Guide to Austin Improv
The venues, events, troupes, and individuals who have transformed Austin into a "Yes, and" boomtown
With no more than a simple suggestion – say, an unlikely place for a crowd to gather, like a broccoli farm or the bottom of the sea – these artists can spin a story as elaborate as one of Scheherazade's, with vivid characters, winding plots, and sudden surprises. They set out with no preconceived direction for their tale, no destination or path to move along; they just pull character, narrative, emotion, and, yes, pratfalls and punch lines out of thin air as they go. They are adepts of spontaneity, practitioners of the unpredictable. They are improvisers, and Austin is overrun with them.
Several hundred are said to be active at present, and you can find them making instant theatre across the city seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. They present dozens of different shows weekly, everything from short-form competitions to long-form narratives based on literary and film genres to stories for kids narrated by a dog (with an actual dog onstage). They combine and collaborate in scores of troupes, as varied in style and hard to track as local bands, and every few months, they congregate in festivals so well-established that they draw improvisers here from across the nation.
Talk about an unlikely place for a crowd to gather. Until the mid-Eighties, the capital of Texas hadn't much use for improvisation, preferring its humor from stand-up comics and sketch troupes like Esther's Follies. And even once improv did take root here, it took more than a decade for the number of homegrown troupes to hit the double digits.
But in the past 10 years, improv's expansion locally has been explosive, turning Austin into a Spindletop of "yes, and" – a boomtown boasting four theatres showcasing improv year-round, all offering performances and classes, plus an institute providing personal education and corporate training (put them together and you have what's jokingly called the "Five Families of Austin improv"); nationally recognized festivals; and, between the theatres and fests, 1,800 improv performances annually. Oh, and the audiences to fill those 1,800 shows.
But that growth isn't only about numbers. It's also about the troupes that have been together for years and grown into rich ensembles, about Austin improvisers whose reputations have grown in the international improv community and are in demand as teachers and performers around the world, about the individuals who have built the theatres where improvisers have honed their skills, and about an open community of improvisers who support and encourage one another. With the year's biggest improv party, the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, commencing this week, Chronicle writers Wayne Alan Brenner, Ashley Moreno, Sean L. Malin, and myself offer this introduction to improv in Austin.
In the Airport Boulevard corridor between I-35 and Koenig, amidst a host of small, beloved local businesses (Mrs. Johnson's Bakery, Quality Seafood, Lammes Candies, the Omelettry, et al.) is ColdTowne Theater, an endearingly tiny, BYOB theatre that shares a wall with another Old-Austin holdout, I Luv Video. It bears the name of the New Orleans troupe that moved here following Hurricane Katrina, chose to stay, and opened this theatre. It was co-founded with the improvisers of the Frank Mills, a troupe which still headlines at the theatre every Thursday. Other weekly improv shows include the women of Loverboy (Wednesdays), the bad boys of Bad Boys (Fridays), Movie Riot (Fridays), Midnight Society (Saturdays), Stool Pigeon (Sundays), and the show adored by kids and dogs, What's the Story, Steve? (Saturdays). Stand-up also represents regularly with Live at ColdTowne (Fridays) and the open mic Shtick, hosted by Maggie Maye (Mondays).
4803 Airport. www.coldtownetheater.com
The New Movement Theater
On a particularly odd night at the New Movement, the improv conservatory on the busy corner of West Sixth & Lavaca, you may – as I have – see multiple off-the-cuff Jean-Luc Picard impressions in a single longform show. Since opening in 2009, TNM has cultivated an affecting, bizarro approach that sets its weekly programming and classes apart from other local clubs. Its theatre is rarely empty, though it's also small, creating immediate physical contact between audience and improvisers. In shows like Fuck This Week and Opposites, run by recurring groups of (sometimes overly) intense comedians, the "fierce experimental mixture" of styles hits you like a humor freight train. At nascent classics like The Megaphone Show, the work done at TNM embodies the "out of bounds" trope. But after a night there, exhaustion becomes a badge of honor: No venue in the city is as unpredictable, abstract, or inclusive of up-and-coming improvisatory talent.
616 Lavaca. www.newmovementtheater.com
The Hideout Theatre
One of the busiest sites of Austin improv is located in a historic building in the heart of Downtown near Sixth & Congress. Opened in 1999 by Sean Hill, the coffee shop/theatre is now under the ownership of longtime improvisers Kareem Badr, Roy Janik, and Jessica Arjet. The cafe's array of coffees, beers, wine, and victuals, mmmm, ain't half bad at all, and the two stages – 90 seats downstairs, 50 seats up – host shows seven nights a week, as well as a multilevel improv school (with a highly regarded kids' program), and the annual Improvised Play Festival (April), Improv Marathon (June), and WaffleFest (November). The style of improv (as heralded by house troupe Parallelogramophonograph) tends toward genre-based long-form narrative work in limited-run shows such as Process; Boy, Howdy!; and Scene of the Crime, but the weekly short-form Maestro competition, a seemingly eternal showcase of talent new and old, remains among the most popular improv events in the city.
617 Congress, 512/HIDEOUT, www.hideouttheatre.com
The Institution Theater
This southern outpost of Austin improv was carved out of an industrial space in the warehouse wastelands between St. Edward's University and Ben White Boulevard by the scene's Lewis and Clark (or possibly Shields and Yarnell), Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen. An outgrowth of classes Booker began teaching four years earlier, after he abandoned L.A. for the ATX, the Institution has a strong focus on education (with Ronen overseeing a mix of classes in stand-up, sketch writing, filmmaking, and auditioning, as well as improv), but weekends also see performances in its 47-seat black box theatre. A variety of improv and sketch shows are booked on a monthly basis, along with stand-up events such as the LGBT showcase Laugh Out Proud and the after-hours Clique Bait. Sundays, the faculty takes the stage in The Rubber Room, which includes an open jam, a segment showcasing the teachers, and a segment where they play with audience members chosen by lottery.
3708 Woodbury, 512/895-9580, www.theinstitutiontheater.com
Mogul no more, although he founded and ran the improv powerhouse Gnap! Theater Projects (Lola, Guilds of Steel, Showdown, etc.) and co-produced a few formative years of the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, this glabrous-pated maestro of the extemporaneous remains active in Austin improv as one half of acclaimed duo Get Up (the other half is Shana Merlin), the guiding force (and talented star) of such shows as the Philip K. Dick-inflected False Matters and the shogunatorial Kenjutsu, and solo performer of the fully improvised Cornelius Corneliuszoon De Vries, a 100-year-old Dutch explorer, merchant, privateer, and politician.
Out of Bounds set: Get Up, Sat., Sept. 3, 10:30pm, Hideout – Upstairs
If Dumbledore had a younger sister (much younger) who was all about improv, she'd be this Known Wizard. A professional improviser since 1995, Merlin has turned her exceptional skills and experience into educational magic. Through her Merlin Works Institute for Improvisation (founded in 2008, currently housed at Zach Theatre), she leads a crack team of teachers and an all-star troupe, the Known Wizards; hosts improv showcases and jams; and writes some of the most eloquent, insightful essays about improv in Austin. Her local legacy also includes performing as one half of acclaimed duo Get Up (the other half is Shannon McCormick) and in the all-singing, all-dancing Girls Girls Girls, producing the Ladies Are Funny Festival, and directing Dusk: Improvised Tween Erotica.
Out of Bounds sets: The Known Wizards, Fri., Sept. 2, 8:30pm, the New Movement; Girls Girls Girls, Fri., Sept. 2, 11pm, Hideout – Downstairs; Get Up, Sat., Sept. 3, 10:30pm, Hideout – Upstairs
Part of Well Hung Jury, the legendary troupe formed by some exceedingly clever UT students in 1998, Sweetlamb – who was only Lamb until he married Caitlin Sweet and the couple merged their surnames – is a mover and shaker who ranges from epic endeavor to epic endeavor on the improv scene: He started the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival (!) in 2002, is a founding member of those popular slayers-of-all-formats the Available Cupholders, helped originate the Hideout's Improv Marathon, is the alter ego of the Blue High Machine Mid-Southern Wrestling Coalition's Bill Royal the Physical Jerk, and tours nationally as solo act Bearded Lamb.
Out of Bounds sets: Process, Thu., Sept. 1, 8pm, Hideout – Downstairs; Available Cupholders, Sat., Sept. 3, 9pm, Hideout – Upstairs
No doubt there were nice guys in our improv scene before Tom Booker hit town in 2007, but once this L.A. transplant arrived, he set the standard for being sweet and supportive as a performer, a director, and a teacher. Now, niceness didn't land him in this guide. He's here for his improv bona fides (studying with the man, the legend Del Close; being a founding member of Chicago's Annoyance Theatre), for his live re-creations of episodes from Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210, for his respected teaching skills, for founding the Institution Theater, and for putting the "star" in all-star acts such as Confidence Men, Baxter and Bernard (with Asaf Ronen), and You're Not My Real Dad. But seriously, he's such a sweetheart.
Out of Bounds set: Confidence Men, Wed., Aug. 31, 8:15pm, Hideout – Downstairs
With the wealth of improv experience and knowledge that Asaf Ronen has accumulated since 1990, he could make his home in any community that values the art form. But this creator of the website YesAnd.com, author of Directing Improv: Show the Way By Getting Out of the Way, and producer of the doc Trust Us, This Is All Made Up responded to the collaborative spirit in Austin's improv community and settled here. Since 2006, he's been making onstage magic in the groups Confidence Men, You're Not My Real Dad, and Baxter and Bernard (with Tom Booker); directing numerous shows, among them B. Iden Payne award-winner The Suitcase; and serving as the Institution Theater's education director.
Out of Bounds set: Confidence Men, Wed., Aug. 31, 8:15pm, Hideout – Downstairs
Like other performing art forms, improv is notoriously ephermeral – and feels still more so since it's created in the same instant that it's performed. But the Austin improv scene is fortunate to have a dedicated chronicler of its fleeting work. Photographer Steve Rogers has been training his lens on local troupes and shows since 2010 – both for publicity images and performance records – and has captured more than 500 shows on film, at all four of the city's improv centers and all of its major annual events. To call it a treasure trove is a gross understatement; it's the history of an entire community. www.steve-rogers-photography.com/ImprovPerformances
You're never too young for "yes, and." So believes Jessica Arjet, a Hideout Theatre co-owner and director of its respected youth programs, which include classes and camps for kids as young as 5; programming for youth who are at-risk or homeless or have autism or mental health issues; touring programs to schools and libraries; and an award-winning weekly show for kids, Flying Theater Machine, with rotating formats, some inspired by hit kid lit (Alice in Wonderland, Magic School Bus, Harry Potter). It's a testament to Arjet's high standards that her show routinely includes top-notch improvisers on the adult scene. An active improviser for more than 15 years, Arjet balances her youth-oriented work with plenty of appearances in work for grownups: Fabarjet, Your Dad's Friends, Strange Worlds, Fakespeare, and two Improv Marathons.
Out of Bounds set: Fabarjet, Wed., Aug. 31, 8pm, Hideout – Upstairs
Part of the brain trust that keeps the Austin branch of the New Movement buzzing, Micheal Foulk serves as artistic director, a lofty title that makes it sound as if he's making and breaking the careers of improvisers from a velvet chaise in a penthouse suite. But that isn't where you'll find this TNM leader. If he isn't teaching classes and workshops to fledgling improvisers or coaching new troupes, he's on the stage, either improvising with comedy partner Vanessa Gonzalez in the duo Handbomb (Tuesdays, 8pm, at TNM), honing his stand-up chops, or co-hosting the ongoing LGBTQ storytelling show Greetings, From Queer Mountain with fellow comic Ralphie Hardesty.
Out of Bounds sets (stand-up): Wed., Aug. 31, 9:30pm, Hideout – Upstairs; Sat., Sept. 3, 8pm, Velveeta Room; 10pm, the New Movement
This critically and popularly celebrated group – Pgraph for short – has been together since 2005 when it scored a weekly gig at ColdTowne Theater. Known for long-form narratives that incorporate cosplay levels of genre costumery – French Farce, Dickens Unleashed, Screwball Comedy, and Reverend Goodman's Cure-All Elixir Traveling Revue – the quartet harvests stories from tried-and-true formats while also stretching the boundaries of improv, as in their collaboration with theatre artist Steve Moore's Physical Plant company. When members Kareem Badr, Kaci Beeler, Roy Janik, and Valerie Ward aren't happily ensconced in their Hideout HQ, they travel the world as improv jet-setters, performing and teaching in London, Edinburgh, Sydney, Seoul, and other far-flung locales.
Out of Bounds set: Thu., Sept. 1, 10pm, Hideout – Downstairs
The Frank Mills
Proponents of character-driven improv – though not for lack of brilliance in leveraging an odd situation's potential – this five-person troupe with Second City training has been brightening stages across the ATX since 2005. Bob McNichol, Dave Buckman, Erika May McNichol, Michael Jastroch, and Rachel Madorsky – all founding faculty members of ColdTowne's improv school – continue their weekly gig at ColdTowne, infusing their shows with the sort of intelligence and humor that have won them accolades not only from their colleagues but at FronteraFest and beyond, scoring the first B. Iden Payne theatre award for Outstanding Improvisation Ensemble.
Out of Bounds set: Sat., Sept. 3, 7pm, Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress
Whatever happened to the Well Hung Jury? After that UT-spawned supergroup of the late Nineties exploded – or imploded – among the post-collegiate winds, from their remains arose this troupe composed of Ace Manning, Bill Stern, Jeremy Sweetlamb, and Michael Joplin. Later, add that Kaci Beeler to disrupt the sausage party, and you've got a force of improv nature whose spirit animal seems to be the Warner Bros. version of a Tasmanian Devil. Long-form, short-form, whatever-form, the Cupholders run rampant through the structures of Johnstone and Close, breaking fourth walls, establishing fifth walls, destroying those, and generally pushing the envelope of whatever performative boundaries exist.
Out of Bounds set: Sat., Sept. 3, 9pm, Hideout – Upstairs
Okay, this? This is improv in the style of David Mamet. Yeah, the playwright – that guy with the mouth, right? Fuck this, fuck that? That's the one. And it's men here, of course. Men, and what they do, how they are. Asaf Ronen, Tom Booker, Troy Miller, Ceej Allen, Michael Ferstenfeld, and Jeff Britt. Pulling off a two-act narrative, each performer playing one character through the whole thing, with the location – just the location, okay? – suggested by the audience. Because? Because they don't need anything else. Because they're a machine, this troupe. Well-oiled? Relentless? Like a Terminator – that kind of machine? Fuck you.
Out of Bounds set: Wed., Aug. 31, 8:15pm, Hideout – Downstairs
Girls Girls Girls
With its 2002 debut, Girls Girls Girls immediately distinguished itself on two fronts: as an all-female improv ensemble and as a group that focused on improvising musicals. Today, GGG distinguishes itself as not just the longest-running all-female musical improv troupe in Austin but also one of the longest-running improv troupes in town, period. The quality of this collective's full-length musicals and formats riffing on TV shows (GGGlee, Jersey Shorez, Pink Is the New Black) has led to gigs in New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Honolulu, Atlanta, and Dallas, plus a pair of Rudy Kloptic Awards for Outstanding Improvisational Theatre Ensemble from Austin's B. Iden Payne Theatre Awards.
Out of Bounds set: Fri., Sept. 2, 11pm, Hideout – Downstairs
The Knuckleball Now
As with its namesake when it corkscrews its way from pitcher's mound to home plate, you can never be sure where the Knuckleball Now will take you. The members of this witty, brainy, breathlessly paced troupe – Michael Joplin, Craig Kotfas, Ace Manning, and Lee Eddy (with co-founder Mike D'Alonzo rejoining them for Out of Bounds Festival gigs) – pride themselves on their unpredictability. But with ties among the Knuckleballers stretching back 20 years and more, these improvisers have an uncanny shared sense of where they're headed, even in the ultra-brief scenes they call "Peak and Pop." It just earned TKN the 2015 Rudy Kloptic Award for Outstanding Improvisational Theatre Ensemble.
Out of Bounds set: Fri., Sept. 2, 7pm, ColdTowne
The Vin Diesel of improv. That's not what we dubbed this "faster and furious-er" player who's been improvising since he was in high school in the Nineties. It was Michael Joplin himself, using it as a cheeky way of saying that he works to bring commitment and energy to every moment onstage. Which explains why his résumé boasts a host of local supergroups (Well Hung Jury, Available Cupholders, Brain Trust, the Known Wizards, the Knuckleball Now, Bad Font), hit shows (Guilds of Steel, Process, Dusk), and even plays (the award-winning Everything Is Established). It also explains the people lining up to learn improv from him in classes at Merlin Works.
Out of Bounds sets: Bad Font, Tue., Aug. 30, 8:30pm, ColdTowne; Brain Trust, Thu., Sept. 1, 10pm, ColdTowne; The Knuckleball Now, Fri., Sept. 2, 7pm, ColdTowne; Available Cupholders, Sat., Sept. 3, 9pm, Hideout – Upstairs
Before improv was a thing high school kids were doing in Austin – hell, before improv was a thing much of anyone was doing in Austin – Brently Heilbron was improvising. At the age of 17, he joined Monks' Night Out, a leading local troupe in the Nineties, and two years later joined Only 90% Effective, the first gang of improvisers launched at the University of Texas. The group's shift to more scripted work and Heilbron's focus on stand-up led him away from improv and Austin for several years, but since returning in 2010, he's found a base at the Institution Theater, where he's written the hit Fuck It's Hot sketch shows, guested with Girls Girls Girls during a Boys of Summer run, and begun teaching "Stand-Up for Improvisers." He also fronts the emo puppet band Fragile Rock and produces the Stand Up Empire TV program.
Out of Bounds sets: Stand-up, Fri., Sept. 2, 9:15pm, Hideout – Downstairs; Fragile Rock, Sat., Sept. 3, 7:30pm, Spider House; Austin Stories, Sat., Sept. 3, 10pm, Spider House
Some improv troupes get on a fast track almost from the minute they start taking suggestions from the audience, and so it is with Damn Gina. In its first year, the group has zoomed through an Out of Bounds Festival appearance; a sold-out show at WaffleFest; a hit run of a theme show titled Night Watch; shared bills with ColdTowne groups from the Frank Mills to Movie Riot; gigs in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio; and a nomination for Outstanding Improvisational Ensemble from the B. Iden Payne Awards. With so much high-powered action, you'd never suspect its founders – all African-American women – didn't know each other before teaming up. Now, they're friends and a force to be reckoned with on Austin's improv scene. Mon., Sept. 5, 8pm, Hideout – Downstairs
Contrary to what the name suggests, the improvisers of Bad Boys are anything but. When Byron Brown, Sam Malcolm, Ed Reed, Brett Tribe, and Jon Bolden take the stage, their breakneck delivery of stream-of-consciousness scenes – that may appear at first blush to be unrelated but are craftily proven to be blood kin by show's end – draw full houses at the Boys' standing gig on Fridays at ColdTowne, and it's the only ensemble to have been nominated for the Rudy Kloptic Award for Outstanding Improvisational Theatre Ensemble from the B. Iden Payne Theatre Awards the last four years running. Bad? How's about really good?
Out of Bounds set: Fri., Sept. 2, 7:30pm, Hideout – Downstairs
When people keep asking you to teach them improv – not just for fun but to build self-confidence, help them at work, improve their marriage – there's just one thing to do: start a school. That's what improv maven Shana Merlin did in 2003, after seven years of teaching very popular classes in the form. What began as Merlin Works, offering both introductory courses and advanced training, soon grew into the Merlin Works Institute of Improvisation and the fifth "family" of Austin improv. It launched its second decade with a move from Salvage Vanguard Theater to Zach Theatre, where its faculty includes such improv experts as Aden Kirschner (Girls Girls Girls), Michael Joplin (Available Cupholders), and Michael Ferstenfeld (Confidence Men). Second Sundays feature a comedy showcase with student work, guest troupes, and a set by in-house troupe the Known Wizards.
Suspicion abounds that this busy-beyond-belief improv stalwart is really a collective of clones. How else to explain how one person can perform weekly with her core quartet Parallelogramophonograph; do the odd one-off gigs with Available Cupholders and Curtis Luciani in their duo act, the Amazon and the Milksop; take part in specialty-format shows such as Nothing and Everything and Austin Secrets; design all the materials that come out of the Hideout; paint extraordinary sets for the theatre and the Out of Bounds Festival; lead improv workshops in such far-flung locales as Tokyo and Seoul? (And let's not even get into her scripted projects such as Blood, Sweat, and Cheers and Subject to Control.) As far as we know, though, there's just one Kaci Beeler, who's fueled by an inexhaustible love for improv that started when she was in high school, and it will probably keep her going until she's 100.
Out of Bounds set: Pgraph, Thu., Sept. 1, 10pm, Hideout – Downstairs; The Amazon and the Milksop, Fri., Sept. 2, 10pm, Hideout – Upstairs; Available Cupholders, Sat., Sept. 3, 9pm, Hideout – Upstairs
When the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival instituted an annual roast, it only took a year for David Lampe to end up on the dais. It wasn't that everyone had a score to settle, just that this Methuselah of improv has done so much for so long that he was a natural choice. He arrived in Austin in 1992 with his "yes, and" chops honed in Houston with the Comedy Workshop touring company and in San Antonio with the Oxymorons and the Stucco Iguanas. Once here, he jumped in with Monks' Night Out, then was an original cast member of Austin Theatresports, and he's stayed busy since with a nonstop stream of limited-run shows, many of them sci-fi and noir themed (Start Trekkin', Twilight Zoned, The Violet Underbelly), and with the troupes Your Dad's Friends and ¡ZARZAMORA!
Out of Bounds set: ¡ZARZAMORA!, Fri., Sept. 2, 10:15pm, The New Movement
Among the hundreds of local improvisers who practice their art in the city today, just a few have been at it since improv was new to town. Megan Flynn is one, a performer whose work spans every era of Austin improv and whose performances number in the thousands. Most of those were logged with ComedySportz-Austin, the local franchise of the nationally successful improv competition format. Flynn started her improv career with it in 1989 and stuck with it not only as a performer for much of its quarter-century run but also as its business manager when franchise owner Les McGehee opened ComedySportz Playhouse, the city's first improv club, in 1996. The venue shuttered in 2003, but the improv kept popping up in various venues through 2012, and a few of its mainstays (McGehee, Flynn, Owen and Jodi Egerton, Tyler Bryce) reunited like the Beatles of improv for The Pie and Ear Show in 2013. Flynn's steady gig these days is improvising musicals with the women of Girls Girls Girls.
Hideout Improv Marathon
The most extreme comedy tradition in town, the annual marathon at the Hideout Theatre subjects eight players to the improvisational equivalent of a 26-mile run by having them engage in a weekend of performances from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, nonstop with no sleep. Each hour is a different show, with the marathoners joined by guest troupes and players that span the entire improv community. What began as a 40-hour marathon in 2009 has crept up in endurance by an hour each year and in 2016 was a 47-hour event. Every hour is open to the public and proceeds support the Hideout Theatre's youth programs and scholarships for young improvisers to Hideout classes.
Soul Grudge Showdown
Start in 1999, with a music band called the Blue High Machine – composed of Petr Rice, Michael Joplin, Yassine Belhadi, and Chet and Nick Hirsch – which pretends to be a group of former pro wrestlers. Eventually, the wrestling shenanigans move to the forefront, with the band slamming each other onto strategically placed mattresses, with color commentary and deepening backstories. Thus, the Blue High Machine Mid-Southern Wrestling Coalition was born at UT, briefly flourished, then faded away after college. Only to come roaring back with a more polished, higher-profile vengeance in 2014 – thank you, Joplin and Jeremy Sweetlamb – staging a now-annual Soul Grudge Showdown at the Off Center Coliseum, bringing in dozens of performers to improvise the spectacle of Real! Fake! Wrestling! in the squared circle, to parody and celebrate those gladiatorial antics – while simultaneously offering a subtext on whatever's currently troubling the greater Austin community: gentrification, say, and the influx of big capital.
Sometimes the only excuse you need to have a festival is because why not? At least that's how this long-running tradition started in 2002, with Hideout Theatre founder Sean Hill figuring that if Dad's Garage in Atlanta could have a thing called BaconFest, then the Hideout in Austin could bloody well have a thing called, uh, hey, does everybody love waffles or what? By now the event's evolved into an annual three-night celebration in November wherein the Hideout's usual weekend roster of entertainment is enhanced and expanded by troupes from all over town, and the price of admission is the same as for a regular show, but freshly baked waffles – and all manner of toppings: syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, peanut butter, chocolate chips – are available for free, all-you-can-eat, all night long. So, does anyone need to ask why it's such a popular event?
Improvised Play Festival
Since 2011, the Hideout Theatre has devoted one weekend in April to a celebration of longform improvised narrative. Many of the 15-20 shows featured are specialty-format projects that originated at the Hideout, but other groups and shows from Austin are also included, and each year features a few guest troupes from out of town, such as Bunker 13 from Seattle, Instant Theatre from Vancouver, or It's Not You, It's Me from Montreal.
Rudy Kloptic Award
In 2006, the Austin Circle of Theatres, which had been presenting awards honoring excellence in local theatre since 1974 (the B. Iden Payne Awards), decided that the city's burgeoning improv scene deserved some recognition and so established a new award to be presented to the year's outstanding improvisational theatre ensemble, as determined by the improv community itself. Latifah Taormina, ACoT's executive director at the time and an illustrious improviser herself in the Fifties and Sixties (Second City, the Committee) dubbed it the Rudy Kloptic Award in reference to an alias used by former Committee member John Brent. In the years since, the process of nominating and voting on the award has varied, and the Paynes have added honors for improvised production and direction. Honorees have included the Frank Mills, ColdTowne, Parallelogramophongraph, Confidence Men, Girls Girls Girls, and the Knuckleball Now.
The Five Families of Austin Improv
In the modern era of Austin improv (starting about 2004), the number of local venues that regularly play host to improv has expanded from one to four, with the Hideout Theatre being joined by ColdTowne Theater, the New Movement, and the Institution Theater. In addition, the long-established improv school Merlin Works has developed even more of a distinctive identity and significant place on the scene, essentially creating a fifth improv institution in the city. Because the five are so successful and distinct, they've been jokingly compared to the mob families said to control organized crime in some cities. But to date, no turf wars have taken place or hits made by one family on another. As far as we know.
Out of Bounds Comedy Festival
The improv community's biggest party of the year, when troupes from across the city and across the U.S. spend the whole week before Labor Day making Austin laugh. Conceived by Jeremy Sweetlamb as purely a celebration of improv, the festival made its humble debut in 2002 with eight local acts and three visiting troupes (one from Dallas, one from College Station, one from Kentucky). But in the years since, the stewards of OOB – its common nickname – have embraced other comedic forms and shepherded the festival's growth to the point that the 2016 edition features more than 50 local improv and sketch troupes, three dozen visiting troupes, and 60 stand-up comics.