I’ve officially decided that Craig Uhlir is a fucking dickhead.
Not that he means to be, but he is. There are ways he could go about everything that would give him and everyone around him such less hard of a time. He naturally chooses the most abrasive way to phrase things and then backtracks to what he actually means to say. He reacts passionately, which is his strength and also what makes him an insensitive asshole that’s easy to provoke.
Chris and Javier were talking about the Cook County show the previous night and Chris talked about how he thought the opening Harold team, Uncle Magic, was “terrible.” Craig (who Eric later told me is in charge of the Harold Commission and does the scheduling) inquired as to why and Chris talked about people who jumped into scenes they didn’t need to and how one guy in particular inserted himself into every scene and some other mechanics that he didn’t like. Craig asked what he liked about Cook County that was different and Chris mentioned the flip side of those choices, that people weren’t afraid to jump in and force the scene in another direction.
“That’s interesting to me that you say that,” he said, “because those Harold teams are guys that have worked hard to earn their time and have struggled for years and honestly you’d better fucking bring it tomorrow because you’re talking smack like that I can’t wait to see you fail hard in front of everybody tomorrow because you’re just being a fucking hypocrite with what you’re saying and that just makes me fucking angry.”
This, of course, started off a bunch of people jumping up to defend Chris and his statements and Craig continuing to belittle everybody for their opinions or justifications. At one point, he silenced Javier, saying, “I’m done hearing from you.” He then realized in the moment how much of an asshole he was being so he backpedaled a little bit and kind of apologized (but not really and not saying he was sorry, just self-deprecated for a sentence) but underhandedly implied that he still thought we were hypocrites. Things then cooled for a second and he was about to go into another thing so let him know my real opinion.
“Honestly, it’s a little hard because I came here expecting great Harolds and have encountered only good ones.” I was being generous. “When I found out that most of these teams have only been improvising for a few years, and even less years together as a team, I had to adjust my expectations because I expected to see the best Harolds the world had to offer. Also, of course, we’ve been working at this for five weeks so we easily notice the missteps because it’s all fresh in our minds and we’re looking at it extra-critically. Plus it’s improv so there’s a fair amount of failure involved.”
I was attempting the yes-and-fuck-you thing I like to do on stage when someone’s being a dickhead. I soothe their nerves, make them comfortable and explain very nicely not only why they were being a dickhead but why they have no leg to stand on with this behavior. His actions really poisoned the well of the entire class for the day. Sure, he had a point in that these people work hard for what they are given and we’re harsher sometimes than we should be. However, the fact that they put work and time in doesn’t automatically make their improv better and the fact that I’m supposed to give them the benefit of the doubt because they live in the hardest improv market to break into is patently ridiculous.
I’ve had the luxury in the past five weeks of seeing some of the Harold teams perform more than once. While generally each group performed better the second time I saw them, I felt dead-on in calling out teams when I did so. Fiction for the Poor is light years ahead of any other Harold team out there based on the show I saw. They’re the only Harold team I’ve seen that does a great Harold, which more than partially led me to my conclusion that the form needs to evolve. If iO doesn’t care enough to make each Harold team at least as good as The Reckoning (which I was never blown away by but they do a good Harold) then nobody should get offended when I call iO teams out on being simply average.
Still, I continued to hold to the adjustment I made in my mind on the first day. Craig is a football coach, not an improv teacher. With this mind adjustment I was able to glean the lesson he slipped into his tirade. Even if he didn’t know it, he was telling us that we need to understand the importance of supporting choices. When Cook County does a move that’s uncalled for, that has the potential to “fuck up” a scene, they bear hug that weird choice and take it to the sky. In most Harold shows, weird or risky choices are often left out to dry by the rest of the team and make the person who made the choice look like an idiot and develop a complex; usually because people were judging the scene or show they were in and sold out the other performers.
Again, though, as an educator you have to keep a lid on your outbursts to make sure they don’t come from a place of spite. Chris hit a nerve because he was harshly criticizing Craig’s work to his face, but it’s not the instructor’s job to fly off the handle and yell at a student because of what he thinks. Quite the opposite, in fact. As he said multiple times throughout the day as he was yelling at us in the middle of exercises, “You didn’t pay Charna $1,100 to do bullshit.”
The funny thing about all this, from my perspective, is that I’m not really a fan of Cook County at all. I get what they do and I see that they have fun and that fun is infectious, but I stopped liking aggressive “DudeProv” a long time ago. Sure, it’s fun to do and it’s awesome for what it is. So are well-written teen comedies like Can’t Hardly Wait. I’m more interested in pulling off art, though. That’s not going to be done by being a hooting dickhole, on stage or off.
Despite all of this, class was appropriately challenging today. The well being poisoned, we were afraid to make a lot of moves and Craig yelled at us for being afraid and “putting more rules on it.” The moments where we were freer and played with more abandon were good scenes, but I had to keep pushing down that desire to just walk out the door and say fuck it to the rest of today and tomorrow. I was angry, frustrated and too tired to deal with the heavy amount of fuckery involved.
His negative reinforcement worked, though. I went into baseball player mode, the mode where I get tattooed to the wall for something and then overcompensate to be the best on the team at that thing and therefore showing the coach how much of a dick he was being for being so harsh with me, effectively giving coach what he wanted. In this case, it was looking people in the eyes. My head was on a swivel. I ceased to care about sight lines. I just kept floating from eyes to eyes. It worked magic for me and my brain hurt, for sure. I just wish I hadn’t made the discovery as a way of giving Craig the best example of what he wanted me to do as a “fuck you” gesture. I’d have preferred to discover it in a more nurturing atmosphere.
We decide what form we’re doing for the show tomorrow during class. At this point, we’ve worked so hard and come so far and learned so many interesting forms that I just want to do a montage and play. Maybe an opening, perhaps the Invocation, then just scenes. The show is about playing and having fun. We may as well not overcomplicate it.
I decided to skip Felt and went back to Eric’s to center myself and relax until TJ and Dave. I took a shower and talked with Eric for a little bit about Craig’s outburst and he gave me a good perspective on the whole thing. With another hour to kill I reclined on the couch and surfed around on Facebook and came across a blog post from Chris Gethard that Stephen put in our class group. It was a long-winded answer to the question of fear in improv and what it means to him. I was particularly inspired by a quote that seemed to echo some of Jet’s sentiments on performing with the idea of death around the corner waiting:
“Fear is not to be avoided. It is to be followed. Fear is like the light on the end of Rudolph’s nose - it’s the beacon we follow into a foggy and uncertain place, where we can’t see more than three feet around us, where we know we might spiral out of control and crash at any second, but where we are armed with the knowledge that if we can somehow navigate those storm clouds successfully when we are piloting blind into such a situation, we might just get the job done and we might just do something legendary.”
Around 9:45 I decided to walk down to iO and met up with Kevin and Matt. Alice walked up right afterward and we were able to get Kevin’s favorite seat again. This was the first time I actually got to see TJ and Dave on their own and the theatrics of it hit me yet again. The playing out of the Ike Reilly song, the little talk they have on stage into each other’s ears, TJ putting his hands over his eyes to take in every single member of the audience. It’s the perfect setting of mood.
The show was good as always. TJ was an uncle taking his nephew to go see Body Worlds and couldn’t keep his lunch down because of the grotesqueness. From there they went to get ice cream and ran into a bickering couple who worked in the shop. It was fun and free and I knew again the things I was interested in doing with this art form. I had to wonder, though, if it was something that could be accomplished with a larger team. TJ and Dave don’t have anybody to jump into or edit their scenes so they play without fear of getting to the point. Even when Tracy Letts was in the equation they were able to go nice and slow. If I was to put a 10-person team together like this, it would have to be judiciously cast and there would have to be a large amount of rehearsing that would have to be done.
“It is our understanding that some of you will not be here next week,” Dave said at the closing of the show. “Thank you for being here now.”
I talked a bit outside with Matt Higbee afterward about the pacing of the show and the intensive in general. He said he’d come for the intensive originally as well and ended up staying. That story was starting to become more and more common with other students. At this point I count about 10 people who opted to stay. At least five of them I know for a fact had planned on leaving at the intensive’s end. It gave my already weary minds a lot to think about as I walked back to Eric’s and crashed out immediately.