De-Spurring the Moment
The making of the 2007 Out of Bounds Improv Festival
The thing about improvisation, comedy or otherwise, is that it's done on the spur of the moment. This might work with exceptional ease here in Texas, as we're a bit more familiar with spurs than the rest of the country is – yee-ha – but it's all nonetheless made up as its practitioners go along – off the cuff, out of the blue, creatio ex nihilo. "It is extempore, from my mother wit," as Petruchio explains to Kate in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.
And that's all well and good: That's what gives improv its power of surprise, its never-the-same-show-twice, its addictive attraction for performers and audience alike. Try organizing a largish festival of improvisation that way, though. Try corralling and accommodating and scheduling the performances of 43 different improv troupes, including about a dozen from beyond the state borders and across this multi-time-zoned country of ours. Try taming a shrew like that, and see just how far you get, wise guy, without a skull-busting brainload of preparation and organization way in advance.
Jeremy Lamb and Shannon McCormick, co-producers of the sixth annual Out of Bounds Improv Festival and Miniature Golf Tournament, have gotten pretty damned far themselves. Because, although they're two of the best improvisers in this city, they also know what it takes to run a festival and are not adverse to planning things beforehand and (this is the important part) actually following through to make sure those things happen when they're supposed to. Of course, this is Austin, where, they tell me, the community is much less divided and divisive than communities in similar big-time urban hubs. The improv community in Austin – like many other communities here, it seems – may be a bit dysfunctional at times, but at worst, it's a dysfunctional family. And if the 2007 OoB Festival isn't a family affair, then Sly was never a Stone, you know what I'm saying? In any case, let's let Lamb and McCormick say it themselves.
Austin Chronicle: How do you arrange housing for all these out-of-town performers?
Jeremy Lamb: We use the Austin Improv Collective forums a lot to find helpers. One thing that we do is use a "caddie" system that we stole from another festival in Phoenix. They have, like, a den-mother system for out-of-town troupes. For the OoB, which is based around a miniature-golf theme, we have caddies. And so each out-of-town troupe has its own caddie, a local person who knows where everything is in the city. Like, where's a good place for Mexican food or if someone wants to go swimming in extremely cold water –
Shannon McCormick: Or, "Hey, it's 2 in the morning, and I've been out partying so long and have no idea how to get back home; can you give me a ride?"
JL: Or, "My zipper's stuck." Or whatever problem they have, hopefully their caddie will know how to fix it.
AC: But where do these people stay while the festival's going on?
SM: Well, some troupes are young college kids, and they don't mind couch-surfing, so they wind up staying at their caddie's house. Other troupes don't mind spending the money to stay in a hotel.
JL: We have a deal with a hotel; it gets us cheaper rates for Out of Bounds guests.
AC: What about the nationally known headlining acts you bring in? Do they get special treatment?
SM: Well, we bring them in. But we want everybody at the festival to feel that they're in the same realm, that there's not too big of a pecking order.
JL: Yeah, that's definitely a priority.
SM: One of the reasons that Out of Bounds was founded in the first place – and Jeremy was the one who started it – was because, back in the day, the Well Hung Jury went to a handful of national festivals and had some pretty unsatisfactory experiences. So the OoB was a sort of response to that: to put on a festival in a way that addressed those problems. And one of them is the feeling that, "Oh, you're just some nobody; you're just here to spend money on things and make money for the producers, but these other people, they're stars, and we're gonna roll the red carpet out for them." We don't want that. We want everybody to feel like they're on the same level.
AC: But for certain troupes? You're flying them in, right? And you're not doing that for all of them.
SM: That's a recent development in the past few years, that we're flying some of them in.
JL: And that's a result of city funding and other fundraising. So most of that is covered by the city and the state.
SM: And it's one of the things we do, bringing in people that are, if not nationally known to the lay public, at least known to the improv community. It establishes our reputation as a first-class festival.
JL: And we make it easy for the groups that are coming, who are paying their own way, to see the headliners, to take workshops with them. Another thing we try to do is keep it cheap for everybody who's coming in from out of town.
SM: And we pay everybody, which not a lot of festivals do. We're one of three or four festivals on the national improv circuit that pays festival performers. Everybody gets a cut of the door, and they also get an equal share, among the troupes, of all the festival passes we sell.
AC: So how does someone, especially a troupe from out of town, apply to the OoB? And how do you decide who makes the cut?
JL: We take submissions early on in the year, from February to April.
SM: Until the middle of April. We figured tax day would be a convenient cutoff point for people – so while they're in a panic, sending out their taxes, they also can send in their Out of Bounds application.
JL: There's a list of requirements. We ask for a 20-minute DVD or tape of the group performing live. A résumé with general experience, the style of improv they do, whatever press they've garnered.
SM: We look at the videos, and it's mostly based on them. We want to have a balance of people from outside Austin and inside Austin, but we also want the local troupes to be well-represented. This year we didn't get as many local applications as we did last year – even though there are more troupes in town now.
JL: We also try to balance the styles and formats the troupes use. We pair up groups with other groups that they'd work well with because we want the audience to be able to enjoy both shows of a doubleheader. If they're coming to see one group that they know, we want them to get hooked into another group that has a similar style.
SM: And we try to link groups coming in from out of town with somebody who's local, who has more of a built-in audience base. Like if you're from Kansas City, maybe nobody here knows who you are, but if we pair you with a local troupe with a pretty sizable following, then you'll have a decent house at your show.
JL: We also put sketch with sketch and improv with improv. We don't like to mix those up. In fact, we found a group in L.A. that's very similar to Backpack Picnic [formerly Edmond Bulldogs], who's gonna be doing a show in the same bloc with them. They do a lot of video stuff, and their live stuff is really sharp, too, so it's gonna make for a killer show.
AC: So there's definitely some sketch comedy at the festival?
JL: There's probably 20% sketch this year. I think it's just accepted at improv festivals, in general, that there's going to be some sketch element.
SM: Which is weird, because sketch festivals never have improv.
JL: Never ever. In fact, that's one of the requirements on sketch-festival applications: Everything must be scripted.
AC: So there's improv and sketch, and you have some big names coming in.
JL: We have Razowsky & Clifford, a man-woman duo. Is that how to say that? An all-gender duo? They're from Los Angeles.
SM: Dave Razowsky is the director of Second City in Los Angeles, which isn't really a performing theatre, per se, but more of a, well, a conservatory. A lot of people come up through those workshops.
JL: And the other big troupe is Impro Theatre.
SM: Also known as Los Angeles Theatresports. They're awesome.
JL: They're gonna do a Shakespeare show that's absolutely incredible. It's like a real Shakespeare play, only it's totally improvised. When you're doing genre work, you can choose to make fun of the genre – which can be fun – or you can stay true to it and try to adhere to all the principles and conventions of it. And Impro Theatre sticks to it; they make it look very genuine.
SM: They're of that school where they're gonna play it straight, and funny stuff is gonna happen, but they're not winking at the audience about how much cooler they are than their own format. And Impro also includes Edi Patterson, who used to do improv in Austin way back when.
JL: And, of course, all these great people are teaching workshops at the festival. For the first time this year, we're trying Master Classes, which is a longer class, to give attendees more time to explore the topic with the masters of the art form.
AC: Are these headliners gonna be at the Hideout? Because ColdTowne is closed that week, right?
JL: ColdTowne's gonna go dark that week. The ColdTowne people want to enjoy the festival, too, and this way they don't have to run their space at the same time.
SM: So it's all super-heavy-concentrated at the Hideout, but –
JL: We've got Esther's Pool on Sunday, for Razowsky & Clifford and Impro Theatre.
SM: And the Available Cupholders.
AC: Oh, excellent. And then, improv water under the bridge, it's over until next year?
JL: No, because last year we added a Monday night show, and it did very well, so we're doing that again this year.
SM: This year we've added a College Night show on the front end, too. So we've got a full seven nights of comedy.
AC: And next year and beyond? I mean, if this thing continues to grow ... ?
SM: At some point we want to expand, but we're not there yet. We've wanted to avoid some of the things that the Big Stinkin' Improv Festival had befall it years ago. They grew too big too fast and couldn't make good on their promises to people. We may eventually end up with a festival with multiple venues running at the same time, but it's not there quite yet. That'll take a lot more planning. But, you know, we've already got two stages running simultaneously at the Hideout.
JL: This is the third year in a row that we've done that, and we still sell out.
AC: And producing this festival doesn't, uh, cramp your style? Because it seems like the opposite of improv. All this planning and arranging, all this pre-scripted business you have to attend to?
JL: I think if I could produce an improv festival full-time, that would be what I would do, gladly. That would be my job.