Take Risks. What Else Are You Here For?
New York City. 2004. In the aftermath of the city shuttering our theater and us electing to go back to the itinerant business model, I decided we would take our Jen Ellison/Dave Stinton adapted play Let There Be Light! to the New York International Fringe Festival. My only goal: get us reviewed in the New York Times.
We’d been doing shows at 440 Studios (a room turned into a black box theater on LaFayette Street) for just over a week and the Fringe office wasn’t really pushing my agenda. Sure, we had a few blogs come review the show but audiences were light, and I wanted the Big Dogs to come out and see it. My cast was losing morale despite performing in the Big Apple. I could see the slow creep of ennui overtaking their enthusiasm for the grind of going out and handing out flyers and then coming and doing what was a truly emotionally taxing two hours.
As the producer, I had to do something risky. Something stupid but funny in execution. So I sent the entire crew on a day-long holiday.
“Aren’t you coming?” Jen asked.
“Nope. I have something I need to do. You all go have fun and I’ll see you when you’re done touristing.”
They split. I sat in a diner and thought. I looked at the copy of that day’s NYT and it hit me. Risky. Stupid.
I went to the NYT building and then crossed the street to a Duane Reade (like a New York CVS but owned by Walgreens) and, having no cash, stole two envelopes and a pack of yellow Post-its. On a bench, I pulled out two LTBL! postcards. On the Post-its, I wrote “Jason — Saw this last night and it was amazing!” and scribbled a completely indecipherable signature. I did the same for Cecily (both the NYT reviewers assigned to the Fringe) and put them in the envelopes. I went into the NYT building, hopped on the elevator and went to floor I needed.
I was dressed in a T-shirt, ball cap, cargo shorts, and I had a messenger bag. I looked like a bike messenger. I approached the desk and told the receptionist that I had deliveries for both the critics. She took them, handed me two dollars (a tip!) and I left, gleeful in my subterfuge.
When the gang got back, I told them the tale. Not because I expected it would work but because the dumb audacity of bucking the Fringe press office and doing something so moronic made my cast laugh. It made them feel like I was doing something for them and the show. We had pasta and drinks, and the morale started to seep back into their bones.
The next day, I received a pretty unhappy email from the Fringe office. I had gone around them and both the critics had requested press tickets to our show. I was floored. I sent them my press photos — which sucked — and the NYT decided to send a photographer to the next show to get snaps. One of the two critics — it turned out to be Jason — would come the next show to review it. The cast was ecstatic. My stunt had actually paid off.
Three days later, a photo of Pete Zielinski was on the top fold of the New York Times Arts Section, and a favorable review accompanied it.
I relate this not because I want to be the hero of the story. That’s really not my style. I share it to indicate that risk is sometimes followed by reward.
I know a thousand people terrified to jump out of a plane, tell a story onstage, quit a job they aren’t suited for, move away from an established stomping ground. I know a thousand people and they all know a thousand people who, in turn, know another thousand who fear risking humiliation or failure than to step up and step out and do something risky or stupid or both in pursuit of a goal that may not seem reasonable.
I suppose if the best you can envision for yourself is the warm comfort of security, safety, and stability, that fear is reasonable and justified. It does, however, fly in the face of reality. Reality is that nothing lasts, no warm blanket stays, that change and chaos are the soup and nuts of life.
I’m a fan of stupid risks. As I’m looking over the chasm of thirty years in Chicago, my entire adult life, I can see that almost every great thing that has happened to me or that I’ve accomplished was constructed of an initiating stupid risk.
Hopping in a truck and driving north after college with no money, no job, no one I knew, and no idea where I was going.
Taking Second City classes while teaching public school nearly seventy-five hours a week.
Taking seventeen people to Scotland on the back of my public school pension.
Singing a lease on a theater with $18 in the bank and no clue how to pay the rent.
Taking a house management job at WBEZ in hopes that it might turn into something bigger.
Asking my third wife to marry me on the third date.
I am a risky dumbass. I’ll likely continue to be one long from now.
You should try it sometime. It’s a blast when you ride the crest of the wave and make it over the wake. Humiliation is the only impediment, and that matters so much less than you think.
The only reason we exist is to risk, fail, risk again, succeed. So go do that already.