak photos of ourselves with Seth Meyers in the background. Then the sweetest thing ever happened. TJ leans over my shoulder with one hand on my back, the other on the table, and whispers in my ear, “Is there anyone you or anyone in your posse want to meet?”

John Lutz and Peter Grosz
2 Square (DCM, 2013)
Photo credit: Pam Victor
“I’m in love with Seth Meyers,” I blurted out in a whispered gush. His response was something along the lines of “Dream on, sister,” but he got Seth to come over and shake hands with us. Probably because we were acting like a bunch of ogling dorks, that was the sum total of our time with Mr. Meyers. Though even better, I had lovely and real conversations with John Lutz and Peter Grosz, whom I would  get to see perform later that summer at the Del Close Marathon in their stellar JTS Brown-style team 2 Square. Great guys, both on and offstage.

And there you have it, the #1 most Hollywood-glamorous moment of writing The TJ & Dave Book. Little did I know that the sparkly memories of that star-struck evening would have to light my way through the months and months of writing drudgery in my Western Mass cave coming ahead.


*

If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Here's one about practicing non-judgment called
The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!"

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment: (#21: Tax Time for Professional Improviser Tracy Cubbal)



[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is Pam Victor's one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here. ]

Pam's Preface:
One of the happy side effects of devoting myself full-time to making a living through improvisation is connecting with other people on the same quest. Tracy Cubbal of Ohio is one of those supportive and generous people. She was kind enough to share her recommendations about the money-side of making a living in improvisation. As she says, she's not an accountant, so some of this information might not fit for you. Nevertheless, I thought perhaps it might be interesting to some of you, which is why I'm turning this post over to her. Thanks, Tracy! Take it away, girl ...

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Tax Time for a Professional Improviser

By Guest Writer Tracy Cubbal

I started teaching improv classes in 2012, but 2014 was the first year my income approached more than pocket change and needed to be reported to the IRS. I’ve always done my own taxes, so instead of paying a professional to do them for me, I decided to do the copious amount of research that would allow me to do them
Tracy Cubbal
myself. Please note that I AM NOT A TAX PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD NOT CONSTRUE THE FOLLOWING AS ADVICE. It’s just a description of how I handled my taxes this year:

1. If you clear more than $400 from improv gigs in a calendar year, you are supposed to report it to the IRS on Schedule C. However, you will not receive a 1099-MISC from anyone who pays you unless you earn more than $600.

Schedule C requires you to report a Principal Business or Professional Activity Code. If your income comes mostly from performing, your category is Independent Artists, Writers, or Performers. If most of your income is from teaching, you fall under the umbrella of Educational Services.

2. Schedule C income sucks because it is taxed at a higher rate than W-2 (wage) income, the reason being that when you are an employee, your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes. When you work for yourself, you are responsible for both halves. This is known as the Self-Employment Tax. (In 2014 this rate was 15.3%.) Then you have to pay ordinary income taxes on your adjusted gross income, which includes the net amount you earned from your business (although there is a deduction for half of the self-employment tax you paid -- Schedule SE walks you through this). Also note that if you expect to owe the IRS more than about $1000 in self-employment tax, you are supposed to pay it quarterly instead of all at once in April.

3. The good news is that any money you spend on improv (workshops, travel, teaching supplies, etc.) can be deducted from your taxable income, with the caveat being that you can only do this if your improv activities meet the definition of a business, as opposed to a hobby. This requirement is in place because if you lose money on your business, you can deduct those losses from the wages you make at your day job to reduce your overall tax burden. Therefore, high earners may deliberately try to lose money on a hobby and call it a business so they can evade taxes.

4. If you ever get audited, the IRS wants to know that you are serious about making money from improv, rather than just having fun with it. Fortunately, it isn't that hard to prove that your performing and teaching gigs constitute a business. You can prove you are a sole proprietor (that is the technical term) of an improv business if you earn more money than you lose three years out of five. (Technically, there is a way for the IRS to get around this, but they're not going to bother with the kind of money one earns from improv).

The other way you can prove that you run a business is if you operate "in a business-like manner." This is pretty much exactly what what it sounds like. Therefore, keeping records that support the proposition that you are trying to support yourself financially (even if it's only partially; you don't have to make enough to quit your day job) is of supreme importance. Keeping good records, printing business cards, maintaining a web site or a blog, and paying people to assist you would all be evidence that you are running a business.

5. Keep records of everything you earn and everything you spend on improv. When someone pays you in cash, give them a receipt, and keep a copy for yourself. When you pay for a workshop in cash, ask the instructor to sign a receipt for you. (I do both in one of those little carbon-copy receipt books you can pick up for $5 at an office supply store.) If you pay for a workshop via PayPal, print out the confirmation email. If an organization hires you to teach or perform for them, provide them with an invoice for your services (there are tons of free websites that you can use to do this). If you travel for an intensive or a festival, keep the receipt that shows how much you spent on transportation and lodging. Meals while traveling overnight for business purposes are partially deductible (50%).

6. Your risk of being audited increases somewhat when you have Schedule C income, but this is not something to be afraid of. Your risk is still pretty low, especially when you're not earning much. If you do get audited, chances are all you will have to do is photocopy your receipts and mail them in. Your deductions will be allowed as long as they are deemed "reasonable." What is reasonable? Well, I deducted the full cost of an immersion at Second City and workshops in Columbus and Detroit, my reasoning being that when I take a workshop, I immediately turn around and teach that material to my students. For my meal deduction, I used the GSA per diem rate rather than my actual meal expenses, because it's easier and more generous than what I actually spent on meals. (I checked, this is perfectly acceptable.) I also decided to deduct half the cost of the shows I saw. This is a little risky, because normally entertainment expenses are not deductible unless you are entertaining clients. If I ever get audited, I will make the argument that while I did derive some entertainment value from the shows, attending shows performed by professional improvisers provides an educational experience I couldn’t get any other way. I will show them the notes I took during these shows -- because who takes notes during a performance unless they are there to learn something? I absolutely believe I am a better teacher to my students because I am able to explain the difference between a Cook County Social Club and a Bassprov show.

I once heard a tax professional say that you should keep your total deductions under half of what you earn for the year. If I were to spend as much money on improv as I earned from it, I think it would be easier for the IRS  to make the argument that my improv business is actually a hobby. Half of one’s earnings is kind of a lot to spend on expenses, but I can assert that I am in the process of growing my business and that these are reasonable start-up costs.

Tracy Cubbal's improv team performs
in Cuyahoga Falls, OH

7. There are two accounting methods for keeping track of business expenses and income, cash and accrual. Most small businesses use the cash method, as it is much simpler. You don't need to know anything more about this except that I got kind of screwed this year because I taught a class in November but didn't get paid until January. If I'd been paid in 2013 I could have used that year's expenses to offset the income. Instead it goes on this year's return and increases my tax burden. I could get around this by using the accrual method instead of the cash method, but that would be a huge pain. So, make sure you get paid before the end of the year unless you want the income to go on the following year's return.

When I was 13 years old, I dreamed of being a professional actor. I abandoned that dream early on when self-doubt took over. Many years later, I rediscovered my love of being on stage through improv. I hope someday to support myself through teaching and consulting. Perhaps that is an impractical dream. But in my book, earning enough income from working in the performing arts that I have to report it to the IRS qualifies me as “a professional.” I would love to go back in time and whisper to my 13-year-old self, “You did it!”


Tracy Cubbal has been a fixture of the Cleveland improv scene since 2005. She has studied at the Annoyance, iO, and Second City. She has performed at the Big-Little Comedy Fest, the Columbus Unscripted Improv Festival, and the Del Close Marathon. Tracy does short form with Point of NoReturn Improv in Cuyahoga Falls, OH and spent several years doing long form with Angry Ladies of Improv. Her latest undertaking is an exploration of the Harold with long form team Dennis! She co-organizes Cleveland's open improv jam. Tracy holds a master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology.  Tracy's website is www.tracycubbal.com.


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