I'm a creative person. Always have been. I wish I was better at math and science but my brain doesn't work that way. It's just always looked at the world differently.
Let's go back in time a bit. I remember in 5th grade I heard a bad word on TV and I didn't really know what it meant. So obviously I was looking forward to saying it the next time I assumed it could be worked into a conversation. I wanted to use that word because I heard an adult use it on TV and it got laughs. I've always liked making people laugh, and when the time came I was going to use that word to make my friends laugh. All of them. Even that uppity so and so Dave Browning. Would it kill him to have a sense of humor? We were 10!!! So, anyhoozle, the next day 5th Grade Jeff’s walking down the hallway with his friends (and No Fun Dave), and we stop in front of the principal’s office and start chatting up these girls. I had just starting becoming aware of these "girls" in a different way than I had ever really thought of before. I began to notice them like someone who is noticing something for the first time and it makes them feel funny because…science, which, again, I wish I was better at understanding. Someone says something, someone else says another thing and I see my opening for the debut of "JEFFS NEW ADULT WORD THAT HE HEARD ON A TV SHOW THAT HE PROBABLY SHOULDNT BE WATCHING ANYWAY, BUT HE DID AND NOW HES GOING TO ACTUALLY SAY THAT WORD TO A GIRL EVEN THOUGH HE HAS NOOOOO IDEA WHAT IT REALLY MEANS. ITS ABOUT TO BE A CLASSIC CASE IF THAT’S A BELL YOU CANT UNRING UP IN HERE!" I jump in and call this girl (who I had a crush on but I didn't know it was a crush just that she made me feel fuzzy and weird inside, once again... science) the bad and derogatory word. As soon as I say it my friends start laughing. The bit had landed and I reveled in that, the laughter taking over my brain like a thing that takes over brains. I'm on a high. It was perfect: the laughter of the group rolling over us, washing us all anew with the joy of comedy. Even my crush was laughing. Now that I think about it. None of us actually knew what the word meant but it was going swimmingly. Until I heard a stern voice behind me go "Mr. Jenkins did you just call that young lady a '$@&*%?!?!’" I couldn't deny that I did but I tried anyway. "No sir, I said…a word that sounded similar but obviously didn't apply in the context.” But what did I know? I didn't even know what the word I said meant. The muse of laughter conned me. ”Mr. Jenkins, do you take me for a fool? Are you lying to my face? Get in my office right now!" Silence. Cold, unwelcoming silence. Nothing but dead awkward silence, a response from audiences that would be a consistent moment during the rest of my comedy career. Well, there was an awkward cough sound that Dave Browning made. The high was gone. The thing that takes over brains ran out of my head like a thing that takes over a brain and then runs out of said head when a fluffy-haired 5th grader wearing tuffskin jeans used a word that he heard on TV the night before but had no idea what that word meant. It was like that. I'm sure you can relate. So I march into his office and take my usual spot in front of his desk.
"Mr. Jenkins, why did you call that young lady a $@&%?" My brain was racing like a brain racing to find a lie (alternate fact for you millennials) that I knew would land me in bigger trouble. I stumble, rumble and fumble as my brain keeps racing. "Mr. Jenkins. Think before you speak because I don't think I deserve to be lied to again. Now why did you call her a $@&%?" HE KEPT SAYING THAT WORD!!! I wanted to throw back at him, “Well if it's such a bad word why are you using it?” But I just sat there stumbling, rumbling, fumbling and tumbling. He repeated himself and asked again why I called her that word. Stumbling, rumbling, fumbling, tumbling and bumbling my mind sees a way out. The truth. The truth shall set you free! Just tell the truth. I've never thought of that before, it's just crazy enough to work. So I say "to make everyone laugh". He just stares at me. Time stands still. It stands still just like time that stands still when you know the punishment for the crime you just did is about to be handed down. It stood still like that. "To make them laugh?" he asks. "Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes sir." "Well since you like words so much I want you write a 7,000 word essay on being nice to people and apologize to that young lady. Now go to class." 7,000 words? I was ten. I don't think I even knew 7,000 words!
I go home and, after telling my dear sainted mother, Patsy Jean the Beauty Queen, she says the words I've heard way too many times: "Go to your room and just wait ‘til your father gets home." Wait. ‘Til. My. Father. Gets. Home. The philosopher Nietzsche says "the anticipation of death is sometimes worse than death itself." That's what it felt like. Waiting for death. Waiting for my dad to get home. So he finally comes home from a long day of working at the Air Force factory, where his job was overseeing nuclear missiles that kept the bad men away and here I am adding more stress to his day because I did something stupid. Again, a thread that would be way too common over the coming year. So of course I get in even more trouble and probably got a spanking. I'm in my room and I ever so gingerly sit down to write this dumb essay and then it hits me. A picture is worth a thousand words. That's the ticket! So I go that route and draw seven pictures of people being nice to each other. i.e Boy Scouts helping old ladies cross the street, bringing soup to someone sick, rescuing cats out of trees. Things like that. So, I turn it in and it doesn't go over well. Not at all. Let's just say I ate lunch by myself the next few weeks. So I get in even more trouble but later found out they thought it was funny. So I knew then that my brain just works differently and over the years I've grown to accept that, good or bad, that's me. I'm creative and once I came to grips with that and stopped trying to be someone I'm not, my creative side exploded. I wrote plays, acted, sang, break danced, gave speeches, and traveled the country and the world making people laugh. That's been my world for a long time. Creative. It's always been there except when I go dark. I’ve been open on here about my struggles with depression and I went so dark with depression that I lost my creative side. Well, I didn't lose it. Just misplaced it. I didn't want to create anything. I wanted to run from that side. I hated that side of me because I hated me. I wanted to be a regular person who does regular stuff. So I ran. But you can't outrun yourself or who you really are. Geography doesn't change or fix your problems, only you can do that. So I stopped running and had to come to grips with who I really was. I didn't want to but I had to. As my mind began to heal I felt that creative side sneaking back in. That creative spark began to cast a light that chased my dark away. I. began to make agreements with myself on how quickly and on what terms I would jump back into creating again. I had to be patient. Too soon and I'd jump back into the dark. I had to trust that it wound return again so after a couple of years I was ready to create again. I put the Skinny Improv to pasture and created this El Jenko Comedy Collective. New beginnings for a new creative side. The Skinny was all about connecting people. Connecting to craft, a community where they could be a part of a family and to connect people to who they needed to meet in the real world to be a success. This time it’s about helping people. It’s about taking my stories and life experiences to help people. I'll write more on that later. But my creativity is back and I'm craving to do more. So I am.
Alas, few years ago I'm out with some performers from the Skinny Improv and we're riffing and telling jokes and having fun and I come up with this idea for a character to do stand up with. I'm a huge Star Wars fan and I thought it would be funny to come out in full Star Wars costume and do a set as the house comedian from the Mos Eisley cantina where Luke and Obi-wan first meet Han and Chewie. Like, not introduced as Jeff Jenkins as Crim Stargazer but the host introduces Crim Stargazer like he’s a real person. The classic, "You might have seen Crim at the Mos Eisley Cantina, and the Hoth Happy House..." I tell them about it and they all laugh and we start riffing on that. I was determined to go out and do this character but I let fear and doubt tell me it was stupid. Tell me it was lame. Tell me I was worthless. So I broke the momentum of that night and put it on the back burner and then I went to the dark I've written about before.
A few months after that night I was deep down in the depression rabbit hole, where success wasn't making 300 people laugh at a show, it was getting out of bed. Success wasn't writing a play and producing it and winning awards with it, it was trying not to sleep for days at a time. Success wasn't seeing students and performers grow in their craft and find their voice, it was just simply surviving, not just day to day but moment to moment.
So we jump ahead a few years and I'm starting up this blog and working on other projects and starting to feel creative again. I make the decision to bring back this Star Wars bit and actually do something with it. I remembered a phrase I used a lot in teaching: "Creativity doesn't come from inspiration but from action" It's not enough to just have an idea but you have to get out and actually do something with that idea. I let fear and depression ruin a lot of good ideas for me because I thought I wasn't good enough or someone else already thought of that idea or blah blah blah self-defeating blah blah blah stupid dumb-dumb head talk. Someone asked me when I told them about my idea how I approach making an idea happen when I have one. So I'll share with you my basic steps to help a creative spark burn bright. Remember creativity doesn't come from inspiration but from action. So I introduce to the world for the first time, Crim Stargazer: Mos Eisley Cantina House Comedian. Again. These are just my steps and by no means are the end all be all answers to creativity.
1. PUT IT ON THE CALENDAR
It helps me tremendously once I get an idea I'm passionate about to throw it on a calendar and book that show. It establishes accountability. Once I decided to get off my tail and do something with this idea, I called a friend of mine who came up through the Skinny Improv and is now running killer stand up shows at a local venue. Chris Rochelle is a hustler and is doing a great job bringing quality stand up to Springfield. He's worked his tail off to get national acts to come in and do shows with local comics. So I called Chris and asked if I could have some time on stage and told him my idea and he said yes. So we marked it down and I'm doing a short set as Crim Stargazer on Feb. 11 as a part of a line up for a really funny national guy. Now I'm committed. I've also set up writing sessions with one of the staff writers for El Jenko, Johny Barnett, because I need even more accountability and by having a writing partner I won't just jump up there the night of and half-ass this thing. I need to grow and push myself as a writer and stand up scares me so if it feels weird keep doing it. I get others involved. I don't want fear and doubt to win this round. I've done this with all my ideas. Some worked and some didn't. The first Skinny show, Shakespeare festival, Hamlet vs. Zombies, kids’ theatre and dozens of new shows at the Skinny. Those worked. And then some didn't. So when they don't, I give it a couple tries and move on.
2. DON'T COMPARE
Your idea is your idea and it's disingenuous to you and your creativity to compare yourself to someone else. We're all different and bring different things to the table. I know some brilliant and creative people who are doing incredible things. Honestly, for a long time, because I hated myself, I compared what I thought were my crappy ideas to their brilliant world changing ideas. But it's just that. Crap. Don't get caught up comparing yourself. Use the success of those around you as a motivator to be the best that YOU can be. You are what the idea needs. Your flaws and shortcomings. Your history and experiences. Your good, bad and ugly. Bring it all to the idea and shape it how you see it without getting caught up in comparing yourself to others. The world needs what you can do and not a copycat of someone else. Do it for you. You may fall flat on your face but at least you tried and you can learn from failure. Failure shouldn't define who you are but it should inform who you can be. History is full of amazing people who failed. So try. And do it. And fail and then one time you'll hit it out of the park and change someone’s world. Don't compare and don't give up.
3. PERFECTION ISN'T THE DEFINITION OF CREATIVITY
Art should be messy. It's all about potential, it's a process and it’s personal. If you wait to do something until the perfect moment you'll never do it. There is no perfect time, perfect way or perfect end product. Art is an evolution. You start with an idea and then using your time, talent and resources to create something that you need to express. It's not about how others will perceive it, about how it will be received or who believes it's about this voice. This idea needs to get out and be created. So go create. Open up and give that idea some air so that creative ember can evolve into a living, breathing fire that illuminates around you.
4. NEVER BELIEVE YOUR OWN PRESS
One of the best things someone taught me was no matter how successful you are or how great your idea is never believe your own press. I don't know how many times I've seen friends fall short because they let past successes and egos trip them up. Be proud of your work. Own your work but don't fall prey to the trappings of ego and success. Another thing I was taught was you're only as good as your next show. So you had a success. That's great. Now what? I'm always asking myself, what's next?! How can I be better than the last time?
5. DON'T OVERTHINK. FEEL IT. DO IT
When you overthink something, that's almost as dangerous as comparing yourself to someone else. Trust yourself and trust your process. It's your idea and it'll be what it needs to be. Relax. Enjoy. Create. Repeat as necessary. Step away from it if you need to. Give it some room to breathe. If I feel I'm over thinking I table that idea and when I think I'm ready to feel what I need to do next. I have a play I'm working on that I had to table for a bit but when I get inspired I revisit it and write. Also don't be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to someone in that field and pick their brain. If they like it you'll have another voice whispering encouragement in your ear.
6. THINK LIKE AN ADULT, BUT ACT LIKE A KID
Somewhere along the way we are told to grow up and stop acting like a child. We stifle that part of the brain where, as kids, we saw the world as fun and amazing. Yes, we adults have responsibility and we need guidelines and rules to make sure we do what we need to do to live and take care of responsibilities; they are there for a reason. But why not try to be a little more childlike in our path to creativity? You can use all the natural intelligence you've gained as an adult and, where possible, act like a kid. Keep the wonder you had as a child and look at every person you meet or every tree you see as endlessly fascinating. Kids ask lots of questions to try to understand the world. Don't ever stop doing that. Question everything. Ask why. Children have a natural creativity that's constantly reinventing itself, partly because they're learning about the world and partly because they don't know that they're not supposed to do certain things. I always said that the reason the Skinny Improv had any success is that I didn't know what I was doing when I started it, and if I were to do it all again knowing what I know now it wouldn't have been the same. I would have played it too safe.
Don't be afraid to responsibly break rules. Tap into that playfulness that's inside of us all, and go explore that jungle gym that is the world.
As I always say. I'm not a licensed therapist, I've just been through a lot of crap. As my dear sainted mother always said "y'all be sweet"
jeff Jenkins is an award winning comedian, actor, writer, producer and director and writes about how improv comedy helps him in his ongoing battle with depression and living his best improvised life.