Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Thank You for the Struggle!

This morning I saw on Timehop that it was a year ago today when I got the acceptance email into the music conservatory at the Second City Training Center. Our final class is this Thursday and our show, Thank You for the Struggle, opens for preview on January 4th.

Thank You for the Struggle!

It has been a big year for musical improvisation. Blank: The Musical opened off Broadway and perhaps has set the bar for musical improvisation. Studio BE became MCL Chicago and is now posed to be the epicenter for musical improvisation and sketch, if not just in Chicago then the world.

Last time I posted about musical improv I provided a bunch of links to related podcasts. Here are some more:

ADD Comedy Podcast - Dave Razowsky with Laura Hall 
Improv Nerd: Jimmy Carrane interviews Stephanie McCullough Vlcek
Magnet Theater Podcast: Creators of Blank! The Musical

Finally, I'm teaching a musical improv workshop at the Kansas City Improv Company this Saturday, December 27! It will be great to be back there for that!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I had to Google the spelling for Philippines

I'm trying to get my head around all these ideas about racial identity in the theatrical world. Stereotypes, accents, casting, etc. Historically I haven't been very comfortable with race and even less so when it comes to thinking of myself as having a racial identity, and especially when it comes to finding a way to sell myself as an actor.

It goes back to my earliest days in memory, growing up in East Los Angeles, as perhaps the only non-Mexican kid around. It's not like I was entirely friendless in elementary school days, however I recall the roots of my feelings of alienation being planted in that period. The taunting with rhymes like "Chino, Chino, Japones, Como Caca No Me Des"  By the time I was in High School things were a bit more diverse, especially since I was in a magnet program that drew students in from around the city.

I went to Garfield High School, which was famous for calculus teacher Jaime Escalante. The film Stand and Deliver had a few scenes shot there, though mostly at rival High School Roosevelt. If I had to look back and realize, my first days doing extra work (as the biz would call it - background artist) were on this shoot. I didn't realize at the time that Lou Diamond Phillips was of Philippine descent like me. I think La Bamba had been released and at the time he was getting work playing Mexican. And good for him!

There weren't really any Filipino characters in the media either, at least not that I remember. I was lumped in with the Asians in general. So people assumed I knew Kung Fu. To a certain extent that misconception kept me safe from harm, as long as I didn't start a fight myself. There's a certain Alien-ness of all the Asian characters I'd see on the screen too, from Long Duk Dong to Short Round to Data (from Goonies, not Star Trek: TNG). I think the only times I've seen an actor portraying a Pinoy character (I'm still not used to that phrase, but I'll use it) it was playing a houseboy during the 1940s and 50s or this scene from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I love the hell outta that movie too, even that scene though I'm as uncomfortable with it as one might expect.

Speaking of discomfort, I remember a featured extra job during which I was offered a line. It was during a pilot set at a hospital. I was supposed to have been a husband for a wife going into labor, who knew very little English. The line was simply calling out to the lead - "Doctor! Doctor!" and yet I couldn't swallow the whole outsider vibe, like playing a character who had the accent that was present in my life growing up. I talked my way out of that, and thus also a significant pay bump. That day kind of caused some big questions for me, with which I'm apparently still dealing. How committed am I to being a professional actor? What do I think about how my racial identity has been perceived?

Even earlier at UCSB, I remember taking the stage dialects class. I loved learning stereotypical accents. But I got very uncomfortable with doing the one Asian accent in the book. It brought up those old feelings of alienation that I and the Chinese girl student had to do a scene from Rashomon in Japanese. I blew it off without explanation, but again there are questions I'm still dealing with twenty years later.

Last Friday I volunteered for an arts expo at the Chicago Cultural Center. Mostly sitting and chatting up folks and promoting the Second City, but I had fun and saw some resources I wasn't aware of before. I met a lady from the local SAG chapter and discovered that I was still eligible to join, which surprised the hell out of me. She also seemed to see my "racial ambiguity" as an advantage in terms of work. That thinking is very uncomfortable for me, seems inauthentic. On the other side there's work to be had, right? Is there such a thing as Yellowface?

This sketch from Mr. Show captures the way I think folks think of Asian characters. Look for the section about Chinatown.

Russell Peters has a handle on his racial identity and it allows him to discuss race elegantly.

I've written before that the one movie I can remember during which Asian characters were presented as normal dudes and not entirely outsiders was Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I didn't see the sequel, but I have to imagine that it's possible to see more people who look like me in the media. It's weird because when I Google "Philipino Actors" the links are nearly full of people who have partial descent, people who play other races. I don't begrudge those people their work, but it makes me question what a young Pinoy kid sees as their options in the media? I personally never related to the stereotypes that were seen about faces like mine.

There was an indie movie out recently called Graceland, set in the Philippines. It was tense, extremely dark and had a pretty wide range of characters, though none of them pretty. Does it speak to stereotypes? Maybe. Is it a very interesting film which leaves me with questions? That's much more important to me.

I still have a lot to chew on. What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Music Improv

I'm in the musical improv conservatory at Second City in Chicago now and loving it. You can watch our level one show that we did. I think it costs two bucks to watch but here it is: An Accidental Cow. I think the show starts around three minutes into the recording.

We got the title from our teacher Mike Girts, who mentioned another teacher talking about every improv song having an accidental cow. That is every time someone needs to rhyme with the word "Now" when they don't have a plan, they usually have to use COW.

Here's a compilation of podcasts about musical improv comedy:
Zenprov: Music
Nancy Howland-Walker and Marshall Stern explore musical improvisation from the point of view of Zen. Nancy is the author of Instant Songwriting and the founder of Musical: The Musical

ADD Comedy: Shulie Cowan
Dave Razowsky chats with Shulie Cowan, director of the long-running Los Angeles show Opening Night: The Improvised Musical.

Improv Nerd: Mike Descoteaux
Jimmy Carrane interviews Mike Descoteaux, Artistic Director of Improv Boston and former head of the music program at Second City in Chicago.

Improv Nerd: Baby Wants Candy
Baby Wants Candy is a perennial musical improv show in Chicago. Jimmy Carrane sits with them to discuss their process.

Musical Improv Comedy
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel of UK improv group the Maydays created a series dedicated entirely to musical improv comedy.

The list of resources is always expanding.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


I spent last night kicking the common cold on its ass, by which I mean I slept in.

So Chicago, right? I forget whether I've mentioned it but I moved to Chicago in July. It has been a pretty big adjustment. I spent the first several months trying to build an infrastructure to my life. Work in progress.

In just over a week I'll be starting the music conservatory at Second City and level 5b at iO. So there's beauty in store. I'll be helping with the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival in March so my nerd quota will be filled.

I don't get to teach dance anywhere formally at the moment. That's a sadness, but it's also a goal for me. There's a lot for me to share with this city. There's a whole lot of potential here.


I knew by New Year's Eve last year that I'd have to leave Los Angeles. I had a family member who needed me in Kansas City so I handled my affairs in Los Angeles as much as I was able and I set out to return to the Midwest.

Here are some of the things I was involved with that kept me sane:

Planet Comicon: http://comicattack.net/2013/04/22/planetcomicon13/

http://fox4kc.com/2013/07/09/jazz-orchestra-dancers-pay-tribute-to-kansas-city-greats/. That whole process of building the foundation for Kansas City Stomp. That was a cool time. This video was from our morning show appearance on Kansas City's Fox 4 News.

The Kansas City Improv Company named me the King of Improv for a night:
Kick Comedy 062913 part 3 from Tom Ptacek on Vimeo.

When I wasn't needed anymore in Kansas City, Chicago seemed like a place worth exploring.

And yeah, let's see what we can bring to the year ahead!

Seeds: planted.