Go Suck Your Own Balls!
I arrived in the United States of America at around 6pm on the 13th of December, 2016. I'd gone from a Château in France to the gutters of LA. I got through customs and helped an elderly French lady find her son because she didn't speak English. Outside LAX, I shivered in my Dad's old jumper as I waited for the bus. I had a backpack and a guitar and they were all the things I owned in the world.
I did consider moving to Chicago instead of Los Angeles because I had this little dream of one day doing Improv at The Second City - an American institution where the art of improvised theatre began on a snowy December evening in 1959 - but I knew I wouldn't survive a Chicago winter on my budget and so, having no coat or boots, I moved to LA.
I'd always wanted to get back to Los Angeles anyway. I visited briefly in 2012 and fell in love with the place. Yeah, a lot of it is ugly but there are pockets of beauty. It's like the entertainment industry itself.
When I was a kid my Mum asked me what I wanted to be and I told her I wanted to tell stories. At a young age I would sit on adults' knees, and, much to their amusement, I'd earnestly shut my eyes and make stuff up. I was born a bard. I loved going to the cinema as much as any kid but I remember looking at the screen and wondering how you get up there. When the internet came into my life all my passwords were "lalaland."
On the bus from LAX to Hollywood I looked out the window as we passed a billboard for a film I'd never heard of. It was called La La Land and it looked like a story about a girl who moved to LA. Dammit, they did it already, I thought.
(I've since changed all my passwords.)
I dropped my backpack and guitar at the hostel and decided to go for an evening walk. I was in a female dorm with an ambitious young German singer and her enthusiastic stage mother. They invited me to go line dancing and I politely refused. I had only gone around the corner when I looked up at a building on Hollywood Boulevard that would shape my LA life.
Holy shit, it's Second City!!! I had no idea they had one in LA, not to mention Toronto.
A show must have just finished because people were standing around outside, talking and laughing. I probably walked passed a few of my future friends. I looked at the notice board. It said there was a drop-in class for twenty dollars the next day from 12 - 2.
The next morning I thought about that class at Second City and with a pang of fear I decided to let myself off the hook. I went busking instead and then accidentally walked passed Second City a few hours later. I asked someone for the time. They said it was 2 to 12.
I quickly ran up to the office and paid. I told the girl behind the desk, Jenna, that I was a beginner. While I had done theatre sports as a kid and I'd been a stand up comedian in a past life in Ireland, Improv scared the shit out of me. I wanted zero pressure.
The drop-in class was held in a big, bright room with a view of the Hollywood sign. I had no idea what I was doing but I got a few laughs. Over some tacos after class, a couple of Second City kids told me I should audition for the Conservatory program. As terrifying as that sounded, the influx of joy I'd experienced in the previous two hours was enough for me to go back to the office and ask Jenna if I could audition for the Conservatory. She was confused because I'd just told her I was a beginner. Then she shrugged and gave me the email address of a guy called Marc, telling me to ask him.
I sent Marc an email with my resume - quickly adding things like theatre sports - and he replied that if I thought I was ready I was welcome to audition that Friday night. I did not think I was ready. I was so scared I nearly didn't go but fortunately I did. I was accepted and scheduled to start Level 1 of the Conservatory program in January 2017. I skipped three introductory levels. By the time the first class came around I almost didn't go to that either. I don't know what I was so scared of. It was pure fun. I relaxed into the unknown and laughed for three and a half hours every Saturday afternoon. I was hooked.
While I like my comedy dark, my thoughts are often much darker and not very funny. Improv was very healing for that. You can't worry about your own bullshit when you're improvising a scene because you're listening to the other people onstage instead of the negative voice in your head. Time stops and you're more present than you've ever been. Meditation shmeditation. Do Improv.
While Second City was great for my mental health, Los Angeles was not. It's a desperate place at the best of times and it's inhabitants only seem to value success. All I really wanted to do was get a job on a film set but I was not allowed to work on films with my particular visa. The only work I could get was of the menial kind and because of said visa and it's requirements for employers, I struggled to find a job.
Sometimes I call my guitar my fishing rod because, when times are tough, it's how I eat. I made $19 singing in the metro one day. It was a crazy amount by LA standards. A guy had given me a ten dollar bill after I did a Janis Joplin cover (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eB83wnkjRjQ). That $19 was all the money I had.
I walked out of the metro station and saw a homeless lady. I decided that because I had so much money I could afford to give her a dollar. As I was handing it over I realised, to my horror, that I was accidentally giving her the ten dollar bill. This is because ALL THEIR MONEY LOOKS THE SAME! I still gave it to her but I went from trying to be nice to a homeless lady to cursing her and her life choices in about thirty seconds, which just shows you where I was at on my spiritual journey. I'd made her richer than me in one transaction and I was furious! I muttered angrily to myself on Hollywood Boulevard and realised I was becoming homeless. I decided then and there to give away the other nine dollars to people living on the street. I walked to Second City giving out dollar bills. It made me feel better about losing that ten bucks. I smiled to myself as I walked up the steps to class with no money. I was free of it.
I still needed to eat though and the next day I went to the famous Blue Jam Cafe in Sherman Oaks and asked for a job. A waiter told me they'd just hired people. I was visibly distressed as I asked if him if he knew of any other cafes that might be hiring. He looked at me and said, "let me go ask the kitchen." He came back with some toast and jam. I choked it back with self-pitying tears on Ventura Boulevard. I was actually really hungry and I didn't feel like singing.
The day of my first live Improv performance I also pitied myself and I took Improv far too seriously. We had a substitute teacher that day and the guy was kinda mean. (I developed an unhealthy crush on him immediately.) When I left the classroom, feeling small and stupid, I decided not to participate in the performance that night. I was just not gonna show up.
Luckily, I had rehearsals for a scripted show at Second City straight after class. It was an archival show of famous Second City Grad Revue sketches, which I'd gotten a few parts in. I didn't feel funny at all but I didn't want to let them down, so I went to the rehearsal. Being there helped me get out of my head. I put on my American accent and got to work.
After rehearsals, I did end up going to the Conservatory 1 performance. However, I was too scared of the teacher and the audience to participate. For the entire show I stood in the back line. When we neared the end of our performance my friend Paige elbowed me and whispered to the others, "Biddy hasn't gone!" and I was forced to step forward. It was a two person scene and we were given a Mother/Daughter relationship. I smiled to myself. I was wearing my Mum's old vest and I started the scene, playing the Mother. We killed it.
I surprised myself with characters and accents I didn't know I had in me. Characters who said ridiculous things like "go suck your own balls!" when they were pissed off. It was great for my writing and in the end it was hard to stop me from stepping forward into a scene.
Despite eventually working two jobs at minimum wage and taking the bus everywhere, after completing Level 2 of the Conservatory, or "Con 2", I was financially unable to continue at Second City. It took the joy out of LA for me. Then one perfect day I got a call from Jenna, that very funny girl in the office, saying that The Second City had picked me as a student to receive some credits (classes that were paid for by people that never turned up). I'm not sure if it's actually something they do but I cried tears of joy all over my Verizon prepaid flip phone.
A lack of funds eventually forced me to abort my American mission though. When my guitar broke irreparably at Venice beach and I could no longer make $19 cash whenever I needed it, I knew it was time to go home. I left shortly after I completed Con 3.
I survived LA for just seven months and Second City was a huge part of that survival. As lonely as Los Angeles is, the kids at Second City became my tribe. We were all struggling and we all looked after each other. A lovely tradition before going onstage is to pat each other on the back and say, "got your back." When you're in a scene and someone is dying, you try to help them. It's not a competition up there, it's co-operation. It kept the bullshit of LA in perspective.
I took advantage of a free consultation with an Immigration Attorney before I left the States. I wanted to find out how I could get back on that visa that allows you to do creative stuff. He looked at my history of writing, stand up, theatre, music, film and now improv and told me I had to pick one thing and get press and awards in that thing only and I might be able to come back.
Perhaps I should have auditioned for America's Got Talent. One of the show's producers saw me singing on Ventura Boulevard when I first arrived in LA and they invited me to audition for the show that year. In the tune of Winehouse, I said "no! no! no!" because I could not bring myself to beg for approval on a reality TV show. I'm a storyteller, not a prostitute.
I moved to LA with nothing and left with a lot. I have very real friends in a very fake town. And they've got my back!
Besides, you don't need to be in Los Angeles to tell stories. I can make stuff up wherever I go.
Oh, and I eventually went to see that film, La La Land, at the Arclight cinema. I thought I was gonna be jealous because it was gonna tell my story, but it didn't and I wasn't. If I'd made a film called La La Land about a girl who goes to Hollywood she never would've made it, he would've been a sociopath and it would've been funny.