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July 31, 2009


I drove to the Groundlings theatre on Melrose, just west of La Brea.  My insouciance (take THAT GRE) from earlier in the week had been replaced by a very petite boulder in my stomach, about the size of a peach—the realization that I might be getting myself into something for which I was wholly unprepared. 

That feeling didn’t go away when I got to the lobby of the theatre.  Creating a kind of thespians tableaux, the foyer was replete with good-looking PROFESSIONAL actors who were waiting to be called into the theater.  Some stood, some sat, and one did circles in his wheelchair. They mumbled lines to themselves from the scripts they had in clear view, a sign to the casual observer they were actors and not Starbucks baristas.  Each held an ACTING résumé, conveniently located on the flipside of an 8″ x 11” glossy photo which featured them BriteSmile®ing eerily at you. 

Stuffing the Rite-Aid envelope of photos and my professional résumé a little deeper into my purse, I practiced breathing exercises to get rid of the peach in my stomach that had turned into a grapefruit.  A frosty-tipped blond with smart girl glasses and an “I heart unique corns” t-shirt pushed through the theatre doors and asked us all to come into the inner sanctum.  I had envisioned some kind of dance studio set-up for the audition, like in American Idol, with a ballet barre in the back and judges behind a foldable table with foldable chairs.  The instructions didn’t say we would be performing on the Groundlings stage. 

 After collecting our résumés, along with mine and the guy with the wheelchair’s 3 x 5 photos, she (let’s call her Evelyn to protect the innocent) told us a little bit about the class.   “This is really a class for professional actors.  Everyone who goes through the Groundlings program starts here.  If you aren’t a professional actor, or have limited improv experience, you may find that the Groundlings extension program is more for you.  You can find people from all walks of life in that class—lawyers, 40-year-old housewives.”  (OUCH)

Evelyn went on but I stopped paying attention after the 40-year-old housewives comment.  I definitely had some things working against me from the get go.  She asked us on stage to do some warm up drills and told us that in improvisation, it’s important to do everything big.  She said something next about a lot of clapping and enthusiasm and supporting each other mumbo jumbo.

Evelyn asked us to form a circle and say our name and why we were here today.  I thought it might work to my advantage to stand out from the actors. So when it got to my turn, after numerous people saying they thought they were funny, and all their friends told them so, and they were actors blah, blah, blah, I said, “I don’t really have great ambitions.  I was recently rated least funny member of my family and I just want to beat out my seven-year-old nephew. I don’t need to be funny to the world, just a few people.” 

 Well that got a laugh.  And rousing support from the actors. 

“Good for you! Way to go!” My own support choir, albeit a little patronizing.

 Evelyn said, “Well, it’s not a bad thing to have specific goals.”

 I loved that Evelyn; she was very good at finding the right words. 

 The next drill was a round-robin where Evelyn would give us an emotion and we had to say “YES!” and clap at someone else, who then followed.  This was exhausting.  Every actor tried to outdo each other in cleverness, animation, and voice pitch, while remembering to clap at someone else.  Honestly, I was spending so much time trying to think of how to creatively say “Yes!” while looking angry, shy, flirty, and ditzy, and then do it a different way the next time, I kept forgetting to clap.  Evelyn had to remind me more than once to actually clap AT someone, so they knew who was next. 

Following the “emotion drill,” she started a sentence and then we had to complete it, one word at a time.  Let’s just say it messes up the whole group when you throw out a word like gargoyles.  I felt bad about my word choices, and I have no idea why gargoyles came to mind, I don’t even like them.

This was about the time my snickers bar started failing me.  All that enthusiasm I had to provide in the drills, combined with the nervous energy, just burned that sucker away.  The hardest drill was next—improvisation on stage with a partner.  I won’t bore you with the details but let’s just say it could have gone worse, I was the last one to go.  Evelyn actually forgot me because she lost my 3 x 5 picture in the stack of photos she was using to make notes.  She had coached other people on no bathroom humor, always say “Yes, and”, use action words to keep the story going, don’t get into a fight, and let the audience know where you are.  Oh and most important, move your hands to mime action.  Seriously, other than the bathroom humor advice, she called me out on pretty much everything from the list. 

Scene 1“mother with son packing for college.”  I asked Evelyn who the mother was and who the son was but she didn’t think I was funny, or she just thought I was an idiot.  Scene began, my partner started folding pretend clothes into a pretend suitcase.  I started getting on my fake son’s case about how he was packing (no negativity).  I asked him why he was doing it that way (no questions) while holding one hand locked on my hip and my finger at my lips the whole time (move on the stage and mime.)  Scene over.

Scene 2  “lieutenant and a sergeant and one was being decorated.” Evelyn reminded me not to be negative or get into fights and remember to keep the action going with movement and “Yes, and.”  I went into outer space at that point, I had nothing.  All I could think of was to hold a pretend gun, so I mimed a bayonet and pretty much just said “Yes, and” whenever he asked me anything.  I finally came to and all I could think of was dancing poodles, which really changed the scene around in a weird way.  At that point, my supportive choir in the audience went completely mute. 

The final drill I actually did quite well on, but I don’t think it was the make or break moment in determining my future with the Groundlings.  We had to quickly make up names for toe-nail polish “Black Death”, lost Beatle’s songs “Yellow Brick Rogue”, children’s game “I’m a Barista,” etc.  I was a finalist in the sudden death match.

Evelyn concluded the audition by thanking us for coming, (don’t let the door hit you in the behind).  I decided not to give her my professional résumé.  I’d just get docked points for total cluelessness. 

Leaving the theatre, I knew I would likely not be coming back anytime soon.  I think a number of us knew that.  But I was glad I did it, if not to get funnier, then to say that I had performed for a select audience on the Groundlings stage.  If you know me well, I promise you, that’s funny.  Right?


Blogged ID

April 4, 2009

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SOCIAL PSYCH: “With No Frills or Tuition, a College Draws Notice” from The New York Times

August 5, 2008

In the growing debate over higher learning institutions and how they use their funds, The New York Times spotlighted Berea College, a private institution with a large endowment and a founding mission to accept only applicants from low-income families.   Students receive a tuition-free education and must work on campus in a variety of different areas, as part of the deal.  In stark relief, the author compared wealthy institutions such as Harvard and Yale, and asked “whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few.” 

The issue cuts to the heart of altruism as well as the reasons humans engage in pro-social behavior in the first place.  Focusing first on the individual, students at Berea prove they are deserving of aid (norm of social justice) by showing their ability for future success in advance of acceptance.   Berea gives free tuition in exchange for work, an example of reciprocal altruism. 

Taking a big picture gander at the institutions doing the “helping,” it is important to look at American history and maybe genetics as a guide to why we engage in altruism.  The United States and American democracy were founded on the “sometimes conflicting value orientations of individualism and egalitarianism.” (Franzoi)  As a young nation that wanted to survive and thrive, improving your situation through hard work, education, and helping others was paramount to developing the nation, and in a tough wilderness, continuing the species.  In the case of the institutions in the piece, the schools with the largest endowments, Harvard, Yale, etc., were also the first universities in the United States—established to provide brighter futures for new generations of Americans, and in reciprocity, make the country stronger.  It is interesting that these schools are now being criticized for holding on to vast amounts of money, raising tuition to astronomic levels, and providing much of their funding for research to advance their own needs—the schools’ reputations—instead of providing more financial aid to students in need.

Adding fuel to the debate, what is implied but not stated in the article is that the government relies heavily on not-for-profits (and offers strong tax incentives) to address many needs that big government simply cannot take on.  These institutions remind me of spoiled children. By existing in a system where money is not an issue, they lack empathy and have forgotten from whence the came.

If human beings best respond to reciprocal altruism, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, perhaps a program themed around altruistic giving as a means to strengthen America might be an interesting program aimed at curbing America’s  growing me versus we mentality.  Using both central and peripheral routes of persuasion through advertising and public relations efforts, the government would first launch a campaign through a secondary source, perhaps key not-for-profits such as the Red Cross and major universities, showing how the existence of these not-for-profits reduces America’s tax burden.  A second phase of messaging would persuade Americans to give to the local not-for-profit to improve America’s future—we’re in this together. 

Complementing the direct efforts, schools teaching pre-school through college age children would include annual altruistic components in their curriculums and would require families to “donate” a set amount of time and money to the not-for-profit or community organization of their choice, with the reward being a tax break and positive recognition.  Families would also be given the opportunity to receive points towards reductions in college tuition, starting at pre-school age, as long as the family participated in a minimal number of hours in not-for-profit activity, with each other.  These tactics reflect the use of observational learning, the children modeling after the parents, and rewarding prosocial behavior through tax breaks and recognition.  A key component of college acceptance would be dependent on the applicant’s level of work with not-for-profits in high school and students would be given the option of paying for college through community and college improvement work.     A core curriculum class in active altruism would be required at all colleges. The end result might be increased altruism as part of our daily existence.  





The 38 Year Old Co-ed

July 4, 2008

Friends joke that I am always taking a class.  Yoga Thai Massage, Aerial Basket Weaving, the History of the United States….you name it.  But I have taken it to another level this summer, social psychology at UCLA.  My class has kids (kids!) almost twenty years my junior-I have more in common with the professor and her references to pop culture (George Carlin’s “seven dirty words you can’t say on television” anyone?) than I do the students. 

So I try to blend in.  My comments in class are peppered with references to the latest celebrity high-jinks and I am underdressing-jeans, t-shirts, flip flops. I have started bringing Cheetos and food from the vending machine to class. (Some of you might say that doesn’t sound like anything different than I always do.)   I like to think they don’t see the grey hairs, tummy bulge, or creaky movements as I unfold my body out of those annoying chair cum desks.

Ms. Richards and Mr. Sambora

Ms. Richards and Mr. Sambora

I turned in a 3 page paper yesterday which involved me observing persuasive attempts in every day life.  I watched TV for 2 hours.  Denise Richards- It’s Complicated and Desperate Housewives were the main heady topics of my analysis.  I brilliantly argued that DR uses the two-sided persuasion tactic to innoculate its doubting audience.  Basically, by preemptively using negative stereotypes in the introduction, like Daddy’s Girl, Husband Stealer, etc,  followed by the “real Denise” as the mom who never goes out, the sweet innocent with a little quirky in her, the audience will not side with Denise’s ex-husband.  They will be innoculated from being swayed when they hear stories about her requesting her ex-husband’s sperm to make more babies and the dubious Ricky Sambora choice as the sane follow up to Charlie Sheen(??). 

For the assignment I slaved-no B+ permitted.  I suddenly had sympathy for all those students I taught at USC who didn’t understand what it took to get an A based on my essay grading system.  Sometimes based more on a feeling than anything else.  It’s experiences like this that bring out the schiz girl in me.  While I want to blend in, I also want them to know of my years of experience….so I think I come off as the know-at-all in the back of the class who overshares.  The difference is, when I was in this class twenty years ago, I would have cared more what the students think, and would have made sure I didn’t say anything that made me look uncool.  Today, I always have a comment, I think primarily to have a little dialogue for the professor to bounce off.  I do know how it feels when the class looks at you blankly.  Now they look at me blankly too.

In the end, I posit, I will learn probably even more about myself by how I operate in this class, a kind of social psychology experiment if you will!  Just as long as I get an A.