William Goldman—the author of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride—is one of my literary heroes. He undertook, early in his career, to document an entire season of Broadway; he would see every play, musical, and revue that opened in the 1966-67 season, interviews hundreds of people, and read countless reviews. The resulting book, entitled The Season, is a 400-page masterpiece.
(For years I have curated a fantasy syllabus for a fantasy college writing class taught by me, Dr. Fantasy Andrew. William Goldman would appear in that syllabus twice—the maximum for any single author. One would be the opening chapter of The Season, and the other would be from his other tell-all, Adventures in the Screen Trade—which, so far, is the best writing on “story” that I’ve ever consumed.)
Two things that Goldman says in The Season apply to this post, and to a larger point I’m trying to make about improv.
First, Goldman revealed that Broadway actors, directors, and producers don’t go see other Broadway shows. They don’t scope out—or, in Austin parlance, “support”—the competition. Partly, this is a practical inevitability: if you’re performing in eight shows a week, you don’t have a lot of time—or energy—to go see the play next door. Stock brokers don’t spend their vacations touring the floor of the Stock Exchange, ya dig?
But even when schedules permit, there’s very little cross-pollination between creative professionals.
Some would suggest that this style of segregation is good for the art form. Rachael Mason of The Second City encouraged the workshop she taught at the OOB Festival not to go see “too much improv.” Her point was that if you perform and consume a lot of improv, your performance will no longer have a rich well of experiences from which to draw—because all you do with your free time is … consume more improv. Performances turn inward on themselves, things get all “meta,” and soon enough you’re a snake eating its own tail.
Mason might even suggest that this blog is too much, that it might make my performance more self-conscious. I’ll let others make that estimation, but her point isn’t lost on me.
When I was involved in the poetry slam, there came a point—about four years in—when I stopped watching other poets perform. I would go onstage, do my three-minute poem, get offstage, and hang out in the backroom of the bar with my fellow veteran poets—and I’d wait for my next turn to come onstage. I didn’t listen to the other poets.
(At the time, I didn’t recognize what my fierce apathy about poetry slams (and poems, and poets, and slam poetry) suggested. If only I had paused and thought, Oh, it appears I no longer care to consume this art. Perhaps that means I should move on, do something different!? I could have begun improvising five years earlier than I did.)
I’m almost three years in to my improv experience, and I still enjoy seeing shows. In Austin, there are shows every night of the week–usually several, sometimes seven or eight shows. The improv menu, dear and honored guests, is chock full. Amen.
However, I know plenty of improvisers who rarely, if ever, go watch other shows. (Hanging out after your 8pm show to watch part of the 10pm show doesn’t quite count. I’m talking about spending a night-off as a paying audience member of a show you’re not personally involved in.)
My attendance waxes and wanes, of course. I get busy, then I get less busy—and so does my improv-watching calendar. I’m a bachelor without children, and so the demands on my time are almost nil. I can do whatever whenever. Not everyone enjoys such freedom.
But I suspect some of these “absent” improvisers aren’t hip to the quality of the work being done around town. New talent—i.e., new-to-me talent—is popping up all over the place. Old talent is upping their game. New resources, new visions, new energies are all over the fucking place. For the last few months, I’ve been attending an above-average number of improv shows, and I still feel like I’m scratching the surface. There’s so much I can’t and won’t be able to see. Shame.
And so let me assure anyone in Austin—or in Des Moines, etc.—who isn’t sure whether she should bother going to see that random Tuesday night show: Yes, you probably should. You might as well. Because I can assure you that it’s going to be better than you expect.
Second, William Goldman fucking loathes critics.
With scant few exceptions, every critic—theater, film, whatever—is a “failed human being.” Goldman eviscerates the theater critics of the 1960s; he names names, and he gives evidence aplenty.
I tend to agree with Goldman. But with a couple of caveats.
First, technology. Back when Goldman was cracking critics’ skulls, there were about a dozen critics who mattered: a few newspapers, a couple of TV networks, one or two magazine guys. These days, there are thousands of critics. Every asshole with a Macbook his mom bought for him has a blog. With such a glut of Twitter-raised critics, the importance and context of criticism has diluted. It just doesn’t mean much anymore.
Second, another of my literary heroes is Pauline Kael, who was the film critic for The New Yorker for a bajillions years in the 60s through the 90s. She wrote about thousands and thousands of films. She saw them all, and she had a deep abiding love for cinema. She happened also to be a fantastic writer. I don’t agree with her film recommendations, but I’ll read anything she writes. It’s crackling prose, but there’s no fanciness, no ego. It’s not about Pauline; it’s about elevating the art form by calling out the phonies and drooling over the saviors.
I mention those two things in order to say this: I don’t think all critics are failed human beings. Just 97%.
When I launched this site in January 2013, I had a half-formed idea that I’d use it surgically on improv theater. I’d go see shows, I’d write reviews, and I’d assign scores. I’m going to type that again, and I’m going to put it in large bold letters, because if you’ve read this far you might be losing interest, and this point should be made very clear:
I WAS GOING TO ASSIGN NUMBERS TO IMPROV PERFORMANCES THAT I WATCHED.
The idea died quickly. If it hadn’t, I would have.
So all of this, all of this rambling preamble—the part of the writing that my dear writing professor, Dr. Trimble would likely have sliced through with his blue editing pen and written “CUT” alongside—is a way of explaining why I’m about to recommend a few shows to see.
I want to challenge us—all of us improvisers from wherever—to go see a show somewhere we normally wouldn’t see a show. And I’m challenging us to pick a show that we don’t know much about (if possible). Let’s feed that fecund soil, kids. Let’s keep the flowers blooming…
And now, here are the shows you should see in Austin soon…
GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS – “Pink is the New Black”
Musical comedy is hard. Each year, millions and millions of dollars are lost on failed musical comedies on Broadway. Here’s what I propose to innovative Broadway producers looking for a hit—because when a musical comedy hits, everybody gets rich:
Fly down to Austin on one of the next two Saturday nights. Attend a performance of “Pink is the New Black,” which is the new production by improvised musical troupe Girls Girls Girls. Take notes from the audience, maybe even surreptitiously film the show on your iPhone. Then go back to Broadway and steal their ideas—the ideas they made up on the spot IN SONG FORM.
Broadway, are you listening? Come steal ideas from Girls Girls Girls, because they’re good, good, good.
Yes, I said that thing.
This show, which is this Sunday night at ColdTowne and almost certain to sell out, is a simple enough premise: Interesting YouTube videos are shown, and then improvisers do scenes inspired by them. It’s a slight variation on the Armando or any story-based initiation. The variation, though, is a critical one: Cody Dearing is curating the videos.
Cody Dearing might be the flat-out funniest improviser I’ve seen live. And so I trust his taste in YouTube videos. He’s been working on this show awhile, and the cast is solid as a rock, and I’m going to get my ticket ahead of time.
F. SCOTT & ZELDA FITZGERALD SAVE THE WORLD
OK, I’ve already seen this show. Which means I can personally attest to its magnificence. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitsgerald are ideal improv characters—polar opposites, but both very smart. So when they’re brought to life in this show, and placed into a mid-century spy thriller featuring cameos from the likes of Gertrude Stein … well, I can honestly I’ve now seen a show that could be described as “mad-cap.” You think you’ve seen mad-cap? You haven’t seen mad-cap until you’ve seen this show. Cole Porter would’ve adored this show. Moss and Hart would have begged to take it on the road.
There are plenty of other shows that deserve your attention, too. “Trust No One”—conspiracy-themed improv—is running every Friday night at The Institution. “Hurly Burly”—burlesque-themed improv—opens at The Institution in May, and promises to be sexier than your average bearded-white-guys in plaid shirts show. ColdTowne is bringing a rarely performed UCB format to Thursday nights in May. The Hideout’s seminal hit Theatresports, returns for a May and June run (and yours truly is in it). The Hideout will also be doing Austin’s first international-based improv show on Saturdays in July and August. And let’s please not forget that Zach Scott, home of Merlin Works Improv, offers improv shows, mixers, and free workshops regularly.