Cheer Up Charlies
"...Yeah, you know: That hotbed of improv comedy and similar antics, headed by Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen? That vibrant school and show venue that the two of them have been running for a few years now? Well, it's open! Well, of course, it's been open, yeah it's already been doing a modicum of moving and/or shaking for a while but now, look, it's in a snazzy new space on the Southside and they're hosting all manner of classes and shows, and this weekend is the venue's Grand, as they say, Opening. So it's, finally, really open! And some local improv heavy-hitters are there to help celebrate: – Booker & Ronen's own Baxter & Bernard, yes, followed by You're Not My Real Dad and ColdTowne and Confidence Men and Get Up and Parallelogramophonograph, and so on, over the next three nights of shows. But the man hosting Friday night's spectacle of improv? Don't freak out, okay, but he's he's a stand-up comic. (Easy, dear. Mind your blood pressure.) Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the one & only Albert Im is your talented emcee for this first night of the Institution's inaugural weekend party. But why? "Well," says Im, "I've done improv and stand-up in the past, and I've hosted a few other Institution things, like when Asaf was doing those Saved By The Bell shows at the Art Authority So I got hooked up through my, ah, my sordid improv history." And was there any, oh, difficulty for Im, overcoming any perceived improv/stand-up membrane? "I don't know how difficult it was," says Im. " When I started doing comedy, I was actually interested in anything that was related to comedy..."
"...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..."
"...I know this to be true because I recently sat down with representatives of the Five Families – Kaci Beeler and Kareem Badr of the Hideout; Shana Merlin of Merlin Works; Michael Jastroch of ColdTowne; Michael Foulk of the New Movement; and Asaf Ronen and Tom Booker of the Institution Theatre – and this, in part, is what was said:..."
"..."There's always a danger, in getting suggestions from an audience, that they'll just throw out some jokey suggestion to get a laugh," says Asaf Ronen, the man behind the Austin incarnation of Ka-Baam!! "But I know that there will be people in the audience who are fans of comic books. And all fans of comic books have this idea of the comic book they would write if they had the funding..."
"...Asaf Ronen Education director, the Institution Theater..."
"...Ten close friends – or, at least, ten people who know him in one capacity or another – gathered to insult Booker (and each other) to smithereens. It's called a roast; it's a way of showing love. Tough love. Tough, excruciating love, the way a hammer loves a nail, the way Cortés loved the Aztecs & their clever chocolatl. Yeah. Ted Meredith, he of Esther's Follies fame, was the perfectly engaging master of ceremonies, leading off with a skillful skewering of each guest and the guest of honor. And then the others – Aden Kirschner, Asaf Ronen, John Ratliff, Michael Ferstenfeld, Kacey Samiee, Curtis Luciani, C.J. Allen, Troy Dillinger, and Jeremy Lamb – took their turns with the lambasting. And if you think improvisers can't handle non-improv gags?If you suspect they're improvisers only because they'd totally fail at stand-up? Then you haven't heard what these improvisers (and even odd-man-out, non-improviser, and weakest link Dillinger) came up with by way of slicing their pal Booker to ribbons. I tell you this: It was one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen in my (oh good lord) two decades of culture-vulturing in this overloaded-with-performative-goodness city. And that's not even counting Curtis Luciani. Good bleeding Christ, people I mean, the man's not infallible, okay? I mean, I've seen Luciani & his comedy partners Joel Osborne and Courtney Hopkin do their sketch stuff as the troupe called Your Terrific Neighbors, okay? And out of the six different things I've seen them do, one was kind of meh, three were yeah-that's-pretty-damned-funny, and only two – only two, goddamnit – were the sort of brilliance that devastate you and have you quoting them for years afterward, like you'd do with the best of SNL or Monty Python. But at last night's Tom Booker Roast at The Hideout, Curtis Luciani left even the best of the other bon-motsers in the dust and made his own YTN masterworks seem weak by comparison. One speaks of a rapier wit? One imagines a sort of cross between a rapier and a Gatling gun – and then can only estimate the number of such weapons this Luciani fellow must have embedded in the folds of his prodigious forebrain. But that's the thing, see? Because, the man being roasted? Tom Booker? Tom Booker, former M-list TV commercial and sitcom character actor? Tom Booker, who moved to Austin after a trainwreck relationship sent him packing from L.A.? Tom Booker, who runs the Institution Theatre with his friend Asaf Ronen and is not only truly, frequently hilarious but also one of the sweetest, most supportive and decent namedroppers in this drought-harried town? Tom Booker deserved nothing less than the best agony & adoration any group of people could provide. And, thanks to those righteously witty nine plus Curtis Luciani, that's just what he got. And if you missed it, I'm sorry, people, but you weren't part of one of the luckiest audiences of all time. Still, there is a video in the works, yes, and we'll be linking to it A-S-A-P...."
"...(But it's not negligible, because the villain's necessary to provoke the earnest bat-reaction that fuels each narrative's conflict. It's not negligible, because the guest villains have been, so far, top improvisers Shannon McCormick, Mike Kinald, Asaf Ronen, Tom Booker, and Shana Merlin – with Lauren Zinn, Justin Davis, and Kareem Badr yet to come.)..."
"...Now it may have been opening night jitters or director Asaf Ronen may have coached the actors this way, but very early on one of the characters has a violent outburst, shouting along with violent action. I've heard it said that, as an actor, you should never take your volume as high as you can because, well, then you leave yourself and the audience nowhere else to go..."
"...These wise guys proved to be intimately familiar with Mamet's oeuvre, with its stresses on commerce, salesmanship, masculinity; its urbane niceties of conversation and abrupt eruptions into testosterone-fueled rages; the mundane language against which a carefully chosen word stands in high relief; and, of course, those crucial rhythms: the staccato beats, fuguelike repetitions of phrase, jagged pauses, and edgy interruptions. All were in full display in their drama, drawn from the suggestion "aquarium," with the opening byplay as Jeff Britt's assistant manager informed a Mantegna-smooth Asaf Ronen and Troy Miller as his mensch of an associate that the building wasn't open and they had to leave was a beautifully played bit of Mamet pastiche, sharp and fast as mob gunfire..."
"...Asaf Ronen: How strange to be passionate in all the emotions. “Why don’t you just keep your passion to your art?” No – it’s gonna bleed over...."
"..."I saw this done in Chicago years ago," says Asaf Ronen, co-director of Austin's Institution Theater, "And I loved it. I've been a big fan of sketch ever since I used to try to stay up late to watch SNL – or watching those sporadic showings of Monty Python on PBS and wondering what the hell is this? I've been wanting to do it for a while here, but it's only recently that I've felt there's a wonderful diversity of sketch troupes."..."
"...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..."
"...9) Ka-Baam!! (Austin Improv Collective) Asaf Ronen and friends turned the Hideout Theatre into a silver age comic-book fantasy with their series of superhero improvisations that strip-mined the genre for all it was worth, bringing to life scientific heroes, genetically mutated heroes, cosmically radiated heroes, and so on to battle (valiantly) all manner of evil villains and hell-spawned monstrosities. With different improvisers each night, with a talented comic artist sketching characters based on audience suggestions, with Ronen's interstitial evocations of adverts and bull-pen proclamations à la Stan "the Man" Lee, the shows were extremely popular laugh riots...."
"...Asaf Ronen, Education Director of The Institution Theater: The go-to answers are determination, passion, and stamina – and those are definitely true. The one thing that I've additionally learned to be a necessary part of that is being able to recalibrate what success looks like for you and being okay with what might never be part of that picture..."
"...And Asaf Ronen said, "Yeah, Scott Hearne started that – and it was done intentionally."..."
"..."Asaf Ronen went all in on supporting this project as soon as we were ready to put it up," says Olmstead. "He even helped tech it for the first few shows – such a great ally! Same with Tom Booker, who's been a great mentor and friend for me through all of this..."
"...We all have different personalities, but we found a really strong voice in sketch. It's a little weird, a little twisted – I don't think I could come up with some of this stuff on my own, but together it really works." There's Waldo, perhaps best known for its Human Santapede holiday show, began as an informal writing group started by Asaf Ronen and Tom Booker at the Institution Theater about four years ago..."
"...This is the cast: Kelli Bland, Jason Liebrecht, Jennymarie Jemison, Judd Farris, Asaf Ronen, Robert Lambert, Roger Wallace, Chris Cubas, and Michelle Keffer. Some of the voice talents were more smooth and evocative than others; some of the timing of the delivery was a little bit off..."
"...Chihiro in the bathhouse of the gods.A young girl lost in some realm of dreams,beset by strange horrors, aided by kind strangers,making her way through a tangle of unexpected wonders.Hell, that last paragraph could be a description of someone attempting improv comedy for the first time.Luckily for the audiences at Spirited, the lively troupe conjuring these fables from nothing have been plying their performative trade for years and are directed by Asaf Ronen and Marc Majcher at the Hideout on Congress – in Downtown Austin, of course, although who knows what changes may have occurred in reality’s tenuous fabric by the time you exit the theatre? “I generally prefer stories that are realistic,” says Menelaos Prokos, one of the show’s talented cast, “but I guess the thing I enjoy the most about Spirited is the element I normally choose to stay clear of: I like how we create imaginary worlds, how we can be anything we choose to. Not just anybody, but anything..."
"...But these are men. Asaf Ronen..."