Off the Cuff and in Your City
A roundup of Austin improv schools
By Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Aug. 28, 2009
The white-coated legions breaking sweat in their sterilized laboratories at the Del Close Memorial Research Center deep within the bowels of Chicago have yet to, and may never, isolate an improv gene. And even if the ability to improvise turns out to be, on some level, an inherited factor – even then, the natural talent can only be enhanced by training and practice. Further, such training and practice can instill in any citizen the empowering skills of improv, providing benefits both obviously mental and subtly physical, encouraging a more spontaneous and creative response to performance onstage and life in general.
Also? It's one hell of a lot of fun.
Luckily for Austinites, we don't need to travel to underground Chicago's marble-walled DCMRC to partake in such training. This town of ours – overflowing with performers and viewing opportunities, host to the annual Out of Bounds Comedy Festival (Sept. 1-7) that brings in talented troupes from all across the country – is also home to several professional improv schools. This is the natural progression of a scene that's grown so fast and furious yet retained its sense of we're-all-in-this-together community – a scene where more seasoned veterans, driven by both a desire to pass on their hard-knocks knowledge and a need for gainful employment, are actively sharing what they've learned with performance noobs of all kinds. These schools offer classes and workshops in a variety of styles, schedules, and prices; we've listed the major ones below, yes, and, as a testimonial to the power of improv in general, also present Clayton Maxwell's account of her recent experience attending the ColdTowne Conservatory (see "Zapping Me Into the Present Moment").
You can jump into the extemporaneous fray at any time, dear reader: We've got your back.
The Hideout Theatre617 Congress, HIDE-OUT (443-3688)
What started out, back in the last millennium, with Sean Hill's Heroes of Comedy has become the city's major hub for improv. The Hideout Theatre (recently taken over by the improv triumvirate of Roy Janik, Kareem Badr, and Jessica Arjet) has been offering classes since 1999, with a curriculum based on the work of Canadian improv guru Keith Johnstone – author of the influential Impro for Storytelling and creator of Theatresports – whose methods often explore the acting out and negotiation of status roles. This school is presided over by Andy Crouch, Improvised Shakespeare star and founder of the all-encompassing Austin Improv Collective. It's said that location is everything, and certainly the venue's position so near the corner of Congress and Sixth Downtown offers a centralized ease to students from all corners of the city, but it's the content that's golden here. The Hideout offers several series of classes throughout the year, with Level 1 courses starting every month, and provides onstage opportunities in its long-running Maestro showcase of competitive improv every Saturday night. There are also regular classes just for kids, led by the Flying Theatre Machine's Arjet.
The New Movement1819 Rosewood, 788-2669
We'll put a muzzle on the drama llama concerning the contentious split of this pair from ColdTowne earlier in the year, except to note that it takes heat and pressure to make a diamond. Because, wow, the New Movement, run by Chris "Terp 2 It" Trew and Tami Nelson and operating from a tidy space next to Nubian Queen Lola's on Rosewood Avenue, is a gem of focused education. There's a certain subliminal bristling, among other improv groups, against an emphasis on laughs – an abreaction to the public assumption that improv is all about the ha-ha-hee-hee. Improv is a broader and more varied art form, goes the argument, a type of dynamic performance that is perhaps lessened if it's too often stuffed into a comedy box. Trew and Nelson, wildly talented and relentlessly inventive, don't care much about that.
"We're not just teaching long-form or short-form improv," Nelson says. "We're teaching comedy. Improv comedy, stand-up comedy, writing comedy. We're trying to make an audience laugh. Chris and I started the New Movement because we love teaching more than anything else in the world and we had ideas, that we saw eye-to-eye on, about our teaching philosophy. But we weren't able to implement that because we were working with a big group of people, and now we can. Specifically, the improv is based off our everything-is-in-the-beginning philosophy: It's about the first two or three lines, gestures, looks, or sounds in a scene. Identifying that is what makes a scene, and you can map off of it from there: That's what our students, our performers, are learning. And if an incredible narrative comes out of that, that's great, that's lucky, but, first things first, let's get some laughs. We're definitely more about the comedy than the improv."
Merlin Works Institute for Improvisation2803 Manor Rd., 657-3005
When Sean Hill started the Heroes of Comedy in 1998, he was known as the Supreme Ruler, and Shana Merlin was his High Priestess. Besides performing regularly with those heroes for years, Merlin taught classes at the Hideout and at the nearby State Theatre. "I was teaching a lot of one-off classes in different places then," Merlin says. "I taught a scene-study class, an improv class, a lot of different things. I had these great students that would take a class, but there was nothing after that – it wasn't a series of classes leading to advanced performance or the formation of a troupe. I started my improv school so I could give my students the full range of the skills that would help them perform the sort of improv that I like to see and do."
These days, Merlin performs as part of the musical improv troupe Girls Girls Girls and as one-half of the acclaimed Get Up duo. These days, her Merlin Works organization is the local leader in improv training for corporate accounts – businesses wanting to provide effective and enjoyable team-building, communication-enabling exercises for their workers. But does she (along with her handpicked faculty) also continue to teach the basics and beyond to regular, non-Dilberted citizens? That's what MW's Institute for Improvisation is dedicated to all year long, working out of Salvage Vanguard Theater and bringing the discipline's best practices to light.
The Institution Theatre521 E. Sixth, 895-9580
Is Institution Theatre founder and Director Tom Booker lucky to be affiliated with Esther's Follies and the Velveeta Room, or are those popular venues lucky to have such a storied performer teaching there? Booker studied improv in Chicago with Del Close himself at ImprovOlympic; is a founding member of that city's acclaimed Annoyance Theatre; wrote Patty, Patty, Bang! Bang! – The Patty Hearst Musical!; and over the years has had almost as much time on commercial TV as babies and puppies get. While you consider that toward answering our initial question, also consider that Booker has teamed up, instructorwise, with Asaf Ronen. Longtime improviser Ronen, who relocated from New York City years ago, is the founder and editor-in-chief of YesAnd.com, the author of a book on directing improv, the director of such standout improv formats as the superhero show Ka-Baam!! and the Mamet-style Confidence Men, and he's taught workshops all over the world. After coaching and encouragement from these two local giants, students just might feel worthy of the venerable boards on which they've practiced.
ColdTowne Theater: The Conservatory4803-B Airport, 524-2807
Maybe you've heard the ColdTowne story of how a troupe of five improvisers left New Orleans to escape the devastation being visited upon that city by Hurricane Katrina? How they relocated to Austin and immediately established themselves as a comedy force to be reckoned with, rented a small (and now expanded) venue on Airport Boulevard where they could stage shows and offer classes, and succeeded, pretty much, in following their dreams? Well, it's true, and the educational part of ColdTowne's tiny empire is called the Conservatory, where the influence of the late Del Close – co-author (with Charna Halpern) of Truth in Comedy, creator of many techniques used in longform improvisation, and sensei to several generations of Saturday Night Live performers – is still felt. The school is directed by Michael Jastroch and taught by him and the other ColdTowne members, Justin York and Arthur Simone; by the character-focused improv veterans of the Frank Mills; and by others. "We have an enrollment of, like, 20, 25 students for each session," says Jastroch, "and we've been going at that rate for the last couple of years." The students are especially encouraged to form troupes of their own after graduation ("We've added free shows at ColdTowne on Sunday and Monday nights because of that, and they have healthy audiences," points out Jastroch), and various alliances of former Conservatorians continue to brighten stages all over Austin: You might even see a few of them performing at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival this Labor Day weekend.