Jason Specland: Consultant, Comedian

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Category: The PIT

Upcoming Performances and Classes

Thursday, August 17, 11 PM, The PIT Underground: I perform… ALL BY MYSELF! At the Solo Improv Showcase hosted by Solo Improv guru Mike Brown. $7.

Saturday, August 19, 3-6 PM, Simple Studios: Drop on in to my Drop-In Class! Get some improv reps! Have some improv fun! $30, or $20 if you have a current PIT student ID.

Saturday, August 26, 5PM, Henry Heymann Theater, Pittsburgh, PA: The Austen Family Improv Players at the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Super-excited about this one! I get to go back to my old college town to lay down some Regency-Era manners. I just hope my order of ‘O’ Fries doesn’t drip ketchup on my cravat. $10

Sexy Mad Science: My LED Body Suits for Yes! Yes! Yes! And…

The show was last night, and was a smashing success, and so it’s time to reveal the project that I’ve been working tirelessly on in the past week.

The idea of “Yes! Yes! Yes! And…” is kind of a sexy party improv show. (Notably, and importantly, I think, the improv itself is 100% clean, it’s just the “frame story” that’s all sexy.) The theme of this show was that it would be performed in total darkness, with the performers illuminated only by small LEDs that they carried with them.

With my knowledge of electronics, I figured I could do something pretty neat. My idea was that, as our hearts and our libidos are often in conflict, the suit will display the beating heart and the prominent… genitalia. (Due to the nature of the show, this post will be filled with the forced hesitant prudishness of the ellipsis.)

Here’s a video of the completed LED bodysuit.

So the first thing I did was I built a boatload of LED strands. Why not just buy LED rope lights? My thought was that I wanted to determine exactly what color and design I wanted (which I was right about) and that it wouldn’t be a big deal to solder them all together. About this last point I was wrong. Dead, dead, wrong. It took me three solid days to solder together two hearts, one male, and one female… piece. (There’s that ellipsis again.)

I ordered a bunch of colored LEDs and resistors from Mauser. Here’s some of the first designs, with my calculations of the resistance values for a 12-volt input.

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Here is the soldering station, just beginning the build of a strand of lights. Again, I spent three solid days doing this.

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Here’s the first successful test of the “inner” heart ring.

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And this is the outer.

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Here is a pile of hand-soldered LED and resistor assemblies, ready to put into a cable that’s being built.

Soldering Station with Loose LED Assemblies

The heartbeat is controlled by a super-simple controller board. The 12v is routed through a 5v voltage regulator, which feeds the input of an ATtiny 85. (I programmed the ATtiny 85 through my Arduino. Much thanks to High-Low Tech at the MIT Media Lab for showing me how to do that.) The output pins 0 and 1 go to the base of two transistors, whose collectors are pointed at the 12v supply and whose emitters are pointed at the inner and outer heart rings.

The… bits… are directly wired in without a controller.

To make sure that we could turn the whole thing on and off at a moments notice, I wired a toggle switch for the whole shebang, and routed it into the left arm.

There were some important lessons learned. First, and most vitally important lesson is that I can NOT solder a million tiny connections in any reasonable amount of time.

Another lesson was that, while it’s nice to have guaranteed battery supply, having a 10 Amp-hour battery is not only probably overkill, but those batteries in NiMH weigh about 4 lbs. In the end, I couldn’t even get them to charge (my charger was defective, and is being returned). But even if I’d gotten them to charge, I never solved the problem about how someone would actually wear such a battery pack. I’ll most certainly use the two huge battery packs in some future project… I’d better… they were darn expensive! In the end, I just ended up using 8 long-lasting AA batteries to generate 12v.

Yet another lesson: Stripboard is much easier to work with than undifferentiated perfboard. At the very least it focuses the mind as to where your components should go. I’ve heard that custom printing PCBs isn’t terribly difficult or expensive, and I may need to look in to that.

On the brighter side of lessons learned: The fact that I don’t need to stick a whole Arduino into a project! It was extremely easy to built a breadboard to program the ATtiny 85 and upload my sketch to it. And the ATtinys are so cheap, I purchased 10. (And blew up two. Don’t forget to connect the ground wire to your 5v regulator, folks! Whoops!) But I will almost certainly be using ATtinys (or other Amtel chips I can program from the Arduino) in future projects.

My heart was having shorting problems, but it worked with a little bit of fiddling during the show, and finally died in the shows final few minutes, so I guess we got just about all I can ask of my meagar soldering and board-building skills.

In the end, it didn’t quite live up to my initial imagination. (I’d planned on having LEDs running down each arm and leg. That would have been an additional hundred LEDs to solder!) But it came out pretty awesome just the same. I’m super-proud of this, and while I don’t think that I’m going to be doing this all the time, it’ll be a neat thing to throw into my performances now and again.

Cut? DON’T QUIT!

To elaborate a a bit on what I posted yesterday:

This is my second time through the audition process at the PIT, and the first time I’ve been through significant cuts. Many people I love, including half of Technicolor, won’t be around for this cycle.

It hurts. I know. I’ve been there.

When I was put on a Harold team at UCB*, I was well beyond cloud nine — I was on cloud a hundred and seventy-four and had a leather steamer trunk covered in stickers indicating the many clouds I’d been on. When I was cut a short time later, I was bereft.

At first I thought, “It’s all right. I’m a bit emotional now, but I just need to take a break from this place.” But then the break became a hiatus. The hiatus became “Whatever happened to…?” Before I knew it, I hadn’t done longform improv in ten years.

Let me tell you: This is, seriously, one of the biggest regrets of my life.

If you need to take time, go ahead and take some time. But please, PLEASE don’t make the same mistake I made. Don’t abandon your craft. Make things happen. Persevere. Be great. I have faith in you.

* Back then, this was not quite the amazing accomplishment it is today. On the UCB retrospective interview that was recently published, someone said, “Anyone who could stand got on a house team.” I could stand. Barely.

A Time for Change

The PIT house team auditions are done. Some incredibly talented people I love are now on teams, and for them I am ecstatic. Some incredibly talented people I love are not, and for them I feel a profound sense of loss, ameliorated slightly by the hope that for them it is not the end of the road, but rather a new beginning.

In any case, if you wish to see me perform at the PIT, I will be performing Monday nights at 9:30 with the team currently known as 1800’s London. I hope to see many of you there…

Watson! Come Here! I Want You!

Your attention, please. The improv team formerly known as “Team Green” is now known as “Watson.” That is all.

Awesome Things my Friends (and Mentors) are Doing: Sandy Kenyon Reviews the World

Everyone at the PIT already knows about this. But for my non-PIT friends, if you’ve ever rode in a New York City taxi and didn’t bother to hit the “turn off this damn video” button, this is for you:

This project is being done by Scott Eckert, a teacher, mentor, and friend of mine from the PIT. Also, if you ever have an opportunity to see him perform improv, that is an opportunity of which you should avail yourself.

You Never Forget Your First

On Wednesday, the team that will shortly be renamed but is currently known as Team Green performed their first show at The PIT. I alluded to how it felt in a brief Facebook status update*, but the feeling was so intense that I needed to record it here.

It. Was. Amazing.

Even though the theater is brand new, between open jams and auditions I’d been on the stage plenty of times by now. But when the house is full, as it was Wednesday, the energy is just entirely different. The stage was electric. The laughter fell over us like an intoxicating tidal wave. It was a feeling I haven’t felt since… well… the last time I had a major role in a show before a huge, full house. (Rocky Horror? We didn’t quite sell that out. Ragtime? My part was comparatively minor.)

There were certainly some rough patches. We’re still kind of feeling each other out, finding our group mind. We’d never even rehearsed before, for goodness sake! But based on the positive response we got on our first time out, I’ve got a feeling we’ve got a lot of amazing performances ahead of us.

* I find myself experiencing a strange hierarchy of “publishing thoughts on the Internet.” I’ll start on Twitter, where I will try and lovingly trim my thoughts down to 140 characters. If I absolutely can’t trim it that far, it goes to Facebook. Then, when I finally feel the need for paragraphs and permanence, it ends up here.

Sweet Redemption!

The story before today:

For many years, improv was my life.

In the beginning, there was Comics Anonymous. Sure, it was rough troup* to be a part of at times, but I’ve got to acknowledge the company that gave me my start. Frank, the director, put me on stage and let me cut my teeth in front of real audiences. Sometimes, the audiences even outnumbered the cast! Occasionally, we rocked the upstairs cabaret at Jan McArt’s Royal Palm Dinner Theater in Boca Raton.

Then, I auditioned for ComedySportz, Ft. Lauderdale. That place was amazing. We took over The Comic Strip, a former comedy club on Federal Highway that had seen A-list headliners before it shut down. I’ve got to give credit to the director, Pat “The Vampire” Battistini. After practicing with the group a while, I said “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.” (Being ComedySportz, we were big on the sports metaphors.) He did, and I got the opportunity to perform in front of huge, full houses on Saturday nights. (It’s odd the memories you hold from ephemeral improv shows, years after they’re gone. I still cherish “Song Styles” in which I sang a Disco song about the FDIC.)

Then I went back to college, and joined the No Parking Players. Since I had experience with ComedySportz, I ended up directing them for a while. It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and more importantly, I made some of the best friends I would ever have — people I’m honored to count among my friends to this day.

Then, a talk at CMU by Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter (of all things!) inspired me to move to New York City. When I arrived, I searched for a new improv home. I naturally gravitated to ComedySportz New York, who wouldn’t give me the time of day. I was one of many to pass through the meat grinder of Grownup’s Playground (which I will not dignify with a link). The only good to come of that was that I met Keith, who became my roommate and one of my very best friends in the world. I also met my wife at an audition for them, but I didn’t know that at the time.**

Then, I found the Upright Citizens Brigade. They taught me the joy of long form. I had the privilege of learning from some of the best of the best. Armando Diaz, before he founded his own theater. Ian Roberts. Amy Poehler, before she became (more) famous. And Ali Farahnakian, before he founded his own theater… but more about that in a moment.

After going through the levels at UCB, I was cast on a Harold team. I was ecstatic. I was on my way. We called ourselves “Pole Position” and I even created an opening theme with the “Prepare to Qualify” music from the game. We got to perform in their new theater (which is now the old theater). We performed at the very first Del Close marathon (at something like 6 in the morning, but we did perform.)

We… struggled. I didn’t feel like we were clicking as a team. I was getting edgy. I felt the need to come in big and “save” every scene. I talked to Armando about how I was struggling. He felt it, too. The axe came down shortly thereafter. Several people from my team were reassigned to other new teams. I was not.

I was devastated. People whose opinions I valued… nay, people I practically worshipped… essentially said I was no good at the art form to which I dedicated pretty much my entire life. I left improv, and started doing more scripted theater. I didn’t come back to improv for almost a decade.

Not to say that the decade was wasted. I did a lot of incredible theater. I met and married my wife, and we had a beautiful son. And I performed at the Jekyll and Hyde Club, which was not an improv show per se, but certainly exercised those muscles.

I thought I was content. But then my friend Alex did her Level 1 class show at UCB. It awakened something deep inside me that lay dormant lo these many years. I knew, right then and there, that I had to get back into the game.

It’s odd the little things that end up being so consequential. The only reason I signed up at the People’s Improv Theater was because there weren’t any Level 1 classes available at UCB. I went to my first Level 1 class cocky as can be. (Well, cocky as I can be, at any rate.) I was thinking, “Yes, I’m experienced, but I’ll go in with the ‘beginner’s mind’ as the Zen people say.” Well, it turns out that, while I wasn’t a rank beginner, my improv muscles had atrophied sufficiently that the workout shocked me to my senses. I steeled my resolve to become better, every class, every day.

I worked my way through the classes. I hooked up with some amazing performers to start the team that you know as Vorpal. I worked those muscles, and developed a few new ones along the way. And I always had my sights set on the weekend of January 22, 2011. This weekend. House team auditions.

The story today:

After an audition process that was a strange mixture of fun and grueling, I got cast! I’m on a house team at the PIT! It took me nigh on a decade, but I’m back in the game! My journey doesn’t stop here, but gosh darn it, I have an improv home again. And to make the victory even sweeter, the PIT just opened a brand new, gorgeous theater. I get the same, “You’re at the start of something big, kid!” feeling that I got when I was at the first meeting in the “new” UCB space when it was still being remodeled from a strip club.

Except this time, I’m not going to throw it all away at the first setback. I’m here to stay, improv, so you damned well better be ready for me…

* It’s easy to misspell the word “troupe.” However, Frank neglected to use spell check before he had the word printed on our company tee shirts.

** At one Grownup’s Playground audition, we had two black women come in, which in improv is somewhat unusual. The first was the woman I would eventually marry and have children with. The second had just come from a callback for the original Broadway production of Ragtime. Naturally, I was immediately attracted to the second one.

*** Wow, research for this piece has made me open up some damn nostalgic browser tabs! But why are you reading this? The three-asterisk footnote is not referenced in the post.