Jason Specland: An Occasionally Funny Software Guy

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Tag: theater (page 1 of 2)

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.



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


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


And this is the outer.


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.

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.

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.

More Shameful Self-Promotion: Class Show

Can’t make it to Astoria for Vorpal’s Halloween show? Think $10 is too much to pay? Worried that seeing Vorpal on the stage without other non-Vorpalians to dilute their awesome improv powers will cause your face to melt like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Well then, have I got a show for you. In fact, I have two shows for you!

Our Level 5 improv class will be performing two class shows. These shows contain four out of five members of Vorpal, so it’s almost like going to a Vorpal show, only with other people who just happened to also pay for this particular class.

But this particular class is no ordinary class. It is taught by PIT Master Ali Farahnakian. Or as I like to call him when I’m writing about him online, Ali Cut-and-Pastian. Will the students come full circle and defeat their master? Almost certainly not, but gee, if that happened, wouldn’t it be great to be there to see it?

Show the First: Sunday, October 24th, 7 P.M.
Show the Second: Monday, November 8th, 8 P.M.

As always, the shows will be at:
The People’s Improv Theater
154 W. 29th St., between 6th and 7th Ave.

And, as always, the shows will set you back:

The Party’s at Wonderland

Did you miss the Vorpal show last Monday at the PIT? Well, if you did here’s your opportunity to make up for it! We’re performing at Wonderland, the huge, gorgeous artist collective in Astoria. Hey, why don’t I just cut and paste the press release? Control-V to the rescue!

Imagine, if you will, live improv, sketch comedy, and stand up comedians jammin’ and rappin’ in a 2000 sq. ft. converted factory/warehouse performance space in the Astorian countryside.

No need to imagine, because it’s happening!

On September 25th, join Vorpal as they host a night of performances at Wonderland

Wonderland Collective is a creative community of resident artists who are dedicated to achievement and excellence in the arts.

The truly epic line up is:

Joe Pera
Ellen Degenerate
Martin Sheen Shower Hour

Surf N Turf

Ninja Sex Party

$10 admission. Performances will begin at 7PM and run until 10PM, with breaks in between. Doors open at 6:30PM

Beer, wine, other booze, and snacks will be available at the bar. Cash only.

Stick around afterwards for socializing and drinks.

Seriously, guys, it’s going to be totally amazing. The Wonderland space is one of the seven wonders of the Astorian world, and all the groups are really damn funny. The party afterwards is going to be half the fun.

Wonderland is at 38-01 23rd Ave. in Astoria.

This Monday: Really Big Show!

So Vorpal’s first big show is approaching. All the usual promo stuff is below. But since this blog is primarily read by my friends, I wanted to point out something important:

Kelly Nichols is going to be one of our opening acts!

I’m seriously super-psyched about this. Kelly is so charming, brilliant, and hysterical. She doesn’t just warm up the crowd, she bakes them in a cozy oven at 350 degrees for twenty minutes until the whole theater smells like pumpkin pie. With her getting things started, the hilarity is ours to lose.

And now, the important, but not personal, info:

This is it folks! The big show! This Monday! 9:30 PM! At the PIT! $5!

For one frakked up night, members of Vorpal emerge from their parents’ basement to bring you the geekiest nerd-fest since Stephen Hawking and Gary Gygax discovered the universe was encapsulated entirely within an enormous twenty sided die. By the power of Grayskull, WE ARE VORPAL! Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-Select-START!

VORPAL is Kathryn Dunn, Colin Longstaff, Jason Specland, Than Bryan, Daniel Operman, and Mary Guiteras.

With Extraordinarily Special Guests:

Erin Lennox, stand-up comedian, freelance writer, and freelance judger of others, featured in the PIT’s “Smart Women.”

Kelly Nichols, stand-up comedian, writer, and star of the musical romp about lack-of-romping “Ten Reasons I Won’t Go Home With You.”

BAY-SIDE, The deliciously dynamic improv duo of AJ Ortiz and Patrick Cucuta.

Together we will rock you so hard that geologists will have to recalibrate the Mohs Scale of Mineral Hardness to account for this new hard rocking! We will raise the roof so high that architects and civil engineers in the audience may become concerned for the structural integrity of the building! Be there! Please?

Tickets can be reserved here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/124605

What a Difference a Coach Makes

Last night, we had our weekly Vorpal rehearsal at Wonderland. It was our first rehearsal with a real coach. Until now, we’d just kind of been running sets and talking about what felt good and what didn’t. But now we have a coach. Our coach: Geoff Grimwood, teacher and member of various PIT house teams. To begin our session, we told him about what we felt our strengths and weaknesses were, and what we specifically wanted to work on. Then we put on a brief set for him.

I totally stunk up the joint.

I don’t know why I wasn’t performing up to my usual standard. I know I was quite nervous, performing before this skilled audience of one. I was falling back on old habits. Rushing into things. Not concentrating on object work. Getting in my head about all of the above. By the time he mercifully called it, I was ashamed at myself.

Then, like the Wizard of Oz, Geoff pulled exactly what we needed (and not what we thought we needed) out of his bag of tricks. A skilled teacher has a way of doing that. Just when you think you’re awful and have no business being near the stage, they just give you that little course correction and you’re a frickin’ rock star all over again. In my case, all I needed was a testimonial to vary my characters more so they weren’t all super-nervous nellies, and to think about my technique of creating and heightening a scene’s narrative structure.

So our first rehearsal with an actual coach was kind of incredibly successful. I only hope that I can assimilate all of those lessons in time for Friday’s show…

The Ghosts of Spaces Past

I just edited my previous post about our upcoming Vorpal shows to indicate the location of our next show. It’s at Sparks Cafe and Arts Center, at 161 W 22nd St. Very astute readers may notice that this is the location of the former Upright Citizens Brigade theater. It’s a place I haven’t been back to in a long time… a long time…

It is the place where I learned long form improv in the first place. I remember being in that theater for an all-hands meeting when they first got the place. I thought, “This is going to be something big.” I was right. It is the place where I had my greatest improv triumph when I was cast on a house team. It is the place where I had my greatest improv failure when I was cast off of a house team. In a cloud of my own depression, I bailed on the wave just as it began to crest and it took me about eight years to recover…

In about a week, I’ll be performing in the very place where my improv career took off and, like Icarus, flew to close to the sun and came crashing to the ground. Except I didn’t die. And there were no wings involved. Except for the wings of the stage. And the UCB stage didn’t have wings. And the entire interior is probably gutted so even if there were wings they’d have been long gone. And the actual UCB has long since moved. Twice.

So, come see me perform at the place of my long form improv birth. Perhaps I can put some of those performance ghosts to rest once and for all…

Friday, August 20, 2010
10:00 PM
Sparks Cafe and Arts Center
161 W 22nd St.

A Real Group, A Short Show

So, last night was the world premiere of my new improv group “Jabberwocky.” I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be in a real group again. When I was invited into this group, and saw the list of other players, I was excited because I knew all of these people were talented. My excitement was realized from the moment we started warming up backstage. Things just work so well when everyone’s on the same page!

We started with an opening called “The Conversation” which is pretty much what it is. We get a suggestion from the audience, and proceed to have a five-minute group conversation about it. I was wary of this, because who wants to watch people sit around and talk for five minutes, but it worked surprisingly well. It was entertaining and generated a boatload of specific information and themes. And since the players aren’t worried about participating in some sort of theatrical game, it’s much easier to process that information. Also, as I mentioned before, having a talented group of folks you trust all on the same page makes a world of difference.

As far as my own scenework goes, I was a tad disappointed. In my main scene, I played a Rabbi who was marking all kinds of wildly inappropriate food as Kosher. My partner and I played the “what funny things can we make kosher” game for a few minutes, but it wasn’t as much about the relationship as I’d like and so it required excessive invention and didn’t have legs beyond that initial scene.

We were told in advance that we’d get 20 minutes, and we kind of built our form around that time, but we were cut off around 10-15 minutes into our set. That’s disappointing, not because we crave more stage time, but because our form didn’t have the opportunity to wrap up and make the connections that make longform improv so satisfying.

Major thanks to Don and Alex for coming to our show, and unbelievably major thanks go to Chris, who has come to just about every improv show I’ve ever done.

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