Austin improv theaters as modern American humorists – Day 5: The New Movement

And now, the time has come, and we have reached the final chapter…

The chapter I’ve been dreading since Monday: The New Movement Theater. I’ve been dreading it because I don’t know what to say. I’ve set foot in TNM’s downtown theater only twice—both times as a venue for the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. I’ve never seen a TNM show.

The sum total of what I know about TNM is:

  • It was founded by some people (some person?) who broke off from ColdTowne Theater after that crew immigrated to Austin from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
  • You aren’t allowed to perform at TNM unless you’re a TNM student or graduate. For their students and alums, this is a fantastic policy. I’m jealous of the stage-time.
  • TNM folks don’t play at other theaters very often.
  • There’s a second TNM theater in New Orleans.
  • They host an improv conference and have a nice website.
  • They teach Chicago-style long form improv.

That’s it. That’s the extent of my in-depth knowledge of The New Movement. I don’t know what kind of improv they teach, and I don’t know what kind of improv they put onstage.

But I do have an opinion on one thing. It involves me telling you a little about my history.

Until I started doing improv in the summer of 2011, I was very into slam poetry. From 1998-2008, without almost any interruption, I was a very busy slam poet. That meant competing at the Austin Poetry Slam just about every week; and going to national poetry competitions; and touring a little bit; and writing quite a bit; and practicing and rehearsing; and drinking Lone Star.

The reason I eventually left the “world of slam poetry” is because, for me, it felt very … individual. It was a one-versus-everyone competition. Team work isn’t part of the equation. You write on your own, memorize your poems on your own, and peform them on your own. And you are scored by the judges individually.

And as evidenced by this video, the word “poetry” is used … loosely:

Which leads to isolation … which leads to animosity … which leads to hurt feelings … which leads to suspicion and distrust. The world of the poetry slam is filled with smart, interesting artists; but it is not filled with genuine camaraderie. I grew to hate that. I grew to loathe the cynical little fuck that the poetry slam brought out of me. (Note: I’m still trying to suffocate that guy.)

And from my perspective, The New Movement—and its policy of not giving stage time to non-TNM’ers, and its seeming unwillingness to engage with the broader Austin improv community—is like the poetry slam. “You do your thing, we’ll do ours, and we’ll see who wins.” If this were Chicago, where actual talent agents might be in the audience, or if this were NYC, where off-Broadway producers are scouting for new sitcom stars … well, then I understand a bit more of a competitive approach. (Hell, I sometimes yearn for more “competition” in Austin improv, and less of the kumbaya.)

But this isn’t NYC or the Second City. Nobody’s doing improv here so they can “get a production deal” or get an SNL audition. Those who want that juice go to Chicago. And we throw them big happy parties, and we love them, and we send them all the help and support we can. But here in Central Texas, it seems that the improv itself is the end, not a means to something sexier.

What makes Austin an improv mecca is its openness, its willingness to give you room to play. Of the five major improv schools in Austin, four of them play along.

____________________________________________

So let’s say that The New Movement is Dave Barry: Funny, popular, but nobody I know reads him….

Photo courtesy DaveBarry.com

Photo courtesy DaveBarry.com

5 Comments

  1. PaGeN8 on March 28, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Opinions always get responses. You are so very brave all the time Andrew. I love the big swings you take that get everyone talking. I really do because I am such a kumbaya guy. And I am always impressed with how you willingly become the lightning rod.

    When I was in Grad school at A&M, I engaged a professor in a debate. He lost. I won. I know I won because class was dismissed 2.5 hours early. In the debate, he said something I heard very clearly and has stuck with me ever since. “What you do, no matter how much you don’t like it or want to do it, will change you.”

    Perhaps all of your debate and poetry have lead you to be right here, right now; engaging your new community (Improv) to debate and discuss big topics and big issues. And perhaps, giving space for others to not play along and find their niche, is what you are getting from Improv.

    But I could be completely wrong. And I am okay with that.

    • Andrew on March 28, 2014 at 6:01 pm

      Thank you, Paul. My goal is never to be a lightning rod. When something I says causes a bit of controversy, I’m not flattered or proud; instead, I’m like, “OK, well, let’s talk about it some.” I’m just a big geek for this stuff, for talking about ideas and issues.

      Thank you for reading, Paul, and thanks for the support. I’m sure you won that debate in college and many since. 🙂

  2. jpelker on March 28, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    DAAAAAAAAAMN.

    Believe it or not, I almost was a TMN guy. It was the first improv theater I found in Austin.

    ****

    I was on the Thursday night bike ride when I rode past their theater on 11th. They were doing stand-up—with a very urban vibe and I dug it. I came back the next three nights, but on the third night there was an improv performance. I had just taken two improv classes in Chicago before moving to Austin, and I was ready to get back into it.

    The next week they had an open improv class and I went. I don’t remember much about it, except that only three people showed up and it lasted 30 minutes. It wasn’t particularly fun, though, and the instructor wasn’t very forthcoming with information about performing or classes. Also, nothing else was going on at the theater on a Monday night, so biking over to that neighborhood and then getting the boot after 30 minutes felt pretty lame (30 minutes is barely a warmup, right?)

    After leaving the theater that night, I had no real desire to ever perform there. If you’re going to pay $200+ for improv classes, you want to feel welcomed and frankly, I didn’t feel very welcomed. This wasn’t unlike my first class at Second City. I just wanted to understand the improv path, and neither place offered up a blueprint.

    But as you know, I signed up for Merlin Works the next January (you know because you were there, too). The only reason I was even there is because a girlfriend bought me a gift certificate there as a present. Regardless, from that first time I stepped foot in the theater, Shana and Ted made me feel like I was going to learn something. Even in that first class that ended up not being a class because only three people enrolled. We still did improv that night—for free.

    The point is that Merlin Works seemed really interested in the students—even the ones they didn’t know. We almost always hung out after class (with the instructors!) and Shana couldn’t have been more accessible—even when she was über-pregnant. And that’s why I stayed.

    I took intro classes at two other theaters, too, but I never got that same “we just want to make you happy vibe”. Because of that, I was never interested in being a “full-time” student anywhere else besides MW.

    I felt like a peer at Merlin Works and that’s what mattered most to me—especially when I was still so new that it freaked me out just to do a simple scene.

    • Andrew on March 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm

      Great feedback, Jason. Thank you for taking the time to chime in. Everyone should read that last bit….

  3. Kevin on March 31, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    A few things for the record:

    1. TNM did indeed have origins rooted in secession, isolationism, and personal issues. Some of the founders said and did things that effectively took them out of the good graces of many other Austin imps. (I’m not being coy in not naming those “things,” I just didn’t experience them first-hand.)

    2. That was a long time ago. The founders have moved to New Orleans, and many or most of the folks in charge at TNM today weren’t even around in those days.

    3. I have had almost universally positive interactions with TNM people the last couple of years. They’re very nice, very funny, and very willing to branch out into the community.

    4. The TNM stage is still for TNM personnel, but some flexibility is seeping in. They’re now an OOB venue. And I happened to notice that Girls Girls Girls is performing there as a part of their upcoming Moontower programming. I’ve also had one of the people in charge tell me directly that they would love to see non-TNM improvisers onstage there, and TNM improvisers onstage elsewhere. A year or two ago, I was shocked to realize that they’d held an entire improv festival (Hell Yes Fest) without me ever hearing about it. This year I *did* hear about it, and took a workshop there, and enjoyed it (along with many other “outside” improvisers).

    So from where I’m sitting, the past was icky, but the present is exciting.

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