Monday, October 23, 2017

Old News: The Plastic Shatners

They still exist, which is nice
As predicted, there came a weekend where a game could not be played... Which was actually fine, since we saw The Adventure Zone Live in Nashville last night. Woot!

So, here's an Old News article that isn't about gaming at all, but all about how I got into acting and theater in the first place: Improv Comedy! I've mentioned this before, but never told the whole story.

Old News: The Plastic Shatners

First things first: the name is from a Captain Kirk action figure. At the very first Plastic Shatners show, someone had it in their backpack and it inspired the team.

When I came to Bowling Green State University, I was signed up for the music program (first education, then composition). It's common that, when you go to college, you find yourself among people who are far better than you, or anyone you knew in high school. The best saxophone player from Nowhere High is just another fish in the sea at Music Univeristy.

At that tender young age (19), I didn't really handle competition well. I either wanted to be the best at something, be a part of the best group doing something, or not do it at all. So being lost among a sea of amazingly talented musicians and composers was doing a number on my pride. I was told time and time again that if I kept practicing, I'd get to their level, and I took that to heart. I got working.

However, it's hard to stay motivated when you're in the grind, and I needed something to be proud of. After a fateful football game, I got to know some people in the school's theater fraternity, Theta Alpha Phi. Suddenly I was "The Music Guy." I latched on to this group because I had gained an identity there.

In my second year, I was told I should try out for the Plastic Shatners, one of two improv groups performing on campus at the time. I hadn't really done anything in theater, despite being involved with Theta. The Plastic Shatners were a cult hit among the students at BGSU - garnering crowds of students who had grown up with "Whose Line is it Anyway" and gaining dedicated fan followings.

I'm honestly not sure how I got in the group, but the director, Joe, took a chance on me. Now I had a strong presence in the group: I had music, and I had comedy. I could be the best at those things, within that group.

Of course, this isn't a story about why a fragile young ego found its footholds, but I think with the proper understanding of my motivations, you'll get a deeper picture of the story.

The Shatners, being a foothold for my identity, became a large part of my life. I wasn't just a improviser, I was a SHATNER. The lessons of improvisation became like a religious doctrine in my life: support your friends and contribute to their lives. Listen to other people. Don't worry about the future or the past, just make it up as you go. Treat people well and they will treat you well in return.

Which is why I was devastated when the team's numbers were cut down the following year, and I didn't make the grade.

Suddenly, I wasn't a Shatner.

It took a lot of deep conversations, a lot of long walks, a lot of terrible emo music, before I was ready to accept that a part of my identity was gone. Fortunately, I had continued to work on music, and had entrenched myself in the social circles of Theta, so I wasn't lost or alone. I had a lot of good friends and a lot of support. But man alive, did that hurt.

I made it a goal to improve myself to the point where I could get back on the team for my senior year. I would do stand-up, read all the improv and acting books I could, and perform in plays through Theta. I wanted my team back.

It was actually through that type of acting that I met my first D&D group. As I worked to improve my acting skills, I also built my first character and explored a homebrew fantasy world.

Near the end of that year, the Shatner's Director approached me privately. It seemed that cutting down the team's numbers had backfired - too many of the Shatners were graduating or had decided to leave the team. Those who remained had no interest in leading the group. The Plastic Shatners were in danger of dying out.

I was asked to come back to the team, not as a performer, but as the Director. I couldn't believe it. My persistence had not only paid off, but it had pushed me to a whole new level.

I spent the summer preparing everything I could possibly need. Training exercises. Teamwork exercises. An audition strategy. I even found a guy who was interested in helping me do the logistics of setting up our shows, raising awareness, and scheduling everything.

I won't go into too much detail about the wild ride that was the Plastic Shatners' 2011-12 season, but in summary, it became one of the best seasons in the history of the Shatners, filling up lecture halls and performing shows more often than ever before.

And in the process, I figured out how to lead a group, how to make a team. We did exercises together and learned how to make each other laugh. To this day, one of my strengths as a DM is that I can make a scene hilarious.

My other skills as a DM came later, when I actually started running games for my group. It was a total disaster, but we'll save that for another Old News.

If you are a DM or hoping to be a DM, I can't recommend a better place to learn performance and storytelling than improv. Doing it in front of your friends is a piece of cake after you've done it in front of a 200+ person audience.

Also, blah blah blah, follow your dreams and you can achieve them, i.e. the pathos of the story, etc.

Thanks for reading!

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