Out of Bounds 2015: Squirrel Buddies
Nothing nuts about this improv duo; "Buddies" says it all
By Robert Faires,
6:21PM, Tue. Sep. 1, 2015
The theatres have been painted, the improvisers have assembled, and the 14th Out of Bounds Comedy Festival is almost under way. Kicking things off this year is the Jon Bolden/Roy Janik improv duo Squirrel Buddies. They actually sought out the lead-off spot for OOB this year, and the Chronicle sought them out to learn why.
It also gave us the opportunity to discover how two of Austin's busiest improvisers came to develop this side project and what keeps them coming back to it after five years. [Note: Parts of this interview appear in the feature "Playtime Again" in the Sept. 4, 2015 edition of the Chronicle.]
Austin Chronicle: How did you form this partnership outside of the regular work the two of you do?
Roy Janik: Jon and and I like each other loads, for starters. But we specifically wanted to form a group with relentless positivity as its aim. That's the great thing about a duo, I think. You can set a very specific goal and just go at it.
Jon Bolden: We were both teaching classes regularly at the Hideout Theatre and while traveling, and we both started to notice a phenomenon when working with newer improvisers and actors: a through-line of conflict and negativity with their work. It wasn’t specific to a group of people, age, or type of style; everyone that was learning about improvising theatre was rushing to arguments and conflict immediately. Roy and I thought it would be interesting and fun to perform a show where we explicitly focused on not having any fights or conflict, even when it would make sense to, [as in] a scene about divorce or someone being fired.
Janik: We totally failed, of course. Our characters often hate each other. But we realized that even when the scene is negative, we ourselves as improvisers are super positive, and we revel in the awful things our characters are doing.
Bolden: We failed at it pretty miserably, but even attempting to be more positive gave us a great freedom. We also discovered that we have an exceptionally good time creating together, and it doesn’t feel like anything else we do.
AC: What do you get out of this that compels you to continue to make time to perform together?
Bolden: For me, there’s something about working with someone who will challenge you and take care of you simultaneously and instantaneously. I feel like Roy's and my show exemplifies a lot of the lessons we teach to our students, especially in nontraditional areas of improvisational training. For example, we frequently show an audience the gears spinning behind the curtain and making the show move forward. We explicitly talk about it, even. This is slightly different than “going meta” or commenting on the process, but rather it's not trying to hide behind a character when it feels like work to do so. When your natural face shines through, show it, because it’s more real than anything else happening onstage at that moment.
We feel like it’s important to do the show to continue to explore the nuances of what we teach to others. It’s just really super fun and feels like going out for ice cream.
Janik: Jon and I work together on lots and lots of artistic projects. But when we perform as a duo, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen moment to moment. I'll be positive that the scene will go one way, and within seconds it's spinning off in a completely unexpected direction. Basically, the show is out of our control from the first moment, and I love that. Also, Jon is a whirlwind and an incredible improviser, so I'd be a fool not to perform with him as much as possible.
AC: How often do you try to work together, and how much of a challenge is it?
Bolden: It’s a challenge. Roy is the artistic director of the Hideout and so not only is his time scarce, but he has a sense of guilt when it comes to booking his own projects. This is compounded by the fact that there are more duo improv troupes than any other kind. We usually fill in spots that need someone or to round out a combination of newer troupes. This is even more complicated because we both travel quite a bit. With Parallelogramophonograph, Roy travels far more than I do, and I still travel quite a bit. This is part of the reason we try to travel with Squirrel Buddies at least once a year.
Janik: We have a show as Squirrel Buddies about once every two months, I think. We'd definitely perform more if we could. Being the artistic director of the Hideout and being painfully aware of how many groups are submitting to our schedule, it's hard to justify giving us more stage time than that. But it's fine. Jon's one of my best friends, so there's no rush. We love performing together, and when the fates align, it's like a gift to ourselves.
AC: Where does OOB figure into your plans to collaborate? Does it give you a standing gig once a year when you can work together, even if it's tough finding time the rest of the year? Is there anything special about doing Squirrel Buddies at OOB than at any other times or places?
Bolden: Haha! Well, the truth is that Roy and I are both co-producers of the festival. We still are required to pass the submission process each year to be accepted, but we have full power over when we perform. We chose to open the festival and literally be the first group to perform so we could relax afterwards. I think that’s what makes it special. We get to be ambassadors of our festival and of Austin. A huge mission of the festival is to show how great our artistic community is to the rest of the world, so we’re proud to represent the city.
Janik: With any other show [at Out of Bounds], there's an internal pressure to be amazing. But Squirrel Buddies is deliberately low-pressure. We sing a dumb song at the beginning, we pause the show and discuss what's going on as actors, we comment on scenes that just happened. So doing the show at OOB is like a celebration and a chance to cut loose. Also, we're the very first group performing in the very first show of OOB this year, and we're super-excited about that. We hope that our dumb, relentless positivity will set a good tone.