MerlinWorks Works the Improv Wizardry at ZACH
Teaching that whole yes-and thing at the city's shiny core of theatre
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:30AM, Fri. Jan. 16, 2015
Remember when we did a round-up of local, well-established schools of improvisation?
(Note: Not just comedy improvisation – although, yes, that's what much of it is intended to be – but improvisation as a performative artform and way of thinking that transcends any restrictive comedy/drama pigeonholes?)
Well, there were five of those schools when we published that round-up. And there are five of them now. But one thing's different.
The difference, in case it's escaped your notice? The other schools remain with their originating venues, but MerlinWorks, that Shana Merlin-helmed powerhouse of improv training, has been working out of ZACH Theatre for the last couple of years.
(Note: ZACH is the mainstream theatrical center easily recognized by its ginormous blue Topfer building alongside South Lamar Boulevard, right there near the river.)
We're not playing favorites here – all of these schools have qualities that ensure their providing a good introduction to and furtherance of the arts of improvisation – but we wanted to check in with Merlin and find out what it's been like working under the aegis of that big ol' ZACH in particular.
So we barged into her secret beyond-ZACH space, our fedora badly askew and our faux-Armani necktie stained with yesterday's carne guisada, totally interrupting her practice for tonight's Get Up gig (in which Merlin will rock the Salvage Vanguard stage with her improv partner Shannon McCormick), and we asked the lady a few questions:
Brenner: What's it been like, being part of the ZACH theatre organization? What are some of the advantages of the situation? What are some of the challenges?
Merlin: We love being at ZACH. It's been two years now and we've really blossomed here. The things I love: There's a full staff of people dedicated to making the space better. Unlike smaller theaters, ZACH has a professional cleaning crew, facilities manager, and more. Our classroom space has gotten new carpet, new paint, and more in the last two years – all without us even asking. Also, because we're a resident rental company, we only pay for the hours we use – so we can take breaks and make the schedule we want. Plus, there's multiple classrooms, so we've been able to expand our class offerings. The drawbacks? Although we have access to one of the nicest stages in town, we only get to actually play there once or twice a month. Other improv places in town can offer more stage time for their community. So we focus on the quality of our curriculum, teachers, and classes as our number one priority, with performance opportunities being a fun reward at graduation time.
Brenner: Word on the street and on the stages around town is that you're an excellent teacher. But you're not the only MerlinWorks teacher for all the classes, are you?
Merlin: Thank you! I teach all the introductory classes, because I want to get to know everyone who comes in to the school, share with them my perspective on the art of improv, and suck all the life force I can out of these people falling in love with improv for the first time. Improv 101 is the funnest – and that's where I like to stay and play. I wish I could teach all the levels – short-form improv, long-form narratives, and improvised musicals – but there's just one of me, and my family also needs me to do mom-prov most days too.
Brenner: The troupe associated with MerlinWorks is The Known Wizards. How'd you get hooked up with that sharp crew of improvisers?
Merlin: One of the best things about owning your own business is getting to pick the people you work with – or, in my case, play with. The first thing we teach in our classes is how to be fun to play with, and all my teachers embody that …The Known Wizards are all the teachers in the school, so we can get together and practice what we're preaching all month long, and I've picked my best improv buddies to teach the other classes. Most of them I've known and been working with for ten years or more. There's award-winning improvisers like Michael Joplin, pillars of the community like Kevin Miller, and exciting new talent like Jillian Summar. One of my highlights last year when I was on maternity leave was coming to watch a show and seeing my teachers and staff host, direct, and perform in a top-notch night of improv, without me lifting a finger.
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MerlinWorks, ZACH Theatre, improv, improv in Austin, improv classes, Known Wizards, Get Up