Who Dares Try to Out-Author the Authors, Onstage and Off the Cuff?

Institution Theater improvisers wreak creativity on published works

Blindfolds optional.
(Detail of photo by Steve Rogers)
Blindfolds optional.
(Detail of photo by Steve Rogers)

What would that terrific novel be like after the first chapter if the author hadn't gone any farther with it?

Justin Davis and his team of improvisers at The Institution Theater think they have the answer – and they've been providing that answer week after week, with three more weeks to go.

Each Friday night at 8pm, The Next Chapter welcomes a local author onstage to read the beginning from one of his or her books. (Authors who've already commanded the spotlight: Deano Jones, Owen Egerton, Doug Dorst, and Manuel Gonzales.) After that, the author sits back with the audience to watch the rest of the story unfold – as imagined and performed, totally off-the-cuff and in-the-moment – by Luke Wallens, Paul Normandin, Megan Venable, Ben Masten, Heidi Rogers, Brad Hawkins, Jessie Pitluk, Ryan Hill, and Jessie Pascarelli.

The night I attended the show – just this past Friday – the featured author was Katherine Catmull, whose novel Summer and Bird is a sort of children's-literature-for-adults (You know: The way Neil Gaiman's Coraline is) and is as simultaneously lyrical and compelling as a narrative can be.

Of course, what the Next Chapter players enacted after Catmull's excellent reading was in no way related to the actual, published story of Summer and Bird; but damned if what happened onstage wasn't an enjoyable fantasy romp in its own right, completely made up as the improvisers went along, and brought through many brief episodes, whether near-serious or delightfully silly, to a solid conclusion of its own.

And now I'm sharing this information with Chronicle readers who might like to witness such a thing with their own eyes. Who might enjoy the remaining iterations of The Next Chapter that will feature Beth Kander (June 14), Suzy Spencer (June 21), and Daniel Quinn (June 28). Who might also like to know the answers to a few questions that I recently asked director Davis about this lit-pimping show of his …

Austin Chronicle: What led you to the idea for this show?

Justin Davis: A bath.

AC: A bath?

JD: No, seriously. A couple of years ago, I was in the bath and started working out the concept for a structured long-form narrative improv show. In fact, it became so structured as I thought about it that I realized it was turning into a novel instead. From that, my mind wandered to what it would be like to bring in published authors and do continuations of their works. That later morphed and changed into what we do in The Next Chapter.

AC: How'd you choose the authors who are appearing?

JD: Research and luck. First thing I did was find out what authors live in and around Austin. Then I reached out to all of the ones I could find contact information for. Others I know personally and wanted them to be a part of the show, if just because I know and enjoy their work. Luckily, we ended up with an incredibly diverse group of authors.

AC: And how'd you choose the improvisers who worked with you on this?

JD: Essentially, we asked the improvisers to do a miniature version of the show as their audition. An extremely short excerpt would be read from one of 10 books, and the improviser would have to pick up from where I or my assistant director (Jessie Pascarelli) left off and continue it as an improvised monologue for a minute and half. Then, I’d have the improvisers perform scenes set in a world that was taken from one of the monologues, switching out the two or three performers in that slot as the scene went on. What the performers needed to show was an excellent ability to listen and pull out keywords and key moments, collaborate instantly, and – maybe most important – show respect for staying true to the spirit of the author’s words and theme while inventing their own stories.

AC: And I know you said it was required that no one read the books under consideration ... but so, after this series is ended, which book are you, personally, most looking forward to picking up and reading?

JD: You’re trying to get me in trouble with the authors, aren’t you?

AC: Ha! No, I –

JD: I could literally start describing any book in our show here, because I want to read them all. Apocalyptic vampire biker novel? Yes. Oddball ensemble cast and religious allegory? Yes. Short-story anthology rooted in magical realism? Yes. Young adult novel with fairy folk? Yes. Nonfiction book about sex and personal memoir about discovery? Yes. A story about a storyteller and unreliable narrators? Yes. That’s not even all of them. Honestly, and I’m not playing it safe here, I’ve taken home every book an author has brought in to read from and I'm excited to read all of them.

AC: Well, sure. But if you had to name just one of them … ? Like, say, uh … say Galactus is threatening to devour the entire fucking planet unless you –

JD: OK, fine! Manuel Gonzales' The Miniature Wife. Jerk.

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