Wrestling has always been a big part of my life. I was recently asked to speak at a wrestling banquet at my high school. I chose to share my journey into the sport, the life lessons I’ve learned, and some words of encouragement for the kids going forward.
Catchy headline right? Well, it’s all true though. I did, in fact, win a yearlong supply of Cap’n Crunch. Prepare for the craziest story you’ve ever heard in your life (not really).
Back in October, I was invited to participate in THE CRUNCH BOWL. It was a Cap’n Crunch themed cereal obstacle course much to the likes of American Gladiator, Ninja Warrior, and Wipeout. People were hand picked off of social media by the Cap’n himself. I find it funny that one of my biggest feelings of accomplishment in my life was the moment I got a direct message notification from the Cap’n. It might as well have been a message from Saturday Night Live.
In the message, he invited me out to North Avenue beach with instructions. Prior to the event, I felt a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I’d be walking the plank or if at some point I’d plunge into the depths of Davey Jones locker. I just knew the time and the place.
When I arrived at the event, I made sure to introduce myself to the Cap’n who was standing around observing the beach. I walked right up and introduced myself, but he said nothing. He just stared at me and then put his hands together. I nodded and walked away. The Cap’n is a man of few words.
At the beach, I was teamed up with a random bystander who I thought kind of looked like Nick Jonas but not really. A bizarro Jonas from Earth-2. Each team was given a specific cereal name and there were 5-6 teams in total. My team was OOPS ALL BERRIES and I competed alongside teams like ORIGINAL CRUNCH, PEANUT BUTTER CRUNCH, SPRINKLED DONUTS, and CRUNCH BERRIES. The stakes? Whoever completed the course with the best time won an all-expenses paid trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Queue the sound of a record scratch. That’s right. I said ALL EXPENSES PAID. Once I heard that it quickly went from a fun day playing at the beach to feeling like I was competing in the Olympics. The event was hosted by celebrity Adam Pally who prompted the competitors asking them, “who wants to go first?”
I remember having a strong air of self-confidence wash over me. I stepped forward and said, “We’ll do it!” I felt like we could set the bar. In my head I pictured us completing the course in record time. I visualized myself running to the finish line and diving into the Cap’n arms as him and I ran to the ship and sailed around the world in search of the treasures of the deep, In reality, going first turned out to be a grave mistake. Buckle yourselves in as I take you through the obstacle course.
Jousting the Pirate
For the first obstacle, you had to stand in a large inflatable raft atop of pedestal and joust a guy in a huge Pirate costume gladiator-style. You had to stay on the pedestal for 30 seconds straight and throughout this whole bout, your competitors hurled foam cereal (but like hard foam that hurt if they threw it hard enough) at you. If you’re thinking to yourself, “it’s only 30 seconds” then you’ve never fought a man in a pirate costume before. Seriously, you don’t know what you’re talking about. When my partner asked who should do the activity, I jumped at the chance. I thought, “This will be easy.” For some context, I was a former Division I Big 10 college wrestler, I figured that I would have a little bit of a leg up on the competition given my background and balance. Then, we got started. I started jostling back and forth with the guy swinging these pugil sticks quickly realizing whoever I was going up against wasn’t just some schlub in a suit. He was hammering me with these sticks in wave after wave as I felt like Apollo Creed fighting Drago. I stood there getting pummeled like a rag doll as spectators screamed “he’s killing him!” I remember thinking to myself, “Who the hell is under that thing? Lou Ferigno!?!” I got mad and threw my whole body into him knocking both him and I off the pedestal restarting the timer. I finally got through it and fell out of the inflatable raft dead/exhausted as I slapped my partners hand to go onto the next event.
Riding the shark
For the second obstacle, my partner had to ride a mechanical shark while I recovered from my first ever UFC fight. All my partner had to do was ride this robot Jaws for 20 consecutive seconds and we’d go onto the next activity. I watched my partner hold on for dear life while a man in a left shark Superbowl costume danced with me. It was hilariously ridiculous.
Being a Mermaid
For the third obstacle, I had to wear a mermaid tail and sit under a water balloon dunk tank It was the first time I’d ever worn a mermaid tail and quite frankly, I don’t look bad in it. I could pull it off and I think I might start making it a new fashion statement. I sat there while my partner attempted to throw a ball at a bullseye. Seems easy enough, but unfortunately, I didn’t have Kerry Wood as my partner because it took about 5-7 throws before he got it. I remember thinking to myself, “yep we’re done. We lost right here.” As the time clicked away throw after throw I could see my girlfriend in the distance shaking her head at the realization that the trip to Mexico was disappearing.
Sliding into a giant bowl of cereal
For the next event, we had to climb up an inflatable pirate ship and then hop down a slide into a bowl of cereal. Now, when I say bowl of cereal I literally mean a giant bowl of cereal. It was filled with what looked like milk and those huge foam pieces of Cap’n Crunch that people were hurling at me only minutes earlier. I went down the slide face first like a buffoon and thought I was going to drown. Once you got out of the bowl soaking wet, you had to run through a tireyard (tires painted like sprinkled donuts) on your way to a rock wall.
Scaling the Wall
Literally this thing was the biggest rock-wall I’ve ever seen and was terrifying. At the top of it, a giant red spoon dangled. After I retrieved he spoon I kicked off of the wall propelling myself out only to forget that a thing called physics and momentum exists. I slammed back into the wall as the host and audience gasped. I threw my arms up Weekend at Bernies style to let the crowd know I survived.
With the giant spoons in hand, we now had to use them to dig up a buried treasure. On the sandy beach there were huge mounds of sand where an X marked the spot. As I dug and dug as hard as I could with a giant flimsy plastic spoon, I thought to myself, “this is how I’m going to die.” Finally, we uncovered a buried treasure chest which we needed to open to find the treasure. Unfortunately, the thing had been buried in wet sand or something and was basically locked shut. I pulled and yanked on the latch of the chest while jokingly yelling, “it’s rigged!” The crowd just stared at me. Eventually (30 seconds to an hour later) we got it open to reveal that it was full of delicious Cap’n Crunch. We dumped it into a bowl to complete the event.
CHICAGO, IL, OCTOBER 20, 2015 :
(Jean-Marc Giboux/ AP Images for Cap’n Crunch)
I then watched as team after team made their way through the course. Some doing better and some worse. In the end, I took 3rd place. No trip to Mexico. All hope was lost until suddenly the sneaky Cap’n had a surprise in store. The host informed all of the competitors that we were all going to win a yearlong supply of Cap’n Crunch for competing. I threw my arms into the air as the National Anthem played in my mind. When we were checking out I got a glimpse of the guy in the pirate costume to see that while it wasn’t actually Lou Ferigno, it was a guy who was jacked to the max. He shook my hand which crunched into dust and grabbed a shirt as a memento for the road.
All in all, it was an amazing experience and so much fun. It was physically taxing yet fulfilling. Like that sense of accomplishment people feel when they’ve completed a triathlon or the Crossfit Games or the Olympics. That’s how I felt finishing the Crunch Bowl. That’s comparable right?
A few months later I received the first half of the yearlong supply. It was right around the holidays. I had received two giant boxes that contained 20 individual boxes of Cap’n Crunch (some Original, some Crunchberries – all delicious).
Friends, family, co-workers, and even my landlord came out of the woodwork trying to get their sugar fix. Honestly, you would have thought I’d won the lottery. They treated the news of me winning a yearlong supply of cereal like I’d acquired a small collection of gold bullion from Fort Knox. Daily, people were saying”got any Crunchberry” and “don’t try to run from me!” My landlord asked for multiple boxes and misinformed the other tenants that I’d won a lifetime supply.
Word traveled about the Crunch Bowl online and I even became a meme. There’s one lifelong goal I can check off the bucket list.
On Christmas, I made a spectacle of it all and wrapped up an enormous box filled with the individual cereal boxes for the family get together. I got everyone’s attention and said, “Alright everybody. Here we go. The big one.” All the kids were so excited whispering among themselves, “what could it be?” and “do you think it’s a game?” Needless to say, expectations were sky high. I quickly tore away the paper and pulled out all of the cereal watching the joy and happiness wash away from the kid’s faces. What once was a look of excitement now remained a dead-eyed stare with a slack jaw. I maniacally laughed as I held the boxes in my hand while people stood around with puzzled faces simply saying, “WHAT?” The kids looked at me like I was the worst person in the world. It was a fantastic moment that I’ll cherish forever.
I’m currently waiting for the second half of the loot that I plundered and pillaged the beach for that day. We’ll see what I do with that next. As for what I have left from the first treasure. Well, let’s just say I’ve eaten a lot of cereal and given out a lot of cereal gifts.
My friends Claire Linic and Tyler Gillespie compiled a book of “uplifting tales of those weird kids you went to high school with” and one of my stories made it into the book! I am so honored to be included and share the pages of this book with so many incredibly talented individuals.
If you’d like to read my story as well as others, you can pick up a copy of The Awkward Phase on Amazon today.
I recently sent my old high school wrestling coach a letter to give to the team. When I was a wrestler in high school, I’d always look at the names on the mats, on the record boards, and in the trophy cases and wondered how they achieved the success they did. I had assumed hard work, but I’d always wanted to know what their path was like and if they had anything to pass down. Insights, tips, tricks, and pretty much anything else that would help me get my name up on the board next to theirs. So, 10 years later, after a successful wrestling career and retirement to become a comedian/actor (lol), I’ve decided to write a letter to them passing on what I had learned. Think of it like a time machine where I’m writing a letter to my former self. Much in the same vein as a lot of articles and blog posts I write, I put together a list of 10 things I learned through wrestling. These would be life lessons that would make me into the person I am today. Below, is that letter. While some reading might not be wrestlers or even athletes for that matter, the message and a lot of the lessons are universal. Hope you enjoy.
My name’s Ryan Nallen. I asked Coach Aug to share this with you. I used to wrestle at Notre Dame (class of ’06) and I wanted to share some words of wisdom with you regarding what I learned when I was in your shoes, and how to make the most out of your season/wrestling career. I’m writing this because I’d always wanted to hear what the names on the mat had to say. I wanted to know how they got their name there or in the record books or in the trophy case. I want to share with you what I wanted to hear when I was in your shoes.
First of all, wrestling has taught me everything I know. It taught me life lessons like: self-discipline, determination, confidence, focus, goal-setting, and perseverance. It taught me that the only person you can blame should things not go the way you intended is yourself. It changed who I was and made me into who I am today. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and there has been nothing yet that compares. Below are some life lessons wrestling taught me that I’d like to highlight with you:
- HARD WORK. Let me assure you. In life, no one is going to hand you anything. Ever. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and be a state champion. You need to work and you need to work hard. You need to train harder than you’ve ever trained before. If you want to be a champion, you need to train like a champion. And I’m not talking about just going to practice every day, putting in your time, and then going home. I’m talking about going the extra mile, waking up to run bleachers before school starts, doing another set of pushups or sit-ups after practice, and arriving early and leaving late. I’m talking about being the first guy in and the last guy out. It’s what you do when no one’s looking that makes all the difference.
- TALKING vs. DOING. When it comes to goals, don’t just talk about it. Do it. In life, you’re going to meet a lot of TALKERs. People who say “I want this” and “I want that.” They’ll say, “one day I want to open up a business” or “one day I’ll start eating right.” These people will be talking for the rest of their lives. Be a doer. Get to work. You don’t need to tell the world what your dreams are nor do you need to talk about what you’ve accomplished. Go out and let the work speak for itself. Let your success make all the noise.
- COMFORTABLE. Don’t ever give up and don’t ever get comfortable. The match is not over until somebody gets pinned, teched or the buzzer rings at the end of the third period. Champions keep going when they don’t have anything left in their tank. Winning or losing, always be on the attack and never let your guard down. The second (literally) you get comfortable is when you lose.
- GOALS. Dream big. WRITE them down. Decide what you want, how you’re going to make it happen, and then GET IT. This doesn’t just apply to wrestling but everything in life. I wanted to go to college and I knew I had to have good grades to get there. I wrote down every day what I wanted and what needed to be done to accomplish it. It’s the physical act of writing them down that adds more importance to it for some reason. I remember on a bus ride to the sectional tournament I breathed on the window and wrote IHSA Sectional Champion. When the tournament was over, I got back on the bus, sat right where I was sitting before, and put a checkmark next to the faint window writing while holding my bracket board.
- CONFIDENCE vs. COCKINESS. This was a lesson I learned the hard way. I went from never wrestling before high school to being ranked #2 in the state and #13 in the country by my third year wrestling. I thought I was unstoppable and it effected my work ethic. I didn’t think I needed to push myself that hard anymore. I got cocky. I learned just how wrong I was once I got to the state tournament and lost in the first round. Once you’re on top, you need to work harder than before to stay on top. There will ALWAYS be someone coming to knock you off the podium.
- NEGATIVITY. When I started wrestling some people told me, “you’ll never make it down state”, “you’ll never wrestle at a Division I college”, and “you can’t compete we this guys because they’ve been wrestling their whole lives and you just started.” In life, people are going to tell you NO. It’ll happen all the time. They will throw their own personal insecurities in your face to bring you down. Rise above that. They aren’t the problem unless you believe what they say. I know firsthand that the greatest opponent you’re ever going to face is yourself. You are the one that allows their words to bother you and you are the one that lets doubt creep in. You can say I CAN and I WILL as quickly as you say I CANT.
- WINNING and LOSING. Win with humility. One of the greatest things I was ever told (Ed Luety) after I started to celebrate was, “Act like you’ve been there before.” You shouldn’t need to celebrate because winning shouldn’t be a surprise to you. If you do celebrate, wait until you’re in Champaign pointing at your family from mat 1 because you’d just secured a medal. Should you lose, don’t let it destroy you. In fact, let it motivate you. With every loss or setback, you have to say, “I’m not going to let this keep me down. I’m going to get back up and come back.” Learn from your mistakes or your failures and then make sure they never happen again. When I lost, it felt like the worst thing in the world and I had no one to blame but myself. It felt like someone had died. But it needed to happen because it got me back on course to making sure I worked harder than before. For some perspective, in my entire high school career, I won 117 matches. I lost 11 times. 5 of those losses were to guys who would later win state championships.
- Be a sponge. Ask questions. You need to learn everything that you can about the sport. I lived it and I breathed it. When I was in high school, I used to study technique tapes (yes video tapes) all the time and I knew who all the greats were. I tried to acquire the knowledge that my competitors already had from years and years of wrestling. I wrote down specific bullet points I wanted to try in practice. I’d come in with a notebook on how to double-leg like Brandon Slay, leg turn like Kendall Cross, low single like John Smith and Cael Sanderson, or crank arm bars like Tom and Terry Brands. Find role models and emulate them. These guys were successful for a reason. Try to be just like them or take what you like and add it to your arsenal/toolbox. Also, know your competition. I knew who the best guys in the state were in my weight class and what their wrestling track record was like. If you’re going up against a school that’s known for headlocks, there’s a good chance to be on the lookout for that with your competitor.
- MOTIVATION. Do something to stay motivated and focused on your goal every day. Literally go to YouTube and type in motivational video and watch what you find. It’ll spark a fire inside of you that maybe you didn’t know existed. I would constantly keep myself motivated when I was your age by reading articles and watching videos. I watched the Rocky movies, Rudy, and Vision Quest so much I could quote them. I had a poster of Rocky on my wall, and I watched The Season (ESPN documentary about Iowa Wrestling) probably 100 times. That would lead to the entire team yelling “Iowa Style” during the practices of our 2004 season. A season that would result in that team going all the way to the Elite Eight. It kept everyone pushing themselves because we emulated the toughness that the Hawkeye wrestling program was known for. Find that thing that keeps you going.
- MENTAL TOUGHNESS. The most important of all. The mind is a very powerful thing because imagination harnesses a plethora of possibilities. There are those who are tough and there are those who are not. And I’m not talking about physical strength, but instead mental strength through the power of belief. If you BELIEVE and I mean truly believe that you can accomplish something than you can. If you believe you’re unstoppable than you are. You need to be ready to shut off the self-doubt, pain, and distractions. If you believe that you are a force to be reckoned with than there is no way anyone can beat you. The only person who can tell you different is yourself. Every time I stepped on the mat I believed I could win and was going to do anything in my power to make that happen. It became part of who I am and stayed with me forever.
With that, I want you to all know that you capable of anything you dream of. This is a great time in your life and you should enjoy it. Make the most out of it and give it everything you got so one day you can look back with no regrets. Write down your goals and go after them with a relentless drive and passion like no other.
Some of you might want to be a state qualifier, a state placer, or a state champion. IT’S POSSIBLE. Some of you might want to wrestle in college, be an NCAA champion, or Olympic champion. IT’S POSSIBLE. All of you should want to be the best wrestling team in the state and country. IT’S POSSIBLE. I have been in your shoes and I know the power of belief and how far hard work can get you. The point is, you need to know what you want and believe you can achieve it. It’s going to take some hard work and it’s not going to be easy.
Are you up for the challenge?
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller
I feel like this quote really captured what I experienced last night. While I can’t explain the feeling I felt, I can tell you about how important the show was. Let me explain. Some time ago, these really nice guys decided to put up a free show in their garage and opened their doors (garage door) to anyone who wanted to play there. They called it the Shithole. There were no cliques and there were no restrictions. It was all about celebrating the arts. Nothing else. Standup, Improv, Sketch, Solo, and Musicians were all welcome. It went great and everyone loved it. It went so great they put up a second show at another location (an attic). 2 shows a week. Free. That went so well they had a FREE 4 day festival. They never slowed down and they haven’t taken a break.
Last night they had their 100th show. It was a freezing 15 degree night and we were all in a garage. We all sat and stood in a circle around the Shithole diagram drawn on the floor in chalk waiting for the show to begin. At the middle of the circle was the playing space aka theater in the round. Christmas lights were hung up on the ceiling, Shithole stickers were scattered around the floor, and music played while everyone chatted with one another. It was a dull roar. First of all, this isn’t like other shows. These shows feel like we all know each other. And if you don’t, people introduce themselves. “Hi my name’s _” is something that I regularly hear. It’s wonderful. There’s no ‘I don’t’ know you so I’m not going to talk to you’ feel to it. I sat next to someone I never met before, but I’ve seen around. We talked and found out we had a lot of things in common and he told me he was just there to watch. There were plenty of people just there to WATCH. There to watch a show in 15 degree weather in a garage. Another guy handed me extra hand warmers that he had picked up at the store. Why? Because he was just a damn nice guy. The whole garage was filled with nice guys and nice girls who were there to see people follow their dreams. The night went off without a hitch and every single performance shined. Throughout the show, the guys gave out handouts like t-shirts, mugs, beers, and tickets to a No-Doubt cover band concert.
There have been a handful of moments where I stop in my tracks as a performer to really take it all in. Last night was one of those moments. Sometimes we get caught up in the drama of auditions, teams, rental spaces, contracts, and business that we forget where we came from. At the Shithole, you never forget. It’s all about trust, love, and support in that room. I looked around at the (freezing) smiling faces and knew I was right where I needed to be. The show hit me emotionally and gave me all those feels because I felt like I was a part of something special. We were all in there, freezing our asses off because we enjoyed performing and we enjoyed supporting those doing what they love. I had the biggest smile on my face the entire night because it was a room filled with love. The night closed out with an amazingly talented musician who sang 3 songs. One of those songs being ‘Lean on Me’ which got everyone in the garage singing along. An entire garage of people singing ‘Lean On Me.’ It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It reminded me how special the arts are. For the final song, he sang one of his own songs while we held up candles to celebrate the closing of the 100th ever Shithole show. Luckily, I got it on tape.
In the end, this is what it’s all about. People coming together to support one another as they pursue their dreams. Nothing else.
This show cannot end. It’s just too important. Thank you Shithole and congrats on 100 shows.
Here’s to 100 (or 900) more.
Last night I played at a real shithole. I’m telling you, this place was a shit hole. You’re probably thinking how can this guy say that? What a jerk. Well, everyone hold onto your horses because the place I performed at is actually called The Shit Hole. It was one of two (secret) locations that have weekly performances in Chicago. These shows are a variety of improv, sketch, stand-up, and music. When I walked in I only knew a few people, but when I left I knew everyone. I had made a room full of new friends. Friends that did things just like me (improv and sketch) and friends that did things different (like playing the guitar, singing, or adding super cool music to some of the improv sets). The show was at their upstairs location. The Attic. Yes, a show in an attic. I had heard about these shows from friends and heard that they were a ton of fun and nurtured a loving environment. “It’s very intimate and supportive” was something someone said. After doing the show, I can confirm exactly that. Sitting in that room, I felt like I was a part of something special. Better yet, I know I was a part of something special. I got to perform in front of a room full of people (as well as 70 viewers on ustream) that loved the performing arts. I’m thankful my friend Brooke invited me to play with a mash-up group she created which included improvisers who were born in Illinois. We called ourselves Prairie State and we’d never performed or rehearsed together at all. We had a fantastic show that included ghosts, sasquatches, chimney sweeps, and horrible pizza places.
I’d like to take a step back and say what an accomplishment this show is as a whole. Typically, if you were to try and mash standup, sketch, improv, and music all together you may get different results depending on the venue you decide to put that show up in. In fact, I’ve even said, “it’s tough to do an improv set in between a band and a stand-up” just based on prior experiences I’ve had trying to do a show like that. A prior experience I had (in a barprov show) where it didn’t work out made me want to never do it again. After playing at The Shit Hole, I take that statement back. It all depends on where you’re playing, the type of audience you’re playing to, and the set-up of the show. This wasn’t an open-mic at a bar. It wasn’t a pay to play theater/venue show. The location was at someone’s apartment and they charged people $0 to watch the show and $0 to perform. No one HAD to pay. There was donation suggested, but not required. The night was a success. Not only the night, but the Shit Hole’s entire journey as a whole is a testament that anyone can put together something special if you put your mind to it. For these guys, it was just by opening up their homes and inviting people that enjoyed the same things they did in.
When people think about putting up a show the entire process can become daunting. It’s because there is a worry that it’ll be costly and it’ll take time to build. There’s worry that it’ll take years to build a following or you need big names to attract an audience. Not necessarily true. These guys started their shows out of a garage (the shithole HQ). They created a makeshift stage with lights and curtains and chairs (some of them lawn chairs) for the audience. By word of mouth spreading and this community’s insatiable thirst for places to perform, it quickly became a success, which led to the opening of a second location (the shithole select) and another night of the week to perform. Keep in mind, these locations are not venues where you’re paying hundreds of dollars to put up a show or paying nightly rental fees to play with your group. The two shows are at people’s apartments. The guys aren’t trying to make money off this. They also aren’t keeping it a secret to make it inclusive to only a certain group of people or ‘friends only.’ They keep it ‘word of mouth’ to maintain that intimate and supportive environment. There are certain places where I feel like because I’m not a part of the ‘in-crowd’ I’m not welcome. I didn’t feel that when I walked into this space.
If you have the space and you want to perform or put up a show…what’s stopping you? You don’t need the lights and sirens. You don’t need the business license or the liquor license. You don’t need a marketing expert or a financial investment. All you need is a space to play in and a group of people who want to be there because they love performing and nothing else. If you’re thinking “playing in an apartment isn’t going to get me where I want to be”, I suggest you rethink why you’re doing this/performing in the first place. It shouldn’t be about trying to get anywhere. This show wasn’t a means to an end. It was a means to perform. Nothing more. Nothing less. There was nothing on the line. This wasn’t going to get you on SNL nor was this going to make you famous. No one was catching their big break sitting in that room. Everyone was in that room to support one another because we were all doing what we love and, at that moment, that’s all that mattered. In fact, that’s all that SHOULD ALWAYS matter. Once you start getting into contracts, rental fees, and feeling like sub-committee’s or certain people or agencies have control over your future, the fun starts to fade away. You also start doing things for the wrong reasons and forget about why you started in the first place. This reminded me how supportive this community can be.
Lorne Michaels, the SNL writing staff, and even talent agents shouldn’t limit their visits to the major theaters when scouting for talent. They should have places like this on their list because this is where some of the real stars shine. This is where real art happens. This place is a diamond in the rough.
It is one of the Chicago performing arts scenes best kept secrets.
I’m grateful I got to experience it.
Thank you #shithole.
It’s been a few days since my last post, but I thought I should write a wrap-up to summarize my feelings about the whole adventure. First of all, I couldn’t have done this without the support of my friends and my family. My friends were there for me when I needed them to be (whether to do a show with me or listen to me) and I can’t express how thankful I truly am. I found it simply amazing how much I grew as a performer and as a person within the past month. I’ve also proven to myself that I can accomplish anything. It sounds so cliché, but it’s true. I stated before this even started that the idea of doing a show every night for an entire month gave me butterflies. It terrified me. So much so that I puked on the first night. That’s right. I puked. I was so overwhelmed and nervous because of what I knew was ahead of me. Although, once the ball started rolling, the whole month felt like it went by in a flash. Time flies when you’re having fun. I had some of the best shows of my life and I also had some of the worst. I had the ability to analyze myself as a performer and to break-down my shows on a night-by-night basis. By doing so, I was able to identify what works for me. I was able to explore new characters and test them out in front of different audiences nightly. While the material was always generated on the spot depending on the suggestion, I had certain characters I would bring out to see how they worked within that setting. Some did. Some didn’t. Doing this helped me to find this out at a very fast pace.
I think one of the greatest things I improved on was being a better listener. A trait that applies not only to improv, but to life in general. I feel like I listen to everything people say now and I’m more engaged in regular everyday conversations. In addition, I feel like I’ve lost any sense of nervousness. While I love being on stage, there was always some nervousness when stepping on stage. Nervousness powered by questions of “will these people like me?” or “will they laugh?” Now, I don’t have that feeling anymore. I’ve come to the realization that it’s not about them. It’s about me, how I feel, why I’m doing this (cause I love it) and supporting my partner. I go on stage and I have fun with my scene partner. I look forward to exploring and playing with whomever I step on the stage with. This also has done wonders for my approach to auditions (more on that later). In addition, I’m more confident about my choices and myself as an improviser. I’m not second-guessing myself as much anymore. The second I feel a move should be made, I make it. JUST DO IT. Nike slogan. If you sit back and think about it for too long the moment will pass. Then, you’ll leave the show kicking yourself in the ass wondering “WHAT IF.” That transfers into life as well. In other words, making a decision and leaving no room for regret. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I’m quicker. I’ve found myself catching onto the games faster. If someone says “this”, I know that we need to say what “this” is. Before the whole month even started, I knew I needed to work on things like being more descriptive. I had always found myself to be vague. Now, I’m more detail-oriented. I’ve found that the funny is within the details. For example, saying “I’m having cereal for breakfast” is not going to have the same effect as “I’m having Boo Berries for breakfast.” The description may have just opened the door for a whole new world of things you could explore.
In the end, I think I’ve bridged a gap. I think that getting to where I am now in terms of how I feel on stage and my abilities as a performer may have taken up to a year or more had I continued on the route of just doing 1-2 shows a week. I recently went to an audition (mentioned earlier) and I cannot belief the sense of calmness I felt compared to previous auditions. I’ve always been absolutely terrified (and hesitant) going into auditions plagued by the questions of “will they laugh” and “will these people like me?” But this time, I walked in and had no sense of fear. I just wanted to play and have fun. To me, it was no different than anything I had done for the past 31 days. In other words, I have a different mindset now. You can look at it two different ways. You can view it as “this is my competition and I need to be funnier than them” or you can view it as “this is another opportunity to jump in with people I’ve never played with before.” I went in wanting to have fun and that’s all that happened. Each scene I did went extremely well because we were having a good time. I ended up making a team. Someone said, “See what 31 days did? There’s your reward for working hard and confirmation of your growth.” I feel like a new person. I look forward to performing with this new group as well as the people who’ve asked me to join them in independent groups. I guess the final thing to take away from this is that I’m happy. I’ve gotten better at something I absolutely love to do. I set a goal and I accomplished it. This means that I plan on setting more goals for myself. Goals like writing a sketch show, writing a web series, and filming some of the things I’ve been wanting to film for months. Setting goals. Anyone can do this. People will nay-say and talk shit, but you’re not doing it for them. You’re doing it for yourself. The moment you realize that is the moment you grow as a person.
For my finale show, I rented out the Cabaret theater at Stage 773 and brought in people who’ve helped me along the way and others who I’ve wanted to play with. They are all very good friends of mine who I know I can trust on stage. I was hoping for a bigger crowd (instead made up mostly of the other performers), but I am truly grateful and thankful for those who showed up. Right from the start, I knew it was going to be a fun night. When I walked on stage to introduce the show, the crowd erupted. They were screaming “Ryan!” and clapping like maniacs. Immediately it was a bit between the audience and myself. They just kept cheering. I motioned to hit the lights. Nothing. I swiped my hands through the air like they were swords for them to ‘cut it out.’ Nothing. I blushed up like no other. Once they died down, they started up again. It was really funny. Everyone in the room was having fun.
First Set: 98.6
The first group, 98.6, is the house-team/friends who run the Underground Lounge shows. This was my way of saying thank you (I also just walked up and said thank you as well) for all of the shows that Avery helped me book this past month. He played a pivotal role in helping me accomplish my goal. I loved their set and thought they did a great job yes and-ing and supporting one another. The call-backs to their characters and locations (cabin in Milwaukee) were also very clear, which helped to follow the story. At one point, they mentioned ‘furries’, which is the kind of sex where people dress up in animal costumes. I loved the wrap-up in the final scene when ‘the uncle in the cabin’ entered the scene in a bear costume. Perfect ending to what had been established earlier. I’d like to thank Avery Lee, Orlando Lara, Frank Bieszczat, and Cassandra Phillips for playing tonight.
Second Set: Vanessa, the Sex-Robot (Emily Marder)
For the second act, I wanted to change it up (rather than have nothing but improv groups all night) so I had a solo sketch from a girl I met earlier in the month named Emily. I’d seen her do some solo work a few times and thought it would be a nice addition to the show. She played as Vanessa, a love-sick sex-robot tour guide who took questions from the audience. Myself as well as the audience learned a lot about sex-robots tonight. Things like how many languages they speak, what a robot vagina is like, and what love feels like (even though robots can’t feel). I really enjoyed it. I’d like to thank Emily Marder for playing tonight.
Third Set: Lethal Action Force
For the third act, I had the opportunity to jump in with Lethal Action Force again. I loved every second of it. The suggestion for the action movie was “baby gone bananas.” We opened up in the Amazon. Dead bodies everywhere. Inside of a blood-stained tent was a baby. An evil baby. I got the chance to play this baby (I got waved in). Turned out I was an evil murdering baby Prince. We quickly cut to Langley to the chief’s office in the CIA Headquarters. We met 2 CIA agents who were planning on going undercover (by opening up a nursery) into the Amazon. Why was the CIA after a killer baby Prince on the loose in the Amazon? Because we said so and we committed to it. There were epic fights and nail-biting showdowns. In the end, all the baby wanted was love, which is what one of the CIA agents (Adam) showed me to get me into his arms. Once I crawled into his arms looking for love, he snapped my neck. BABY KILLER! They then proceeded to show me falling from multiple camera angles. This involved everyone on stage picking me up and twisting me around in a bunch of different ways. I was really happy with this set because I knew the others had my back. I got lost in the fun. I was happy with the things I was adding and the characters I was able to play. I got to play a CIA intern, who got slapped and hit in the nuts by everyone who entered the scene (GAME), and the evil baby Prince who met his demise in the end. I really enjoyed this set and am thankful that everyone jumped on each other’s ideas throughout it. I’d like to thank Adam Archer, Caroline Thrasher, Brendan McGovern, Ryan Blanz, and Dylan James Hackworth for playing tonight.
Fourth Set: The Kitchenettes
For the fourth act, I had my friends The Kitchenettes do a set. Members of this group (Jake and Timmy) were very helpful this past month in scheduling some shows as well as filming some shows. This was a set that had music (guitar), which was something I wanted in order to add some variety to the night.They started with a song about MacBooks Pro’s that was so perfect I thought it was scripted. I was amazed. I really thought they did a great job with the songs. My hat (I don’t wear one but if I did) goes off to people who can do musical improv. It’s tough stuff. I thought they did a great job wrapping it up with a call-back to PC’s in the final scene of their set. According to my mother, “Those guys were great!” And I agree. Like mother like daughter. I’d like to thank Jake Dewar, Timmy Hart Baron, and Brendan Buckley for playing tonight.
Fifth Set: Silent Scene w/ Rance Rizzutto
For the fifth act, I did a very special two-man set with veteran improviser Rance Rizzutto. To add variety to this finale, we agreed to do a silent show. I loved every second of this and he was very easy to work with. I thought we played well off of each other and easily told a story through our actions. We did about 5 different scenes in 15 minutes (felt like it went by in 5 minutes I was having so much fun). We had different locations (apartment, barbershop, side of the road) and different characters. Even call-backs. The last scene was a call-back to the first scene. It was amazing how we were on the same page without even saying a word. Special thank you to my friend Jake (from the Kitchenettes) for playing the guitar for this set. The music helped inspire different emotions for our characters. I’d like to thank Rance for joining me tonight.
Sixth Set: Switch Committee
For the final act, Switch Committee (Dave, Alan, David and myself for tonight) played. As always, I had a blast. We got the suggestion of iO waiter, which inspired us to talk about past jobs where we had to deal with shitty customers. Specifically in the food industry. I initiated the first scene as an angry patron at an Applebees calling the Better Business Bureau to complain about the service he was receiving (reservation issues) from the server (Dave). After getting attitude from the first BBB rep, I demanded to speak to a manager. Let the games begin. With each representative that got on the phone, I would demand to speak to another manager to file a complaint. However, they all responded as if they didn’t care. “Oh you wanna file a complaint? K it’s filed.” This paved the way for the rest of the show. The theme behind everything being… “it’s just that easy?” The next scene involved Schwartzbaum praying to God. I quickly became God from the side. He asked for a wish and I informed him that God just wishes someone would pray to him to say they loved him. In other words I was saying people only pray to God when they need something. No one ever just says, “hey God, love ya.” I played a trickster God who finally agreed to grant the boy’s wish (remove a scar that hisses), to which he said “it’s just that easy?” and I said, “nah, sorry I’m just playing with ya.” Another scene I did that I was really happy about was between myself and Alan. Alan (Paul) was angry with my character because I got a promotion over him. Alan quickly accused me of “suckin a lot of dicks” to get the promotion. I replied, with “I sucked one dick” and he replied, “well it was the right dick wasn’t it!?”. The banter back and forth between us was hilarious. With each line we yes-anded one another to progress the scene. I thought it went really well. It eventually led to my character stealing his character’s name (since I steal everything from him). Schwartzbaum walked on to support this move by saying, “Oh Hi Paul” to me and looking at the actual Paul and saying, “who’s this guy?” He begged for his name back and finally I just said, “fine you have it back.” He replied with, “it’s just that easy?” A perfect wrap-up to that set.
That’s it for the write-up of the show. I’m thankful for those who performed and those who attended. My final write-up/summary of the 31 day process as a whole will be coming up next.
Last night, I had the opportunity to play with my friends in Lethal Action Force. They do an improvised action movie after getting the suggestion of “the name of an action movie that has never been made before.” They then do it in the style of a movie. For example, they announce camera angles like close-ups or panning across, aerial shots and they do very detailed scene painting and character description. In addition, they have someone in the booth playing a plethora of songs appropriate for, let’s say, a final showdown between good and evil. Since we didn’t have a full group, we had decided to do a ‘clip-show.’ In other words, we’d present a series of clips, but they didn’t need to follow a particular story line. That’s what we planned. That’s not at all what happened. We immediately jumped on a story line and followed it out to the end. Something I was happy we did because we got to follow different characters throughout the show. By the end of the show we’d seen the rise and fall of Evil Corp., which was ran by Satan Tarkington. There were undercover agents, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Medusa-like side-kicks, and explosions.
In terms of my performance, I made one initiation that I felt was appropriate. Jesus was standing outside waiting for a bus and mentioning that it was running late. I cut to being the driver of the bus and informing everyone that we couldn’t go over 15mph (driving extremely slow). We would discover that all the camera system needed was a wire to keep the video on a loop. We also found out that Dennis Hopper was watching. A reference to the Keanu Reeve’s classic, Speed. My bus driver character turned out to be one of the undercover agents sent in to infiltrate Evil Corp. later in the show. I’m very thankful that I got to play with them because I’ve been wanting to for a long time. In my head, I pictured myself just jumping right in with them and destroying the place. However, I quickly found it’s not an easy form to just jump right into. I found myself overwhelmed at one point because there was so much going on. Thank God the others had my back and supported me along the way. Also, that makes me have a whole new respect for the form. It’s fast and it’s fierce. It requires hyper listening and patience. You need to be on the balls of your feet and ready to jump in and out of scenes at a seconds notice. I get to play with them again tonight so I’m excited to give this thing another go. (Queue explosions) BOOM!
Last night I had a ridiculous fun time at the Horseshoe. For this show, I formed Team Nasty with friends Marc, Lane, and Tina. The 4 of us have never played together before. I’ve played with Marc and Lane in the past, but never with Tina. She has, however, been a friend of mine for the past 3 years. We just never got to play together until tonight, but boy was tonight fantastic. For our form, we just decided on a montage. Get a suggestion and go. Simple. Our suggestion: trombone. Right from the start, we got the ball rolling. Tina sat down and started to play an instrument (trombone). I initiated with, “Mom, do you mind if Cindy comes over tonight?” She didn’t respond. Instead she played the trombone and made a noise. I responded with, “oh come on, what if she leaves by 9?” Once again, her response came through the sound of the trombone. Are you watching closely? A game has occurred here. With every question I asked, Tina responded with a trombone answer. The inflection in her voice helped me to understand whether it was simply a yes or a no. Then, Lane entered the scene as Cindy. He burst through the door informing us that he brought his flute. Immediately a war broke out between my mother and Cindy as they argued via musical instruments while I translated the incoherent nonsense. It was so much fun. They made noises and I responded as if they were neck and neck with each other. “Oh don’t say that” and “that doesn’t make any sense” were things that were said after they played their instruments.
In another scene, I played a father and Marc played my son. I informed him that he was grounded. Throughout the scene we discovered that he had a coke habit and that I didn’t want him taking over for his old man. I suggested he start doing something else that’s less harmful like drinking a lot of Sprite. Lane spoke from the side as my wife/his mother Brenda asking if everything was alright down there. This started a shouting battle where both my son and I screamed at Brenda (like father like son) and at the very end I said, “don’t talk to your mother like that.” My son mentioned that he had a dream and goals and referred to his wall, which was covered in Journey albums. A game quickly occurred where Marc would mention bands and I would say incorporate songs those bands were popular for within our conversation. For example, he said, “I love Journey” and I replied “I don’t want you to stop believing.”The final scene was between Tina and Marc at grandma’s funeral. From the side, I started making band noises (call-back to the first scene with the trombone/flute conversation). Periodically, I would make noises with my mouth or randomly clap as if I was the background music in the scene. Marc would call it out as “why the hell is there a band at this funeral?” Tina justified it with, “because that’s what grandma would have wanted.” I would also be called on to be a clown at the funeral. That’s right, a clown performing at a funeral. Hilarious. Since queued me wandering around, blowing up balloons, and eventually dancing for about 2 minutes straight. It was nuts.
Personally, I was THRILLED with this show. We played characters, had clear relationships, played games, and called things back. More importantly, we were all having fun. It couldn’t have ran smoother. This was one of the first shows where I got to be in a scene with 2 people who weren’t really talking at all, but instead just making noises. Noises that needed to be justified. I look forward to performing with each one of them again in the near future.