Mission: Improvable

Austin's improv community gathers intelligence

Your mission should you choose to accept it: Lamb, Merlin, May, McCormick, Trew
Your mission should you choose to accept it: Lamb, Merlin, May, McCormick, Trew (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

A few weeks ago, it was slam poets. You remember that, right? The city is still faintly reeling. Next week, it's improvisers: talented people from all over the country, dropping into Austin like a rain of exceptionally clever frogs, sharing bills with local troupes, performing nightly and spilling out of the Hideout – currently Austin's epicenter of improv – and onto the streets of Downtown, to what diabolical ends only the ghost of Del Close might hazard a guess. It's called the Out of Bounds Improv Festival, and this is its fifth year.

What is this form of entertainment called improvisation? Is it always comedy, is it sometimes drama, and is it, in any case, an enjoyable experience for other than hardcore performance freaks? And why is there so damned much of it just now? In seeking to answer these questions, we thought it best to ask those most likely to know – the ones who live and breathe the stuff, who sometimes even make a living from it here along the industrially enhanced shores of the Lower Colorado River during the 21st century's turbulent infancy. So we gathered up a quincunx from among Austin's finest improv artists. We sat them down together, asked, basically, "What's up with all this improv?" and started the tape recorder rolling. The select five comprised Shannon McCormick, co-director of the OoB Festival, former honcho of No Shame Theatre, and one-half of improv duo Get Up; Jeremy Lamb, founder and co-director of OoB, who performs as part of the Available Cupholders, as half of Kazillionaire, and by himself as Bearded Lamb; Shana Merlin of Girls, Girls, Girls, also the improv teacher at the State Theatre and the shorter, distaff side of Get Up; Erika May, one of the four best things about the Frank Mills and half of McNichol and May; and Chris Trew of ColdTowne Heroes, a troupe Katrina'd out of New Orleans and now making Austin home. This is what the gathered improvisers said:

Shana Merlin: Austin improv is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Ten years ago, it was in six different venues, with house troupes that never saw each other or knew each other or made contact with each other. And soon after the dot-com crash came the improv crash, and all those troupes and venues collapsed into one thing. And in the past two years, all those people have mixed and mashed together and become a whole new thing that's really exciting.

Shannon McCormick: There's a real sense of community that's developed over the past year. Up until last spring, there was only a handful of people doing improv in town. The Out of Bounds Festival last year was sort of a signal of resurgence, coinciding with a bunch of happy accidents: ColdTowne moving here from New Orleans after Katrina, a bunch of people who'd lived here before deciding to come back. All of those strands of energy are mixing in a really good way, and it's creating a sense of vibrancy and community. Another thing that's good, and I think it's because of all these different strands, is that there's a lot of people doing really interesting experiments with their improv. There are a lot of new kinds of shows being developed, people taking a lot of chances with the art form – and that's really exciting to watch.

Jeremy Lamb: I'd noticed in Chicago that the whole scene's kind of glommed onto one or two forms. So that's one of the things I like about Austin, too: Troupes doing something interesting with their shows. It seems like people are putting more into their work, and, in general, there's more rehearsing. There's also a good stratification going on: improv veterans who can teach improv and midlevel people who've been improvising for like five years or so and new people who're just starting out. There's a sense of "I can learn something from this person," or "I can show this person something, teach them something." Or anyone can go to a show and get inspired, because another good thing about Austin improv is access.

Merlin: Accents?

Lamb: Ac-cess.

Merlin: I like accents.

McCormick: I do an Indian-guy accent every now and again.

Lamb: Yes, but with regards to access ... there're a lot of opportunities to perform. As simple as sending an e-mail to somebody, you could do three or four shows over the next couple months. And all you have to do is come up with a name and get some people involved. That's different than other cities I've been in, where you'd have to go through some kind of system, or you'd have to know somebody, you'd have to pay a bunch of money to rent some space, or any combination of those.

Austin Chronicle: But if all those venues in Austin collapsed years ago, where does this stuff happen?

Lamb: Andy Crouch.

AC: Andy Crouch?

McCormick: Yes, it's all happening inside Andy Crouch.

Lamb: Well, the Hideout. It's happening at the Hideout, which is run by Andy Crouch.

McCormick: Actually, I think that the scene is kind of growing, and we need to get back to the six venues.

Lamb: It's growing at a really natural pace, though.
Jeremy Lamb and Shana Merlin
Jeremy Lamb and Shana Merlin (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Merlin: Right now there's like 25 troupes, seven-plus shows every weekend, lots of classes going on.

McCormick: And people are starting to think about playing in different venues.

Lamb: Or opening their own.

McCormick: And that's the next natural step for where we are in the "scene."

Chris Trew: I've been here for less than two years, but I've seen a lot of improv over the past years. And in comparison to other cities, Austin is an amazing situation. Because you can perform in multiple places and not be treated any differently depending on who you're affiliated with. Like it's totally cool if you're taking classes with this girl or that guy, or if you're performing with those people instead of these people. There's no, like, gang wars going on at all. Everybody loves each other, everything's great.

McCormick: Well, there was a brief conflagration on the Austin Improv message board about Chicago-style versus the Keith Johnstone school or whatever. But while it was heated, it was all rhetorical.

Lamb: It was all for the sake of discovering things about the other styles.

McCormick: Exactly.

Merlin: One of the cool things about Austin is that we have improvisers who've trained at top places in the nation – at Second City in Chicago, at the ImprovOlympics, various Theatresports, Loose Moose in Calgary.

McCormick: Dave Buckman of the Frank Mills was artistic director of Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, so there's international experience as well.

Merlin: I think we have improv on par with the greatest cities in the country.

Lamb: On par or better.

Trew: I'm convinced that Austin is going to become a destination for improv and comedy and training. If someone in the country wants to do improv, right now their options are Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. But I think Austin's going to be one of those places pretty soon.

Merlin: I have students come from San Antonio, from Waco, from Dallas – they drive in once a week to take classes in Austin.

McCormick: For Out of Bounds, this is the first year I know of people coming from across the country just to experience the festival or take classes. We have over 30 troupes coming in, too, but these other people aren't coming to perform. There's a woman from Michigan, a bunch of people from Phoenix, there's a guy in Atlanta who runs a different festival, and they're all coming just to be part of the scene. More and more, there seems to be this idea that "Oooh, Austin's a cool city for improv."

Trew: And if Austin can turn into this indie music capital and crank out all these bands and be such a wonderful place for that, is there any reason why it can't be the same thing for improv? There's no reason people should leave Austin to go to L.A. or New York to do their career or whatever because it's already here; we're gonna make it happen here.

Merlin: Austin, the Live Improv Capital of the World.

Trew: Yes!
Erika May
Erika May (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Merlin: And people leave, but they come back. No one stays away. They go to New York; they come back. They go to Chicago; they come back. They go to L.A.; they come back. There's something here.

Erika May: I agree and disagree in terms of the diversity of stuff going on in Chicago, but what I like about Austin is that you can pursue your own projects versus being stuck in someone else's project.

McCormick: In Chicago, there are shows that have a certain branding, and people want to do them because they're going to live up to a reputation. And they have to put in a certain amount of time at a certain venue, and maybe, someday, get a chance to do their own thing. Whereas here we don't have a 40- or 50-year pedigree of doing improv, so those kinds of brand loyalties don't exist. So people can just say, "I have a vision for a show; I'm going to do this show, and we won't have to appeal to any sort of higher powers." Because there really aren't any higher powers to appeal to.

Merlin: But since we don't have that history here, there's a lot of misunderstanding about what improv is. I think it's worth saying that improv is not stand-up comedy. Improv is not just Whose Line Is It Anyway? Improv can be comedy, but it can also be musical improv, political satire, or just theatre. I was wondering, if someone asked me, "What is Austin improv?" – what would I say? And the words I came up with were: smart, playful, and absurd. But there are all kinds of shows. There's long-form and short-form, dramatic and comedic. ...

McCormick: It's a very eclectic scene, and it's often experimental. When Jeremy founded Out of Bounds five years ago, one of the ideals was that it'd be a showcase for different kinds of improv than the general public could think of. Hence the name "Out of Bounds." It doesn't have to be Whose Line Is It Anyway? or a "Harold" team out of Chicago. Austin has teams that do modified choose-your-own-adventure stories, people doing solo improv, there's persona-driven improv, Erika and her partner Bob [McNichol] are gonna do a show that incorporates public domain videos. ...

Trew: The fact that there's not a specific "Austin Style" is our style.

Merlin: There was this article in The New York Times about Broken Social Scene and the music scene in Toronto, how there's not like bands, it's just everybody plays on everybody's album. It's not super profitable, but it's like this crazy artistic hotbed, and it made me think of Austin. Because everybody's got their home troupes that have names and Web sites and photos, but then there are all these other little splinter troupes, and everybody's guesting with everybody else; everybody's got their fingers in everybody's artistic pie.

Trew: Other improvisers want that in their cities. We talk to guys in D.C. or wherever, and they want what we have here: pretty much one big family, but you can still go off and do your own projects.

McCormick: You can go off and talk to Andy Crouch. Because Sean [Hill, manager of the Hideout] has given Andy Crouch free rein to book shows. And, starting in maybe last April, he just opened the place up. And he was like, "OK, there's no consistent house troupe here, but we wanna have shows here all the time – whatta you got?" And people just filled the void of "Whatta you got?" And I hope that aspect of Austin improv doesn't ever go away.

May: If you look at the formation of improv in different cities, it's usually formed around a specific artistic director who comes in and creates a theatre, and there's a certain "house" feel to their shows. It's not as much an "anything goes" situation as it is here.

AC: And how has the audience responded to this Austin style?

McCormick: Well, shows are doing OK; people are coming to see them. We're kind of an unknown quantity, so it's more thrilling in the public's eyes, but I just don't think they're aware of the incredible wealth of improv we have available.

Lamb: My advice to the general public would be: Treat it like going to see live music. See enough improv so you can find something that you like. You don't write off every punk band because you saw one punk band that you didn't like, but people tend to do that with improv.

Merlin: People will see one improv show –

McCormick: And "It wasn't funny" –

Merlin: Or "I just didn't like it" –

McCormick: So "I just don't like improv."

May: In Chicago, there's a trained audience base, they know what to expect; they've already seen improv. But here it's more like a surprise to them when they see a good show. More like, "Wow, I didn't know that could be improv."
Shannon McCormick and Chris Trew
Shannon McCormick and Chris Trew (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

McCormick: "You can do that on stage? And it's made up?"

May: Right. Or, "You mean that wasn't scripted?"

McCormick: And when people think improv, they think comedy. But there's nothing inherent about improvisation that it has to be funny.

Merlin: I think there is something inherent in improv that's funny. It doesn't have to be funny, but people are making it up as they go along, and there's tension involved in that, and tension creates laughter when it's released. I think you can have real dramatic moments in improv, but I think that particular type of tension, I think it usually leads to comedy.

McCormick: Well, in theatre, in Shakespeare's tragedies, everything falls apart. And in the comedies, things come together. And that's ideally what you want to happen in improv, whether it's the joining together of the different threads that you're making up, or the joining of ideas in the minds of performers and the audience. If it all comes together, that's comedic. If things fall apart, that's just a big mess if you're doing improv. So, ah, all right: point taken.

Lamb: One of the principals of comedy is surprise. Which is inherent in improv because the audience doesn't know what's going to happen, and they know that the players don't know what's gonna happen. But I definitely agree that it doesn't have to be comedic, and there are people in Austin who want to do non-comedic shows. The trouble is, how do you market that? People see the word "improv," and they automatically think "comedy," that it's going to be funny.

Merlin: I don't think we're saying that improv needs to be drama instead of comedy. We're saying that improv can be comedy, but at the same time it can have more going on than just that.

McCormick: Right, right.

Merlin: One of the wonderful things about improv – and one of the hard things to sell – is that it happens in that room, with those people, at that moment. It happens only once.

McCormick: You have to be there when it's happening.

Merlin: And that's what's amazing about it, and that's what's frustrating about it.

Lamb: Yeah, it doesn't translate well to video at all, which is why it can be hard to sell. It's a commodity, it's a product, but it's only a viable product when you can see it live. Well, yeah, it's also a product on video, if you're doing Whose Line, which is strictly short-form and comes with marketable celebrity guests. But with improv, you have to do a certain amount of qualifying, a certain amount of setting up the scene –

McCormick: Not that it needs a crutch or special qualifications like, "This is pretty good, considering that they made it up." Because the best improv is as good as the best pre-scripted theatre. It doesn't need any favors. But there's something special about it, about being there in the space –

Merlin: Because the audience is part of the experience: They're creating it with the performers and getting something unique out of it.

May: When you discover something at the same time the performers discover it, like when an improviser says something spontaneously from the point of view of the character she's playing ... it's not necessarily something funny, but it'll be something that resonates with the audience.

McCormick: Even in a long-form performance, where the improvisers will get just one suggestion at the start of the show, the audience is still very integral in making the performance happen. The audience is where the idea originates.

Lamb: I think I'm getting horny – all this talk about improv.

AC: We'll, uh, we'll stop here. end story

  • More of the Story

  • Out of Bounds

  • OoBer Alles

    A guide to the troupes of the 2006 Out of Bounds Improv Festival (aka OoB V)

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