Thursday, February 21, 2019

My Funny Valentine

When I heard that Carol Burnett was going to be performing live in Sarasota at the same time I'd be there, and on Valentine's Day, it was a no-brainer. I had to get tickets, no matter how much they cost. 

Carol Burnett is my idol. She is the reason I do what I do. She is the reason I sacrificed so much to produce my own sketch comedy shows. Carol made everything better when I was a kid. In my evolution from awkward adolescent to insecure teenager, I laughed all my troubles away each night as my family and I watched her on syndication right after the 10 o'clock news. She put a smile on my face before my head hit the pillow.

I had made pre-show dinner reservations at The Starlite Room, the Sardi's of Sarasota, and less than a 5-minute drive from the venue. Our bill was a little late in arriving, so we panicked slightly when we looked at our watches and realized we only had 10 minutes to pay, hop in the car and find a parking spot.

In the venue's parking lot, there was not a spot to be found. Finally, at the back of the lot, and with the confidence only a dry martini could provide, I found a seemingly impossibly tight one. With the voice of a drill sergeant, I commanded my husband, son and sister to get out of the car so I could pull in.

We ran to the entrance, I in my platform pumps, my sister trailing behind - complaining of her sore knee. "Here's your ticket," I barked, handing it to her as I kept running, like a relay runner passing a baton. My husband stared at me incredulously - he knew Carol Burnett was important to me, but this was a side of me he'd never seen before.

We made it in the nick of time - and heard that they were starting the show late because so many people were having parking issues.

I sat contentedly in our amazing seats in the 13th row (my lucky number) and looked around at the almost full Van Wezel auditorium with its 1741 seats.

On the simple stage lay three Oriental rugs and a modest screen behind them with only the words "Carol Burnett". I took a few moments to breathe and reflect on what was about to happen. This woman who was the reason I did what I did. This woman I worshipped. I was moments away from seeing her step onto that stage.

10 minutes past showtime and people were still filing in. Four prominent seats remained empty in the center - luckily not in our row. If anyone walked past me and blocked my view of Carol - even for a brief moment - they would have hell to pay.

Finally, an announcement was made, and that familiar melody of "I'm so glad we had this time together" began to play. Out she walked in a sequin cardigan and black pencil skirt, with the same great legs she showed all those years ago as Mrs. Wiggins. Those who could, immediately rose to their feet and applauded this living legend.

In that same pleasant familiar tone she used on her TV show, she said, "Let's turn up the lights and see if you all have anything you want to say." Hands went up all over the auditorium, including mine. I had prepared a question, but honestly it was enough to just be in her presence. Just a few feet away.

About 3 or 4 questions were asked and answered before one of the female ushers made eye contact with me and pointed to her microphone. I HAD BEEN SELECTED FOR A QUESTION! Could this really be happening? Maybe it helped that I was wearing red and stood out (it was Valentine's Day, after all). Maybe it was our shared aura. Maybe it was just dumb luck. But the fact was, suddenly she - Carol - pointed to me and called on me.

I began to speak into the powerful mic and heard a slight delay as my voice surrounded the huge auditorium. It helped that I was an actress, improviser and frequent emcee - accustomed to speaking on the spot for large groups. I wasn't at all nervous, just dazed and going with the flow.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Carol, first I just wanted to say thank you for all the laughs. You made everything better when I was a kid."
Carol: "Thank you."
Me: "I also wanted to say that you are my inspiration and the reason I do what I do. I write and perform my own sketch comedy show in Switzerland."
Carol: "Switzerland?!"
Me: "Yes, for the English-speaking audiences. And knowing how much sacrifice is involved in a career like that, I just wanted to know - what was the moment that you knew you had to do this, or you would die?"
(murmurs of shock from the crowd)
Carol: "Well, I never thought I would DIE if I didn't do this..."
Me: "Oh. Shit."
(laughter from crowd)
Carol: "I wanted to be a journalist but they didn't have a journalism major at my college so I took a playwriting class. And I performed some of the pieces that I wrote and I knew I was good at it..."

She finished answering the question and went on to someone else. I'm not really sure what happened after that, other than I remember sitting on the edge of my seat, elbows on my knees, smiling. Just smiling. It's been a week now, and I'm still smiling.

Yes, the tickets were expensive. But oh boy, was it worth it. Because the memory will stay with me forever.

Do the thing you've always dreamed of. Seek your inspiration. Find your muse. Thank them. Love them. Because it's you that you're really loving in the process.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Party like it's 2017!

Hey you, (Yeah, YOU! Whoever is reading this...)

Thank you so much for your support and attention in 2016! I was so busy planning my election show and getting involved in pointless political debates on social media that I didn't even blog once. The professional highlight for me was most definitely performing at Kaufleuten, one of Zurich's top venues, and having "50 Shades of (Election) DAY!" filmed by SRF1 with an interview on the nightly news. Watch here:

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Impersonating a character, which much of my comedy stems from, is an interesting experience. I not only literally step into the character's shoes, but a process takes over in which I actually feel like I can see the world through that person's eyes. Some may call that channelling, some may call it empathy, some may call it a mental illness...

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To give you an example, I played Hillary Clinton so often last year "campaigning" for "50 Shades of (Election) DAY!" - even up until the last show on election night itself - that when the results came in, I too went through a mourning and almost hibernation period like Hillary. But it's a new year, and in line with the improv philosophy, we need to accept, not deny, and build on what we're given.

Photo credit: Masu-Komi
In 2017 I'll be building on some exciting and meaningful projects: I'll be continuing my work as Cause Ambassador for Womens Brain Project (, one-on-one improv coaching and corporate workshops, various speaking and emceeing engagements, PLUS an exciting but yet unnamed new comedy project!

My calendar is already filling up for 2017! Contact me for a one-on-one session, workshop or speaking engagement.

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Here's wishing 2017 will be less about which party you're IN, and more about which party you're AT.

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Love and peace,
Sylvia (aka Hillary, Donald, Sarah, Cher, Madonna, et al.)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why aren't more people happy?

Over the years, I have talked to and observed a lot of people on this planet - it's one of my favorite pastimes. And through my talks and observations, I have found that very few people are truly happy. Truly content with themselves or their situation. And I want to know why.

I have talked to people who earn hundreds of thousands of US dollars or Swiss francs per year yet still feel unfulfilled and fearful of the future. I have talked to people who are pursuing their artistic dreams but live in fear of paying next month's rent or saving for retirement. I have talked to people who have reached all their goals and have ended up having mental breakdowns or even taken their own life. I have talked to people who have never known real tragedy, yet are depressed.

So what's wrong?

What all these people have in common is this: FEAR. We all fear something. Fear of the unknown is one of the biggest fears that exists. And after all, what is "saving for retirement" other than a way of eliminating fear of the unknown? The future is always unknown, therefore we fear the future.

Two of the biggest money-making industries are banking and insurance - and are both built around the clients' fear. We invest and safeguard our money in banks for FEAR of losing it. For fear of not having enough. We pay huge premiums on all kinds of insurance for any kind of scenario, most of which end up never happening, for FEAR that it might. We pay a lot of money for peace of mind. And somehow, as in the real examples of the people I've talked to, it's still not enough. They are still unfulfilled.

As long as we chase money, we are chasing numbers. And we all know that numbers are infinite. Which means the money figures will never be enough. They will never be big enough. We will never have all the money in the world. Chasing money is like a dog chasing its tail. What we are really chasing is peace of mind - in other words, happiness. So how do we find it?

And what does this have to do with improv? Improv is all about losing your fear and letting go. And the way you do that is the same way you find happiness: you do it by focusing on the moment. You do it by not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. As an improv performer, you do it by not worrying or fearing what brilliantly witty thing you will or won't say in the next scene.

Recently I had the honor and pleasure of studying with Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, one of the nation's top improv schools. On the last weekend of the intensive week-long course, we had a student performance at the theater in the East Village. In a group of 16, we were allowed to perform in two scenes, and had to initiate one. Having initiated an early scene already, a moment came where no one stepped forward. I had already initiated, so I held back and waited for someone else. No one stepped forward. An awkward silence filled the theater. This is going on for too long, I thought. Someone needs to step forward and start a scene. I knew why the others were hesitating - nothing "funny" came to mind. Practice what you always preach, I said to myself! So I jumped forward, not having any clue what I was going to do. I grabbed a chair, and immediately another actress came forward and joined me with her chair. Still not having any idea of where we were going, I mimed banging on the door separating us and said, "Excuse me, do you have any toilet paper?" What happened after that turned out to be a scene that our teacher described as "genius". And it all happened from trusting in the unknown, trusting in the self.

It's no coincidence that people in improv classes and workshops often remark on how "happy" they feel. They forget their troubles, they focus, they stay in the moment. They trust in the unknown.

Step forward in life, even if you don't know what's going to happen next. And create your own genius scene!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Do Something!

The great Mick Napier wrote a wonderful book called "Improvise. Scene from the Inside Out" in which he writes, "For God's sake, do something. Anything. Something. At the top of an improv scene, do something. Please, do it for yourself. Do yourself a favor and just do something."

I think of this often. Not just at the top of an improv scene, but when I'm feeling generally stuck. Stuck to create, stuck to get out of bed, stuck to get motivated. I hear Mick's voice in my head saying, "Do something! Anything."

This planet is always moving. That's why we get so frustrated when we're stuck in line, or in traffic, or in our life. Forward movement is the natural flow of life.

Sure, there are times when we like to wallow in self-pity, or bask in the afterglow of a great occasion, and that's fine - but know that it has a time and a place. Too much looking back (and in the case of improv that usually means fretting over the funnier thing you could have said and done instead) leaves you feeling stuck, paralyzed and will bring on more self-loathing. It keeps you from moving forward.

Too much looking ahead can be just as debilitating. Have you ever noticed how the thought of doing something you dread or fear is much worse than actually doing it? It usually lasts longer, too. Try and remember that the next time you're faced with a stack of unfiled papers, complicated tax forms or never-ending laundry. Click "ignore" to the enemy thought that's telling you how hard, or awful, or boring it's going to be - and just do it.

Do something. Because if you don't, the chance might be gone forever. And it could have been something really great.

(Except perhaps laundry.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How to Seduce Your Improv Partner

Good! I thought the title might get you this far.

Of course, when I say "seduce" I don't mean "seduce seduce". But improv is a kind of seduction in that it usually starts off with two people alone on a stage, not knowing what the hell is about to happen. One person has an idea or impulse and acts on it, seductively offering a line or an action. The partner follows, offering his or her own touch or twist to the mix. Sometimes you don't even need to say anything. It can be communicated in the eyes or with the body. True stage partners will follow each other's lead. There is no boss. There should be no power play. There is no room for control freaks on an improv stage. It's a side by side, equal partnership. There is complete and total trust. There is give and take. No one walking 10 paces ahead, no one walking 10 paces behind. You should be aware of each other at all times. Listening, focusing, almost anticipating your partner's next move in a perfect flow. In those moments neither one of you has any idea where it will go or end up, but that's part of the thrill. The difference is that you have an audience watching, sharing in that thrill.

Follow. Keep going. Move forward. See where it takes you. But if you're terrified? If you feel out of control? Sure, you can leave the stage, you can change the subject, you can break all the improv rules like denying, blocking, negating…but good improvisers will know that doing any of those things will stop the flow and ultimately destroy what could have been a great scene.

Sound like a relationship? It should. Improv is a relationship. A bare, raw relationship between actors on a stage. Improv is about working as a team, giving and taking in balance towards a shared goal: entertaining the audience, and yourselves, for just a moment in time. And when it's right, there's only one other thing in the world that feels as good.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In the moment

One of the keys to a successful improv scene is to be in the moment, to be present, and stop thinking. In life we know that enjoying the moment is something we should all do more of, but it is easier said than done. How does one stay in the moment? How does one truly enjoy each moment? And what is a moment? Is it a nano-second? Is it today? Is it this year? Is it this era? We only seem to truly appreciate moments when they are past, when we see moments in photographs, when we laugh and reminisce with others over fond memories. We can enjoy the past. We can look forward to the future. But how do we enjoy the present?

One of the problems, I think, is that we measure our lives in terms of years. On New Year's Eve, as I write this, it is more evident than ever by the Facebook posts coming through the newsfeed. People muse about what the new year will bring. People either reflect on the fulfilled year they had, or breathe a sigh of relief that this particular year is over.  But was every day in the year all good or all bad? Why let the calendar decide?

To be in the moment, try this: instead of measuring your life in terms of years, treat each new day as a chance to make a positive change. You can be pretty sure the sun will rise, and the sun will set. How many other things in life can we be that sure of? Nature gives us a chance to be hopeful with each new day. 

Tomorrow morning, and each morning when you wake up, make a New Day Resolution. Stay focused on that all day long. And that's how you stay in the moment.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

All I Want for Christmas

An improv show is one of the easiest kinds of productions to put on because all you really need is a stage, a couple of willing, able actors, and an audience.

There is no set as such. I always tell my actors to create their set as they enter a scene. In other words, let the audience see where you are - if you're in a kitchen, start cooking or opening drawers or something. If you're in a bathroom, make yourself up in front of the mirror. And so on.

All I require is that the stage have two chairs Upstage Center. "Use these chairs if you need them," I say. If your scene finds you in a restaurant, or a car, or in a job interview, they could come in handy.

Today is December 26, and I am tidying up the stuff around the home. It overwhelms me. It never seems to end. We humans accumulate more and more. And nowhere is this more evident than at Christmastime, when we stress ourselves by giving and receiving the token gift.

This Christmas, it struck me more than in other years, that I do not get excited about "stuff". The best scenes in life are like good improv. You don't need a lavish set, costumes and all the "stuff". What makes a great improv scene is the content. The funny. The hidden meaning. The unknown ending. Not too different from life.

This Christmas I want to say to my friends and family, please don't give me "stuff". I don't need more stuff. Stuff collects dust, and will only stay behind after I'm gone, leaving someone else a lot of work to go through.

Give me you. Give me your original lines, your funny, your ear to listen, your observations to inspire and motivate me and keep me going. Give me memories to make me laugh and smile and want to see you again and again. Give me you. And two chairs.