The Fringe for Dummies, Complete Idiots and Other Derogatory Terms

Let’s be honest. We’re all dummies.

We spend our Summers travelling to strange towns on our own dime, only to plaster the city with images of our desperate, pandering smiles, and then beg strangers to come and see our new work.

All because our families didn’t adequately love us and we can’t afford therapy. Right, every single Fringe artist? Just me?

It’s almost that time again. As the temperatures rise this Spring, so too does our collective excitement, anxiety and dread.

But before we set out Fringing this summer and pack our overweight suitcases with our packing tape, handbills and curl-defining shampoos and conditioners, here are some helpful tips for how to survive out there:

  1. Bring good shoes. No. Bring GREAT shoes. I’m talking arch support. I’m talking shoes that have ventilation. You’re going to be on your feet all day every day. You’re going to walk to the Fringe Office to check your sales. Then wander over to the tent to handbill patrons for a few hours. Then you’re going to hike over to the vegan burger place. Then, unless you’re Spalding Grey, you’re going to do your show on your feet. After that, you’re going to go see the clown show at the venue that’s in the middle of Goddamn nowhere. Then you’re going to dance the night away. It’s going to be fucking hot. You don’t want to be walking around with damp socks all the time. Remember what Lieutenant Dan told Forrest Gump. “There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks. I want you boys to remember to change your socks whenever we stop.” There exists a photo on my iPhone of a Fringer’s feet after a summer of walking around in damp socks, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
  2. Fuck reviews. Don’t talk about them to other artists. Don’t worry about them in general. Some of the best shows I’ve seen in my life got 1-star reviews, and I’ve seen complete bags-o-dicks get 5-stars across the board. Even myself, by saying the same words in the same order with the same cadence in the same costume, I’ve received 1-star reviews and 5-star reviews for the exact same show – sometimes on the same night. Don’t get me wrong, good reviews are tremendously helpful. Bad reviews are tremendously detrimental. But it’s a crap shoot. Some of the most talented theatrical reviewers in the country will see your work, and some of the biggest troll hack douchebags alive will see your work. They’ll even sometimes work for the same publication. Some reviewers will worship you. Some simply won’t “get” what you’re doing. But don’t let the star-giving system be the currency by which you measure your art.
  3. Don’t talk about money. If you like making money and talking about money, you’re in the EXACT WRONG line of work. No one is buying houses or cars or retiring off of their Fringe dollars. We can do okay – as in we can afford to buy name-brand cereal during certain months of the year. But we certainly aren’t making enough where we should be flaunting it. Making money by performing our art is an incredible feeling. A rare feeling in this field of work, to be honest. But don’t fool yourself. We’re poor and we have been given the opportunity to do what we love. That’s enough.
  4. Take care of yourself out there. Good Lord, take care of yourselves out there. We eat takeout three times a day. We drink every night. We stay up late and are nudged awake by our billet’s dog at the crack of dawn. But I’m tellin’ ya. You got to take care of yourself out there. Eat salads. Buy fresh fruit and snacks. Stay hydrated. Get your eight hours of sleep. Go drop in at the YMCA on your dark day. Keep an eye on your caffeine intake. Drink some tea and take a vow of silence to let your vocal chords regenerate. It’s so important to check in with your body and to give it what it needs. Take care of yourself, and your shows will be better, I promise.
  5. Help a brother out. Sometimes you’ll be handbilling and someone will already have a ticket to a show at the same time as yours later that night. Lost cause. Time to move on, right? Wrong! Because they have time to see a show RIGHT NOW. You snatch that program from their hands, and you see who’s got a show right now. Find out what they’re looking for. Recommend other shows to them. Find something that they’d like. Because if you send them off to have a positive experience, they’ll regard you as the Guru of Positive Experiences. Another scenario: One of your friends has a shit time slot in a shit venue and is trying to get bums in seats in the hour leading up to their show? Help a brother out. Take a stack of handbills from them and distribute those things. Because y’know why? Next week, you could be the one up against the bad review and bad timeslot and you’re going to need to get by with a little help from your friends. As the great Red Green once said, “We’re all in this together.”
  6. Get away from it all. Get away from the Festival. You’re a tourist, for God’s sakes! Go see things that have nothing whatsoever to do with independent theatre. Go watch a baseball game. Go get sunburned at a water park. Go figure out what the hell a Tam Tams is. Take pictures. Read books under trees. Go watch a 3-D movie or drink a pitcher in a sports bar. Theatre Festivals might be the closest thing we have to heaven on earth, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Go recharge.
  7. Put on the green eyeshade (those visors accountants wore in the 19th Century) As I’m sure most of you are well aware this month, tax season is a son of a bitch. Do yourselves a favour and be vigilant while you’re out there. When you’re packing your bags for your tour DO NOT forget to bring a folder for your receipts and a ledger to help you stay on top of your accounting. You’re ultimately a business person on a business trip. Get a receipt for every single purchase you make. It’s free money, guys. We NEED free money.
  8. Don’t get your ass unfollowed. Twitter has become such a useful tool for the travelling artist. You are going to gain a lot of followers on your tour. But! Don’t be the worst. In other words, don’t have 20 tweets a day plugging your PWYC show in the seniors’ centre in Saskatoon. Because it will annoy the hell out of the followers you just worked so hard to obtain in Winnipeg and they’ll unfollow you. Don’t ONLY plug your show. Keep sharing all your hilarious little witticisms. Keep sharing your Instagram pictures of waffles and your selfies with reluctant Kids in the Hall members.  Keep your feed diverse, and you’ll get to keep all your new fans in Winnipeg for next year’s tour.
  9. Hootsuite. In the same social networky vein: Download the Hootsuite app. Start an account. Watch a YouTube tutorial on how to use Hootsuite. Thank me later.
  10. Take care of those who take care of you. Write cards and buy gifts for your billets and tech people. Every time. Even if they were the worst people you’ve ever met. They helped you realize your vision, and they asked for nothing in return. You’re lucky that they exist, and you need to tell them that.
  11. Accept compliments. This is very difficult. Some nights, you’re going to walk offstage and hate what you just did. You had an off night, and you just want to beeline for the beer tent. Then you’re going to come into the lobby and someone is going to corner you and tell you how brilliant you were – even though you’re positive that you weren’t. Look them in the eyes, and take in what they’re saying to you. Really be open to it. Store it away like you’re a squirrel and the compliment is a nut, because before you know it, you’re going to be sitting in your sad-ass apartment during a blizzard in February – and you’re going to need that nut.
  12. Be visible. Go to the cabaret when you’d rather not. Go see the show that you heard was a trainwreck. Go take the workshop offered by a fellow Fringe performer. Volunteer in the Fringe tent and ask if the administrators need help with anything. Be the artist that you want to see in the world.
  13. Don’t shit on anything ever. Saw the worst show ever?  Hate someone’s poster? Think one of the reviewers is the spawn of Satan? Think that show is overrated? Think your tech person isn’t the sharpest sandwich in the tree? Shhh. It’s a secret.  Shut up. Shutting up is the best. Keep it positive.
  14. Make a new playlist every city. I think it was the great TJ Dawe who told me to do this: Listen to new albums at each Festival you do. This is a great way of journalling your experiences. When I listen to Fun, I think of Montreal 2012. When I listen to Wu Tang, I think of Winnipeg 2013. Edward Sharpe was Calgary 2012. When I put on these albums now, I smell the smells, I see the people, I remember the things I did and the places I went. Feed that nostalgia train.
  15. Have a routine. It’s difficult to remain disciplined out there. To approach show 26 with the same professionalism as show number 3. You need to prepare for every show like it matters because you know what? It does matter.  Be focussed and professional every single time because you never know who might be in the audience that night.
  16. Make your work better. Challenge yourself to make your work better every show. Is that joke not landing most of the time? Punch it up. Do you dread that awkward transition every night? Fix it. All the strongest performers I know are those who never treat their work as a finished product.  The best writers and performers are always striving to improve their shows.
  17. Feel lucky and alive. There’s a guy who plays for the LA Kings named Willie Mitchell. He’s a BC boy from Port McNeill, and he has this really interesting component to his pre-game preparation. During the final three minutes of his team’s pre-game warm-up, Willie will sit on the bench, set his hockey stick by his side and he will simply look around. He looks around at the people who came to watch him play. He looks at his fellow teammates who share his immense privilege. He looks at the little kids who stare at the ice in wonder. And he thinks about how lucky he is. To be healthy. To be alive. To be able to do the thing that he loves. Theatre festivals are a special time and place in the world. Don’t let it pass you by.

The countdown is on, Fringe-heads.

I’ll see you out there.

 

1471329_10151736843147101_209668230_n (1)

Volunteer Tuesdays

One night I was writing a blog post about apathy, or what’s wrong with the world, or something completely unbearable like that – something that was exceeding wanky and self-righteous even for me.

I wanted to talk about how we’re collectively not doing enough to protect, support and positively enhance the lives of those most vulnerable. My outline said vague things like “youth inaction”, “dearth of  community” and “the Christians are winning at the Jesus-y stuff”. It was an indictment of my community, but it was also basically just thinly-veiled self-loathing. Wait hold on, I need to write that down. Thinly Veiled Self Loathing. [I think it's an important practice to record all possible memoir titles.]

So anyway. I was writing this bad thing about how bad everyone is at doing good stuff or something.

And I had this moment where I was like, “You know what, Sam Mullins, you self-referencing-in-the-third-person-sonofabitch? You don’t GET to critique or have opinions about your community at large. You know why? Because maybe you don’t know the first thing about your community at large. Because I’ve been following you on Instagram and Facebook, Sam. And y’know what I see? A bunch of insulated privilege. You live in one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet, but for the most part, you exist and mingle only within the tiniest social sliver of this kickass pie. “Love Thy Neighbour”? Pfft, you don’t even know your neighbours. You need to branch out, dude. Go contribute! Meet new people! Help someone out! Quit being the worst!”

So I scrapped the blog post, went on Google and typed in: “Where to Volunteer in Toronto”.

And volunteering is one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do. I never really had an idea of where or what that might look like.  I just had this vague idea of me being there for someone or something. Whatever that meant.

volunteer-toronto-poster-11x17-combo

And luckily, Toronto has an amazing volunteer website where all of the postings are arranged by “clients served”. So you can check out listings that serve homeless people or children or seniors or people with special needs or the LGBTQ community or even animals. So, I started reading through the listings and I contacted a few that interested me.

And now, six months later, Tuesdays are known in my Google Calendar as simply, “Volunteer Tuesdays”. And y’know what? I frickin’ love Volunteer Tuesdays.

Every Tuesday morning, I wake up and head over to the old folks home where I pick up my good friend Moe (not his real name obvs) for a coffee at Tim Horton’s. He’s Bosnian-Canadian.  He came to Canada as a teen not knowing a single word of English. He’s lived a great life and raised a beautiful family. He’s just about 90, and is struggling with dementia and memory loss, but that doesn’t stop the flow of our conversations. Every week, we talk about life, love, religion, addiction, the weather, fatherhood and then we Roll Up the Goddamn Rim – and never win. Not once.

Also, every week, usually two or three times, this exact exchange will take place:

MOE – You’ll have to excuse me, I seem to have lost my bearings. I don’t quite remember who you are, or why we’re here.

ME – I completely understand. So, here’s the scoop. I’m Sam and I come by to pick you up for coffee every Tuesday.  Your wife sends us off with this, a fully-loaded Tim Horton’s card so that we can get a coffee and a muffin. You get the medium double double, and I get the extra large regular, and we sit down right here at this very table every week and talk the afternoon away.

MOE – [smiling in disbelief] At this table?

ME – At this very table.

MOE – Jazakallah. Do you know what jazakallah means?

ME – [I lie] No.

MOE – May Allah reward you.

Then after I drop Moe back at his room, I head down to visit my other friend Charles (another totally made up name).  This dude jumped out of a plane with a rifle by night into Nazi-occupied France when he was a teenager. His stories are insane. He told me about how when he was little, he used to talk to old men who’d fought in the American Civil War. I’m talking to a guy who talked to guy who talked to Lincoln.  He’s a wealth of knowledge and experience, and I could talk to him forever.

That said, he was very challenging to get “in” with at first.  The staff warned me that he might be a bit prickly at times.  They also told me to read up on my WWII history so that I’d be able to hold up my end of the conversation.  Some days, Charles will effortlessly talk about his life for hours without much prompting. And some days upon seeing my face he’ll shout from behind his Globe and Mail, “I’m busy right now! Go away!”

Once he was telling me about how he fell in love with an upper-class Dutch girl in the weeks following the war.  She wanted to come with him back to England, but he felt, given his profession and lack of money, that he could never take care of her in the way that she deserved.  He said goodbye, got on the train and never saw her again.

I asked him if they ever wrote each other letters.  He said:

“No. I didn’t think it appropriate. My father used to say:

Don’t write to her. Do right by her.”

Golden.

Then after a few hours at the old folks home, I zip over to the YMCA to meet up with Stepstones for Youth.  They’re similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters, working with youths raised in the foster care system who are economically disadvantaged and/or have a history of trauma and abuse. The organization started out as an all-girls summer camp, but has since expanded to offer year-round mentorship to both young women and men, providing high-level skill development and scholastic support.  

So yeah. The kids are the best. The other mentors are the best. And the two women who run the organization are like angels sent from heaven. We do cooking workshops, I help out with tutoring, I mentor and I even decorated this embarrassingly bad clay pot for some reason:

Stepstones Pot

 

Anyway.

This week is National Volunteer Week and I wanted to share the positive experiences I’ve had as a volunteer these past six months.  If you’ve ever thought about becoming a volunteer, you should do it.

Cities can be tricky, I think.

There are SO MANY people from SO MANY places with SO MANY different cultural backgrounds. But. There are also so many people exactly like you, too.

I had to take a step back to realize that all the people I know and associate with are from very similar backgrounds to me.

And I thought, “What’s the fun in that?”

I wanted to learn about my community. I wanted to talk to older people and younger people and people from different places with different religions and soci0-economic backgrounds. And through volunteering, I was able to cast a much wider social net.

So now when I look out my window at the rooftops and the schools and skyscrapers and the parks of my community, I actually know what it is that I’m looking at.

At least a little bit.

Toronto skyline

What’s It Like to Perform a Solo Show?

It’s exactly like this:

 

July 21st

A prestigious Toronto-based arts festival calls you up and tells you that you’ve been selected to take part in their festival this coming January.  You graciously accept, hang up the phone and think to yourself, “Well. It’s no surprise that they’d select me for such a thing. I’m the most talented person to ever walk the earth.”

July 25th

The Festival sends you an email giving you 48 hours to come up with a title and brief synopsis for your new solo show that doesn’t yet exist in any part of your brain or universe.

July 27th

You send them something vaguely promising.

July 28th – November 1st

You 100% forget about The Festival.  The only time you mention that you’re taking part in The Festival is when you’re trying to impress cardigan-clad women with large eyewear.

November 3rd

You realize how far away January 9th is and feel deeply relaxed.

November 4th

You realize that January 9th is essentially TOMORROW. You start petting strange dogs tied up outside of grocery stores for comfort.

November 6th

The Festival releases their first wave of promotional materials to the public.  You experience your first episode of paranoia, dread and doubt.

November 7th

You consider starting to write your show, but start watching Downton Abbey instead. That Maggie Smith is just too much.

December 1st

You submit your fully designed show poster, press release, program information, sign contracts, order your handbills online and do a walk-through of the theatre space with the technical director.  With just one month until your opening, today is the first day that you’ve actually done something. This realization makes you hate yourself.

Fatherly Handbill Front

December 2nd – December 4th

You spend 72 hours straight researching and writing a first draft of your show.

December 6th

You read your show aloud for the first time. It’s so completely void of cleverness or artistry, you earnestly wonder how anyone has ever loved you.

December 10th

You stop going to the gym and/or eating properly.

December 11th

You finish your second draft. You make a plan to fly to Fiji, assume a new name and learn how to make those umbrellas made of dried grass to support yourself.

December 14th

Your show is bad. You stare at it for hours, but don’t know how to fix it.

December 20th

EPIPHANY. You wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, turn on a light and write down your first legitimately good idea for a final page.  The girl in your bed says, “Turn off the light.”

She’s not to be trusted because she likes you as a person.

December 21st – December 24th

You call up your most talented writer friends and read your show to them.  They reassure you that it’s not a “literal bag of dicks”.

December 25th

You get wasted drinking Black Russians with your loved ones.

December 27th

You’re finally happy with the script. You give the “writer” part of you a pat on the back, and confidently hand the script over to the “performer” you.

December 28th

You remember how terrible of a performer you are.

January 2nd

With just one week to go, you start to hate the words that are coming out of your mouth.  You wouldn’t wish this show on your worst enemies. Even that kid who used to play for Kamloops who speared you in the balls behind the play that one time.

January 4th

You can only sleep if you get drunk and watch Mad About You on Netflix. You are not well.

January 5th

You go in for your technical rehearsal.  You hope to God that they don’t suggest you do a run of the show. You want to keep this travesty under wraps for as long as possible.

January 6th

You call your Mom and cry to her about how awful your show is. Instead of taking you seriously, she just laughs at you and says, “You do this every time.”

She knows nothing of you.

January 7th

You get called in to do an interview on the most-listened-to morning radio show in all of the Greater Toronto Area. Instead of being interesting, you explain as mundanely as humanly possible the entire plot of your show.  You say precisely zero funny things.

January 8th

The day before your opening, you notice on your box office report that the premiere of your show has seven media comps. The neighbours call 911 because it sounds like someone is dying on the other side of the wall.

Opening Day

You wake up at a reasonable hour, enjoy a nice wholesome breakfast, drink your coffee and listen to soothing music.  Then vomit.  You call the girl that you’re seeing to come over.  You make her sign a waiver that she will still make love to you even if your show goes the way of Howard the Duck II. Your roommate sees you in the living room cowering on the floor in a ball, but mistakes it for a yoga pose.

You pack up and head to the theatre.  On the way there, you are envious of everyone you walk by, and all the responsible decisions they made in life that led to them not performing solo theatre.

You go into the space. Someone from the festival comes in to tell you that your show is sold out. You feel a profound peacefulness wash over you, as you gaze around, take in the intricacies of the room and think, “Welp. This is where I die.”

They let the house in. They shut the door. Dim the lights. Fade out the music. And you’re on.

You wander onstage.  And start talking.  You have no idea what you’re saying.  You’re just desperately trying to say the words. Get through it. And survive.

You look out and see the two main reviewers in the third row sitting across the aisle from each other.  You see their pens moving.  They need to write things so that they remember later on when they’re sitting at their computers just how silly of a face you have. At one point, you are certain that in your periphery  you saw one of them pull out a Thesaurus and flip to the page that includes the word “horrendous”.

Your mouth is dry. You hear every chair creak. You see every little glance at one’s watch. You say your final line. Then they clap for you.

You emerge from the theatre.  People tell you that they loved your show. It really struck a chord with them. That your life experiences are really close to their life experiences.

On the way home, you eat something and then don’t vomit.

Show #2

The reviews are good.  No one used the word “abhorrent”.

You’ve proven that you can say the words you’ve written onstage without dying, so you’re a little more confident that you will survive this ordeal.  The show still feels pretty rocky, but almost in an exciting way.

Show #3

You have a straight-up solid show. Everyone laughed at the funny parts and several of them were wiping away tears during your curtain call. You feel like a once in a generation talent.

Show #4

You have a bad show. Because you’re wildly untalented.

Show #5

You’re in the flow of things. You’re consistently nailing the transitions and the pacing of the piece. You stop thinking about what the next line is with your brain, and allow the words to come from a different, more vulnerable part of your being.

Show #6

Two older women fall asleep in your show. As an act of hostility.

Show #7

You’re on top of your game tonight, but where is that crinkling sound coming from? No, seriously.

Show #8

You have your best show so far. You’re grounded, confident and funny.  You stand onstage and you are your best self.  You enjoy this. You’re good at this. This comes really naturally to you. Don’t forget that.

Show #9

Perfect show. Everyone loves it.

Closing Night

Your final performance is a bit of a letdown. It usually is.

Leaving the theatre, you are overcome with deep gratitude for everyone who helped you along the way to make this project happen. This solo show of yours certainly wasn’t a solo effort. You could not have pulled this off without the hundred or so people who chipped in and dealt with you and your neuroses. You’re so lucky to have these people in your life. You’re so lucky to have been a part of such a beautiful festival. You hug everyone and thank them from the bottom of your heart.

The Next Day

There’s no other feeling quite like closing a show. It’s difficult to explain. You feel completely emotionally and physically exhausted. It feels like grieving, but with a hint of vague… embarrassment almost. But. Luckily, this strange funk only lasts a day, so you just binge-watch a season of something, eat some good food, and catch up on some sleep.

The Day After That

You start eating properly again and/or going to the gym again.

And you’re on to the next thing.

The Moth and Me

Breakdown. Breakthrough.

I spent the 22nd year of life in my hometown, Coldstream BC, standing by a conveyor belt sorting wood at a remanufacturing plant.  The boards would slink by at a subdued pace from left to right and I was to take them and fashion three neat piles: one for the long ones, one for the medium ones, and one for what I would affectionately refer to as “the little guys”.  Eight hours a day. Forty hours a week. For a year.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

A year earlier, after graduating from theatre school in Victoria, I had moved into a swanky downtown Vancouver apartment on the northernmost edge of Yaletown. I was enthusiastic, I was optimistic, and I was trying to succeed on several fronts. I was going to become a working actor. I was going to make rent. I was going to maintain a successful long-distance relationship. I was going to find a reliable day job.

But it just didn’t work out for me.  At all.  I tried to carve out a self-sufficient existence for myself in the city, but everything quickly fell apart. I failed across the board. I went into a depression. I was lost. I was alone. I had no money. And so I had to move back home.

I felt like I was the poster boy for everything wrong with my generation. I felt foolish.

My sense of entitlement, my solipsism and my delusional belief that I was a unique and talented person led me to acting school. I had graduated four years later, at great expense to my parents, and then naively stepped out into the big wide world without having the slightest inkling of how to survive. And by the end of that year, I wasn’t against the ropes. I was on life-support.

So, just like that, I was back in my childhood bedroom. I was working a labour job. And I was eating a casserole prepared by my Mother every night. I didn’t know what to do next. I felt like I was lost in the universe.

But a funny thing starts to happen when you stand by a conveyor belt sorting wood for a year. Your life slowly starts to make sense.

When all you have are two things, time and your thoughts, one can’t help but start making sense of the algorithms of your behaviour.

Geeze. I went straight from high school to university to a high-paced life in the city. I guess I never really had time to decompress. To slow down. To reflect. To tether myself to anything healthy or real.

You start sifting through your life as if it were a game of Tetris.

Oh. I should’ve put that square block over here. 

1 line clears.

Hmph. I didn’t really take care of myself in a basic way AT ALL when I moved to Vancouver. I sabotaged myself.

2 lines clear.

Wow. I was really selfish in that relationship. I was too big of a coward to leave her and she was the same way. We should’ve just been honest with each other.  We didn’t need to drag each other down like that.

3 lines clear.

Wait. I think I figured out why I failed at being an actor. It’s because… I HATE acting. I NEVER wanted to be an actor!  Oh my God! I went to theatre school because I knew that all my favourite SNL cast members went to theatre school.  I didn’t want to be BRANDO! I wanted to be SANDLER!  What the… I can’t believe I forgot that.

Tetris.

* * *

So I started thinking about what I actually DID want to do with my life as I piled wood day after day.

And as luck should have it, there was only one radio station that we got at the remanufacturing plant that deep in the valley – CBC Radio 1.  And I was never really a public radio person before then, but I quickly became addicted. I listened to Q and The Debaters and Definitely Not the Opera and Vinyl Cafe and I wondered to myself how I had gotten this far in life without having been consuming this content all along.

Then a friend of mine – after hearing about my newfound love for public radio – recommend that I listen to This American Life. Then one day, I heard an episode of TAL that featured a story from The Moth and that changed everything.

the moth logo

The Moth. A non-profit group in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Real people. Telling true stories from their lives. No reading. No underscoring. Just their voice and their story. I devoured all the audio content from The Moth that I could find. I couldn’t even fathom how strong these stories were. How hilarious they were. How clever they were. How devastating and life-affirming they were.

I became obsessed. I was a fan. But I think a part of me also recognized right away that this was a format in which I could thrive.

So when I moved back to Vancouver after the year at the reman plant, I set some goals. I wrote them down. And one of them was “I will get a story aired on The Moth“.

So I started performing at storytelling events. And writing in memoir for the very first time. Then another big thing happened.  I saw TJ Dawe perform for the first time at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.  TJ Dawe was a name that I’d always heard mentioned around my alma mater and in theatre circles but I didn’t really know much about him and his work. After seeing his solo show Lucky 9, though, I walked out of the theatre, sat on a bench in an alley on Granville Island and started to cry. It was a moment of epiphany. I thought to myself, “Holy shit. That’s it. That’s what I want to do. That’s the kind of theatre I want to make.”

So I wrote a storytelling solo show about the challenges I faced during my super-shitty 21st year in Vancouver, I called it Tinfoil Dinosaur, and I went on my first full Fringe tour in the summer of 2012.  After a successful run at the Montreal Fringe, I headed down to celebrate my 26th birthday in New York City with my friend Elizabeth Blue (who I’d just met in Montreal).  She was involved in the New York storytelling scene, and she brought me to a story event under a church in the East Village.  There were only about 20 people there, but it was easily the highest calibre storytelling show I’d ever seen in my life.  After the show, she introduced me to the producer, and I told him that I was a storyteller from Canada.  He told me that he was hosting a Moth Story Slam in Brooklyn the following night, and that I should come and throw my name in to the hat.

Holy shit! I had decided to come to New York on a whim, and didn’t even think to check to see if there were any Moth events going on the week I was there. The next day also happened to be my 26th birthday. The stars were aligning.

So Lizzie Blue and I walk into the cavernous venue in Brooklyn the following night, and the room could not have felt more different from what I had expected. In my mind, I had always imagined the Moth audience to be made up primarily of Woody Allen movie dinner-party types. I imagined a sea of tweed, avant garde eyewear and red wine only. But instead I was taken aback by how rowdy and electric it felt.  It felt very hipster, but in this case, “hipster” wasn’t a pejorative. The place was bumping and alive and there was no other room in the world in which I would rather have been in at that moment.

I threw my name in the hat.  I was concerned about my ability to get my Tinfoil Dinosaur story down to 7 minutes.  The shortest telling I’d ever had of that story was 10:30, and because this was a Story Slam format, I knew I would be docked points if I went a single second over the 7-minute limit.  During the first two stories, I could barely concentrate as I was making last minute edits in my head to the story.

Then. My name was called.

Ecstasy.

Carrie Neumayer Illustration

I hop onstage, grab the mic, and start talking as fast as I possibly can. The story is going beautifully, the crowd is receptive and when I hear the flute at the 6 minute mark, I think to myself, “Perfect. I have a whole 60 seconds to wrap this up.” But then, as I’m more or less waffling through my final blow line, I hear the dreaded flute again, meaning that we’re at 7 minutes. I talk for another 5 seconds. I get a nice ovation from the crowd, but I went long. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. I can’t believe I went long.

The judges tally the votes, and even with the loss of points for going long, I’m in the lead.  And I remain in the lead all the way until the 10th and final storyteller of the evening takes the stage. I turn to Lizzie Blue, and say, “Hey, isn’t that girl the really strong storyteller from that show we saw last night? Oh no.” Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

Her story is super-tight. And smart. And funny. I hate her. They tally the votes, and she wins the Moth Story Slam by 0.1 points. I was docked 1.5 points for going long. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

Standing on the subway platform after the show with Blue, I was livid.  “I can’t believe I fucked up an opportunity like that!  Blue!  I got to tell my strongest story at a Moth Story Slam ON MY BIRTHDAY in New York and I go long?  I go LONG?!?! If I stopped talking 5 seconds sooner, I would’ve been a Moth Story Slam CHAMPION! ON MY BIRTHDAY!”

Blue said, “But Sam. You did tell the best story of the night. Everyone there knows that.”

I said, “You don’t understand!  If I won the Slam tonight, then I could’ve competed at a Grand Slam, and then if I won that, then I could’ve maybe done a Moth Mainstage, and then if I did all of that, then maybe I could get a story on The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. That was my dream.  But I squandered it. I squandered my chance. That was it. Shit. The stars aligned for me, and I couldn’t deliver.”

* * *

Then an entire year passes.

And then one day in June, out of the blue, I get an email from The Moth with the subject heading: “Love for Sam Mullins from The Moth”.

One of their senior producers writes:

“I’m writing from Moth HQ to tell you how much I ADORE your tinfoil dinosaur story from the NYC moth FREEDOM slam in 2012.  Finally getting around to going through the archives!
I’ve heard A LOT of slam stories but something about yours has especially tickled me!
Just wonderful and a great example of how our smallest kindnesses ripple through the world.
I am nominating it for The Moth Radio Hour”

Holy shit.

A few months later, I receive confirmation that it’s going to air.

Holy shit.

And now, this week of November 19th 2013, my story will be heard over the public radio airwaves in every major city in the US, and will be available to all on The Moth Podcast, Stitcher, PRX and themoth.org

So today, I’m a Moth storyteller.

And that means the world to me.

Heartbreaking Work

For a living, I talk about the intimate details of my life onstage.

I know.  I wouldn’t date me, either.

Oftentimes, I’ll be approached by audience members after my show, and they’ll commend me for my “courage.” They’ll thank me for my “vulnerability”, my [alleged] “honesty” and my “bravery” for going onstage to share these personal stories in front of an audience.  They’ll THANK me.

This has always been equal parts flattering and puzzling to me.

I certainly don’t feel courageous or brave or vulnerable when I’m onstage.  It doesn’t feel like I’m taking a risk up there. Rather, I feel like it’s the only place where I’m in complete control.  And I’m an anxious person, so I love control. If ever there was a moment in the process where I felt vulnerable, it would’ve been months ago, maybe at the moment I read a passage aloud to a colleague for the first time.  But not NOW.  These are the words I’ve allowed myself to say.  These are the words I’ve written and re-written and re-written.  I can’t think of anything less vulnerable.

You want to see me vulnerable?  Be a pretty girl who makes small talk with me in a cafe. Be the nurse in the walk-in clinic who asks me, “And what is the reason for your visit?”  Be the guy changing beside me in the YMCA locker room the moment I realize I’ve forgot to change out of my sexy briefs before going to work out.

But onstage?  Dude.  I’ve written this.  I’ve memorized this.  Anything I’m about to talk about happened forever ago.  I’ve processed it.  Sure, standing onstage is scary if you don’t know what you’re doing.  I mean, I don’t know how improvisers do what they do (that’s a lie, I actually do know, and it’s really uninteresting).

But I have a script!  Full of things that I’m willing to share with the world.

“How can you talk about such intimate details of your life? How can you talk about sex?  About depression? Living with an anxiety disorder? About having your heart broken into a million pieces?”

How can I talk about having my heart broken?

It’s a thing that happened.  Because it’s a thing that happens.

I’ll tell you my specifics, and you can draw parallels to your specifics, and together we’ll build something universal. In your brain. When we hear a good story, we think it might be about us, because it might as well be.

My “characters” are real people, but you won’t meet these people in real life, just like you won’t really have breakfast with Tiffany.

__________________

I finally read “A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers last week.

Heartbreaking_Work_Dave_Eggers

If you’re ever roommates with someone born between 1976 and 1989 with a degree in creative writing, this book will come up in conversation.  Frequently. And rightfully so.

If you’re not familiar, it’s a hilariously sardonic and painfully honest glimpse into the world of a big brother trying to raise his little brother in the face of tragedy (their parents’ simultaneous cancer-related deaths).  The book is listed as a memoir, but it is chockfull of fantasy elements and meta-self-referential/meta-meta-self-referential sequences.

Throughout the book, Eggers will periodically have one of his characters break out of a scene to start interrogating him, the writer.  They will accuse him of sending up different elements of the story to evoke sympathy from the reader.  They will call bullshit on him when he’s stretching truths.  That sort of thing.

Eggers seems to be constantly wrestling with whether or not he’s taking advantage of his loved ones, his friends and even himself for the sake of art by writing this book in the first place.

Being a monologuist who works almost exclusively in memoir, I found one section in particular to hit especially close to home…

This passage really knocked my socks off.  Every once in a while, an artist will perfectly articulate a feeling that’s been stirring in your heart more eloquently than you ever could.  And this was one of those for me.

During one of these interrogation scenes, a character asks Eggers, “Are you sure you want to be telling [we, the audience] all of this?”

Eggers replies:

“What am I giving you?  I am giving you nothing.  It seems like you know something, but you still know nothing.  I tell you and it evaporates.  I don’t care — how could I care?  I tell you how many people I have slept with (thirty-two), or how my parents left this world, and what have I really given you?  Nothing.  I can tell you the names of my friends, their phone numbers, but what do you have?  You have nothing.  They all granted permission.  Why is that? Because you have nothing, you have some phone numbers.  It seems precious for one, two seconds.  You have what I can afford to give.  You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup.  I can afford to give you this.  This does not break me. I give you virtually everything I have.  I give you all of the best things I have, and while these things are things that I like, memories that I treasure, good or bad, like the pictures of my family on my walls I can show them to you without diminishing them.  I can afford to give you everything.  We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, like, say, masturbatory habits (for me, about once a day, usually in the shower), we have given someone something. These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes, who leave theirs for anyone to see.  What does he care where it is, who sees it, this snake and his skin?  He leaves it where he molts.  Hours, days or months later, we come across a snake’s long-shed skin and we know something of the snake, we know that it’s of this approximate girth and that approximate length, but we know very little else.  Do we know where the snake is now?  What the snake is thinking now?  No.  By now the snake could be wearing fur; the snake could be selling pencils in Hanoi.  The skin is no longer his, he wore it because it grew from him, but then it dried and slipped off and he and everyone could look at it.

None of this is mine.  My father is not mine.  His death and what he’s done are not mine.  Nor are my upbringing nor my town nor its tragedies.  How can these things be mine?  Holding me responsible for keeping hidden this information is ridiculous.  I was born into a town and a family and the town and my family happened to me.  I own none of it. It is everyone’s. It is shareware.  I like it, I like having been a part of it, I would kill or die to protect those who are part of it, but I do not claim exclusivity.  Have it.  Take it from me.  Do with it what you will. Make it useful. This is like making electricity from dirt; it is almost too good to be believed, that we can make beauty from this stuff.”

____________________________

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 442 other followers