Fan Letters: John Darnielle

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Dear John1,

I first got into your music when I was given a cassette tape for my birthday in high school. I listened to it over and over again while I stayed with my grandparents, in Kentucky, for three weeks in the summer of 1999. The tape sounded like something that had been made in a room, like the one I was trapped in at my grandparent’s in rural Kentucky. The first song on the tape was about falling in love near a turkey pen at night. Some girls impersonated turkey sounds. Your voice sounded like you were in love with the world, but also angry at it for something indefinable. After that summer my unwavering answer to the question “what’s your favorite band” has been “The Mountain Goats” for over a decade.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen you in concert: Austin (most often), Dallas, Norman (I made you a pie & presents, you ran out to your car to give my friends and I handmade buttons), Upstate New York at a farm sanctuary, NYC, Glasgow (while we were talking the guy who wrote “Trainspotting” came over and chatted you up), Edinburgh, London, DC. This year I tried to see you in Houston but my son arrived a week early and we were in the hospital when you played down the street from my house. You can’t feel like you’ve missed anything with a newborn in your arms, but I’m still anxious to catch the next concert. Your shows are my favorite kind of performance art. Confession; the first time I saw you in concert I thought you might have epilepsy or autism for the first half hour of the performance. You where so singularly focused. In each song you were attempting to destroy the guitar  your vocal chords, or perhaps the invisible rope the universe uses to tie us up when we’re young and afraid that nothing benevolent is out there. You also crossed your eyes a lot.

Over time though, you transfigured into an unparalleled showman, seemingly marshaling the band behind you in a type of revolt. 2 It feels like the earth just got plucked out of god’s womb. So even though tickets used to be like five bucks, I’ll still pay up to twenty five now.

Even more than I want to be like Joe Bill, TJ Jagodowski, or Tami Nelson as an improviser on stage I want to be like John Darnielle as a performer. I want to be The Mountain Goats of Improv. That’s an end goal that keeps me trying things on days when my insecurities have dulled the passion.

You’ve been an inspiring creative example to me in so many ways and continue to teach the masterclass on how to do it right. You are absurdly prolific and go with what is fresh to you now without making idols out of the past or getting hung up on a calculation of what is popular. You’ve spoken many times about your choice to do your art where you are, with the labels and folks you want to work with, despite the fact that industry folks said the only way to “make it” was to change everything about your life and do it their way. Your die-hard fans have put you where you want to be, but it took a while. And there is a great nobility and grace in the way that unfolded: that you didn’t try to be all things to all people at 26 and then burn out by 35. You built a community around your art and you keep your other passions alive by writing about music for years at Last Plane to Jakarta, repping feminist causes hard, and doing all the fun things. Your example speaks a lot to creative people trying to make something outside of the cultural mainstream: you are a hero to people trying to express themselves, instead of trying to express what they think the public wants to buy.

Then in the last couple of years all the comedy people took notice of the unheralded fact at the heart of my adoration of the Darnielle style, how damn funny you are. I’m not sure my sense of comedy owes a greater debt3 than to your way of telling stories against the grain: of finding glee where there shouldn’t be any and glimmering hope among the detritus of human desperation. These days on Twitter you are clearly the favorite musician of the comedians I care about: John Hodgman, Sarah Silverman, Carrie Brownstein, & Patton Oswalt are perpetually singing your praises & re-tweeting you. And why shouldn’t they, you are the funniest person I follow on Twitter 4 and I teach comedy for a living. You’ve played the Daily Show after-party  and this year you appeared on Conan and The Colbert Report. The big dogs of comedy count you as their friends and if one thing makes me sightly melancholy about not being famous it is that. However, everybody has their fantasies and I have mine. I hope that on the day someone gets you to do an Armando show or you try out improv in someone’s late night jam I hope I’m there. Hell, I hope I’m on that stage.

In the meantime, I’ll go buy Transcendental Youth from my local indie record store and I hope the whole rest of the world does too.

Love from the Gut,

Shyla

 

 

*Photo by Lalitree Darnielle*

 

Show 4 footnotes

  1. It seems like everybody I’ve been reading lately has been encouraging me to write fanmail. Austin Kleon’s fantastic creativity manual, “Steal Like an Artist”, exhorts the reader to resort to hero-praise on the internet (where the indeterminacy of it ever being seen by the intended reader cuts down on the weirdness of attempting to pester those you admire from afar) and last night I came across an article by Sara Benincasa wherein she also makes the case for fan letters. I give in. 
  2. It is as if Robespierre had a midnight conversion and decided that he was hungry for blood, but not the blood of the Monarchy but the blood already pulsing within  his veins – the blood so tenuously keeping his heart beating from moment to moment- and then he went into the mob and started telling them to forsake political agenda and it’s inevitable disappointment, and fight instead with all their strength for justice and freedom within their own mind. That’s what it’s like for you to sing a few songs and do some stage banter.
  3. And I am not just talking about my TMG improv show “Alpha Bloodbath”.
  4. @mountain_goats

Which NFL player would make the best troupe mate?

Football season is here, America, and what better way to celebrate it than by figuring out a way to talk about football and improv? Improv Wins sent an email out to some football fans slash improvisers with one simple question – Which player would make the best troupe mate and why?

Ready to see the responses? Hut hut hike!

If your scene is feeling uninspired then use physical touch or eye contact to imply relationship.

Jason Witten would clearly be the best troupe mate. He definitely is a straight man and UBH-er. But think of all the characters he can pull from: pimp-son Dez, knucklehead Martellus Bennett, womanizing Tony Romo, cookie eating Wade Phillips and the list goes on. Awesome double threat! – Jason Sawyer

I think it would be Marquis Colston.  He is widely known as having some of the best hands/body control of any wide receiver which I think would make him killer at object work.  He is one of the top players in the game, but he has really never tried to cash that in.  That is how I know he would be the ultimate scene partner.  He would easily adapt to what ever character/perspective/status the scene needed and he would have no ego about it. – Chris Carrington

I tend to like to pack on the punishment for my troupe mates so I’m going to pick Matthew Stafford. The guy is known to be able to take more than a hit or two and keep on going. Anyone has watched this video can attest to this fact. Also, he can put up amazing numbers (scene work) without getting much personal attention (laughs). This makes me and the rest of the troupe look like a bunch of Megatrons and if we need to take him down a peg we can just remind him that he looks like a turtle in this picture. – Brady James

Obviously, Martellus Bennett would be the best troupe member.  He got (had) Jerry Jone money, I-phong money and loves Cap’n Crunch.  He has more memorable quotes than he does memorable catches though, so “show don’t tell” Marty B.  Dang.  Also, he’s an Aggie. – Adam Artho

Ray Lewis. First of all, you don’t not laugh when Ray Lewis wants you to laugh. If you have seen his pre-game introduction dance (Twinkletoes) you know this dude is down to get crazy on stage. Also notice the bit of scene work at the beginning. Very nice. Lastly, rumors (Rumor) are he murdered some dudes knowing his boys had his back. Taking chances are huge for improv. UBH Baybay! – Clay Barton

Without question Jason Witten is a top tier tight end in the NFL. What makes him so great as a player is what would also make him “the perfect troupe member.” He’s a hard worker, reliable, supportive, and has no desire to be in the spotlight. Witten has managed to stay under the radar and keep a low profile all the while climbing his way up to fourth (all time) in receptions for tight ends. I’ll take a hardworking, humble, badass who plays for the greater good any day!

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Six

The final night of the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival was a relaxed evening of performances that was a simple thesis of all that had been celebrated over the week of improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy presented at the Dallas Comedy House.

[pullquote_left] The Sunday atmosphere lent a sense of camaraderie to the audience, comprised mostly of people who performed and regularly attended the previous festival days. Many were tired but content, dropping all pretension to have a fun time on the stage.[/pullquote_left]

The evening got off to an early start with a live Q&A panel with the festival’s headliners, Los Angeles groups FrankenMatt and Dasariski. The five veterans espoused on playing philosophy, their goals in the workshops that they taught during the festival and personal reasons for doing improv.

The night then moved to improv with two short sets with FrankenMatt and Dasariski and then a jam of the two playing together. Sitting in the audience, I learned tricks that I can’t wait to try out in my own play.[pullquote_right] Once again, as with the Dasariski set on Saturday and the FrankenMatt sketch show on Friday, it played out like an improv clinic. Choices that younger improvisers wouldn’t dream of making were the norm on stage, effortlessly executing their artform to the highest of its fun and sense of play.  [/pullquote_right]

In all, it was a great end to an overall solid festival. Stay tuned to this website for a recap article and interviews with performers coming later this week. Follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from around the improv world and always remember that Improv Wins.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Five

Saturday night’s lineup at the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival packed a variety of sketch and improv troupes from Dallas, New Orleans, Phoenix and Chicago into the Dallas Comedy House for dynamic shows that kept the 75 seat theater in Deep Ellum buzzing with energy.

Due to technical difficulties, the planned screening of Bryan Hickey’s winning submission in the festival’s short film contest was canceled. He received special recognition before the final show and his film is currently available for viewing on the Dallas Comedy House YouTube page.

The night kicked off with Kyle Austin and Andrew Hamer’s two man show Kyle and Drew, a Dallas Comedy House mainstay. They came out playing with hula hoops to set the tone for a playful show that was high on physical comedy, with Austin precariously balanced on Hamer’s back to simulate skydiving at one point. As amazing as this was, however, their character choices were unremarkable and they did not seem to be pushing themselves to the height of their potential.

Phoenix based two man troupe Galapagos appeared next with a show that suffered from some improv pitfalls. It was a series of strangely strung together 80’s pop culture references that, while some were wonderfully inventive, failed to adequately ground the show.

[pullquote_right]The first timeslot closed with touring Chicago sketch show The Union. The husband and wife duo put together a playful and punchy experience centered on relationships. It was a tongue and cheek sitcom brought to life on stage.[/pullquote_right]

The night finally saw the festival debut of founder and organizer Amanda Austin, who was the latest victim in a flu epidemic that kept her absent all week. Her three woman group, Local Honey, opened the second timeslot of the evening with solid, balanced character pieces that were quite enjoyable to watch.

Apollo 12, the second group from Phoenix, received laughs from their amazing physicality but ultimately failed to captivate due to a lack of strong choices.

The second show was headed up by Stupid Time Machine from The New Movement New Orleans. Their set was consistent, relaxed and heavy on play, a showing that has come to be expected from the four person powerhouse of the NOLA comedy scene.

The third slot of the night opened with an energetic performance from Dallas Comedy House staple Victory Point. It was a bittersweet show for the group as it marked the final performance of Dallas Comedy House co-founder Clay Barton, who is moving to California. They made sure his send-off was an appropriately strong appearance, having fun like they have for years and keeping the packed house enthralled.

The final show of the evening was three man Chicago powerhouse Dasariski, who proceeded to run what sports fans would call a clinic in masterful improvisation. There were a few times in their hour long set that I thought there could be no way for them to continue raising the stakes, but they blasted through my perceptions to create avenues I couldn’t believe existed. I walked away from that show having learned something about this amazing craft and how to make myself better at it.[pullquote_left] After the show ended, the scene degenerated into a raucous flip cup tournament that proved to be some of the most fun I’ve had since joining the improv world. As an even more fitting end, the team with Clay Barton on it took home the trophy. [/pullquote_left]

Saturday night contained a few sour notes in the lineup, but maintained the overall level of fun and play that I’ve come to associate with this festival at this point. Tonight starts off with a panel discussion, followed by FrankenMatt and Dasariski playing in an all-star show. For more info, visit www.dallascomedyfestival.com and follow @ImprovWins for updates from the floor.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Four

Friday night was a great mix of improv and sketch from around the country as a packed and supportive house cheered the performers at the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival.

The night kicked off with Opposites, a two man group from The New Movement Austin. They played a slow and patient set, routinely switching characters and creating scenes with heavy use of the straight/absurd dynamic.

Ape Rally followed with a fun set full of unexpected choices, leading to several flips and parodies of accepted social norms that garnered big laughs from the healthy crowd.

The first slot closed out with Villain: The Musical, a four person musical improv group from Oklahoma City that explored the journey of a man down the path of evil. They played tight and kept their universe cohesive, creating an epic story that earned them a standing ovation.

The second timeslot, due to an illness that caused billed opener Manick to cancel, was opened up by Atlantic/Pacific Billy. They played with all the exuberance of a younger troupe, having a lot of fun on stage and pushing themselves to make strong choices.

[pullquote_left] Shock T’s, a three person music show from Chicago, barely gave the audience time to breathe before attacking the stage with a hilarious set of songs. There show is what I imagine Dashboard Confessional would sound like with a sense of humor. They sold merch after the show and I left that night with some of their songs on a USB drive. I’m actually listening to it while I’m writing this. [/pullquote_left]

Pavlov’s Dogs headlined with a comfortable, professional set that is to be expected of a group with ten-plus years of experience playing together. They transitioned scenes and time dashed almost effortlessly for a seamless performance that kept me hooked.

The final slot of the night started with Dallas Comedy House Friday night regulars Roadside Couch. If I ever find myself in Dallas on a Friday, this is a must see for sure.

[pullquote_right] The night closed out with FrankenMatt, a Los Angeles based two man group consisting of Frank Caeti and Matt Craig, performing their sketch show American Imperil. The show was a send-up of American political hypocrisy and public ennui that had the audience whistling and cheering. The show was one of the tightest I’ve ever seen and I would watch it again in a heartbeat if given the chance.[/pullquote_right]

This festival shows no sign of slowing down as we move into Saturday night’s shows. For more info, visit www.dallascomedyfestival.com and follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from the audience.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Three

Thursday night kicked off the improv and sketch portion of the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival with solid performances from teams that ran the full spectrum of improv styles and formats.

Every troupe was at the top of its game, performing to an energetic and supportive crowd that packed the Dallas Comedy House in Deep Ellum for all three shows. The night featured acts from Dallas/Ft. Worth, Oklahoma City, and Chicago.

I misremembered the start time of the shows and made it into the theater just in time to see all-female short form group Heroine Addiction take the stage. They executed their games with a nice pace that kept me interested and their wordplay was suitably clever. A few sour notes came from a lack of listening, but they covered admirably and had a great time on stage.

MiDolls, a self-described “Old Lady Improv Troupe” from Oklahoma City, took the stage next and passed out candy to the audience members. They based their show at a high school reunion and each character exemplified one of the seven deadly sins. They had some enjoyable moments and clever lines that kept the crowd rolling, but got a little bogged down by their respective sins which kept them from deepening their characters’ dimensions.

[pullquote_left] The closer of the first show was Franzia, a four person monoscene troupe based out of the Dallas Comedy House. Their show at a dentist’s office was stacked with great character choices and ended with a flip that left my mouth wide open.[/pullquote_left]

Due to an illness, the sketch show Call Waiting had to be canceled, so their slot was filled by three tremendous groups with unique styles that had me spitting up in my Deep Ellum Cherry Chocolate Double Brown Stout (which is a local craft beer you need to try).

Gangs of Recess performed an experimental Harold with the finesse of a team that knows each other well. Their organics and group games were some of the best I’ve seen and their connections were top rate. I particularly enjoyed a callback involving a pair of 33 year old brothers put in time out by an overbearing and omniscient father.

Samurai Drunk showcased an aggressive energy and played it to ultimate satisfaction. A situation involving a talking carrier pigeon relaying messages between rival tailgate parties was one of the night’s most inventive scenes.

Commerce Street closed out the second timeslot with a puppet improv show that had me in stitches. I have never seen puppet improv before and heard a great deal about it, but it blew away all my expectations. My favorite scene of the night came from a saucy French puppet wooing a coy man by comparing him to wheat bread.

[pullquote_right]Following the improv rule of heightening, the third show of the night pulled out all the stops and tore the roof off the Dallas Comedy House, proving again that improv wins. [/pullquote_right]

Li’l Mister Dallas kicked things off with a living room opening that set them up nicely to create a fun and connected show.

Oklahoma City’s Twinprov came next with a hip-hop show about physics that, as they promised, blew my mind. They freestyled at a breakneck pace and covered every small detail of the subject matter, leading to an act that was nearly impossible to follow up.

Luckily, they were being followed by The Outfit, a five person group from Chicago that exemplified a tight and punchy show. The Outfit has two members from Dallas who helped start the Dallas Comedy House, so it was partially a homecoming for them and they nailed it.

If Thursday night is any indicator, there is a lot to look forward to for the rest of the festival. Today starts with afternoon workshops (of which I will be taking one) before three more shows starting at 7pm. For more info, visit www.dallascomedyfestival.com and follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from the audience.

The Weekly Format: The Salon

NAME: The Salon
IDEAL TEAM SIZE:
4-8
HISTORY:
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. It is an Italian invention of the 16th century and is heavily associated with the French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries. Salons were usually held by prominent, beautiful and educated society women who moderated debate and discussion, consciously following Horace’s philosophy on the aims of poetry, “aut delectare aut prodesse est,” or “to entertain and educate.” Many modern historians consider the salon an integral part of the Age of Enlightenment.1
THE BREAKDOWN:  The stage is set with comfortable couches or chairs in a semi-circle to mimic a comfortable drawing room or coffee shop. A host receives guests as they arrive and all are seated and begin discussion on a topic chosen by the host. As debate comes into full swing, characters will rise from their seats and have scenes to highlight their opinions or points.
NOTES: This format is one that can enjoy a high amount of adaptability depending on the team’s sensibilities. The participants of the salon can be specific characters or the team can decide to be themselves when they’re sitting. The topics can be chosen by the audience if desired, either through suggestion or through cards filled out when they enter the space. Top marks go to the team that performs this show in a corner of a real coffee shop.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Wikipedia y’all

We are Raw Creatures

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Enchant

Horrify

If there was a blood-red moon inside your theater and you could harness it, would you?

If there was a frightful beast cowering in the corner of the stage consumed by need and hunger, would you feed her?

If there was a young man whose aspirations have come to nothing and who fears an abyss of loneliness, would you whip him into a frenzy of revelry from which there’s no recovering?

Listen carefully, with your whole body – lean forward and soak in the words: we have no freedom but ourselves and no recourse but to the present.

There, on the stage, in a little area of light in a dark room, we are straining ourselves to communicate, sure. More than that, we are straining to experience. To transcend. To do something so strange and accidental that we transform not only our voices or our bodies, but our lives.

Enchant. A moment where our face breaks, like fine china thrown at the floor, into a grin of delight and whimsy.

Horrify. Hold up a mirror to the quaking, reassuring longing inside of every single human body.

The first time I auditioned for an improv troupe there was a questionnaire. And it asked “What is the most inspiring show you have ever seen.” 1

It was raining. Everywhere. The streets were filled with mud. On the stage in the middle of this mucky scene there were two men. Their show may or may not have been called “The Piss Olympics,” but its premise was that they were competing for some dubious honor through bodily functions. They were so handsome and I was so young.  I stood there in the rain, not even particularly close to the stage, with my fifteen-year-old best friend standing next to me. We could feel the perversity of the moment. I watched the performers on stage throw every bit of themselves on to the pyre of comedy. They were bruising their knees, spitting, wheezing, throwing themselves on the ground, proclaiming uncomfortable truths, making each other erupt with laughter – for no audience, in the rain. The rawness, the purity of that: everything I have ever loved in improv has been dangerous to some extent, menacing, beautiful. To dance on the knife edge with each other. To acknowledge the futility of it all, and then to bask in the momentary profundity of what we can create together anyway.

By all accounts Del Close was a weird dude. Some call him a founder of improv, others guru or teacher: I think he is our patron saint. That to which we refer when we need a jolt of courage or a moment of irrational inspiration. There have been improv generations since then. I am rather cautious of the “great man” narrative that surrounds the well-worn narrative of “Del Close, founding father, perpetual King of improv and Final Word on the art.” However, I am told Del said we were to “Enchant and Horrify” and I feel like he knew what he was talking about. He once threw spaghetti into late night horror show audiences; he was a fire swallower, a provocateur, and an open, flayed heart in a cruel world.

From Saint Del we learn to push the possibilities too far. To engage the mud, the moon, the rain, the spit, the crude firmament of delight.

Show 1 footnote

  1. That picture up there is of Chris Trew doing a routine as Poseidon. It was also an impossibly inspiring show. Chris opened for Neil Hamburger at a rock club in Austin and my favorite joke of the evening was about sea weed.

Serving vs. Being

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I like to talk to waiters.

When you go to a restaurant a waitperson usually asks you a small portion of questions. “Would you like water? Does everything taste good? Would you like the check now?” And typically, people respond with “yes” to all three questions, and that concludes the whole relationship between that human being and the dining party. It is, as relationships go, horribly boring.

Why? I mean, the people who wait tables are often young beautiful people. They often are also artists, musicians, poets, comedians, activists or weirdos. My waiter the other day offered up, upon being asked, that she was a flamenco dancer and an opera singer. Another waitperson who served me this weekend had a wicked sense of sarcastic jubilation about being emotionally lost in her mid-twenties. Mossie at the Noodle House has a shocking picture of herself covered in dirt in a claw foot tub and performed in a Daniel Johnston musical. So why do we typically have a banal exchange of no lasting value with these folks? Because they are focused on serving us, and we are focused on getting served. “I want the food and to be left alone.” That is the script given to the restaurant patron. “I want to give you what you want and then go away without bothering you.” The waitperson’s script reads.

**Controversial Science about to be dropped in

3

2

1 **

Trying to serve the premise of a scene is just as boring. When two improvisers get on stage and one of them, a line or two into the scene, discovers that the first improviser has a premise in mind the second improviser will often drop her shit and start to ask “How can I serve this premise?” Suddenly the “serving” improviser is characterless, reactive, has a shallowness of emotional response, and will bring nothing genuinely unexpected into the scene. She is focused on not dropping plates (ie. breaking the game), rather than on being alive in the moment or embodying a real character. In scenes we always need to sit down to the banquet as equals. Let the table set itself, people.

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I know this is a strange way of thinking. A couple years ago I remember someone trying to explain that at the beginning of a scene both improvisers should walk on stage with a clear perspective and an agenda – that the reconciliation between these things would be the scene – and at that time I remember thinking “Nuh Huh!” I was confused. Like crazy. I thought “If he thinks he is a roadrunner and that I am a coyote about to be crushed by a boulder, while I think I am a fancy lady upset at her maid, that is the recipe for wackadoo. I better ignore this advice and keep looking for what that other improviser wants me to do.”

Of course, I eventually got bored of this. It is tedious to ask yourself over and over what your scene partner wants. So I figured out how to be the restaurant patron. Come on loud and strong and your scene partner will often defer to you for the whole show. They will say “Madame, your coat” or “I hope you don’t break Aunt Beatrice’s Urn!?” or “Sir, your one thirty called to say he would be late.” But what they mean is “Here is your water, would you like desert, and can I say the blackout line – you know, for a tip?”

It is never supposed to be like this.

The idea that the beginning of a scene both improvisers should come on with a point of view, character, and/or emotion is, years later, to my mind the point of everything. To break the cycle of serving the premise, at the expense of truly being in the scene, both improvisers have a job and neither is intuitive or easy. Come on to the scene with something delightful. Something you find inspiring or moving. Always. Everyone of us has forgotten this. I have forgotten it several times in the last few days, even though the phrase is cycling through my brain like a tornado.

If you have a tendency to serve in improv remember to serve yourself first and sit down to the feast instead of standing at the ready. Talk about what you know. Give yourself gifts like mini-patterns or spacework that will fuel your perspective. It isn’t your job to guess what scene your partner wants to have. It isn’t. Don’t worry so much about that other improviser, she’ll still be here even if you focus on your character for a moment.

If you have a tendency to order around your scene partner it is harder for you. After all, like a restaurant, if you wait for the server to tell you who they are you might wait all meal. Unlike at a restaurant, you usually can’t just ask. When you get on stage resist the urge to pile on to the other person who they are, why they’re here, or what they feel. But, come from yourself. Flesh out what you feel. Be your character, instead of trying to be theirs.

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