Wednesday, November 30, 2011

First class treatment

Wine o'clock, somewhere over Ohio

I must confess, I was not quite my usual festive self at Thanksgiving this year. All day long I was thinking about the TV interview the next day.

Partly I was concerned about it going well, but mostly I was worried about getting up on time (4:20 am) and being clear of head and white of cornea enough to do a decent job. In the end, it went great, as can be seen here.

But it did put a damper on the evening before. I had to get to bed early and I had to forego the wine at dinner. These occasions are dangerous -- every time you turn around somebody's filling your wine glass. By the end of the evening you don't know if you've had three glasses or thirty-seven.

I was feeling fairly cheated, but then my reward came at the end of the day, when I was upgraded to first class on the flight home. (Not on my own merits, mind you -- I have the good fortune to run with a super-platinum crowd.)

And that is where the bottomless wine glass came into play. Hoo-boy. Good thing it was just a two-hour flight or I might not have woken up 'til Sunday.

It was wonderful to see how the other 1% lives. I could really get used to it. In fact, flying is barely a chore when you've got endless leg room and a giant cushy seat.

The only downside? The plane was configured so first class boarded to the left and coach to the right. So I didn't get the chance to look elite to all those people streaming back to their sardine can seats.

Probably they'd be thinking the same thing I think when I file past: how did this schmoe rate?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tina Fey: Sexism and The Second City

Over the holiday weekend I finished Tina Fey's magnificent and funny book, Bossypants. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in acting, improv, TV, breathing and life.

I knew she had some insights in there similar to my own about the application of improv principles to the workplace. And I was actually surprised at just how similarly we treated the subject in places. For instance, on the topic of agreement, I say:
"If your scene partner says, 'Man, it's hot out here!" you can respond in one of two ways: 'Yeah, I'm sweating like a Pennsylvania steelworker in July!' (right) or 'Really? I find the temperature quite agreeable' (wrong)."
Meanwhile, Tina gives this advice in reference to the principle of YES, AND:
"If I start a scene with 'I can't believe it's so hot in here,' and you just say, 'Yeah...' we're kind of at a standstill. But if I say, 'I can't believe it's so hot in here,' and you say, 'What did you expect? We're in hell,' now we're getting somewhere."
Obviously, Tina Fey is a very insightful person. And way funnier than I am.

Another similarity I found in our experiences at Second City is that we both encountered narrow-minded authority figures identifying what they viewed as our limitations. For me, it was my age. For Tina, it was her uterus.

She observed:
"Of all the places I've worked that were supposedly boys' clubs, The Second City was the only one where I experienced institutionalized gender nonsense. For example, a director of one of the main companies once justified cutting a scene by saying, 'The audience doesn't want to see a scene between two women.' Whaaa?"
She goes on to discuss the groundbreaking milestone she had a part in: Second City's first 50/50 male/female cast.


Of course, being a dude, I never encountered much sexism there, but the conventional, limited thinking from which it stems? Yeah, there was plenty of that. Not more than most organizations of its size and age, but more than you might expect from a place that prides itself on creativity.

Regarding sexism, I had the pleasure of taking a couple of classes with the wonderful Mary Scruggs. One day a fellow student -- a male, needless to say -- complained that he couldn't write woman characters. Personally, my eyeballs are incapable of rolling back far enough in my head to give this trite observation the mocking skepticism that it deserves.

But Mary, ever pleasant and frank, simply advised him, in essence, "Write the character as a man then change the name to Susan."


I'm actually writing a letter to Tina. I don't know if it will get to her, but I want to give it a try.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Keeping Up and The Spray Heard (Almost) Round the World

This afternoon on Facebook, somebody posted the original UC-Davis pepper spray photo (not the countless hilarious memes that have come after), and a friend of his actually commented, "Where's that from?"

How is that possible? How is it possible for someone to be so cut off from the news? The incident happened Friday and since that time I saw the infamous YouTube video, along with a half million other people, as well as multiple other angles, photos and analysis.

I read the chancellor's original mealy-mouthed statement defending the police, the resulting outrage, the eyewitness accounts, the calls for her resignation, her later, more conciliatory statement, the widespread publication of the offending officer's name, email address, and phone number, her suspension of two officers, her walk of shame through the silent students, her suspension of the police chief, and numerous articles, blog posts, comments and other bits of analysis.

That's 72 hours worth of happenings. From political blogs to mainstream newspapers to cable and network television, not to mention Facebook and Twitter. And this guy missed all that? Was he in a coma?

Similarly, people are expressing outrage and surprise over the failure of the supercommittee to reach an agreement. I've probably read 30,000 to 50,000 words about the supercommittee over the past couple of months. It was clearly headed for failure. And, in fact, in this case failure meant the Democrats refused to capitulate to the Republicans' demand for a 230:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases (that is NOT an exaggeration. That was their final proposal).

Thank god they failed. It was all meaningless anyway. And predestined. Let the Bush tax cuts expire and most of our problems are solved.

Maybe I spend too much time keeping up on all this stuff, but I don't think it's any different than other peoples' obsessive devotion to sports or comic books or whatever it is.

But then I read articles like this: The Steve Martin Method. And though it's a guide to being famous, it's actually about success. One of the lessons:
Martin credits “diligence” for his success. But he’s quick to clarify that he’s not referring to working hard over time. What he really means is staying diligent in his interest in the one field he was trying to master; being able to ignore the urge to start working on other projects at the same time.

It can be hard to ruthlessly whittle down your ambitions to a needle-thin point. But Martin is clear on this point: if you don’t saturate your life in a single quest, you’ll dilute your focus to a point where becoming outstanding becomes out of reach.
Am I too diluted? Corporate communications, acting, book promoting, public speaking, to say nothing of other interests like politics and current events, reading, movies, fitness and nutrition and, um, cats.

To say nothing of the trajectory of my PR career career, spent in the nonprofit world in DC, then politics/government in DC, then state-level government and media relations in Ohio, then agency PR work in Chicago. I don't know. I used to mock the senior-level people at the PR firm who had spent 25 years IN THE SAME FIRM, let alone the same damned field.

Over that time they built a lot of influence. But certainly their expertise must have topped out around year 10 or 15. I couldn't imagine that life. I love that I've done different things. Even within acting: improv then sketch then theater then sketch and play writing, then film, commercial and industrial and print.

A case could be made that all the current events reading is part of my job. I always remember that from the PR firm: it was said that we worked in the one field where it was not only okay but expected to find people reading the newspaper at their desks. And certainly the UC-Davis case, just like Penn State and Netflix and so many other crises, will be endlessly dissected in PR journals over the years.

I have no answer. Just some thinking to do. About focus and moderation.

Friday, November 18, 2011

In My Head

I had a difficult pair of auditions this week (original audition plus callback) for an industrial. The scripts had tons and tons of highly technical copy (it's in the healthcare field) and they made a point over and over of saying there would be no teleprompter on set. If we didn't think we could memorize it, we should not do the audition.

I worked the copy for a couple of hours for the first audition only to find they had changed the scripts that morning. Oof.

For the callback, part of me said don't get fooled again. But another part said, just go ahead and memorize the damned things. So I did. Between yesterday and this morning I probably spent a good four hours working the copy. Thankfully they had not changed the script this time.

I did my best with it, but having it in your head on your own is an entirely different thing than performing it in front of 7 or 8 people. At the same time, they wanted us to be engaging and conversational and interacting with each other, and I'm thinking, which is it? Off book or casual and natural? Because accomplishing both is pretty tough.

The thing is, we weren't required to be off-book for the audition, and they even had the lines up. But I figured since it was such a concern of theirs for the booking that I ought to show some facility with a script.

And I'm glad I did the work, I suppose. Especially since another actor in the waiting room said that he wasn't going to get off book until they started paying him. That made me feel like a professional in comparison.

I still don't get the "no teleprompter" thing. Are they worried that we won't sound natural? Because I think it's just the opposite. I can sound incredibly natural reading off the teleprompter, but when I'm struggling with memorized lines in my head, that's where things get a little shaky.

I will either get this job or I won't. That's my prediction.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Doing the Hustle

In doing some client work the other day, I found some use for this old quote that I used to have on my website:
"Things may come to those who way ... but only the things left by those who hustle."
The source of the quote? Abraham Lincoln. Yeah, I've always been skeptical of that. It's hard to picture the Great Emancipator -- or anyone in the mid-19th Century, for that matter -- using the word "hustle."

I think I hit a wall today. All the hustling is dragging me down. I would love just a few things served up to me on a silver platter. Handed to me on a velvet pillow. Presented to me wrapped up in a bow.

I was reminded of this today when a PR industry publication that I've been pitching since August (August!) finally ran an article of mine. I'd love to link to it but it's in print only. Old school.

Of the 7 articles I've gotten published and posted, just one came through an invitation. Of the 5 speeches I've booked, just one was offered up to me. And that doesn't count all the unsuccessful pitches I've made. Which I guess I haven't actually counted, but it feels like a lot right now.

And it's never quite enough. Success only begets want. I was super happy when I booked that TV appearance in DC. For about an hour. But then I started feeling like I had to book a second one for later in the day and now that's my yardstick, and while others may be impressed, to me, just having one will be a bit of a disappointment.

It's not that I can't be happy with what I have. I have had a number of awesome projects and accomplishments that I would call a home run and that I was over the moon about. I guess that's what I want. More home runs, fewer base hits.

Or, I suppose, with a little more of that Abe Lincoln-style hustle I could be converting those base hits into inside-the-park home runs. Like this guy -- the original Charlie Hustle:

But really, I would just like one day where I go to the ballpark and the other team forfeits, handing me an easy victory.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Putting it all out there

About 10 years ago, when I was just starting this performance career, I very briefly tried my hand at standup comedy.

It was among the saddest, most isolating experiences of my life.

I would go to this open mic late on Monday nights at a bar, going straight from my weekly improv class to sign up on the first-come/first perform list. So while my improv friends were out at the bar together cracking jokes and deconstructing that night's class, I was waiting in another bar across town for my moment to go on.

The standups were a close-knit group that I wasn't part of. They watched each other's sets and laughed heartily in that way you do that's more about knowing the performer than truly appreciating the comedy.

By the time I got on stage, around 1 or 1:30 in the morning (these were Monday nights, btw), most people were off gabbing in the front room. I would do my two minutes or so, sometimes bombing, sometimes getting yanked and once or twice doing okay. Then I'd head over to the El and sit waiting for the Brown Line train, which often took a half-hour at that time of night.

Needless to say, I didn't do this for very long. A few months maybe, with other open mics mixed in. But I was always sad and lonely and thinking about the bonding time I was missing with my classmates. It really made me appreciate the value of an ensemble.

Hustling this book has been a similar sort of experience. Mostly on my own, constantly pitching to strangers, with a mix of rejection and acceptance. Today was a pretty good day, though. I'm going on TV in Washington the morning after Thanksgiving. Duly inspired, I'm going to pitch a second station for midday.

But even more satisfying than that were these words of encouragement I received in an email today from an old colleague:
Rob, you should feel a great sense of pride. Not only did you forge out to explore acting and writing, but you have succeeded at both! And, with all your speaking engagements and media appearances, you may be hiring staff soon.
That's really, really nice to hear. It fortifies me a little as I pick up the phone to call another editor or producer. (Talk about a tough room!)

Even with a lot of encouragement and support, I doubt I would ever have been a good standup comic. But I think I'm getting good at this other thing, and building toward something pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Close to Home

Arden Courts - Memory Care TV Campaign from Hart on Vimeo.

Here is the Alzheimer's commercial I shot early this summer. (It's the second one, starting at the :30 mark.)

I was worried that it would come across as maudlin or exploitative, but I think they struck a good balance. Sending the message that when the time comes, it's okay to ask for help and maybe assuaging the guilt that comes with taking the next steps.

It's actually the first spot that I found more disturbing, with the man applying toothpaste to his razor. A few years ago, when dad was still up and about, we were down in the kitchen and heard a ruckus upstairs. Dad's wife later explained that he had tried to shave with his toothbrush.

So it's an interesting detail they picked up on there. Dad did a lot of that -- applying anti-perspirant to the back of his neck like sunscreen, for instance. They did their homework.

I hope I did the issue some justice.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The sheep at the gate

Act Like You Mean Business introduction
October 10, 2011

Last night I attended the monthly meeting of this actors' group I belong to and which I addressed last month. Person after person came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed the presentation and how helpful it was.

Sometimes I start to think that my material is fluff. But then the more direct feedback I get from people the more I realize that this stuff I'm spouting is good. Really, really good.

And I'm starting to kind of pity the fools who don't recognize it. The blog editors, the trade reporters, the TV and radio people, the professional associations. The people I'm constantly, constantly pitching. Some of them get it, but many don't.

And the trouble is, too many people in positions of decision-making authority abdicate their responsibility. They choose to be gatekeepers instead of curators. Instead of judging a person or idea or trend on its merits and putting themselves in the happy position of sharing something new and exciting with their audience, they just conduct a credentials check. Show me your papers!

How many Twitter followers and Facebook friends and blog subscribers do you have? Who else has published your stuff? Where have you been booked?

So that's what the gatekeepers look at, and that's why we constantly see and hear the same tired things from the same kind of people (old men with mustaches) over and over and over again.

I am busting my butt to break out of this. Bit by bit, with every speech (just booked my fifth one yesterday), every article (another being published any day now), every interview (just got a nice nibble from a national radio program). And someday it will all pay off. I know it will. And then the people who had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor will be left kicking themselves for their lack of foresight.

These are the same people who lament that they did not buy Apple stock when it was $10 a share. But will they change their behavior? Will they exercise a bias for the fresh and new versus the tried and true? Will they take a risk? Let go of their fear? Dare to do something different?

Probably not.

Friday, November 04, 2011


This has been sticking in my craw for some time now and, as usual, few people seem to share my level of interest/outrage in the subject.

A Facebook friend turned me on to an old Guns N' Roses song by the name of Used to Love Her, which is a fun little country-themed piece of mostly harmless misogyny:

So I downloaded it and the more I listened, the more I thought it sounded familiar. And it also occurred to me that I could actually figure out the chords by ear, which is not my strong suit. It's a very simple D-A-G.

Then when I confirmed that online, I realized why it sounded so familiar. It's the same chords as one of the dozen or so songs I know how to play -- Dead Flowers, a country-infused song by the Rolling Stones:

I mean, GNR adds an extra A in the verse -- D-A-G-A -- while Dead Flowers goes back to D after the D-A-G. And they have a different melody, or whatever it's called.

So maybe it's different enough, but here are two other major smoking gun-type clues. First, the album that Used to Love Her appears on is called ... wait for it ... LIES, which just happens to be a Rolling Stones song from their Some Girls album.

AND ... GNR actually covered Dead Flowers themselves, so they must have liked the song:

Again, it's just me that cares. And I guess the good news is I can now play another song without really having to learn it. Though, like every song I play, it will follow the rudimentary folk-strum pattern that seems to be the only way I can play and sing at the same time.

So that's what has me worked up right now.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I am the definition of fun

Main Street Soda Grill, Vermilion, Ohio

This is what I tell myself. AND very clearly sense from those around me.

Any ordinary person would make the drive from Cleveland to Chicago the same ol' same ol' way they always do -- the Turnpike, with it's generic views and sterile (except for the filthy ones) oases.

But me, I'm an explorer. I saw more of of Ohio in my 2.5 years there than 90% of the natives see in a lifetime, from Zanesville to Steubenville, Marietta to Mansfield, Wapakoneta to Warren. So when I had the opportunity to finally see the Lake Erie coast between Cleveland and Toledo, I grabbed that bull by both horns.

Well, not so much. I didn't get to go the whole route, because even the most patient of traveling companions have their limits. But we did take a two-hour detour to see a 20-mile stretch from Avon Lake to Vermilion.

We saw pretty lakefront and big houses, out-of-place mid-rise apartment buildings and run-down ranch houses AND the quaint little town of Vermilion, which boasts a genuine olden-tymes diner.

And all along the way, I provided humorous commentary and composed copy for award-winning commercial spots advertising any of the many pizza and rib joints we passed on the road. It seems a strange combo to me, but I imagine an ad going like this:
Mom: What's everybody want for dinner?
Sally: I want pizza!
Bobby: I want ribs!
Sally: Pizza!
Bobby: Ribs!
Dad: Simmer down, you two!
Mom: You can both have what you want!
Sally/Bobby: Huuuuuuuhhhhh?
Dad: This is still America, and we're taking you to Geppetto's Pizza & Ribs!
Sally/Bobby: Yaaaayyyyy!
Mom: Thank you, Geppetto's Pizza & Ribs, for bringing much-needed harmony to this stressed out family!
See? One hundred percent fun!