Improv thoughts from an old man: a letter to the Ship of Fools

Current Mood: Corleone

The class of 2014 graduates very soon (ugh olllld), and this marks the exit of basically the last batch of folk that I have performed improv with as a part of the Ship of Fools.  Such is my bond with this band of yuksters that only now do I feel like I myself am leaving the group.  I still know most of the current troupe, to varying degrees, but it seems like a logical point of departure in my brain.  To that end, I wanted to do something special to let the group know how much I have enjoyed my time with them and how much they have and still do mean to me.  So I wrote them this letter (below, slightly edited).

It will also be one full calendar year of my own departure from the university, a year out in the real world and gainful employment as a productive member of society.  Success!  Also mixed feelings!


To Fools,
former and especially present and future,

Some of you might not quite know my background with the SoF, so first, a trip down memory lane if you'll indulge me-

I started my Purdue journey in the fall of 2004.  I was a freshman in engineering, and I wanted pretty badly to be "different" than I was in high school - more athletic, less awkward and dorky.  I thought joining the crew team (rowing) would transform me, but I failed the swim test.  So much for that plan.  I found in my BGR Activities Fair bag a flyer for a club that promised free no-commitment fun.  My only exposure to improv to that point were some reruns of Whose Line Is It Anyway? on TV and seeing my older sister perform in a few shows at Miami, OH (with the now defunct Tower Players).  For the rest of that fall I fell in love with open forum and tried some games - I wasn't very good and simply being in front of others in Beering 2280 made me so nervous I almost threw up - but Friday nights were the absolute highlight of my week (I was pretty miserable in engineering).  I kept at it, and in the spring of 2005 the Fools took a chance on me and a guy named John "Freshman/Tripod" and brought us into the fold. 

My first show was the Santa Claus United Methodist (SCUM) Show in Santa Claus, IN - hometown of our own Wes "Tab A".  It was nearly 400 people, and we were the opening act for a religious comedian.  I thought I was terrible (I still remember being the last to join Space Jump because I had nothing, so I panicked and just pretended it was a Japanese monster movie - all I did was scream and make poorly-dubbed subtitle jokes).  Over the next
six years I had the privilege of improving, learning improv by participating in Tuesday/Wednesday practice and Friday Open Forum just about every week, and we went from a few shows a semester to almost two shows a month (!).  We played all over campus, took trips across the state and to spots around the midwest.  Tournaments, workshops, private and public shows, charity events, carnivals, with audiences smaller than the troupe itself to thousands in Elliot Hall of Music - some of them bombed (Sailor Show), others I'd proudly put on my all time highlight reel (Towle Theatre).  I've watched generations (plural) of Fools grow from watch list prospects to seasoned vets that can carry a show themselves and host a moment's notice.  I've been COMOFF, webmaster, President and Captain.  I promoted the first SoF Sergeant, negotiated four figure contracts and fought with the business office, started and blatantly rigged the Hidden Hannukah Helper Gift Exchange, and founded the Awards Ceremony.  I also switched my major to technology, prolonging my tour at Purdue.

In 2011 I "retired" from the SoF and took a spot with One Size Fits All Improv (even though I wasn't done with Purdue yet).  It was a complicated and difficult decision, and stemmed from both a desire to change and grow my own comedy, and also to ensure the troupe experienced new growth, ideas, and leadership.  I put retired in quotation marks because even though I no longer performed with the Fools, I *
always* felt connected to and welcome within the group.  I've had the pleasure of watching an entirely new Ship form - through growing pains, evolving and changing and still bringing the funny.

I really can't emphasize just how big an impact the Ship of Fools and Purdue Improv Club has had on my life.  As cheesy as it sounds, it's given me confidence (on stage and off), public speaking skills, honed my wit and expanded my brain.  I've met four of my college roommates through improv, 3 of my 4 groomsmen including my best man, and probably most importantly, my wife.  For a good chunk of my life I've had my Friday nights spoken for and I mean that in the best possible way - knowing I always had a standing date with funny, happy, and energetic people who wanted nothing more than to be silly and try to create something new.

I meant to write this letter after my SoF retirement.  Then I said I'd finish it for my senior year, then after my own graduation.  I kept stalling because I wanted to write the perfect letter with profound words and because I still procrastinate hardcore.  It's only now, after almost a whole year in the real world, that I'm thinking about my time at Purdue and I can't sleep and I'm getting all sentimental that I've got the gumption to finish this, imperfect and rambly as it is.  If you're still with me and don't mind, I have a some thoughts and unsolicited words of advice to share with you all:

To the new Fools, the rookies, and those who still have a while to go:
Congratulations - you've been selected to join an elite group.  Huzzah!  Now get to work.
You won't have time to be every character and play in every scene, so every time you watch improv- pay attention.  Listen, think, and analyze on stage and off.  Play in every single game you can get your grubby little paws on.  Time flies when you're having fun, so chip in and build the group at all levels - it'll be yours to run before you know it.

To the grizzled veterans, officers, and those who will be entering the real world soon:
Lead by example and leave your mark.  Play in every game you can - you've earned it.  Remember when you first joined?  Mentor somebody.  Mentor everybody.  Play all the scenes with confidence and gusto (or at least fake it).

To the rest:

Everything I just said applies to you too.  Probably double.

For the whole troupe:
 Take this stuff seriously... just because you're an amateur troupe and improv is silly doesn't mean you can't act like professionals.  Show up to meetings on time and get your practice in.  Make your warmups count.  If something's not working, do some research and change it.  Give your fellow performers honest feedback and critiques.  Take notes.  Treat your show contacts with respect, and follow up - you never know if they'll want you back.

 ...except don't.  You're students first, and this is a hobby.  And a fun one at that.  Lighten up, don't beat yourself up.  Bad games and shows happen (the audience sucked, I know).  Humor is subjective.  Be nice to your friends.

Don't change a thing... the Ship of Fools/Purdue Improv Club formula is a process honed through more than a decade of trial and error.  You've got to balance so many things - burnout, saturation, turnover, campus exposure, everybody's ego, a budget, and a thousand other things.  We built this (city on rock and roll) troupe a certain way because it works, dammit.

...just kidding.  I love that you are experimenting with long form, workshops, auditions, and collaborating with the other local troupes.  I've seen the troupe's web presence grow by leaps and bounds (back in my day we didn't have your fancy Facebooks and Twitters - we taped our flyers to the sidewalk with masking tape, thank you very much) and you continue to find a variety of funny new people.  I only ask that you carefully consider those choices and how they can impact things down the road.  (Or don't sweat it, in 4 years or so everything will be different.).

One of my favorite parts of the SoF was when people would ask me at the shows "so are you guys all seniors in theater, or what?".  I loved telling them that we had people from multiple states, freshman to super senior, STEM to liberal arts and everything in between.  I hope it's obvious to you all that the strength of the troupe is the people in it (what else would it be?), so please please please keep connecting with each other.  Spend time together, road trip, do a show in somebody's hometown, toast each other's mothers, impersonate each other at Halloween parties, stuff like that.
I always started every workshop I did with a disclaimer - I'm not an expert at improv, I don't have any formal training, and what works for me may not work for you.  I believe it was John "Cowboy" who once said "I stopped giving a shit, and sometimes I'm funny".  The best way to get better at improv is to do it, but if you want improv advice here let me Google that for you: http://secondcitynetwork.com/15-reminders-for-every-improviser/

In closing, thank you all so much from the bottom of my heart.  I wish nothing but the very best for each and every one of you.  Please continue to grow the club and troupe, develop into smart successful professionals, don't deny, and have fun.

Ryan "T-Rex", "T-Muffy", "T-Sexy", "that guy with the overly complicated scene suggestions", "that one week where his nickname was suspended when people found out he'd never seen Jurassic Park", "The Gar-Father", Garwood

P.S. Keep up the Gar-Father thing and in approximately 30 years when young Leia Garwood walks down the aisle, I promise I will not refuse a favor on that day.



Current Mood: sitting uncomfortably

I deal with pain from my spine surgery almost every single day.  It varies - some days it's a dull ache, a constant nagging twinge that makes sitting or standing uncomfortable and distracts me from the moment.  Other times (mercifully, rarely) it's a knife attack, a moment of breath-stealing fury.  Or it becomes the itch behind the scars, hidden beneath dead nerves that I've scratched until I'm bleeding without realizing.  And maybe most insidious, the pain lies dormant during the day only to blossom as I'm winding down, keeping me awake as I toss and turn trying to find a way to get to sleep.

All of them start in my core and get linked to any movement of my body.  Sometimes I can hear the rods bolted to my bones squeaking and it's like nails on a chalkboard in my eardrum turned up to 11. 

But through all of that, it feels like mostly my personal, internal problem.  Sure, my family and closest friends know I've had the surgery, but I work to keep it out of the day to day conversation.  I don't bring it up to new people and I don't use it as an excuse.  Blog post aside, I rarely talk about it* and if I do I make jokes about robot parts and floating like a compass in a pool.  I plan ahead - stretches and bottles of aspirin at home, in my bag, in my work desk, in the car, and in Jenny's purse.  Pretty much any day of physical activity guarantees I'll be sore the next day... is it worth it?  I try not to let it dictate my activity.

You can't really see it from the outside.  I'm just a short dude.  I don't have a hunchback and I don't walk with a limp.  My shoulders are uneven, but you'd be hard pressed to notice.  I have a scar, but it's hidden beneath my clothes and I rarely wear backless gowns.  I don't even usually see it myself - it takes a camera or at least a set of mirrors to even catch a glimpse, which is a conscious effort that I rarely bother with anymore. I live with it every day inside me, stalking me, and if you can believe it sometimes I forget that the scar is there.

So when Jenny told me the other day when I got out of the shower that my scar was starting to fade, I was really confused when that made me angry.  Is it a part of my identity now?  Do I need a trophy to justify how painful it was and is?  Is it a badge of toughness that makes me look stronger than I feel?

Why do I care so much about a stupid scar I don't even want?

*Except to J, she hears about it plenty.


stuck in limbo

Current Mood: retro

I've got several large boxes of things in my apartment that need to be... dealt with.

They're mostly from my high school years, and they're chock full of memories (good and bad and in between).  From when my parents split, from when I had my surgery, from when I started college, from when our roof got damaged and my stuff got soaked.  Stuff I should either get rid of or display, stuff I should donate or sell, stuff I should... process. 

Some of it's purely sentimental, and I lie to myself and say I've moved past it.  Some of it's childish, and I lie to myself and say I want less material things in my life.  Some of it's educational and I lie to myself and say I'll read this or use that some day.  Some of the things are trophies and ribbons and I lie to myself and say I don't care about those accomplishments anymore.  I feel like a hoarder, physically and mentally.

I haven't really used any of this stuff in years.  Hell, I've barely seen it.  The pragmatist in me says if it hasn't seen the light of day in that long, get rid of it.  It's weighing me down  Literally and mentally.

Instead, the boxes have been in storage, then other storage, then trucked to me and moved around from apartment to apartment, silent sentinels of a past life in stasis.


Pizza! Come get your mail!

Current Mood: flannel

My grandpa was an old school guy.  He was tough, patient, quiet, and hardworking - cut from the "Dirty Jobs" mold, if you will.  He served in the Army, worked nights in a paint factory and as a locksmith on the side.  He had a rusting green Ford Bronco, a wood burning stove, a cuckoo clock, a police scanner, and a well worn coffee mug.  When I was a kid, he used to show me old drawings and articles about B-17s and talk about engines (anything from WWII radials to the lawnmower in the garage). 

I wish I could tell you I soaked it all up, but as a kid I was more interested in Star Wars, Nickelodeon, and my Game Boy than sitting down to watch boring old black and white war movies.

Yesterday I was thinking about how much has changed since he passed away years ago.  I switched my major, and now I see and work on aircraft and engines nearly every day.  I'm going to graduate from Purdue and get my mechanic's license from the FAA next month.  Now I go out of my way to find movies like The Flight of the Phoenix and Twelve O'Clock High on Netflix.  Even beyond technical things, I go to state parks and on camping trips and think about the leaf-identifying project he helped me with in 5th grade.

I miss him.  I wish he could see some of the stuff I get to work on - I think we'd have a lot more to talk about.


Grass is greener

Current Mood: somewhat garrulous in certain company

When I'm working hard, I complain about wanting time off, and then when I have some, I don't always know what to do with myself.  I'm bad at days off (used to joke about my dad like that), which is probably why I'm just now updating my blog since [checks] June.  Well, here we are, Thanksgiving break, and I'm pacing awkwardly around the apartment like a nervous...thing, cleaning and organizing a few things, watching something half-heartedly for a bit before I'm onto something else.  Even this post is taking me forever to write (he typed, out of order). 

I think it boils down to A) I always feel like I should be doing something else [mostly studying, working on school things, or cleaning because I'm somewhat neurotic], and so when I only have a little bit of time (for example, a few hours between dinner and bed) my options are limited, so there's not much to decide or even dwell on - priorities get lined up easily enough and I start at the top and go until I can't or won't.  And B) when I actually DO get a break (a long weekend, time off from school, etc.) I'm reluctant to dive into something larger like tackle a video game I've owned for YEARS but never really played, because I know I won't finish before I have to go back to the routine, and even worse I've had times where I get so sucked into a project it becomes my all consuming focus and I start slacking on the things that MUST be done.  I'd rather dampen my expectations and ambitions to ease the eventual transition back to the normal day-to-day stuff, how sad is that?

I miss some of my college friends.  Some of them long moved away, growing up and moving on, but some I haven't stayed connected with them beyond writing "Happy Birthday" once a year on their Facebook walls, which admittedly is more than some of my other friends but is a hollow, false approximation of friendship.  Maybe I'm putting too much of it on my own shoulders - friendship is a 2 way street and people change over time, right?  Others friends have more recently graduated, and I have squandered my more than fair share of time with them in the same city, geographical proximity being an apparently under appreciated or underestimated barrier to closeness.  I'm woefully under prepared to soon become the person moving away myself, having been in a state of academic arrested development for nearly a decade (much more on that later).

My family has recently undergone more upheaval and restructuring than I thought would ever happen, topping the previous high that was already nigh-unbelievable (to me, at least).  Not all of it is bad, mind you, but when I tell people about our made up holiday (ThanXmus) that supposedly solves all of our travel and togetherness issues, it's a lie about something that works better in theory than in practice, at least with our family. 

Also, I am basically 5 months (a few more weeks, plus spring semester) away from finally (FINALLY) graduating.  It's a mixed up set of emotions, thoughts, and goals, but I'm closing in.  Unfortunately, it is really starting to take a financial toll on me and Jenny.  I'm sure we'll get through it, but right now I'm a mood to take the first job that comes along, just to know something.  Having flashbacks to right around our wedding, where we didn't know where we'd be living, where/if Jenny would have a job, and if I could even continue to go to school.  Probably the best lesson to take from that was that things worked out pretty well, but those sorts of thoughts don't pay bills, write papers, or get jobs.

Now it's time to ignore school for a bit and see my in-laws.


A holiday in flux

Current Mood: distant

Today is Father's Day, so here's two memories about my dad:


My dad had some strange friends when I growing up- a motley crew from his hellraising days as a youth.  One guy I don't ever remember actually meeting was a guy my parents referred to as "The Colonel".  If it was at all connected to military service, I certainly never heard a word about it.  Anyway, I always thought that was the coolest nickname and they wouldn't have given it to anybody that wasn't a super badass.  That's all.


It's not really hard to figure out where I got my music tastes.  Just about all of my favorite bands - Queen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Tom Petty, David Bowie, Foreigner, Sweet (to name a few) were the soundtrack of my youth courtesy of my Dad.  He had milk crates full of classic vinyl albums, and I borrowed most of his cassettes to blast from my R2-D2 Walkman and later my car stereo all the way through high school.

Some of my favorite memories are riding around in the car with him and my brother and sister, singing all the harmonies and air-guitaring/drumming/other applicable instruments-ing all the parts to Bohemian Rhapsody or Ballroom Blitz (like that car commercial, but we were like, a million times better).  Or how he'd make a big breakfast almost every Sunday, and crank some tunes to go along with (something I've started doing now that I'm living on my own).

At any rate, at one point I asked him how cool it must have been for him growing up, going to record stores and concerts and playing 8-tracks from his first car... and he told me very somberly that most of his peers thought Queen was really strange and how "gay" it was to like them.  How he had to hide his favorite band from his friends to not be made fun of.

Make no mistake, Freddie Mercury was a very strange man - I won't deny that for a second.  But I suppose there was quite a shift in attitudes by the time I was his age, and I have never worried or cared for a moment what my friends thought of my favorite music.  For that I am grateful, but also a little sad for him having to deal with that growing up.

Anyway, I still listen to those bands a ton, and a lot of times I think of him when I hear certain songs.


the backside of 20

Current Mood: grateful

I promise I will write about my internship soon, but I wanted to type this one up before it fell by the wayside.

I was never a big birthday kinda person.  I mean, as a kid, I loved getting stuff.  I liked getting some special attention from my family.  I went to a couple of birthday parties of other kids, and for my 16th birthday my mom let me take a few of my very close buds to (I think) laser tag.  Other than that, not really a big fanfare - I don't set my alarm extra early, I don't know or particularly care what *time* I was born, and while I don't mind people knowing when my birthday is or celebrating it, I don't really go out of my way to announce it.  I don't hide it, but I won't bring it up in conversation, does that make sense?

Plus, on top of that, I kinda like to sit at home and do my own thing most nights.  I mean, yeah, I like to go out sometimes and do things but when I do, I much prefer them to be scheduled in advance with a set start and end time.  I realize this probably makes me sound like a robot or a huge introvert or both, but that's just how it is.  Deal with it.

So when it comes to birthdays, especially now that I'm older (ugh this is making me sound like an adult), I think my ideal celebration is probably just going out to a nice dinner someplace I like to eat with people I really like - like Gold Star Chili with my family or Triple XXX with the Ship of Fools, something like that.  I don't even really care that much about presents - I know plenty of college students who really can't afford it, I'd prefer something personal instead of generic which can be tough (ask Jenny), and I don't like it when I have to guess what level of friendship I am with somebody and feel reciprocal gift obligation.  Plus I don't want a bunch of things that I can't use (I still move too much these days).  And now that I have a summer birthday (K-12 I did not, now I do and summer birthday people get totally ignored, haha) I've been at Purdue for the past few years when my birthday rolls around.

SO anyway, with that all in mind, this year was a little different.  I'm in Texas for my birthday, and at this point I've been here all of a week and a half.  I don't really know many people around here, I don't know many cool places, I'm broke and I have no car.

The night before I got kinda bummed.  I was feeling homesick, missing my wife, and feeling stupid that I suddenly wanted my birthday to be a bigger deal.

Well, at midnight I started getting some text messages.  Then more when I woke up.  When I got to work we had a meeting with our whole intern group, and 97 interns kicked it off by singing Happy Birthday to me (probably the largest group I've ever had sing that to me!) [the meeting was not for my birthday, FYI].  Several friends and family called me and left me birthday wishes on my phone.

Facebook blew up with birthday messages, and I used to not think it was that big of a deal.  This year, I can honestly say I've never been so happy to read those messages.  I wanted to give every single one of those people a hug.  So much birthday love when I was feeling homesick, and each message gave me a smile.

When I done with work, my friend Andrew (and his new gf Kimberly) took me out to a local brewpub/steakhouse/sports bar where we got to watch hockey (Stanley Cup game 1) and baseball (Reds!).  I got a plush T.Rex and some Hulk gloves, and ordered a giant steak.  Got a free dessert, and they insisted on paying for me.

Then, when I got home from that, I found out that Jenny had arranged for a local dessert company to deliver 2 dozen freshly baked cookies (and milk) to my apartment!  She even knew that even though the company had several varieties of cookies to pick, I would only want chocolate chip and M&M ones.  Love this woman.

So when it was all said and done, I had a pretty killer birthday, and it happened exactly when I needed it!

Oh, I will also mention that Jenny got me a super cool gift.  Some backstory (as if this post wasn't long enough): at some point around when I was in middle school, my mom let us pick if we got presents, or she would give us a fixed amount of money and take us shopping for whatever we wanted.  Me, being the kid that I was, did not take this opportunity to go wild and purchase whatever suited my fancy, no, it became an exercise in planning and careful calculations, using the most recent Toys R Us ad from the Sunday paper, and later a bit of internet research (yes, at that time, the internet was a fringe thing).

This once a year opportunity was the one chance I had to purchase some big ticket items that otherwise were hopelessly out of my reach, allowance wise.  For three straight years, this included going after a large Star Wars Micro Machine playset that went along with all of my various Star Wars space ships and figurines.  The first year I got the Hoth playset, the second year I got the Death Star, and by the time the third year rolled around...the Yavin playset was gone.  Nowhere to be found.

I don't want to be melodramatic, but I was devastated.  I pined for it in a way that only a child and collector could, and as the years wore on I looked for it, but I never saw it again.  Heck, the Star Wars Micro Machine line really died off not long after that, and it appeared that that chapter of my life was closed.

You can probably guess where this is going, but I'm gonna tell you anyway.  Fast forward to this year, where on a bored weekend Jenny watched the entire Star Wars Trilogy (OT of course) back to back to back with me.  While we were hanging out, I got out ALL my old Star Wars toys and she patiently humored me while I explained that the differences between the different TIE fighter models (the Empire chose to specialize their fighters based on mission profile rather than develop a true all purpose craft), and that it wasn't until just before the Battle of Endor that the Rebel Alliance had the resources to develop the B-Wing starfighter, things like that.  I also told her about my childhood-defining tale of never managing to find the Yavin playset...the one that got away.

Well, just before I left for Texas Jenny gave me my birthday present, and lo and behold it was the Yavin playset, custom ordered from a specialty toy shop!  She remembered my story and figured out *exactly* which one it was (which, given the dearth of options when it comes to Star Wars toys, trust me, there's plenty of opportunity for confusion).  It was a total blast from the past (I didn't know any still existed!) and was yet another example of my excellent wife getting me a great gift that was very personal and meaningful.