Roy Janik — pronounced “ya-nick” — is the Artistic Director and co-owner of The Hideout Theatre in Austin, which stages hundreds of improv shows per year — and has been for 15 years. Janik is also a member of Parallelogramophonograph, aka PGraph, an internationally touring narrative improv troupe. Roy teaches classes and directs shows. He’s a busy, busy man.
Perhaps nobody else is more directly associated with the recent boom in Austin improv than Roy, a regular presence and tireless advocate whose opinions on the art and business of improv are worth your attention. Startiiiiiiiiing now…
Years doing improv: 10
Shows involved in now:
The Hideout emphasizes starting improv scenes “happy, healthy, and sexy.” I have no such rule about my interviews. So what’s the worst thing about improv?
The thing that raises my hackles is whenever someone in a position of authority in the improv world tells improvisers to not try doing something. Some recent examples that I’ve encountered: Don’t try to do narrative. Don’t scene paint actions or motivations. Don’t ever play kids or animals.
Improv ultimately takes place on a blank stage. We can do absolutely anything we want. So why place limits on that? Obviously, there are guidelines for success, and for newer performers it can be useful to steer them away from asking too many questions, for example.
But to flat out tell someone to not bother trying whole categories of improvisation? That sucks.
Side note: that “happy, healthy, sexy” thing is an overcorrection. We have such a tendency as humans to start from a place of negativity and defensiveness, that we have to actively train ourselves to be open and positive as a baseline to work from.
Now then, what’s the single most important thing improv has done for you?
I just had my tenth improv anniversary, so I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. On the surface, improv has done a ton for me. I met my wife — the super talented Kaci Beeler — through improv. I now own the theater I took classes at. I have hundreds of improv friends. I’ve traveled the world teaching and performing.
But whenever people have talked about how improv saved their life, or how they became a better person because of improv, I’d always think: “Hmm, I don’t feel that way.” It doesn’t feel like improv has fundamentally changed my outlook or my personality.
And yet, I think I have it figured out.
I was recently listening to a recording of my college radio show, Nummy Muffin Cocoa Butter, from before I did improv. Jerm Pollet was on as a musical guest. He was making up a song, and wanted me to help him sing it. I was like, “NO, it’s not gonna happen!” I was nice about it, but my first instinct was denial.
Here I was, hosting a novelty music radio show where I did ridiculous shit all the time, and my response to an offer by my guest was to say no out of fear.
So … improv has changed my default response to life’s offers. I no longer say no as often. I say yes, or I at least strongly consider the offer before rejecting it out of hand.
Who’s the funniest person you personally know, and why’re they funnier than everyone else you personally know?
Curtis fuckin’ Luciani. You can’t deny genius. The man drips comedy, and works super hard at it too. He’s got a dark streak, but he never takes himself too seriously.
Or actually it might be Katie Hartman. But I cheated by reading Kaci’s interview and thinking “Oh yeah!”
No, wait. It’s Bill Stern. Everything he does is funny. He’s like an alien discovering the Earth for the first time. He’s deceptively funny, because he’s super smart, but he has a way of sneaking up on you.
Is it too late to say Jill Bernard? She can weave a world together without trying, and laugh at the absurdity of what she’s creating while also loving it and committing to it. In song.
(I would’ve said a three way tie between Kaci, Kareem, and Valerie, but we don’t consider ourselves comedians.)
You bought the Hideout Theatre. What do you wish someone had told you about running a theatre before you bought it?
I wish they had told me that I’d always be anxious about filling the house. That I’d feel personally responsible for the attendance (or lack thereof) of every show. Every week.
It’s only recently that I’ve started to relax about it and use my energy more productively. Sort of. I’m not sure that getting that heads-up in the beginning would’ve made any difference, but it would have been good to know what I’m in for.
I also wish they’d told me about Jennifer Paine sooner. She’s an incredible house manager.
How is the Hideout different from the other improv theaters in Austin — especially in terms of how you teach improv?
Our philosophy is grounded in the teachings of Keith Johnstone. So there’s a big emphasis on his core ideas: positivity, status, being willing to fail, fighting fear, and so on.
But that’s just the base.
I like to think that we’re also fluid. We’ll soak up information from any sources that inspire us. For instance, I learned a ton from Dummy (Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts) when they came through town. And that went directly into my teaching. And as the years have gone on, we’ve developed our own style by integrating those outside influences, and by aggressively exploring narrative and a more theatrical style of play.
So here’s where we’ve landed, and how I think we’re unique:
- We’re comfortable with and fans of all styles of improv, whether it be games, two-hour plays, or anything in between.
- We embrace stories, but we avoid too much structure or overly complicated formats.
- We practice full commitment to character, but we also believe in playing the second show (the show of improvisers on stage making theatre up). This is something my duo show Squirrel Buddies (with the always hilarious and delightful Jon Bolden) aggressively practices.
Who’s an underrated troupe or performer in Austin?
Specifically, he’s underrated as a teacher. Even though he’s our Director of Education, he keeps a low profile. But if you’ve ever had him as a teacher, or taught with him, you know just how incredible he is. He’s got the Johnstone stuff deep in his bones, and he can make a Level One class do anything and feel comfortable while doing it. He has a way of getting students to discover the principles of improv without having to explain them explicitly.
Oh yeah, he also created the Austin Improv Collective. So that’s kind of a big deal.
Are there different types of improvisers? Could you give us a brief taxonomy of improvisers?
There are 100,000 types of improvisers. We are all our own type.
Tell us about one of the best improv workshops you’ve taken.
In terms of pure influence, the best improv workshop I’ve taken was the two-day 3 For All intensive workshop in 2007. PGraph took it together, and it had a profound impact on our young improviser minds.
The details are hazy, but there are some well-polished gems that stick out and get repeated all the time. The biggest for me was the notion to take the long view with your approach to improv. Assume you’ll be performing and your troupe will be together for the next 20 years. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a rut or play nothing but idiots for three months. That’s nothing. It’s a blip. Do the work and improve gradually. You’ve got a lifetime to work at this stuff.
PGraph travels a lot doing improv shows and workshops. What other community or theater have you seen that compares to the Austin improv scene?
Maybe it’s because we’ve been there the most, but the London scene really reminds me of the Austin improv scene. Actually, it’s the whole UK scene. You’ve got a lot of people who care really strongly about the art form. They like each other, and they’re increasingly into exploring every style. They’re not pigeon-holing themselves into one narrow realm. And they’re doing shows for the love of improv, not with some other goal in mind.
(From my outside perspective, it seems like a really exciting time to be an improviser in the UK.)
At the Hideout, students have more opportunities to perform than non-students. Can you explain the importance of giving stage time to new improv students?
It’s straightforward. The best way to get better is to clock the hours on stage. One of the things I’m proudest of as Artistic Director is that I really feel like we have a lot of great shows that include students and newer improvisers that don’t suffer for quality. The Fancy Pants Mashup, for instance, is some sort of magic I don’t fully understand. But I love it.
Beyond that, stage time is essential for building community. In my travels, I’ve seen a lot of improv communities hobbled by the fact that newer performers had almost no opportunities to get on stage short of striking out on their own. It’s honestly the biggest mistake a theater can make: being precious about reserving their stage or shows for the same company of 10 people who’ve been around forever. You’ve obviously got to balance quality and inclusiveness, but it’s essential to make space for the people you’ve been training if you want to grow.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
It’s funny. I laugh ALL THE TIME on stage. I’m easily entertained by my creative partners.
But the hardest I’ve ever laughed was a long time ago while watching the Simpsons. “Girly Edition” from Season 9. I’m not even a huge Simpsons fan, but this gag got me rolling on the floor gasping for breath:
Lisa is the host of a kids news station. At some point she has to run to rescue Bart, and leaves Nelson as the sole news anchor. He proceeds to straighten his notes, clear his throat, and then makes fart noises with his armpit. At some point the broadcast shifts to a different camera. He turns to face it and continues making fart noises.
If you wrote a book about improv (and I hear PGraph has one in the works?) — what would be the titles of the first three chapters?
PGraph does have a book in the works — on narrative improv. It’s going to be a distillation of everything we’ve learned, discovered, explored and refined over the past ten years.
But let’s pretend I’m writing a book about stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. Here are my chapters:
- There Are No Boundaries (unless you want them)
- Do it on Purpose
- Playing the Second Show
PGraph Presents! This is the weekly show that PGraph has been doing for over eight years, and it’s still my favorite part of the week. Get your tickets here.
The Technical Improvisers of Austin Improv! They’re not all doing a show together or anything, but have you seen their work? They deserve a plug. Jesus.
What’s something that most people don’t know?
I was the valedictorian of my senior class.