Austin improv theaters as modern American humorists – Day 3: The Institution

Halfway through this little flight of fancy and we’ve arrived at The Institution Theater. The Institution Theater, when acronymized, becomes TIT—which is also slang for a single breast. Appropriate, given that the theater was co-founded by two breast-loving men, Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen. (Jo Chauvin and Deana Ricks were also original founders.)

Google either of these fine gents and you’ll quickly see: they know their shit.

Tom’s been a working actor for 20+ years, and you’ve absolutely seen at least one of his many TV commercials. He’s also trainined and trained with some of the biggest names in improv comedy. (Bill Hader sings Tom’s praises, for example.) Asaf Ronen, meanwhile, is a tireless creator–having written an improv book, produced the seminal improv movie, and directed about a billion shows and taught a billion students. The two veterans moved to Austin, synthesized their expertise, and opened TIT a few years ago.

All of which is why I’m going to declare that…

George Saunders. (Photograph by Chloe Aftel.)

George Saunders. (Photograph by Chloe Aftel.)

The Institution Theater = George Saunders

George Saunders might bristle at being classified as a “humorist.” Perhaps he would mind less if we added the descriptor “dark” to it? (If “dark humorist” isn’t yet a common phrase, George Saunders certainly is impetus to coin it.) But unlike yesterday’s cheeky post about Stephen Fry, George Saunders is 100% American–and mostly Texan.

He also happens to be the best short story writer working today. He’s often as funny as Sedaris or Rich. He’s always more “literary” than Klosterman. He tells more modern stories than Twain (though, in Twain’s defense, he hasn’t been modern since he died in 1910.) He creates wholly one-of-a-kind worlds inside of his stories—alternate realities that end up seeming comfy and familiar to us. He dabbles with the tropes of sci-fi or fantasy or apocalyptic horror (or sometimes boring suburban mystery)—but he never lets “genre” define or constrain him.

If I had to guess, I’d guess that George Saunders’ goals are, in this order, (1) make the reader gasp, then (2) make the reader chuckle.

I’m not sure I can think of a better description of The Institution Theater’s artistic persona. They want to startle you with their innovative and experimental projects, and then they want you to laugh your ass off (usually).(Sometimes they want you to scream in terror.)

To wit, here are some of the shows TIT has produced in the last couple of years:

  • Bad Girls in Plaid Skirts
  • The Joss Whedon Pajama Party
  • Manson: The Musical
  • Mister Morbid’s Moonlight Movie Mayhem Madness Massacre
  • The Next Chapter (in which published authors see improvisers create the “next chapter” of their work)
  • Not This American Life (like the NPR show, only not)
  • Only Three Will Survive (exactly what the title suggests)
  • Pulp Friction (take a wild guess)
  • The Suitcase (immersive, interactive theater pieces spanning the entire TIT compound)
  • You Think You’re So Smart (in the spirit of witty British debate shows)

This is just a sampling. There’s also the surprise mega-hit semi-improvised, variety-show-style musical series Fuck It’swhich began as “Fuck It’s Hot” in 2013 and followed up with “Fuck It’s Christmas” later in the year. (“Fuck It’s Hot” is returning in 2014.)

If you’re noticing a theme among TIT’s productions, you’re a better noticer than me. Because I don’t see one. Sure, there’s the darkness of improvised Tarantino and a musical based on the Manson Family—but then there’s something jolly and frivolous like the “Hell & Back Cabaret” show or “The Next Chapter.”

From my perpective, Tom and Asaf go where they want to go. They chase their wild notions, their passing fancies, their improv fever dreams. And because they’re old pros, they’re able to turn these vague concepts or undeveloped pitches into fully realized theatrical productions.

So too with Mr. Saunders.

While Saunders, who’s officially released only eight published works, each novella or story collection is a treasure trove of goodies—stories about imaginary amusement parks, stories about domestic cavemen, stories about witnessed kidnappings, stories about human lab mice, etc. He gives us such a rich, complex, colorful worlds, all in the span of a few pages. Aspiring fiction writers, take note of how Saunders manages, usually with very few words, to tell us everything we need to know. Jack Handey might be the world’s most word-greedy joke teller, but Saunders might be the most word-greeder storyteller.

Because see, here’s the thing: You have to give enough, but only just enough. Quite often, amateurs will write in such a way that they reveal way too much–more than we want or need to know—or, doing their best impression of Saunders, they’ll say way too little, and we’re left confused and angry. The genius is in finding the balance.

TIT seems to be finding that balance onstage—a healthy dose of straight-up improv, musical shows, stand-up comedy workshops and showcases, full-on weekend-night mainstage productions—and no subject is verboten, no world is too strange or hackneyed for TIT to tackle it with its usual collaborative capital-F Force. (Though I must admit, greedy performer that I am: I do wish they’d open their calendar to improv troupes a bit more. The only open-application improv showcase they offer is ending next weekend.)

What makes Saunders one of my favorites is his ability to start with a very specific notion—an image, a character, an unusual setting—and make it seem so intimate and inevitable. To bring the strangeness to the masses. And then, once we’re turned on by the novelty of what Saunders is doing, he sticks the knife in. THE KNIFE OF TRUTH, that is. He uses a dollop of bizarre to more fiercely rip the band-aid off and reveal the truth beneath. He does not work in black-and-whites. George Saunder is in fucking technicolor.

And that’s also a word I would use to describe TIT: colorful. For a long time, when I thought of TIT, I conjured a blurry image of the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band: exploding with color, stuffed with things to look at, a bit silly and also deadly serious.



1 Comment

  1. sh on March 26, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Nicely written and colorfully analyzed. Mixing TIT with Sanders. A juxtaposition I wouldn’t have made myself but since you did (and thank you for doing so), I can see how you’d experience both the writer and the theater incorporating similar hues and brush strokes.

    THE KNIFE OF TRUTH. Love it, make a nice troupe name eh?

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