Forward/Story or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Inner Critic

Expectations and judgment stifled me for almost three years. After my wife and I had a child, I shifted focus from making art to raising our daughter. It was love beyond belief to care for this beautiful, sweet girl, but the longer I didn’t make art, the easier it was to let fear and rules prevent me from creating.

I listened to the voices: Telling me I’m not allowed to write others’ stories. Telling me I need more formal education to succeed. Telling me success is about money.

These voices weren’t others’. They were in my mind. Not literal voices. I’m not mad. But sometimes, that screaming inner critic felt like it was pushing me to madness.

Long ago, I told someone, “I want to use my powers for good.” These powers are imagination and creativity — voices spinning stories in my head. Fiction disguised as fact. I must share the tales, or they’ll eat me inside out.

Recently, I let it all go at Forward/Story, a storyteller’s retreat/lab in Nosara, Costa Rica organized by Lance Weiler and Christy Dena. It was joy and wonder. It was spiritual. It was a breakthrough. I finally found my soul again. These aren’t hyperbole. I reconnected with my powers.

On the beach, I spoke with another artist who works in a different genre than I, from another country than I, of another race and gender than I. I learned. I grew.

In a creation session with three strangers, we synchronized, bounced ideas, and fashioned a fun experience. Harmony in work. I’d forgotten it exists. I remembered.

Feeling judged. Laser eyes piercing my body and splitting it into a million pieces. Then, I remembered it’s not about me. It’s their hang-ups. The fear isn’t real. It’s a story I’m telling myself.

Jumping off the edge of a cliff and flying through the jungle on a cable the size of my finger inspired freedom. Fears and rules will bound me if I let them. Forward/Story liberated me from rules and shed my fears, which freed me to take flight.


vine enters the terrible twos: artists start playing together

A couple months back, I profiled “10 Artists to Follow on Vine who are not Adam Goldberg, James Urbaniak, Will Sasso, or Steve Agee.” In the life cycle of social apps, Vine was a baby, spitting up, pooping a lot, and screaming for attention. It had moments of brilliance mixed with a bunch of crap. Since then, something wonderful happened:

Vine entered The Terrible Twos.

That’s to say, it’s a walking, talking, wonderfully messy, sometimes belligerent, and still generally brilliant network of creators having their first conversations and collaborations. Yes – collaborations. Unlike Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the rest, Vine is not just a virtual playground. It has become a real life place for artists to collaborate.

I initially noticed it with one of my favorite Viners, Meagan Cignoli. Cignoli is a Brooklyn-based photographer who frequently Vines models on photo shoots, uses household objects to make magical eye candy, and was a finalist in the Tribeca Film Festival’s (TFF) #6SECFILMS competition. She’s also one of the first creators to feature other Viners in her videos.

It started with Virtuosic Dance, a dance company founded by choreographer Chelsea Robin Lee, also from Brooklyn. Cignoli featured Virtuosic in one of her #6SECFILMS submissions to TFF.

After I saw Cignoli’s collaboration with Virtuosic, I quickly searched the company and discovered they had previously worked together, shooting video and stills, so it was unsurprising they would make Vines together. Cignoli told me she didn’t initially see it as a collaboration, since they knew each other.

“As a photographer, when I see someone who does something interesting that I want to capture I have always just reached out to them and I say, ‘Hey let’s shoot,'” said Cignoli. “So with Vine, it was the same thing. I thought dance would look cool in stop motion, so I asked her to work with me a bit.”

A few weeks later, Comedy Central launched #ComedyFest on Twitter and experimented with Vine. They featured some of the aforementioned amazingly funny performers, Steve Agee, James Urbaniak and Adam Goldberg, who, you might say, was the first collaborator on Vine, creating accounts for his girlfriend Roxanne Daner and her friend, Merritt Lear, and making wildly bizarre Vines with them. Stir in one of the funniest people on Vine, Marlo Meekins, and you had the makings of some fun crossover Vining.

One day, shortly after the Comedy Central Vinefest, I saw this:

Aside from the organized collaboration by Comedy Central, this was the first time I saw one Viner – who did not know the other Viner before the advent of the app – appear in another creator’s work.

Nicholas Megalis is a musician from Cleveland (now, also based in Brooklyn). It’s hard to describe exactly what Megalis does on Vine. The general category is comedy, but unlike YouTube, which begs for a longer more engaging narrative, Vine allows performers to create mini-performance art pieces. Megalis sings, dances, eats gross food, raps, and spontaneously interviews people with bananas on the street. His short bio on Vine reads, “Musician/Artist/Idiot.” I’d add “Vine genius.”

“I thought he was very clever and cool and I wanted to capture his essence,” said Cignoli about Megalis. “So I emailed him and asked him to collaborate. At first he was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ So I sent a long list of ideas and he was like, ‘YES.’ So he came over a week or two later and we just started making cool things together. It was a lot of fun.”

Since their first collaboration, Cignoli has featured Megalis in more of her Vines, and recently she celebrated her birthday with these wild and wacky dudes: Michael LoPriore, Nicholas Megalis, Jerome Jarre and Rudy Mancuso, all prominent Viners on the platform.

New collaborations can be unwieldy, too. Vine is, like other social apps, an ego driven platform. Most creators work in their own bubbles. Bringing strong, creative minds together doesn’t always lead to productivity.

“We are all idea people so the hardest part is that we have too many ideas and too many big personalities,” said Cignoli. “The other problem is that we all get along so well, it’s hard to get any Vines done. We just want to hang out and joke around, have fun. Too bad there are not more female viners in NYC. I can’t wait to work with Marlo Meekins and Brittany Furlan.”

Marlo Meekins rocketed to the top of the Vine, and recently she made the move to Los Angeles from her base in Toronto. Since Meekins’ arrived in Tinseltown, she’s featured cameos from celebrity Viners, Andy Milonakis and Gillian Jacobs. She also appeared in Steve Agee’s Memorial Day Vines with Andy Richter.

These collaborations are exciting because they feature famous people, but I was most impressed with this gem:

If you’re not on Vine, you probably don’t get it. But all of these artists (Jordan Burt, KC James, Brittany Furlan, Nick Confalone, DirtyCurt, Jethro Ames and Jerome Jarre [with cameos on both coasts!]) are blowing up on Vine. Some of them have over 170 thousand followers.

This past week, it seems another top tier Viner, Nick Mastodon, known for his Disney cartoon/pop music mashups, LNAJ (Late Night Awkward Jams), and an unhealthy obsession with Ricky Martin, is in Hollywood from his native Minneapolis and hooking up with new friends. Here’s Meekins “celebrating” Mastodon reaching 40 thousand followers:

Artists are traveling to far away cities and connecting with other amazingly talented creators to make six second videos. People aren’t just liking and commenting on Vines, they are meeting up in person to socialize and make new work. It’s a fascinating sociological evolution.

And, when artists can’t be in the same city, they’re creating musical loops over which other artists can layer in their own tracks on the #songcollab hashtag, spawned by Jason Coffee, way over in Hawaii. Nicholas Megalis whipped up this witty ditty:

And Coffee responded with this. Search the hashtag, and you’ll find other collaborations, too. Sometimes, the #songcollabs go as deep as five or six musicians.

Fans following these inventive artists love it. When Meekins appeared in Mastadon’s 40K celebratory Vine, commenters lost their minds. Who knows what the next baby step is for Vine? The toddlers are playing together in this fantastic freaky sandbox. I can’t wait until they hit their tweens, and the awkward stage begins…

Pimples and pubes!

Wait. I’ve already seen both of those on Vine.

10 artists to follow on vine who are not adam goldberg, james urbaniak, will sasso or steve agee

For the past 45 days, I’ve been slightly obsessed with a new app called Vine. You’ve probably heard of it. Either you signed up to try it out, got bored and left, or you have made MANY more six second videos that you ever imagined creating before this mini-movie app appeared in January.

vine-logoFor those who haven’t heard about it, Vine allows creators to make six second shorts by tapping on an iPhone screen to shoot quick snippets of video. People typically use it to make tiny comedy sketches, mini stop motion stories, manic animations, and (of course) cat videos.

One of the biggest criticisms of the app (aside from some complaints with its UI), is that many Vines are so bad they induce nausea or seizures. It’s true. Most people don’t know how to make a good video. It’s much harder than a single shot on Instagram. And Vine doesn’t have funky filters to improve that crappy video of your lunch. It just shoots what it sees (and hears – you can’t mute the sound, so no MOS).

Still, there are some talented people on Vine. And I’m not talking about Adam Goldberg, James Urbaniak, Will Sasso or Steve Agee. These guys are all shooting fun work. I follow and enjoy them. They’re featured everywhere. But there are other spectacular, non-famous Vines artists who should be getting props, too.

For the naysayers who think Vine is a vomit-inducing mess of crappy videos, or for Vineheads seeking new, talented, non-famous creators, check out my list of 10 artists to follow on Vine.

(In alphabetical order. Click the artists names to see all their videos).

Brittany Furlan
It took a few videos, but Brittany Furlan grew on me. And that’s a good thing. A sketch comedy performer out of “Hollyhood,” Furlan has three schicks: booty dancing in inappropriate places (funnier than it sounds), a reoccurring show “Jokes with a Beekeeper,” and conversations with her asshole dogs, which are goddamn brilliant. She does other bits, too, but these are my faves.

Andy Martin, is an animator, illustrator and music maker from the UK who uses these skills to make some of my favorite stop-motions on Vine. Essentially, they are studies of music and colored clay. Andy imbues globs of earth with personality by revealing secret sounds from within. They are are super cute eye and ear candy. Check out his website, too. His long form animation reel is gorgeous.

Jack Shelby
Want to have your head messed with? Check out Jack Shelby’s simple, twisted illustrated loops. His edits are superb, creating a trance-like state for the viewer. “Stabby Mouse” is one of the most disturbing videos I’ve found on Vine. It doesn’t seem like it at first, but watch it twenty times in a row and you’ll have nightmares.

Jack doesn’t seem to have a Twitter account. Twitter is the only way to embed vines on Word Press, but you can watch his work at It’s the closest thing to Vine on the web, since Vine doesn’t have its own web-based aggregator (much like Instagram in its early days.)

Jack Shelby Vine #1

Jack Shelby Vine #2

Jack Shelby Vine #3

I debated adding Khoa Phan. Mainly, because (as of this writing) he has 10,672 followers on Vine. This is a list of Viners who aren’t famous. In a very short time, Khoa’s construction paper stop motion vignettes have swiftly risen to be one of the most popular feeds on Vine. There are a couple reasons for that. They’re damn good and they’re damn cute. And they’re timely. He made Vines for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even Dr. Seuss’ birthday. And they’re all fun and imaginative. Khoa isn’t famous outside of Vine, but he should be. And that’s why he’s on this list.

Marlo Meekins
A cartoonist by trade and a kook on Vine, Marlo is another early Vine superstar (she just cracked 10K followers and made a perfect video to celebrate). It makes sense a cartoonist might master a six second video medium. After all, they typically tell stories in three to six illustrated panels. Now, the panels can move. Mostly, Marlo’s Vines are set up expectations that she smashes with her warped sense of humor. Her Vines range from the ridiculous to the really ridiculous. Oh, yeah. And she plays the ukelele. Swoon.

MC and Friends
Whether taking the piss out of CSI: Miami or manifesting Dupstep Oprah (hilarious), the funny voice impressions and simple flip-book illustrations make use of Vine’s time limit in a different way. Instead of stop motion, MC and Friends literally flips pages and adds to the silly snippets of weirdness.

Watch Dub Step Oprah here. (C’mon. You know you want to.)

Meagan Cignoli
Meagan Cignoli is a joy. She plays with household items, like bottles and chopsticks. Sometimes, she plays with her food. It’s all stop-motion, but not in the classic sense. She’s not creating characters out of clay or construction paper to tell a story. Meagan uses the items to create seamless loops. Her designs are delightful. She’s a prime example of someone who is experimenting with the form and (I presume) reflects the aesthetic from her other work as a photographer of people.

Peter Heacock
Peter is from Philly. He’s super sweet. And he is in PR. My interactions with him were the first that really felt social on Vine. The comments he leaves on my feed are encouraging, and he genuinely appreciates the love people give him. His coolness earned him a follow from me on Twitter, too. Aside from his winning personality, Peter experiments with light and sound, and he seems to have started his own “news channel,” ViNews. But my favorite videos feature Peter teaching his baby boy about The Wu-Tang Clan. Those Vines, alone, are worth following Peter.

An Indonesian father of three glorious children and a graphic designer who lives in Kuwait, I want Pinot to be my dad. Okay, not really, but when I have children, I want to play with them like Pinot does his kids. Primarily working in stop motion, Pinot creates time-lapse Vines of illustrations that make you want to watch them over and over for each detail he drops into the frame. His “painting in the air” series is mind blowing, and the stop motion Empire Strikes Back he created with his daughters is just about the cutest thing you’ll find on the platform.

Yell Design
Matt Willis takes playing with his food to a new level. From Australia, Matt is another artist I started following on Twitter because he is so darn genuine. The Vines Matt makes are pretty intense. They’re not just your run-of-the-mill-stop-motion. He deconstructs and reconstructs whole pineapples. From the can. He resurrects raisins to grapes. And he gives breakfast in bed a whole new meaning.

Of course, I’ve been having fun with the app, too. Sometimes, I shoot spontaneous Vines inspired by my surroundings, and others are more planned out, like a mini-series I’m calling #jdjames. It’s a glimpse at my id. Or, something.

I hope, if you were a naysayer, you’re showing a bit more interest. If you’re a Vine lover, you discovered some new artists. Who knows if Vine will be around in a year? For now, I’m enjoying new bits of art from around the world. And that makes my present moment a little bit better.

authentic listening, part 1: breaking the online/offline binary barrier

This is the first of a three part series on authentic listening, theater companies who do it, and how empathy can change the way we interact with our audience and other artists.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity to attend Digital Hollywood, a two day conference where executives and experts at entertainment companies discuss the state of digital entertainment and marketing. I only attended the first day, but my experience was extreme. The panels either focused on large corporations, like Barnes and Nobel, sharing over-arching strategies to “extend their brands,” or they offered small businesses speaking intimately about innovation with the audience.

One of the best panels of the day was The New Fandom: Building and Nurturing Communities. Its moderator, Steve Bradbury (@stevbrad), Chief Revenue Officer of Zazoom, took a refreshing approach to a well worn form. Instead of asking a prepared set of questions agreed upon by the panel, he dropped a bunch of statements into Power Point and asked panelists to give the number for a random statement about the industry. Steve then revealed a statement, like, “Brands are becoming more challenged to control their messaging vs. the will of their online community. Agree/Disagree?” Then, the panelists would chime in and expound upon their agreements or disagreements with each statement.

I live tweeted the event, and as these back channels do, an exchange occurred with another attendee, Kara Lea Rota (@karalearota), Director of Though Kara was in a different room with another panel, she commented on one of the many statements offered by our moderator:

Kara’s points stuck with me, and I’ve increasingly been pondering this offline/online binary conundrum. The language we use to talk about our experiences is important, and frankly, it was the first time I’d considered that the offline/online binary might not be applicable to the common experience.

We know it. We feel it. We are already there, yet there’s still insistence on separation. There is no offline/online binary. There is only living. There are only gathering spaces. The mechanics of those spaces – whether Twitter or a tavern – are different, but separating the spaces as though they are different alienates. It is not IRL (In Real Life) or VR (Virtual Reality). It’s all just life.

One recurrent comment made throughout the day by several 40-something executives on Digital Hollywood panels was how they marvel at their children who play on iPads starting as young as age two. They wonder how this behavior affects their children’s impressionable minds. Ironically, this binary offline/online contextualizing keeps them from seeing something more intimate than their children. They don’t see how they, themselves, relate to the population at large.

The weekend before Digital Hollywood, another conference, Futures of Entertainment 6 at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, took place. I wasn’t able to attend, but the conference recently uploaded videos of the panels.

One that struck me was the introduction to the second day of the conference with Mike Monello (@mikemonello), Partner and CCO of Campfire, and Xiaochang Li (@xiaochang), a cultural theorist and researcher. It’s about 20 minutes, and I encourage you to watch it for context, but in a nutshell, they encourage us to look at whatever the audience encounters and approach story creation like an architect.


MIT TechTV – FoE6 Day 2 Opening Remarks – Xiaochang Li and Mike Monello

Mike compares the current culture to a Greek theater: “It’s designed so the audience can see each other as well as the stage.” He shared an architectural urban legend in which an architect of a college campus refused to create a design with sidewalks. He just planted grass, and wherever the students walked and wore a path, that’s where he made the sidewalks.

Part of this architecture is digital. Part is in-person, face to face interactions. But, to separate the two as not intertwined creates an architecture that doesn’t listen to actions of the audience.

At the end of their talk, Xiaochang offers a humble provocation:

“We can start to ask how we think about these models of engagement if we just…Let’s try and just throw out the individual – alone or in aggregate – as our sort of our atomic unit…and if we sort of think bigger and smaller…so at the scale of the collective, at the scale of the contextual, or even down to the granularity of the acts and the gesture. And sort of think about what sort of opportunities and challenges in analysis and implementation does this new framework give us?”

It’s a dense charge, but basically, they encourage us to listen to the audience, which is a challenge for many art makers, especially in the theater.

Tomorrow, I continue this three part series on authentic listening, sharing how theater companies like Vampire Cowboys, Gideon Productions, terraNOVA Collective and Flux Theatre Ensemble embrace their inner geeks to become the heroes the theater industry desperately needs.

You can read part two here.

becoming our own heroes

Jim Morrison was one of my first literary heroes. I listened to The Doors for hours on end, and when Oliver Stone’s biopic opened, I allowed Val Kilmer’s method-soaked performance to wash over me. I longed to be like Jim. He died three years before I was born, and in my senior year of high school, I convinced myself I actually might be the reincarnation of The Lizard King.

Canton High School, Canton, IL September 1967 – source:

My first creative writing teacher, Mrs. Roudebush, encouraged my writing style because she was more obsessed with Jim than I. The Doors have a special place in the mythology of our small town of Canton, IL, for they played the high school auditorium in September of 1967. Mrs. R. attended that concert, and it made a marked impression on her teenage, hormone gorged mind. She made me promise if I ever found a poster of Jim with a black dog, I would let her know.

I vowed I would.

Twenty years later, tooling around the Internet, I discovered an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Big Think posts interviews with some of the greatest minds the world has to offer. They share snippets of wisdom. Sometimes, it is mind-blowing, and other times, they are familiar nuggets that require repeating.

In the interview, Dr. Tyson offers this reminder: “I think the greatest of people that have ever been in society, they were never versions of someone else. They were themselves.”

It was true in Shakespeare’s day, and it’s still is today.

Mimicking great artists’ work is typical. It’s how we learn. Hunter S. Thompson retyped “The Great Gatsby” word for word to get the feel for Fitzgerald’s writing. Eventually, though, Thompson found his own, authentic voice, spawning an entire journalistic movement. Great artists follow their hearts, which is typically why they are great artists.

It randomly reminded me of another influence from my childhood. The Brady Bunch.

When it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange
Move your heart to what your gonna be

I’m thankful for my artistic heroes, but I’m my best self when I’m true to my own voice. My personal relationships and my art get better when I’m authentic and open. It’s easier said than done, but it’s sure as hell is liberating to wake up and realize you can be your own hero.

P.S. – Mrs. R., back in high school, we had no idea this thing called the Internet would exist, creating a place where we can find practically anything we want.
You can purchase your poster here.