It’s Day 2 of our little five-day experiment, wherein I assign each of Austin, Texas’ five fine improv venues its corresponding spirit animal in the form of a modern American humorist. (Please Note: For purposes of this particular post, “American” is defined as “including the contiguous 48 states and the United Kingdom.”)
The Hideout Theatre = Stephen Fry
I struggled with this one. For awhile, I was thinking Dave Eggers because of his smarts. Then I considered Sarah Vowell because of her diverse obsessions. Mark Twain for his storytelling. But nothing seemed quite right. Until I did what all good Americans eventually do: go looking for excellence in the U.K.
Don’t know Stephen Fry? He’s this guy:
And I’m associating him with The Hideout Theatre for a bunch of reasons. It’s a bloody perfect fit, mate! Tea! Flat! Lift!
The first reason is simple: Stephen Fry is British, super duper British, and The Hideout sports a British patina. It’s hard to explain, but there are times—especially at night, with two shows running in the two theaters at once, with the tiny lights giving the place a rosy glow, and people waiting to buy wine or espresso, and maybe it’s cold outside but toasty inside, and the crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder in the lobby—well, it feels European as fuck. Cozy, historical, cultured.
Stephen Fry is also a renaissance man who might as well have literally stepped out of a Time Machine from the actual Renaissance. He looks not just British, but pre-Industrial British—or perhaps a medieval land baron. (More proof: Currently, Fry is getting raves for his Malvolio in Twelfth Night on Broadway.)
His Wiki page describes him as “an English comedian, actor, writer, presenter, and activist.” That list seems short. I mean, go check out his website. You can spend a day poking around his canon. If Wikipedia had mentioned that Fry is also a “spinal surgeon” and “expert klezmer player” I wouldn’t flinch. I’d be impressed but not surprised. Because in my book—and I’m prone to hero worship—Fry is capable of dabbling in anything and absolutely killing it.
Again, same goes for The Hideout. They do a new “mainstage” show every two months, replete with set design and production values and a 90-seat shotgun theater. In the last couple of years the mainstage show has tackled improvised: Woody Allen, H.P. Lovecraft, Edward Gorey, Post Secrets, Pulp Heroes, etc. That’s just one slot per week. There are about eight others, including a kids show and Maestro, the longest running show in Austin.
There are a number of other similarities in my mind. Stephen Fry is smart, and The Hideout is smart. Stephen Fry is cultured (i.e., interesting in digging into ideas and philosophies), Stephen Fry is positively dripping with culture. (If you haven’t yet seen his delightful hour-long documentary on his complicated relationship with the music of Richard Wagner, please do. It’s not nearly as dull as it may appear.)
Stephen Fry is a storyteller—it’s his primary means of communication, whether as author of my favorite memoir ever, Moab Is My Washpot, or as host of the rabidly popular British “chat show” QI. Here’s a quick clip of him absolutely killing it on that show:
Another subtle alignment between these two entities is this: Stephen Fry is an endangered species in our media-soaked modernity: a public wit. He produces all of these nuggets of witty observations—or political opinions, or cultural criticisms, or bawdy jokes, etc. Google him and you’ll turn up a ton of quotes—a modern Oscar Wilde. I am probably the first person to have made that comparison.
The Hideout, in addition to scheduling a diverse set of shows every week, also hosts the Improvised Play Festival and WaffleFest, and hosts much of the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. Oh, and the 45-Hour Improv Marathon. Oh, and Same Years Eve. Oh, and a two-month-long run of weekly shows by super-duo MANDINKA (Coming Summer 2014!).
The point is, The Hideout cranks out product—witty, engrossing product, year after year. Downtown.
My final linkage: Stephen Fry defends the finer things—classical music, a love of language, Shakespeare, the whole buttoned-up British mystique we adore. But he’s no elitist. In fact, he’s been very honest about his own mental health struggles—primarily with depression and anxiety. This vulnerability lends his intellectual authority … authority. He is an open book, and he isn’t afraid to admit failure. The Hideout seems to have the same attitude: We’re all in this together. Let’s all admit that, let’s all admit that we’re human and full of foibles. Let’s be OK with going there. But let’s then return to the things we love—the art, the creativity, the music of Richard Wagner, the landscapes of 17th-century feudal Japan, Donkey Kong, etc.
Failure is OK, and getting back up on the horse immediately is even better.
I love this place. And I love narrative improvised theater. And I hope it’s there even when the corporate skyscrapers block out the sun and SXSW swallows us whole.