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May 2018

Sit and Spin

Aisha Burns’ Where Do I Begin

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Song Title: “Where Do I Begin”

From The Album: Argonauta (art pictured at left)

Single Sentence Singles Review: Intimate and insightful, “Where Do I Begin” is actually the perfect place to begin exploring an artist who floods emotion into every aspect of her songwriting, making listening to her music a soul-stoking experience.

Beyond The Track: Aisha Burns’ Argonauta is due May 25th on Western Vinyl. Tour dates, including her upcoming record release show, can be found here.

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Sit and Spin

Flamingo Shadow’s Black Cloud

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Song Title: “Black Cloud

From The Album: Earth Music (TBA)

Single Sentence Singles Review: There is no black cloud hanging over this single, a song so catchy that you’ll find yourself sporting a wide grin while committing to a rock-themed Conga line whenever (and wherever) it starts to play.

Beyond The Track: Flamingo Shadow’s Earth Music doesn’t have a drop date yet, but keep track of the tracks to come, as well as upcoming tour dates, here.

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Chef Life

Chef Trevor Tack

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Chef Trevor Tack
Executive Chef of the McNellie’s Group
www.thehopjam.com

Tulsa, Oklahoma has long been famous for its local music scene and connection to Route 66, but lately the food scene has been picking up popularity and acclaim. The reason behind T-Town shifting culinary gears into overdrive is a direct result of the chefs that are now at the helm.

We recently sat down with Chef Trevor Tack of the McNellie’s Group to discuss food and beer pairings, what the foodie future holds, and the experience of working with Hanson on Oklahoma’s largest craft beer and music festival, Hop Jam.

TrunkSpace: When and why did you start cooking and what people have been the biggest influence in your life with regards to your culinary journey?
Chef Trevor: I started cooking in high school. Not at a restaurant mind you, just my house. I wanted to eat certain foods my mom just didn’t cook. In fact, she hates to cook! That’s why I started to take an interest in food because I just got tired of the same old stuff we ate every week. It wasn’t until college that I really got into the scene. That world just appealed to me. The single biggest influence in my journey was my first real chef and mentor, the late Paul Caplinger. He was instrumental in my growth as not only a cook but also as a person.

TrunkSpace: What style of cuisine do you enjoy creating the most and why? And what would you consider your signature dish?
Chef Trevor: Oh boy, that’s a good question! I love braising things. Confit, roast, stew… anything that takes a while is my favorite thing to do. As far as a signature dish goes, I would have to say risotto. It takes a while and you have to pay attention to it or it just turns out terrible.

TrunkSpace: It’s been said that food is the gateway into a culture, that it identifies a history, family and a region. What do you feel your food says about your culture and history?
Chef Trevor: That is so true. Food is the great equalizer. Every culture. Every person. We all have a story to tell about food. We grieve with it, we celebrate with it, we give it away when people are sad, happy, tired… you name it. My food is simple. I want it to make you happy. I love serving people. I find a fantastic joy in doing so. When you cook for someone, you’re asking for them to trust you. I don’t take that lightly.

TrunkSpace: Every cook and/or chef has a really bad service, and it haunts them, but they grow and learn from it. Do you have a worst service memory that keeps you up at night? And how did it change you as a chef?
Chef Trevor: I have been pretty fortunate in that category. I have seen very few catastrophic meltdowns in my kitchens. But one that truly haunts me, I mean some really nightmarish shit, was when I opened the Dilly Diner. It was during Tulsa Tough and the race was on our front door. That first week was so hard. People crying in the alley was just a normal sight. Just a torrent of people coming in, no breaks. My legs were chaffed so they were bleeding. It was hot as hell outside to boot. Trying to expo and teach people the proper way of doing things in that environment was very difficult. Oh yeah, and we were open from 7:00 am to midnight.

TrunkSpace: On the flipside of that, do you have a particular memory of your best service or a moment in your career that really stood out and has stuck with you?
Chef Trevor: It’s funny because it was the same week. I saw people that were forgotten rise up and become giants in that time. There were cooks there that had been cast aside by many that showed how strong they truly were. I saw people grow and lead others. We fought together. We bled. We came out on the other side much better for it too. Some didn’t make it ‘til the end, but the ones that did really showed their grit. I’ve truly never been prouder of a staff.

TrunkSpace: With the advancement of technology in the past years, food has also advanced in many ways. Has it changed the way you cook at all?
Chef Trevor: Oh yes. I’m by no means a culinary “scientist” but the way food is being raised and grown now has really changed the game. It’s really making us all healthier people.

TrunkSpace: As the Executive Chef of the McNellie’s Group, you appear to be involved in some very exciting ventures including this year’s “Hop Jam” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Can you tell us a bit about that event and what it’s like working with the Hanson brothers?
Chef Trevor: Those guys are great. They truly are some great ambassadors for our city. I’m fortunate to be cooking a very cool dinner in collaboration with Taylor Hanson at The Bond Event Center. The first annual Firkin Feast. It’s a celebration of food, music, and of course beer! Some really killer breweries are going to be there. The food is going to be pretty great too! I haven’t been this excited about an event in forever. It all goes down on 5/19/18. Details can be found here!

TrunkSpace: As you stated, Hop Jam centers around music and uniquely crafted beers. For those foodies reading out there, can you tell us some basics on pairing the perfect brew with food? We know pizza and beer go together, but what should we order to drink with a good piece of fish or steak?
Chef Trevor: Man, beer is so much fun to pair with food! I have found that some of the best pairings are with simple fizzy lagers or ciders. They go with almost everything. When the food gets a little heavier, just experiment with some darker ales and porters. But really at the end of the day it’s about what you like. Don’t let any beer or wine snob tell you differently!

TrunkSpace: Tulsa has long been well known for being on the forefront of music, but lately the culinary scene has really been developing in T-Town. Do you think this is due to customers becoming more adventurous in their dining? And what do you think the gastronomy future holds for Tulsa?
Chef Trevor: Tulsa is ready for prime time. I have been watching this town grow and spread her culinary wings, so to speak, for the last 15 years. It’s been an amazing ride watching all of it go down. I honestly attribute that to our millennial diners. Social media and young professionals go hand in hand. And hipsters. Hipsters love taking pictures of their food almost as much as they like to eat it. There is just so much more connectivity to the world’s dining scene now. Everyone can see what other cities are doing and saying, “OOOO I want dat!” And that’s a good thing for all of us. I think that we’ll just keep getting better and better as more talented people start coming up the ranks. High tide raises all ships.

Hop Jam takes place this Sunday. For more information, click here.

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Sit and Spin

Sunset Radio’s 1957

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Song Title: “1957”

From The Album: Album forthcoming. (Slated for October ‘18)

Single Sentence Singles Review: Summer is upon us, and with a great summer comes great music, which Sunset Radio delivers on with this pop-punk, fun-filled track about friendship.

Beyond The Track: The upcoming album from Sunset Radio is a follow-up to their 2017 debut, Vices. To stay up on the latest news for all things Sunset Radio, including tour dates, check out their official Facebook page here.

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The Featured Presentation

Miles Mussenden

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Photo Courtesy Of: Miles Mussenden

Spider-Man was always going to be a sure thing, but developing successful cinematic franchises out of characters like Iron Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther came with question marks attached. Never exactly A-listers in the comics, could they carry their own films? Turns out, they absolutely could, and now Marvel is looking to turn other “could they” characters into “absolutely could” gold.

Premiering June 7th on Freeform, “Cloak & Dagger” tells the story of a teenaged dynamic duo-to-be, newly super-powered and dealing with their own emotional struggles along the way. Starring Aubrey Joseph (Cloak) and Olivia Holt (Dagger), the series promises to add a layer of grounded realism to an otherwise high stakes imaginary world.

We recently sat down with “Cloak & Dagger” star Miles Mussenden to discuss playing the father of a superhero, why his character has been keeping secrets from his fictional family, and the reason fans will want to sit back and enjoy the explosive ride that is Season 1.

TrunkSpace: What does it mean for a career in 2018 to be involved in something within the Marvel Universe? Is it sort of a game-changer just by the nature of how many eyes could be on the series?
Mussenden: You know, I have to say yes. Marvel seems to be taking over the universe right now. With the success of “Black Panther” and “The Avengers,” it seems like everything they touch is gold pretty much. But, with this particular project, I think we have something special with it. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it. So, it’s my biggest opportunity to date and I couldn’t have picked something better.

TrunkSpace: One of the things that Marvel does so well is, although each of their properties exist within the same universe, every one has its own distinct feel and tone. As someone who has worked directly on “Cloak & Dagger,” what kind of show is it? Does it fall within a genre?
Mussenden: It’s interesting because I feel like it’s gonna just touch a lot of different things. What I loved about it is, during shooting, it felt like it was a feature we were filming. It feels like we have 10 little mini-movies, so to speak. You have something for that younger generation, that Freeform audience, that they’ll love with Aubrey (Joseph) and Olivia (Holt) playing Cloak and Dagger, but you also have something more because the family dynamics in both of these young people’s lives play big into this story.

I think it’s something that I would watch, because I look at it, and I think we have just as much gritty things that grab your attention, that holds you and makes you care, in the family relationships for Tyrone and Tandy, as do Cloak and Dagger. We have people like Gloria Reuben who plays Adina, my wife on the show, Tyrone’s mother, and she’s just an amazing actress. The kind of realism that we bring to this show is going to be something that any Marvel fan would enjoy.

TrunkSpace: In the series you play the father of hero-to-be Cloak. As a father in real life as well, did you find yourself saying, “How would I react to this if it was happening in my own family dynamic?” Did any of who you are as a parent bleed over into who Otis is as a parent?
Mussenden: Somewhat, because with this particular role it really resonated with me for some reason – from the very beginning. And my instincts seem to be the same instincts as the character, Otis’ instincts, except that Otis is a little bit more controlling and a little bit more buttoned up than I am, personally. But I couldn’t help but have some of it spill over because some of the same fears that I have for my children, he has for his. So, some of the same things that I want to protect my son from, he wants to protect his son from. There is some spillover but because he is different – he, meaning Tyrone – and because my wife is different, we just kind of play and everything’s kind of happening in the moment. I don’t purposely put any of it in, but whatever comes out, comes out, and I really don’t know what I’m going to see because I go and I do what happens, whatever comes to me at that moment, so it’s pretty much… and each take is a little bit different, so it’s the editor who is gonna have a lot of control over what is actually going to come across in the end product.

TrunkSpace: So you must be just as excited to see it as the diehard Marvel fans.
Mussenden: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know what I’m gonna see because even in ADR, they showed, again, very small clips, and so I couldn’t get an idea. I didn’t see the pilot and the stuff they showed at South by Southwest so, yeah, I’m in eager anticipation, waiting with bated breath.

TrunkSpace: Now, within the storyline itself, Otis has a past that he hasn’t exactly reconciled with, right?
Mussenden: I wanna be careful how I frame this – I don’t want to give spoilers. Yes, Otis has a rich history, and he didn’t share it all with Tyrone…

Photo By: Frank Ockenfels. – © 2018 Freeform. All rights reserved.

TrunkSpace: Secrets are never good for a family.
Mussenden: That’s true, but sometimes I think, as parents, you want to keep some things away. You’re thinking you’re kind of protecting them by not sharing certain things, but I think everything is due season two so sometimes there’s a time and place for certain things to come out. And I think those things kind of unravel and reveal themselves somewhere in some of these episodes.

TrunkSpace: We know you can’t give away too much, but are aspects of your backstory going to see resolution in Season 1 or will it carry over into any possible future seasons to come?
Mussenden: A major part of it you will see in Season 1. Some very explosive things happen, so I think Season 1 will give fans more than enough.

TrunkSpace: From what we could tell from looking at your filmography as a whole, this is the longest time you have spent with one character, at least in terms of an episode count. What was that extended journey like for you, finding bits and pieces of who the character is along the way, because we would imagine it wasn’t all presented to you at the outset, correct?
Mussenden: Yeah, absolutely. It wasn’t at all. I had an idea after doing the pilot, I knew there was a heavy, emotional demand that would be required, so I went and spent a month, five days a week, working with Susan Batson at her studio, just getting myself emotionally prepared to deal with all the things that this character had to go through. There’s some trauma there. In some ways, he may have some form of PTSD with something that he’s been through, so I had to be able to be emotionally available to give an honest portrayal of these things. I didn’t want to act it. I think it was very important for people to see the realness of it. We see a lot of things happening on TV and the society we live in is a news flash, it comes and goes. We have an emotional feeling about something and then it goes away. But I think that this is going to give people a real feel for what goes on, and even for an African American family… I think we can touch people in a way that they would have a certain kind of empathy because they will live it with us, and I think that was real important. I’m excited about that.

TrunkSpace: From what we could tell, the series definitely seems accessible for viewers. You’re going along for the ride and you’re not necessarily on the outside looking in with these big, larger-than-life hero characters. This is ground level storytelling.
Mussenden: Yes, exactly. and that’s what makes me excited and that’s why I didn’t mind getting it piece by piece, because I felt like I was living it. And just being out there, in New Orleans, I tried to immerse myself in that world as much as I could. Some of the things that my character was doing, I tried to spend my time doing that. So, New Orleans kind of added a whole flavor. It’s like a blanket that we kind of cocooned ourselves in to really create that world.

Cloak & Dagger” premieres June 7th on Freeform.

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Between The Sheets

Alison McGhee

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In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Alison McGhee about her new book “What I Leave Behind,” how writing with an imposed framework is freeing, and why laughter gets her through anything.

TrunkSpace: As you gear up for the release of “What I Leave Behind,” what emotions are you juggling with? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
McGhee: These are powerful questions because they demand honesty about a part of writing that can be fraught. The private part of me (which is most of me) wants to pretend that at this point in my life, having published quite a few books, I’m inured to the release of a new one. That I don’t read reviews and don’t care what the world thinks. But that would be a lie, because my greatest, lifelong wish as a writer is to connect with readers – to know that someone out there sees themself in my book and feels less alone, comforted, seen. The emotions surrounding “What I Leave Behind” are intense in this way, because so much of my own life and experience are infused into this novel.

TrunkSpace: Where did the concept of writing the book in 100 chapters made up of 100 words come from and how difficult was it to whittle each chapter down to that specific word count? Did it get easier the further into the book you got?
McGhee: Whenever I write a book, I create a secret structure for it. The secret structure is usually known only to me, invisible to the outside world, but it gives me a framework within which to work. For example, I’ll make a list of random objects, off the top of my head, and the rule is that all those objects need to be in the book by the time it’s finished.

With “What I Leave Behind,” I had the image of a boy who worked in a dollar store, so I went to a dollar store and took photos of a hundred items. I had the vague idea that maybe I’d write a strange little book that consisted of a photo on one side of the page and a reflection or conversation, sparked by the photo, on the flip side. That turned into 100 small reflections, because everything in a dollar store costs $1.00 (100 pennies, get it?) and then I challenged myself further to make each of those passages 100 words exactly. It was mathematical, as many of my secret structures are. (What can I say, I thrive on weird challenges.)

The unexpected beauty of this structure is that it allowed me to write chapters that felt almost like poems, and poetry is my favorite form of literature. It was a lovely challenge to make each passage as whole and finished and profound as I could while staying within the strict word limit. Strangely, it wasn’t hard for me, maybe because I love to revise and I also love to cut, cut, cut. Even when I realized that Word counts every dot in an ellipse as a word, which meant I had to go back and add three words to every passage in which I had used an ellipse, it felt like a cool challenge rather than a burden.

TrunkSpace: The book deals with some heavy subject matter, but at the same time, has plenty of moments where the light overtakes the darkness. Do you feel like that was, tonally, important to achieve a balance with and did you struggle with it at any point in the process?
McGhee: Such a good way to phrase the question – “tonally important to achieve a balance.” That’s exactly the way I felt. When you are dealing with traumatic things like suicide and rape, I think it’s essential to include lightness and laughter, if only to release the heaviness and balance the weight. That’s what actual life is like, isn’t it? I’ve gone to funerals of people I adored, when my heart felt broken into pieces, and yet at some point there’s always a moment of lightness, like when you turn to your best friend and raise your eyebrows at something that someone said, and even though you can’t stop crying you also laugh and laugh. Laughter gets me through everything.

TrunkSpace: Did the method of delivery – 100 words in 100 chapters – force you to alter your normal approach to writing? Did it take you out of your comfort zone at all, and in doing so, will it force you to rethink your own process moving forward?
McGhee: “Method of delivery” – another cool phrase. Given that I always give myself assignments when I write, like “write a picture book in the form of a sestina” or “write a novel that covers one week in time, moving only forward, beginning on Monday and ending on Sunday” – strange random assignments like that—the way I wrote the book was in keeping with my normal approach. Somehow, an imposed framework is wildly freeing to me. I realize that might sound like a paradox. If anything, the very tight framework of “What I Leave Behind” makes me want to push even further into unusual structures. I’m looking forward to what the future brings that way.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “What I Leave Behind?”
McGhee: That I put my heart on the line in every passage of this book. There is so much of me and my life in Will, and oh I hope I did that boy justice.

TrunkSpace: You call yourself a “restless writer” who is “always following inspiration wherever and however” you find it. What are you inspired by currently?
McGhee: I’m always inspired by other artists: musicians, painters, dancers. And the ordinary daily life of anywhere fills me with ideas and scenes and conversations for future books. Lately I’ve been much more focused than before on the way our society and culture are changing, for the better and for the worse. The most powerful aspect of the curious times we’re living through, to me, is how people who have been mistreated for centuries are rising up and rightly so – and how people who have always benefited from unequal power structures are either wildly pushing back or feeling themselves broken up with recognition of unfairness. It’s pretty intense. The fact that I wrote about rape in “What I Leave Behind” is a direct result of this. I’m inspired by people taking action.

That’s a pretty broad inspiration, isn’t it? “People taking action.” Reading that makes me laugh, like, “Gee, Alison, could you be more general?”

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
McGhee: Writing and storytelling is in my genes, and I’ve written stories my entire life, beginning when I was six and learned how to print. But finding my true voice as a writer took a long, long time. I distinctly remember waking up one morning, when I was 33 years old, with the phrase “that baby” in my mind and the image of a child lying in a crib in a trailer, looking up at the black and white reflection of Venetian blinds on the ceiling. That same morning, I sat down and wrote a strange piece that began with the lines “Babies don’t get born in North Sterns. They just appear, like corn on a hard dirt road. Like dust. Like love.” I remember a feeling of power surging through me, through my fingertips on the keyboard. I knew that something in me had changed, and that anything I wrote from that moment forward was going to be better, more assured, than anything I had written before. It was a strange realization. Sometimes I think that the creative process happens in its own time. It doesn’t go according to calendar time, or human lifetime. For years and years and years, things build inside us, and then one day we wake up and we’re at a different plane of existence.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
McGhee: The process of writing, of making art of any kind I suppose, is both a labor of love and hard, hard work. I wish it were easier for me, but it’s not. Every day I have to corral myself, make myself sit down in that damn chair and start spinning out words. Creating lives. Conjuring people and places and things. There are many times when I hate writing. And then there are those moments, or days if you’re lucky, when the sense of power and exhilaration flowing through you is like a drug. I’ve never done heroin, but when I hear the descriptions of what the first time is like, I always think, I know that feeling.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
McGhee: Such a great question. The ideal conditions involve waking up when I wake up, making a single perfect cup of coffee, easing into the day by reading at least four poems (they’re the first bookmarks I turn to when I open my laptop), making a list of all the to-dos for the day, and then shutting out the world and spinning out words and words and words. Note: that perfect day rarely happens. It’s astonishing how skilled I am at procrastination, like, “Oh, you better put in a load of laundry” or, “Oh, you really should check Instagram to see what We Rate Dogs is up to,” or, “Hey, it’s supposed to get really hot this afternoon you better go for your run now.” Etcetera ad infinitum.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
McGhee: When I’m drafting, I don’t edit at all. I’m just grinding out words, usually 1000-3000 per day. It’s kind of like making the granite from which you’ll later hew a sculpture. At some point, I’ve got a ton of words, and then it’s time to buckle down and really see what’s going on. When I finally begin to cut and frame and revise – to turn the big mess into an actual book – then I self-edit nonstop. The inner critic is a dear personal friend of mine.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
McGhee: Pretty much everywhere. (Sad face.) Maybe most of us are harder on ourselves than we are on others. Or maybe it’s how most of us are when it comes to the things that matter most to us, and my art matters profoundly to me. The result is that I’ve dreamed of writing a truly beautiful book my whole life long, and that truly beautiful book is still out there, shimmering in the air ahead of me, almost but not quite visible. Almost but not quite real. Maybe it never will be.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
McGhee: I spent the winter rewriting a new novel, tentatively titled “Hard Things, Beautiful Things, Things that Can’t Be Borne.” It’s for adults and older teens and it will be published in the fall of 2019. I’m also working on a new young adult novel, set in Minneapolis and tentatively titled “Our Nameless Café.”

What I Leave Behind” is available today from Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.

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Laugh It Up

Maxi Witrak

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Name: Maxi Witrak

Website: www.maxiwitrak.com

Socials: Twitter/Instagram

Why We’re LaughingWitrak’s subtle and subdued delivery allows for the punchlines to sneak up on you, often tickling your funny bone well after she has already moved on in her set, making for a surprising game of comedic catch up!

TrunkSpace: Was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Witrak: I was never the class clown or cool enough to be “the funny one.” Usually I was the one making a weird joke that all the cool kids kind of made a side eye at me for. One day after a joke one of these girls sort of goes quiet, squints at me, and goes, “…OHHHHH, you’re being FUNNY!” And it was like this whole time she/they hadn’t realized they were jokes and after that I made sense to them.

TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Witrak: At first I liked sketch and improv, but those all demanded too much extra time of trying to organize people before even getting to get down to the work. As someone also pursuing acting and trying to have a life I thought of trying stand-up so that I could just rely on myself.

When I started, I thought I could bypass the slog of open mics by trying to out-write the process. The thought of staying up late night after night sounded miserable to me. So I was doing real shows every few weeks as my only stage time and was awful, of course. Somewhere in there I decided to stop being casual about it and let myself care enough to go for it. Every day I’m doing something towards it – writing, doing an open mic, doing a show, seeing a show, even if it’s just watching standup online. I literally check off each day that I’ve done something.

I think when I realized stand-up was my passion though was when going to the shows I would get insanely jealous of the comics. Just aching to get to be up there whether I was good or bad. I think if you find anything where you’re looking at the big sharks doing their thing and all you want to do is swim with them, even if you get torn to shreds, that’s how you know you want it.

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a comic?
Witrak: I’m still discovering it, every set. Sometimes I’ll watch a comic’s special and find that my entire set that night has picked up their accent, if you will. What I always try to steer back to is, who do I most want to get to be? What kind of person am I most jealous of because it seems like they’re having the most fun?

TrunkSpace: Is the approach you take now on stage different from the approach you took when you first started out? Is it one act that grew into itself or would you consider them two completely different acts?
Witrak: When I first started out, I’d describe myself as the poor man’s Amy Schumer. A lot of crude dick jokes and dad incest one-liners just because I was trying out the misdirect and play on words for the first time. I was also completely cut off from the audience, like I was reciting a presentation.

A lot of times I really want to fall back on the comfortable feeling of knowing each line by rote, but I’m starting to move into the space where I can just talk to the audience and be comfortable relying on myself to be my own parachute. Either method could kill or flop, but only one of them is exciting and worthwhile to me.

TrunkSpace: Is the neon “Open” sign in your brain always turned on, and by that we mean, are you always writing and on alert for new material?
Witrak: Always. I’m known for making myself a quick note on my phone anytime something funny or strange happens (or, since the damn iPhone Notes slowdown, scribbling on my hand). It’s got to be annoying as hell for my poor friends – because as much as I want to enjoy the laugh in the moment my wheels are already turning for how to spin it into a bit.

TrunkSpace: How much work goes into a joke before it’s ready to be tested out in front of a live audience?
Witrak: I’ll take something to an open mic as soon as I think of it. Sometimes it’s a half thought that occurred to me as I’m getting ready to go on stage, sometimes I’ve dumped three pages of word vomit on one theme into my laptop and have to start sifting through all that rubble for the tiny viable chunks that emerge by talking through it out loud. If I can talk through my thought process and get some response from the other comics, I know there’s something there and just have to keep tightening and tightening it ‘til I get it clean. Usually it crystallizes within a few mics; sometimes I have to go back to the writing table and squint at it ‘til I dig the final version out. But I don’t like to invest the time in getting it 100 percent lean before taking it to a mic and sizing up whether it’s viable in the first place.

TrunkSpace: If a joke doesn’t seem to be working, how many chances do you give it in a live setting before you decide to rework it or move on from it altogether?
Witrak: I don’t put much store in the volume of reactions at an open mic, but if I’ve done something in front of a live audience two to three times and already taken a closer look to see whether I’ve set it up in a way that just isn’t making sense from the audience’s perspective, I’ll scrap it. I keep everything in case some bit of it is salvageable as an observation but sometimes by abandoning it for a few months I inadvertently end up writing a bit with a different premise that absorbs it.

TrunkSpace: Is it possible to kill one night and bomb the next with essentially the same set, and if so, what do you chalk that up as?
Witrak: Totally possible. I try to avoid blaming the audience but they have probably the most to do with it. I used to be a very competitive horseback rider and when I would get frustrated for a bad ride my trainer would always say “don’t blame the horse.” AKA, take responsibility for it, and use it to make you better. If you’re always blaming the audience or the writing of the scene or the horse, you’re never going to turn that awareness inward and make the needed changes to improve.

But yes, it is totally possible to have just a crap audience. Often it’s the environment – something in the circumstances have psychologically set them up to be poor audience members during your set. Time of night, demographics of the audience, quality of the venue’s food, whether there’s a door that keeps opening and closing and grabbing attention, seating arrangement, etc. Sometimes the setup makes the audience feel like they’re at a play and afraid to make noise rather than being active participants. I’ve done some painful sets in makeshift venues.

TrunkSpace: Does a receptive and willing audience fuel your fire of funny and help to put you on your game for the rest of your set?
Witrak: Absolutely. The more confident you are, the more fun you’re having up there, the more you start reaching for those bold choices or improvised moments that take it to the next level.

TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Witrak: I finished a set one time and one of the male comics on the show came up to pay me all sorts of compliments about my writing. He offered to help get me on his friend’s show because he thought I was really funny, then immediately undercut it with “and you’re pretty cute, so sure.” I think any female reading this knows the precise and insidious difference I mean between a compliment on your appearance and a compliment on your appearance at the expense of the rest of you. Someone hitting on me doesn’t send me into a rage. Someone bullshitting me about the thing I’m working my ass off for does.

It reminded me that even though the comedy circles are small and it might feel like I constantly have to put up with that type, I can still choose who I invest my time and respect in, and I’m really lucky to have met quite a few bonafide good human beings so far. I do my best to surround myself with the genuine good guys who treat me like just another comic and not just a “female comic.”

TrunkSpace: How do you handle hecklers? What approach do you take?
Witrak: I’ve had people disrupt a show but never outright heckle. Hating on an audience member is off-brand for me; I want everyone to have a good time. And if I shame someone outright, the whole audience is going to shrink inside themselves. I try to bring everyone in on the joke including the person who’s causing the problem, like they’re the drunk friend we’re humoring by giving a final beer while taking their keys from them.

TrunkSpace: What are your thoughts on the stand-up landscape in 2018? Are you optimistic for the future of live comedy?
Witrak: Living in LA spoils me, because no matter what type of comic you are, you have a place to work on your craft. For the individual comic, it’s difficult to find a niche, especially given how being clean or not can funnel you different places. But for comedy as a whole, both branches further the craft in their own way; the clean ones have to come up with smarter stuff in order to work within those constraints, while the blue comics can explore and blow up existing boundaries.

I’m hoping that people will continue to come see standup live; it still seems like such a mystery to most people who aren’t in it. I’ve overheard audience members say they’ve heard a comic “do that bit before” and complain about jokes being repeated. I don’t think they realize that as easy and improvised as a skilled comic may make a bit seem, each of those five minutes were painstakingly crafted over time. Or for people who like to listen to comedy albums, it’s like owning a CD versus going to a concert. You’re getting the shiny studio-perfect version while only the people who show up at the live show get that unique, shared, imperfect experience with the magic of in-the-moment discoveries.

TrunkSpace: Finally, who do YOU find funny?
Witrak: Tig Notaro, any day of the week. She is so unbelievably present – she does not let a single bit of roadkill go under her tire without getting out of the car to inspect it. There are comics I love who write hilarious bits and make me laugh out loud from behind my laptop when I’m home needing some inspiration. But she is truly for me the embodiment of Steve Martin’s opinion that people come to know a comic’s “taste” and that’s what they come to see. Or what Garry Shandling scribbled in his journals – people don’t care what song Elvis is singing, they came to hear him be the one singing. Tig has brilliant bits, obviously, but she could be reading from a Chinese takeout menu and have everyone dying on the floor because her style and point of view are so razor-sharp you just want to hear what she thinks on everything.

Witrak is performing at the 22nd LA Comedy Festival this week. For more information and the schedule, visit here.

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Sit and Spin

Graveyard’s The Fox

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Song Title: “The Fox”

From The Album: Peace (art pictured at left)

Single Sentence Singles Review: Fueled by powerful vocals and a barrage of heavy guitar melodies, Graveyard’s latest single pulls us deep into a foxhole, and frankly, we don’t care if we ever come out, because it rocks in here!

Beyond The Track: “Peace” is due to drop May 25th on Nuclear Blast. Graveyard, Swedish in origin, are hitting the European and UK tour scene with dates that have already been announced, which you can check out here.

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Between The Sheets

Stephen McCauley

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In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.

This time out we’re chatting with author Stephen McCauley about his new novel “My Ex-Life,” mitigating sadness, and how immersed himself into his work while still feeling a part of the world.

TrunkSpace: Your latest book, “My Ex-Life,” was recently released. What emotions do you juggle as you gear up to share your work on a large scale? Is it difficult putting so much of yourself into something and then releasing it into the world?
McCauley: In a funny way, it feels like the publication of the book is the end of something. My work on it is officially done, and now the book will resonate with readers or not. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time anticipating the way my novel would be received. But since it’s something you can’t control, it’s pointless. This time, I’m trying to immerse myself in my next novel as I’m promoting this one.

TrunkSpace: There is a great marriage of drama and humor in your writing. Is that something that you actively set out to accomplish – find an equal amount of light within the darkness to help balance it all out? Can it be difficult to find that balance/tone?
McCauley: I suppose finding the humor and the comedy in potentially unhappy situations is my fallback position in life. I’d like to think I’m writing about serious subjects – relationships, loss, adolescence, divorce – in a way that allows the humor to underscore the sadness and mitigate it somehow. I think humor often works best when it’s on the edge of tragedy.

TrunkSpace: The book touches on second chances and reinvention of self. Is that a theme that you identify with? Have you been on your own personal journeys in life only to step out the other side a changed person?
McCauley: I truly believe people can change. Perhaps – in most cases – within a limited framework, but enough to make one’s life and relationships different. By which I mean better. In my case, it took about four hundred years of therapy to have the changes sink in, and in the end, it might just be aging into greater calm and self-acceptance, but I feel as if that’s always the journey – toward knowing who you are and making peace with it.

TrunkSpace: You describe yourself as a “pretty slow and self-conscious” writer. Have you grown more confident in yourself and your creative abilities as you’ve traveled deeper into your career? For example, were you more self-assured in the process of writing “My Ex-Life?”
McCauley: I’m not sure I’m more self-assured, but I’m definitely less self-conscious and self-critical. You get to a certain age and all those things that mattered so much (“What do people think of me?” “Does this sentence make me sound stupid?” “Should I not be wearing horizontal stripes?”) suddenly don’t matter at all. You realize people are mostly concerned with themselves anyway. I believe in seeing your limitations as part of who you are as a writer and turning them into strengths.

TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “My Ex-Life?”
McCauley: A lot of people have told me they love the characters and hated to part ways with them at the end of the book. That’s what I’ve always set out to do as a writer – to create an intimacy between the characters and the reader. That seems to be especially true in this novel, and it makes me happy to hear people feel they know the characters and liked spending time with them.

TrunkSpace: You’ve also spent a large portion of your adulthood teaching future generations of writers? What is the biggest lesson you try to instill in students based on your own professional experience as a writer?
McCauley: Be yourself. There are only so many stories in the world, but if you stick to your authentic point of view, it will be original. That and “send thank you notes” and “never talk about your sex life.”

TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
McCauley: I spent a long time stumbling through short stories about characters whose lives were nothing like my own. They were written in what I thought of as a mandatory “literary” voice. Then I found myself missing a friend of mine and wrote a little vignette about her. It was the first thing I’d written that felt genuine, and I could feel it in my body. It was very much like the feeling you get when you’ve been singing in the wrong key for your voice and you suddenly find the one that’s right for you. Everything starts to make sense.

TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
McCauley: It depends on the day. When I’m immersed in a project, and the writing is going well, it’s enormous fun. When I was writing this book, I loved opening up my notebooks and retreating into the world of these characters. It was transporting.

TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
McCauley: I had three weeks of ideal writing last spring. I’d rented a tiny cottage in Provincetown, MA, a town I love. I had none of the distractions of my daily life around me. I got up early every day and did some exercise, then walked to the library right as it was opening. En route, I got a double espresso at my favorite coffee shop. I went to the same desk on the third floor of the library, one that has an amazing view of the harbor. There’s a scale model of a boat inside the library, so tourists come in and out all day, gawking and taking pictures. This provided a nice buzz of activity around me that I had to block out but that made me feel like I was part of the world. I knew exactly what I was supposed to work on every day. In the evening, I’d go for a bike ride through the National Seashore trails through the dunes, make a monkish dinner, and read a novel that was nothing like mine. That was all heaven for me.

TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
McCauley: I write my first drafts longhand in expensive German and Japanese notebooks. When I’m writing in notebooks, I just let it flow, mostly because I hate how messy it looks when things are crossed out on that beautiful paper. I start editing as I put it into the computer. The majority of the editing process takes place in my home office. In fact I have recently updated my office with some new furniture. I was just getting so distracted by all the clutter and paperwork in there that I decided that it was about time that I invested in some filing cabinets from office monster to make my home office look a little tidier. It made a big difference as I was able to concentrate so much more easily. That being said, once I am happy with my first draft it all gets worked and reworked dozens of times.

TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
McCauley: I wish I were more adept at describing place.

TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
McCauley: I’m working on three things at once. My fear is that one plus one plus one equals zero. Now that I’ve stopped teaching for the summer, I’m giving myself six weeks to choose one project and commit to it. I have a deadline for my next novel but I’m afraid to learn what it is. I’ll keep you posted!

My Ex-Life” is available now from Flatiron Books.

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The Featured Presentation

Brian Stepanek

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The Nickelodeon animated series “The Loud House” was not created for adults, but those with children will understand just how rare it is when shows for kids can also be enjoyed by the parents seated alongside of them. Often we, the grey-haired and crow’s feeted, are the unintended eyes on a program, forced to not only watch something, but watch it over and over and over again. Thankfully, “The Loud House” plays like a sitcom from the 1980s, complete with a catchy opening theme song, making us quiet fans of the Loud family.

We recently sat down with cartoon patriarch and actor Brian Stepanek to discuss his character Lynn Loud Sr., why he loves being a voice actor, and the reason his 16-year-old self needs to chill out.

TrunkSpace: Those of us here with kids can attest to watching far more of “The Loud House” than was probably ever intended for adults, but that being said, it’s actually a show that we can enjoy with our children. There’s something nostalgic about it… almost like an ’80s sitcom. Have you found more adults taking to it, finding something in it themselves, than you would have ever expected to happen when you first signed on to be a voice of the series?
Stepanek: I haven’t spoken to many parents about the show but I completely see the nostalgia for adults. The show reminds me of Charlie Brown at times. These characters really like and support each other. I come from a large family and so the Loud family is very familiar to me in that regard.

TrunkSpace: Oftentimes we’ll hear actors say that a film or television series felt “special” while they were shooting, serving as a premonition of the success to come. Does animation have that same feel as well? Did you have any indication before its premiere that “The Loud House” would find an audience?
Stepanek: Sometimes. With animation, the actors are such a small part of the production process, it’s difficult to get a read on how the show will do. There are just too many decisions about the look and feel of the show that we aren’t privy to. But I will say the scripts are always fantastic. Lots of laughs and plenty of heart.

TrunkSpace: For the entire first season, your character’s face (as well as that of the mother’s) were concealed in creative and silly ways. What was the idea behind making the adults faceless (was it an homage to the classic “Peanuts” cartoon, which you mentioned above?) and why was it ultimately decided to reveal them later in the life of the series?
Stepanek: That is a question for the creators. I loved the reveal though.

TrunkSpace: Lynn Loud Sr. is the kind of father who thinks he’s the coolest dad in the world, but his kids may not necessarily agree. (Our kids can relate to that!) How did you go about finding him from a performance standpoint – both his voice and his personality?
Stepanek: I looked in the mirror. I have three kids that are pretty awesome. Lynn just loves his kids. That’s it. Every episode that is “Dad-centric” is always about Lynn loving his family. It all starts with that.

TrunkSpace: There’s a movie in the works. Can you give us any insight on what fans can expect from the Louds going cinematic in structure? Will it have a different feel than the series itself?
Stepanek: No idea. But I can’t wait.

TrunkSpace: Do you take a different approach to performance with voice acting than you do with on-camera work? Does it allow for a more heightened sense of reality when you’re working in animation?
Stepanek: I find it a lot more fun than on-camera. The writers let me have fun and improvise. The environment at Nickelodeon is fantastic. But as far as technique, I prepare the script exactly as I would an on-camera role.

TrunkSpace: You also star in the Nickelodeon series “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn,” and have spent a large portion of your career appearing in projects created for kid and teen audiences. Was that by design or did life put you on this path unexpectedly?
Stepanek: When I first got to LA I was doing a lot of dramatic guest star roles and then I booked a recurring character on “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and my career shifted. The high stakes performance style in kids programming comes pretty naturally to me (I came from musical theater), so I’ve always had work in that genre. It wasn’t by design but it’s been fun.

TrunkSpace: If you could sit down and have a conversation with your 16-year-old self, would he be surprised by the trajectory of your career, and if so, why?
Stepanek: That kid didn’t know squat. The 16-year-old me would say, “Why don’t we have an Oscar yet?!” And I’d tell him, “I own a house in LA. I made it. Chill out and enjoy the ride. Life is short.”

Stepanek with the cast of “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn.”

TrunkSpace: You’re also writing and producing your own projects, including one that is currently in development called “My Substitute is an Alien.” Does writing scratch a separate aspect of your creative brain that acting can’t reach?
Stepanek: Yes. I have always wanted to have a larger role in the storytelling process. I have so much respect for writers. Writing does not come naturally to me but it is extremely satisfying when you finish a script. I’ve started directing television as well and love being involved in the big picture.

TrunkSpace: What is something within the industry that you have yet to accomplish in your career that you have your sights set on? If you could write your own future, what would it look like?
Stepanek: I just shot a movie called “Green Book” with Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. If I could do projects like that for the rest of my career I’d be fine. And I’d like to be directing on a regular basis.

Did you hear that, 16-year-old me? Keep it simple!

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