A Monk's Education

Improvisation. Every actor knows the art. The ability to create from nothing, to make up lines and dialogue and action. As basic training for a performer, improvisation is right at the top of the important list. It quickens thinking and gives actors a saving grace when things go wrong in a play or production.

But improv as an art form?

I never thought so until the summer of '94 when I moved to Austin from my hometown of Houston. I came to seek my fortunes as an actor. Already having truckloads of experience in summer stock, regional theatre, and even off-Broadway, I planned on continuing my experience in theatre and maybe getting involved in a few films as well. While scanning the paper for auditions, I saw a notice inviting funny and gifted actors to try out for a little something called Monks' Night Out.

"Hmmm. Improv comedy," I thought. "I can do that."

I went to the auditions prepared for the usual - two monologues: one current, one classic - but that was not what these auditions were about. I was thrown onstage and given rapid-fire suggestions of film genres, with which I was supposed to create a scene. (I later learned that this is an improv game known as Styles Option.) Another actor and I were given a location - a bathroom - and told to start a scene.

I entered the bathroom.

"Hello," I said to the other actor.

"Oh, don't mind me," he responded, "I'm just cleaning up."

After only two lines, I knew our relationship and his occupation. He was the janitor and I was someone taking his washroom break. I also knew our motivations and goals. My goal, obviously, was to use the restroom, and his goal was to clean it. Straightforward, simple, and to the point.

Then the director, an interesting man named Marc Pruter, called, "Freeze!" We stopped the scene and then he yelled, "Western!" We continued the scene, but as a Western with two men facing off in the saloon.

"Well, ya better clean up quick, I wanna go potty!" I said in my best John Wayne.

"This bathroom ain't big enough for the both of us!" drawled my companion.

The scene continued in this way, with Pruter periodically freezing the action and calling out other different movie genres and us fitting them in as best as we could, as fast as we could.

The final bit called on me to do Mr. Howell from Gilligan's Island. I don't know if it was my rather hilarious attempt at an impression of Jim Backus or the mere fact that I knew who he was, but I got in the troupe.

Thus, my improv pilgrimage began. At the time, Monks' Night Out was a fledgling group composed of part-time actors, stand-up comics, and funny people. At first, I was a little put off by a certain lack of professionalism in the company. The improv was not very structured and depended heavily on gags. But the talent of the people involved was incredible. The work they improvised was edgy, raw, and very energetic. I jumped at the chance to study with these folks and began performing with them every Thursday night at the Velveeta Room on Sixth Street.

Monks' Night Out became my monastery, where I secluded myself to train and learn. I watched carefully as actors developed characters, paid close attention to gags, and learned how to read a crowd. I learned that absurdity is accepted in the fast world of improv comedy. In fact, the basic notion of the humor in most improv games is the platform and tilt: Start with an ordinary situation - two guys in a bathroom - then tilt it - make it a Western. I learned that improv is taken very seriously, that it holds to certain rules, without which it can be confusing and boring. In every scene, you must: establish the where, that is, where you are; establish your relationship to the other players; provide as much information about your characters and situation as you can; accept everything your fellow actor gives you and add to it to propel the scene forward; deny nothing; and play to the top of your intellegence.

Over the next year, I developed skills in quick thinking and clever banter. I grew able to deal with a Sixth Street crowd on a weekly basis. I used my extensive knowledge of movies, pop culture, cartoons, and the macabre to add dimension to my characters. By the end of my first year, I was creating some scenes that could be expanded into a full-length production. Doing improv had become the best theatrical experience of my life.

A year later, the Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival was born, and with it a new opportunity for me to expand my knowledge in improv and perfect my skills further. Marc Pruter had had the idea. He wanted to bring improv troupes from around the country to Austin for a week. They would have a chance to perform in showcases in the evening and take part in improv workshops during the day. The workshops would be taught by some of the legends of improv, such as Gary Austin, founder of the Groundlings in Los Angeles, and Del Close, a former director of Chicago's Second City. Fellow Monk Jon Wiley began promoting the idea on the Net, and companies began to respond.

The Big Stinkin', or BS, was set for April 1996.

Eventually, more than 20 improv and sketch troupes from across the nation came down for the festival. The Monks brought in special guests David Koechner and Adam McKay from Saturday Night Live to teach workshops and emcee shows. There were parties, one-on-ones, and troupes performing all different styles of improv: long-form improv, sketches, musicals, structures both gimmicky and surreal, improv from the very interactive to the minimalist.

I attended two workshops a day, three improv shows a night. I had a chance to meet Del Close, guru of the improv world. In addition to his work at Second City, Close is head of his own theatre and school in Chicago called The ImprovOlympic; he trained most of the cast of Saturday Night Live - John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Chris Farley; and he created the Harold, a famous long-form improv structure with scenes that intertwine. Talking with Del Close was going to be an experience I would never forget. Oh, the secrets he must hold, the insight! What I would gain from this man!

I ended up sitting with Del Close on the ground outside the Zachary Scott Theatre Center discussing The Blob.

Del Close was, and still is, an avid horror movie fan and had appeared in the remake of The Blob with Kevin Dillon. We debated the worth of both films (slow-moving jelly vs. vicious killer amoeba) and even argued a bit. I like to think we bonded and that he will remember the weird kid who matched him reference for reference. (I liked the original with Steve McQueen better; sorry, Del.)

I studied with the current director of Second City, Mick Napier. Mick is quite a piece of work! His appearence can best be described as a young Lex Luthor wearing Emo's grunge fashion. Mick's workshop was the most confrontational I attended. He favors a style of improv that breaks all the rules and yet still seems to work. Named after the theatre in Chicago which he helped found, Annoyance Style Improv opens you up to say anything you want whenever you want. You don't even have to say anything at all. Quick thinking is the name of the game. Mick had to defend his style against angry improv purists. Picture if you will the director of Second City vs. Jethro from College Station. Mick won.

I was lucky enough to participate in Gary Austin's workshop and felt like I was in the presence of a great prophet, like John the Baptist, only cleaner and taller. There is a saying around Hollywood: "If you want to make it, study with Gary." Of all I did and experienced at the festival, Gary's lessons influenced me the most. This was not improv he was teaching, it was acting. He advocated making characters "interesting, fascinating, and compelling" through making radical choices for them, heightening their emotions, and drawing material from personal experiences. Every person you see walking down the street is a potential character (especially in Austin). I learned from him that character development in improv is like a tennis match. Information is swatted back and forth and with each swat more details are learned. If I'm in the bathroom scene and the actor playing the janitor tells me, "Oh, I saw you in the big meeting this afternoon," I can take that to make myself an executive, possibly important, probably wearing a suit. In return, I might tell him, "I saw you at the company picnic. Your wife is very pretty," to establish that he's married. I learned from Gary how providing information makes character development easier.

In exchange, Gary learned from me, as we sat in Chuy's on Barton Springs Road, what a chile relleno is.

If Monks' Night Out was my monastery, then BS was my Mecca. I felt more inspired to create and to work than ever before. After the festival, the Monks journeyed to Chicago and experienced the improv genius of The Second City. The troupe was smooth and full of class, and seeing the cast perform in dress suits and cocktail dresses I learned how imrov can be done with style. As a result, the Monks adopted a dress code: casual dressy, in black, white, and blue. It looks professional. I love it. (Of course, I'd probably sleep with a tie on if I wasn't afraid of choking.)

While in Chicago, I performed at the ImprovOlympic jam, an open improv session where anyone can play. Most of the participants were students of Del Close's, so I was very nervous and a little threatened. Turns out that I had no reason to be. I performed just like everyone else, doing what I knew was right, combining styles when needed, and developing my characters. I was received very well and even got a splendid response to my character of a sociopathic hitchhiker carrying a muffler.

The Chicago trip was a boost to all the Monks, and when we returned to Austin, we took what we learned and used it to improve our troupe. We began using longer structured scenes as opposed to gimmicky games and worked to create more real moments of acting. We were unsure as to whether Austin audiences would appreciate our changes. Would this new improv work for a Velveeta room crowd? Answer: Never underestimate your audience. It did.

Now, the Monks are in the midst of BS2, with more troupes, more industry scouts, more workshops, more special guests. The Second City is performing, as are Phil Lamarr from Mad TV, The State from MTV, and the acclaimed team of Monteith & Rand. I find myself staying out late at night again, working on festival-related items, practicing, doing more shows. It's like with any good religious experience: You have to suffer a bit.

I think of my time with the Monks as monumental. When I started with them, I honestly had no idea how big the improv world was and how many pilgrims there are trying to master the craft. Now I know, and in my own humble way I've tried to make it successfully. Improv is an adventure, and I'm committed to it.

The Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival continues through May 24. For information, call 453-MONK.
Joseph Anthony is a member of Monks' Night Out.

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