Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Thank You for the Struggle - Blizzed!

Thank You for the Struggle, our Second City music program show got canceled due to blizzard last Sunday. That means there are only two more chances to see it!

In the meantime it seems timely to look back at our growth over the year.

Our level 5 show was never recorded, but you missed Snowflakes, Resumes, Tokens, Cake Pops and lots of other fun stuff!

From our last class in level 3, photo by Aaron Graham

Here's one of the previews for Thank You for the Struggle, featuring some cool stuff which ended up on the cutting room floor. Guess which one I wrote!

See you at Donny's Skybox, Sundays at 8pm for the next two weeks!

Thank You for the Struggle!

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.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stagedive redux

During my time at the training center at iO West, I felt the need to dig in to the physical aspect of my improvisational work. Of course the training center at iO didn’t include any physical work as part of its core curriculum. There were the occasional workshops offered, but not often enough to scratch the itch I was feeling.

I remember one day, the morning of the Del Close Awards in 2012, that I had a dream that I had stage dived from the main stage at the theatre. That night, after getting done with my intern shift there was a dance and it was incredible. By that I mean that I couldn’t believe that so many folks had so much dancing freedom! There were dozens more (maybe most of the attendees) who would rather schmooze in the bar, but the groove on the dance floor was deep and everyone was in the pocket. From a Harold nerd’s perspective, what was happening was essentially a giant group game, moved by the flow of the DJ.

Then there came the stage dives, and I got to live the dream I’d woken with that morning.

At the time I’d imagined working with dancers on an improv comedy form. I’d seen so many talking heads scenes over the previous few years that I was eager to break new ground. At Camp Hollywood, an annual swing dance competition that I’ve attended for over a decade, I’d imagined a way to do a completely improvised swing dance routine to music that we generated from singing of the audience. To say that was an ambitious notion would be an understatement, but I knew that the ideas revolving around improvised dance would need to be realized.

I’ve taught improvisation for dancers in the Lindy Hop world since the turn of the century. Most of my exercises were inspired by things I learned in my earlier days of improvisation. So when I started my level 7 class at iO, during which our class would workshop an entirely new form, the notions that had been swelling in my head for months or years were ready to be born. I’d have to save those ideas for later since our class worked on a great form called The Quark, but that meant I’d have time to recruit players and a coach and find space for us all to play!

I called the form The Stagedive. We rehearsed with coach Stacy Rumaker (and once with George Caleodis) until I was pulled away from Southern California for family reasons. We got a good couple of months of practice and what I think were some good shows under our belts. I was sorry to leave the group behind, but I was needed in Kansas City.

The following are the email correspondences I sent to the Stagedive group. I’m finding it valuable to revisit these ideas because they’re still boiling for me.

Email 1

Here are some new clips to check out. This week I was interested in the heightened world of dance:

Black Coffee

This metaphor is pretty much on the nose.

Step Up 3 - Red Hook
Another video of two tribes. Seems like a common theme in dance movies.

Adriano Celentano - Prisencolen...

I can't even explain this one. I find it infectious.

I've got tons more clips, but just three for now. Thanks a ton for your time!

Email 2

Hey y'all,

There's a lot to say about what music means for a dancer. I've got some links here which you may interesting or may seem pretty heady. If you find your brain pounding then I advise you to put the reading down. We'll explore musicality more in rehearsal this week.
In the follow-up email, I'll have an exercise for you to try and more videos for that "ooh, pretty" feeling.
So, musicality... In the sense that I'm bringing up here, let's consider the word a few ways.  How does a dancer feel music? How then can the dancer use those feelings to find movement? And eventually how does this work with a group? How do a group of surfers ride the same wave?
The first link is from my dance blog. These are all the links that specifically relate to musicality.  


The next link is from Swungover. It's an interview with a deaf dancer named Tim Vail. There's a lot about how music moves a person who can't use their ears to hear it.


I followed the included links yesterday. One of those that hits me really hard is the link to "Whip My Hands," video by Adrean Clark.

When I first watched this I wanted to hear the music she danced to. Then I thought "oh..."
This could get pretty deep. If you have any questions I welcome them! Thanks for your time.

Email 3

One of the things I've been considering lately is the way I listen to music. We talked about lyrics in rehearsal last weekend and I remember that for me lyrics are usually the last thing that hit. Usually I don't hear lyrics until the second or third time through and usually only remember them if they're exceptionally clever or bold enough to stick in my head. For me music is usually what's underneath the words. For me a singer's voice is one instrument among many.
Maybe it wasn't always that way for me. I remember in a dance class at the Edge years back, when the instructor stopped us cold. He told us to stop counting (bear in mind I haven't asked us to start counting) and listen to the music. He asked us to pick out one instrument and dance to that. That minute's worth of work was a crucial one for me! So I'd like for you to have a similar experience.

Here's a song from Lake Street Dive:
Clear a Space

Here's the exercise:
1) Listen to the song. Please don't read parts 2 forward until after you've heard the song once.

2) Listen to the song again. This time pick out the BASS - It's fairly prominent in the song.
3) Once you've found the bass, hum along with it. Try to make the same sounds you hear. If you're sensitive to which parts of your body vibrates when you sing then make note but there's no pressure to think on that much. If you don't notice anything them just hum along for now.
4) Dance to the bass-line. It might just be a simple foot tapping. A head bop counts as dancing in my book! Whatever feels like moving, let it move.
5) Listen to the song again picking out a different instrument. There are only four instruments total including the singer. Sing along and dance with that instrument.
6) Try the exercise again with a song of your choice!

Questions: Where in your body does music turn into dancing? How is listening in this way similar or different from the kind of listening you use in the world or onstage?

The exercise above is a musical exploration of sensitivity to tone. Later we'll explore how structure works in songs and how we can become more sensitive to that as dancers and as players.
I promised videos. Here are some videos!
*Jammin' the Blues
This is one of my favorite jazz clips, shot by one of my favorite photographers, Gjon Mili. It's a good transition in the discussion of music and dancing.

*Amelia - Lalala Human Steps
I've lost count how many times I've watched this. I find it completely hypnotic. This is the first section of a longer feature film from Lalala Human Steps.

*Weightless - Erika Janunger
Man, I don't know what this is but it's gorgeous.

Okay, that's plenty of stuff. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for your time!

Email 4

Great rehearsal last weekend! Aw man, I have to give it up to Kelsey McCowan for coming in to teach for the first hour! I've been working on that tap section. And I have to thank you all for just playing your asses off!

This week I'll be teaching a Lindy Hop lesson. We're going to learn the roles of lead and follow and build some ideas about what that means in partnership. Since we're a little gender-uneven I'll be inviting some extra ladies to join us for that first hour. If you know anyone who'd like a free lesson please send me a line!

We'll be guest coached this weekend by George Caleodis, alumnus of the Second City mainstage and a man who performs with at least 12 Harold teams each week. I'm excited for him to work with us!

Some related READING -
USS Rock 'n Roll - Dance Lessons part 1 & 2

RockStepTriple - Lindy Hop vs. Improv Comedy

A slew of VIDEOS -
Groovie Movie
Fifteen years ago this movie changed my life. Most of my basic philosophy of life can be found here.

This is one of the most memorable scenes from an ahead of its time sketch comedy film.

I Love Lucy - from Lucy Gets an Eye Exam
http://youtu.be/frLNbUWG524 (*unfortunately now removed from YouTube*)
Lucy danced with one of my heroes from the Groovie Movie, Arthur Walsh

Living it Up - Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin
Jerry Lewis backed up by some of southern Californias legendary swing dancers.

The Retro Kids Show - Everybody Eats When They Come to My House
Hey, I'm in this one!

Okay, that's plenty for now. Send a line if you have any questions. Thanks for your time!

Email 5

Just one video today - Bobby McFerrin 
I'd love to play an audience like he does.