2500 Words On Not Being the Best – Reflections of the SFIF

I still vividly remember the words that Richard Digby Day said to me as I trained at the London Academy of Theatre in 2000. He said, “Derek, you are good at very many things. My fear is that you won’t be very good at anything”. It has stuck with me, both in times when I prove him wrong (when my musical got picked to be at the Fringe festival, when I won a professional disc golf tournament), and in the dishearteningly more common instances when he was right.

I feel like most of my life I was a big fish in a small pond. My silly comedy poems would get picked for our high school writing newsletter despite them being not “high art”. I would be cast in every play and musical – never as the lead, but always as a sizeable supporting character. I was a four-year varsity athlete and even made all-county my senior year (in bowling – don’t judge). I got scholarships for singing and education. In short, I think my achievements, which seemed to take place almost solely in high school, sort of set me up for this belief that I could do everything exceptionally well when really I was just edging out my competition pool that was based solely on a close proximity to my high school. But then getting accepted to Mason Gross school of the Arts (a conservatory) meant beating odds of 27 in 700+. Clearly I had to be something great.

However, when I joined the best-of-the-best, I was mediocre. Perhaps even below average. Surely being a shorter-than-average giant is a nice laurel to flaunt, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d anticipated. I branched off with friends and created Prometheus Productions, where I was a writer, ¬†actor, singer, director, fight choreographer, improv-artist, and musician. Another thing to hang my hat on? Well, perhaps. I was not the best writer (Kevin was), the best actor (Bryan, Paul, Dierdre…), the best singer (Dierdre, Bryan), the best director (Kevin), the best improv-er (Will, Jaime), the best musician (god, most of the group). I maybe was the best fight choreographer. If during that time you’d asked me what my best talent of that group was, I’d say improv. I felt most at home there and, next to other people who (like me) had never received a lick of improv training, I felt strong.

7 years later, having moved to Reno, I found myself again as a performer in an area that wasn’t exactly teeming with Broadway-ready talent, or so I thought. I did a couple of open-mic comedy nights and slayed, I would play an open-mic music nights and quickly became one of the favorites of the organizer. More to the point, I joined an improv troupe where I was quickly promoted to head actor and even head of the creative (despite the fact that the organizer herself TAUGHT improv). Clearly, I was right about my skills, no?

Fast forward a few years. That group had disbanded and in a very offhanded conversation with a man with whom I’d been improvising with (as a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity of all things) he mentioned I should contact The Utility Players about auditions since “I had chops”. I did and was greeted very professionally that they didn’t need more actors. When I mentioned I was a musician too (never hurts to list all the talents, huh?), I got myself into the group as their musician. This is not what I wanted. After all I was one of the best improvisational actors among my friends who were, undoubtedly, extremely talented people.

The mama-bear of The Utility Players, to her credit, never led me on. I was not going to be an actor (except in one-liner games, which were admittedly my strength anyway). But I wanted to prove her wrong. At rehearsals when we were all playing together I would volunteer to get up and, in my own way, I was out to prove that I could flex my NYC-based improv knowledge and prove I not only belonged, but I was better than these Reno-based yokels. I must’ve showed them, right?

No. For two reasons.

One, they’re good. I mean, they’re really really good. Reno or not (and most of them aren’t from here), they’re talented both at being funny and at mastering the actual craft of improv, which don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Two, and this was surprising, I would do shitty shitty improv. There are any number of reasons why this happened (I was used to driving a scene with players who weren’t as seasoned, I just had a big ego, I couldn’t artistically trust this group of strangers who definitely seemed like their own little clique, or, and let’s not discredit this, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was), and that’s largely irrelevant. The point is, I was not up to their level.

So I became their full-time musician. There was a lengthy period of time where I struggled to come to grips with that. It seemed like a demotion particularly because I don’t consider piano playing to be even in my top 5 talents. Composition perhaps. But playing? I’m not great. It’s a hobby of mine, and not one of my primary hobbies. However, very limited playing acumen can be hidden with enough knowledge of the improv craft itself. So my years of improv background were still useful. It’s been a weird road, but I’m okay saying that I’m the musician. Not “just” the musician, but I am the musician for this group.

And with that – and here I hope I’m not overreaching my influence – The Utility Players were strengthened as a unit with me at the keys.

Now what in the hell does this entire backstory have to do with the San Francisco Improv Festival? After several years of failed audition tapes, The Players were finally selected to be a part of the festival, a tremendous achievement as only 27 groups were invited, most of whom were local to the area. There would be classes taught in and amongst the myriad performances scattered through a few weeks of improvisational bliss. Even though I was unable to attend most of the pre-show stuff due to family obligations, I did manage to take in a few things.

The 4-hour class sampler had people from all walks attending – those who’d never done improv to those who were performing later that night. The skills which were drilled ranged from exceptionally useful to maybe-not-for-me-personally to I’m-pretty-sure-this-is-only-applicable-to-the-woman-teaching-it. Due to an awesome anonymous donor, I (along with the entire troupe) was able to check it out and learn from it. I gotta be honest, it felt good to be up and in the thick of things once again – I hesitate to say ‘performing’ because that wasn’t the purpose. This time I felt like I belonged.

But where I was hit with the largest metaphorical ton of bricks was during our show itself. We were splitting the bill with a group that was purporting to do a 35-minute improv musical. I’d been assured that the other musicians our troupe had seen were pretty lousy. Not that I needed to be the best, but as an untrained musician specializing in another artform that I’d also never really received proper training, it’s nice to know I wasn’t against a musician with a BFA from a music conservatory. I’m a perfectionist, inasmuch as any person who refuses to just concentrate on one skill for more than 5 minutes at a time can be a perfectionist.

When the lights went down for our show, so too did our piano. For a few fleeting moments, I was on stage as the musician with my ONLY tool, the piano, no longer making any noise. It did prompt a funny moment where I was supposed to play the ESPN Sportscenter music, and when the cue came, I just shouted it out. I’m pretty sure that’s what they do on ESPN.

Our set was very free, very easy, and solid. I’m not sure what my expectations were – I mean, there’s a part of me that wanted there to be a TV executive in the audience who was just coming for a few laughs but spent her entire intermission scribbling out contracts for all of us. What did transpire was 35 minutes of successful improv that earned the laughter of a discerning audience who had seen more than their fair share of improv over the years (hell, over the prior week).

It was topsy-turvy. A Day in the Dream Life is a game I warned that has been missing as often as it was hitting, but it was our clear best of the night (and it allowed me to play my token Asian music). Mediocre Olympics, a game that had been killing, was the weakest of the lot. But as much as this was about us and putting our best foot forward, it was more about the audience enjoying themselves. And they did. Even without our A+ material (I’d have put the show in a solid B, B+ range) we proved without pause that we belonged with the others at the improv festival.

Then, as I watched our “sister-group” do their musical, a few things occurred to me. The Utility Players are not a niche group, we perform all different types of short form improv. It’s not like we concentrate solely on 2-person scene games or anything like that. The group that followed us was a group that does entire long-form musicals based on a suggestion from the audience. Having already been informed that some of the other musicians at the festival couldn’t hold a candle to me (who, in all truth, can’t hold a candle to most true musicians) are lousy, I cringed at the thought of watching 35 minutes of actors bumbling through misrhymed lyrics as a musician attempted vainly to play the outtakes from Frozen.

In this I was very, very wrong.

Their musician started with this jaunty riff right out of a Randy Newman score that featured the whole cast performing a song about kissing. With harmony. And multiple people singing the same words at the same time. And appropriate incidental background singing. And a cohesive story. Following this was a short scene, a new song, one that I daresay WOULD come second in a musical, setting up the protagonist of the story. The third song was completely different, a touching number of exposition that created the subplot between two secondary characters.

There was a time with Prometheus Productions that we had wanted to do an “improv play”, a full play with characters and subplots where there was a “director” offstage who crafted the story around what the actors on stage were doing. We ended up shelving the idea as too difficult. And here, 15 years later, in San Francisco, was a group doing this with song. It was an eye-opener.

And my point here isn’t that they were “better” than us. They were a nuanced group who had a specialty that they practiced. And practiced. And practiced. And practiced. And consequently nailed. If you were keeping track of laughs garnered, we’d have won handily, but that wasn’t what the evening was about. It was about bringing a variety of improv to the audience. If anything, short-form (Whose Line is It Anyway type stuff) seems to be a dying art, with troupes wanting to tackle the more complex longform. So getting paired with something of an opposite of us was nice. I guess we weren’t totally opposite or else the other group would have just read eulogies for 35 minutes.

Immediately I had to make the assumption that my director, in telling me that the other musicians were nothing to write home about, was off her rocker (it turns out she hadn’t seen him in particular). He was phenomenal. I mean, during that second half, I went from feeling like I’d performed a great improv set to realizing I had my moments but I was just the biggest kid at the kids table at Thanksgiving. Hell, he seemed like he was the kind of guy who graduated with a degree from a conservatory in music. Also, not to take a thing away from our exceptionally talented group, but their singers GOT it. They knew when to give over to another person to sing, then knew when it was time to take the reins, and they knew when it was time duet.

In all, I relate the entire experience to sports. It would be like being a top-tier baseball team who had the opportunity to play another team from another country in an exhibition game. And all they did was pitching, not hitting or fielding. It’s impossible to play a game like that and see who would win, but damn, I felt like we couldn’t touch their pitches. Our team is major leaguers, no doubt, but there’s always new things to learn.

Now, there’s a crossroads that happens at times like this. I can buckle down like I did my freshman year of acting when I was on the verge of being asked to leave the class for artistic progress difficulties, or I could fold like I did with my acting after 9/11 when no agents were banging on my door to hire me. And here’s what the purpose is for the SFIF from an artist’s perspective: I left inspired. Inspired to make our group better. Inspired to play better and more diversely. Inspired to create new games, or touch up the ones we have that aren’t hitting on all cylinders. Inspired to make sure that our upcoming 3-month run at The Sands turns into many 3, 6, 9, 12, 24 month contracts at bigger and better venues. Touring companies. TV execs with handwritten contracts on cocktail napkins because they couldn’t wait to get home and draft one properly.

“And I stood there like a businessman waiting for a train. And I got ready for the future to arrive.” -J. Darnielle

As something of a post-script, I did some research on that other pianist, and he did indeed earn a degree from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. This isn’t discouraging. Sure, next to me, he shined, but he didn’t leave me in the dust. We share the intellectual concepts and the impulses of improvisational music. He just has me on technical skill. Looks like I got some work to do. Playing piano and watching a group do a musical and, in fact, the idea that we want to expand our musical presence is having one “unfortunate” side-effect: as much as I am okay not being an actor, it’s tough to not want to sing in the musical games, as that was one of my two strengths as an actor (the other being one-liner games like World’s Worst). Looks like I also got some work to do.

As something of a post-post-script, don’t miss out on The Utility Players Season 8: Live at the Sands, every Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $15 and you’re gonna laugh.

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