In a workshop a few weeks ago, Rachael Mason told the class not to go watch too much improv. Instead, she suggested, “read books and watch movies and find other hobbies, go places and do things that aren’t associated with improv at all.”
And she’s right. Without enough time away—whether it’s watching, rehearsing, or performing improv—our play can grow thin. Because improv draws upon our personal experience of the world, it can become too self-referential. It’s the worst type of meta: jokes about jokes about jokes.
But then there’s the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, which just ended here in Austin after a marvelous seven-day run. This was a week to revel in improvisational theater and all of its trappings. This was the time when Austin becomes, let’s face it, the world’s epicenter of improv.
This was not a time to go searching for inspiration elsewhere. This was our chance to have an improv bacchanalia of the most indulgent variety. Mission accomplished.
My Out of Bounds Experience
Before the festival started, Kevin Miller, who’s even wiser than he appears, said he was happy not to be performing much. It freed him up to see others’ shows. I scoffed at this, and as is the case with most acts of scoffing, I was eventually proven to be wrong. Kevin was on to something only someone with his 49 years of experience in improv could be: in a festival this long and grueling, best not to keep yourself too booked up.
And that’s great advice … for next year. But this year, I couldn’t help myself. I performed Tuesday thru Friday, with two shows Friday night.
I had better document my experience playing in All-Star Maestro, because otherwise I’m sure to forget it. There were 24 improvisers competing. Which meant the directors had to play a lot of GIGANTIC GROUP GAMES. (GGG?) The first GGG involved me and four other guys: two of them had to do a scene, while the other three of us “served as their props.”
And for the next 90 seconds, I managed to achieve an improv first: I did nothing the entire time.
That’s a bit of a fib; because at one point I kind of leaned over at the waist, scrunched up my face, and “pretended” to be the cap on a bottle of toothpaste—or something. I can’t remember. All I remember was standing to the side, as the scene went on without me, without anywhere for me to insert myself, watching. I’ve never done less in a scene. The only thing worse than watching me was being me in that moment. “Brain dead” comes to mind.
I was the first one cut. As it should be.
Mia Iseman and I performed twice as Mandinka during OOB. On Wednesday night we won the Cagematch Finals. The audience of about 15 was 80% Mia’s friends and colleagues and boyfriend—which meant that, because the audience votes on the winner, it was in the bag. The show itself was called “HATS!” and the premise was easy: we each wear a hat, do a scene, and are then tossed two new hats, which we wear and do a new scene, and so on for about 20 minutes. This format, pretty much ripped off from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, was a delightful romp the first time we did it in the semi-finals. By the finals, it was a fiery disaster.
Thursday night, in our “official” OOB show, Mia and I did a weird little tale about a couple sleeping over night in a Haunted Mansion for a reality TV show.
The lesson I took from that show was: when you find the heat, follow the heat.
Don’t leave the heat behind. Don’t squelch it in favor of some other heat, some lesser heat. Follow that heat. It’s heat because it’s hot, and you gotta respect that.
At one point in the Haunted Mansion, my character began acting strangely, kind of like he’d been possessed, a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining. And that moment played for about 30 seconds, but then I abandoned it.
Who the fuck knows why.
But I dropped it to, instead, do something else that I can’t remember. Why can’t I remember it? Because it was not memorable. Instead of moving the show in the obvious, interesting direction it wanted to pursue—i.e., the Haunted House turns the mild-mannered boyfriend into a psychopath—I piddled myself.
The show was perfectly fine, maybe even above average. But it could have been stellar had I only committed myself to the thing that cried out to be committed to.
Shows I Did See
Not enough! I did not see enough shows. I could have seen more if I hadn’t pretty much packed it in on Sunday afternoon and said to myself, “I’m done. Time to recuperate and destroy these Final Football drafts!”
But here is what I did manage to see:
Strange Worlds. This show deserves a bigger audience than the 15-20 people who saw them follow us (Mandinka) because it’s such a delight. The pulp-hero show squeezed a satisfying and plot-heavy narrative into a short window, about 25 minutes or so. Andreas Fabis and Jordan Maxwell were the stand-outs. Andreas’ ease and smarts when it comes to storytelling are second to none.
The Frank Mills. I must confess that I was … enhanced … when I watched The Frank Mills perform at the Hideout. (The Hideout Bar has some secret ingredients.) But I stand by the assertion that if I’d been as sober as a nun I would’ve delighted in this show anyway. Frankly, I was astounded. (See what I did there? Frankly?) I’d never before seen this troupe with all five members present. And I’d never before seen Bob or Erika McNichol perform; I’d known them only by reputation. Her character work and his “obvious subtlety” (a phrase I’m coining, thank you) were some of the finest work I’ve seen. And the troupe as a whole were on point. I heaved in my chair. I heaved.
Middle-Aged Comeback. These two veteran improvisers are brimming with stage talent, but this particular performance seemed disconnected, highly self-aware, and it made regular trips to Crazy Town without much explanation. Tons of sound and fury, but I kept zoning out and thinking about the Frank Mills’ show.
The Doubtful Guests. Holy shit. I’m a sucker for post-Victorian English shit, and the Doubtful Guests deliver that in spades. Their theatricality, commitment, and sheer chutzpah was my highlight of OOB.
The After Parties
The after parties are like one giant show and everyone is in it. Thursday night, at The Institution Theater, I watched Michael Joplin and Ace Manning and Curtis Lucciani be old friends who happen to be funny as fuck. They were riffing on bits all night.
Then on Saturday night, at the big epic party with the ice luge, I talked to dozens of friends, without managing to talk to them all. It was a sprawling, complex, college-style blow-out, and I hung in there ’til 3 a.m.
Random Images and Memories
1. Warming up for the Array show on the Hideout catwalk and playing the character of a boozy, gravel-voiced old lady who owns a deli called “Kegel’s Bagels.”
2. The longest laugh I can ever remember getting. During the Braised in Texas show, Carlos LaRotta tagged into a scene to set my character up for a dramatic monologue. Needless to say, his set-up was perfect, and the audience howled for a strangely long time while I just stood there, posed, ready to start talking once they quieted down. So now that I think of it, the laugh belongs to Carlos, not me. Shit.
3. Getting my hands on four Mandinka trading cards without having to do anything, really.
4. Lilan and Wilder. Le sigh…
Next year I hope to perform once or twice during OOB. I’m going to take off work so I can watch as many late-into-the-night shows as I can. And I’m going to volunteer to do something, to help out in some way.
Thanks to everyone who made it possible, and to everyone who came out. This was the time to smear ourselves with improv jelly and run screaming into the night. And we did just that.