Advancing the Scene
Feature Article: Austin Arts
Feature Article: Austin Arts
by Shannon McCormick
Photographs by Sarah Frankie Linder
Improv has delightfully outgrown fringe movement status in Austin. An improv veteran gives us the narrative on the art form’s explosion here.
I moved to Austin in the summer of 2000, with a piping fresh Masters in fiction writing in my hand. My time in grad school had marked the first time in my adult life that I hadn’t been involved with acting, performance, the theater. So, that fall, moved by a whim and a desire to make art that didn’t involve sitting alone in a room trying to conjure words, I took an improv comedy class. Back in those days, the only two options were The Hideout Theatre and the long-departed Bad Dog Comedy Theater. It was a coin flip, and I wound up at the Hideout. Little could I have foreseen that 16 years later the Hideout would still be going strong, my Masters in fiction writing would be gathering metaphorical dust and I would still be an active participant in the local improv scene. It’s an art form that has given me lifelong friendships and taken me across the country and abroad. Most importantly, it has turned into the kind of vocation, with its sense of purpose and belonging that I’ve always wanted from art. And I’m not alone.
Back when I started, there were maybe 30 people involved with improv in all of Austin. Today that number is easily 10 maybe even 20 times as great. You can’t throw a stick without running into an Austin improviser. You’ve probably noticed: spend more than a few months living here, and inevitably you’ll come across someone in your daily life involved with improv. Maybe they’re taking classes. Maybe they’re in an ongoing show, to which you’ll assuredly get multiple Facebook invites. Something changed in those 16 years, taking us from any other medium sized-city with a nascent improv scene, to what is perhaps the most active improv community, per capita, in the country. Where did we all come from?
Part of it might have to do with our long history as a city that cherishes live performances of all stripes. We like going out and having a good time. Part of it might just be general cultural awareness and acceptance of improv as an art form, such that jokes about the ubiquity of improv classes are themselves ubiquitous in other media. But that still doesn’t quite explain the explosion over the past decade, especially in relation to other cities our size. And it’s not like Austin improvisers have uncovered some path to make a living at it–while teaching improv can make you a little pocket change, it’s extremely rare to be paid to perform, and certainly not enough to make improv performance your sole source of income. We’re mostly educated professionals in our daily life, dedicating our evenings to playing make believe with other adults for the sheer love of the craft, nothing more.
Improv is the art of collectively creating as you go along, of turning seeming accidents into gestures that seem predestined.
I think the answer to why improv gets its hooks so deeply into people is that it provides a sense of community and connection often lacking in our daily lives, no matter how drenched in ‘social media” we may be. And improv’s tenets of deeply listening to our scene partners, of adding to their suggestions rather than tearing them down, can open up new ways of looking at the world. In my case, my need to both be creative and surrounded by other people made improv the perfect fit, so much so that my personal and artistic identity became inseparable from the role of ‘improviser.’ Improv is the art of collectively creating as you go along, of turning seeming accidents into gestures that seem predestined. Maybe what makes for a good improv scene is also what helps create a thriving improv community: incorporating quirks of timing and accidents into something that looks intentional. Enough of us over the past decade have seen our worldviews and identities wrapped up so thoroughly with improv, we start becoming a center of cultural gravity in our own right.
The more people who’ve stayed with improv in Austin and for longer, the richer and larger the community gets as more and more people give it a whirl and find themselves hooked, either as performers or as audience. And yes, there are audiences who come see shows, enough to support four theaters, with a fifth school in the mix as well. There’s a healthy degree of competition between us, the kind of competition founded on mutual respect and constant collaboration. For quantity of shows, for quality of shows, and for the variety of styles of improv you can experience in a given week, there’s no place I’d rather be performing than Austin, Texas.
Thanks to Peter Pan Mini Golf for letting us shoot there!
Get your improv fix
In that spirit of shared lore and community, here’s a quick look at the places you can see improv in Austin.
The Hideout Theatre
Austin’s longest running improv venue, the Hideout is the epicenter of Austin’s narrative and genre-based improv shows: improv that creates entire, show length stories in the style of a play or film or television program. hideouttheatre.com
When to go:
See their flagship troupe Parallelogramophonograph every Friday at 10 pm, one of their mainstage genre shows on Saturdays at 8, or Austin’s longest running improv show, Maestro, Saturdays at 10.
ColdTowne was founded by a group of improvisers from New Orleans who wound up in Austin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and one could mark the start of the today’s local improv era with their arrival. In the 10 years since opening, ColdTowne has trained countless local improvisers in the character-driven improv styles initially developed in Chicago. coldtownetheater.com
When to go:
ColdTowne offers shows seven nights a week. Sure bets include veterans The Frank Mills every Thursday at 8:30, Loverboy every Wednesday at 8:30, or Bad Boys every Friday at 8:30. Or catch Damn Gina or Sugar Water Purple when they play, two of Austin’s prominent African American troupes.
The Institution Theater
Institution founder Tom Booker was one of the original members of Chicago’s cracked pop-cultural satirists the Annoyance Theater in the early 90s. After relocating to Austin from Los Angeles, Booker and company have shaped the Institution with the same kind of lampooning and anarchic energy. theinstitutiontheater.com
When to go:
Friday and Saturday nights at 8 are the best bet to catch one of their productions, which have ranged from Fragile Rock, an Emo puppet band, to improvised talk shows, to improvised burlesque shows, to spoofs on 70s era rock-and-roll cults.
The New Movement
The New Movement was founded by some of the original ColdTowne members, and is unique in that it maintains a venue in Austin and a sister theater in New Orleans. Shows run every night of the week, and feature large helpings of sketch and stand-up comedy alongside improv. newmovementtheater.com/austin
When to go:
Wednesday nights at 8 belong to Opposites, a duo and the New Movement’s longest running troupe. Or check out Monday nights at 8, which belongs to the show F**k this Week.
Shana Merlin is the dean of Austin improv instructors. Full disclosure, she was my first improv instructor, and for the past 10 years has been my partner in our duo Get Up. While Merlin Works does not run a theatre, they’ve provided improv training for hundreds, most recently from their home at ZACH Theatre. merlin-works.com
When to go:
Chances are if you want to check out Merlin Works, you’re looking to take classes. You can always sample one of their regularly scheduled free sample classes. Or you can check out the Known Wizards, the troupe of Merlin Works faculty, who hold court at ZACH at 8 pm on the second Sunday of every month.
Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2016