Andy Crouch runs the improv education program at the Hideout Theatre in downtown Austin — and he has been for more than decade. Perhaps nobody in Austin has more in-the-classroom experience than Andy, including when he taught me for Levels 1-3. With all those hours of instruction under his belt — and Andy does the math for us below — he’s seen it all and done 90% of it himself. He’s relaxed and supportive with his students, but he doesn’t pull too many punches either (even occasionally offering a workshop entitled “Andy is Mean to You” in which he offers his input on your improv in an … uncensored fashion). As of a few months ago, Andy’s also a father with his wife Nadine.
There’s plenty to admire about Andy, and yet I can’t help but dislike the guy: almost every girl in my improv classes were secretly in love with Andy, not me. NOT ME! Andy!! CROOOOOOUCH!
Age: 36 (as of this past Monday)
Years doing improv: 14
Spring semester of 2001, I took a class called “Improv for Non-Majors” at the University of Texas. The instructor wasn’t an improviser (just a grad student in the children’s theater department) and the class was pretty dull, but we were assigned to see shows at improv comedy theaters in the community. I was blown away by the stuff I saw at the Hideout, and that summer I started taking classes there.
Projects or troupes you’re involved in right now:
- The Big Bash (every Friday at 8pm)
- Austin Secrets (opens in March) — my first time back in that show since the original run in 2010.
- Student Showcases in the Weekender — directing and giving notes
- Danger! Warning! Improv! — action/adventure genre improv shows
Andy, how long have you been teaching improv? If you had to estimate the number of hours you’ve spent teaching improv classes, what would it be?
Within a couple months of starting improv classes at the Hideout I put together an improv troupe with a bunch of college friends, basically turning around and teaching them the same stuff I was learning from [my teachers] Sean Hill and Shana Merlin.
Meanwhile, there was a serious teacher power vacuum at the Hideout, with Sean having kids and Shana eventually striking off on her own. So I started assistant-teaching classes in my first year of improv and then, way sooner than I should have been, I was teaching classes solo.
In college I took a physics class that drilled us on Fermi problems, which basically means bullshitting estimates on things without sufficient information. So let’s say 13.5 years of teaching in some form or another. My college troupe rehearsed six hours a week; in the early years of the Hideout I was directing shows or teaching at least six hours a week; and nowadays I’m teaching around 12 hours a week (between Hideout classes, corporate training and youth classes).
Let’s go with a conservative average of seven hours a week. 50 weeks in a year (if we knock a couple off for holidays), which brings us to
13.5 years x 50 weeks per year x 7 hours of teaching per week = 4,725 hours teaching improv.
4,725 hours of teaching improv!
You teach Keith Johnstone-inspired improv. What does that mean? Break it down to its most concrete parts for us.
Keith Johnstone is fundamentally reacting to and correcting for an education system and culture that discourages enthusiasm and spontaneity. He’s a huge fan of games and tricks that distract the conscious (judging) mind so that the unconscious, less socialized version of you is free to make up stories and play. That psychologically curious approach to improvisation — what’s getting in the way of being brave and humble enough to make things up in front of other people, and how can we let go of or get around it? — extends through all of the various ideas that make up Keith’s writing and training.
Why does the Hideout teach this style of improv and not another? Is it because they hired you to direct their education program?
The Hideout has been Johnstone-inspired from the beginning. Sean Hill studied at Bay Area Theatresports in San Francisco and with Keith at the Loose Moose in Calgary, and then created the Hideout very much in the image of those theaters.
Over the years I’ve studied with Keith a few times myself, and with other inspiring instructors like Mick Napier, Jill Bernard, Rebecca Stockley, William Hall, Randy Dixon, Dennis Cahill, Shawn Kinley and Todd Stashwick — stealing liberally from all of them to overhaul the Hideout curriculum that I inherited into more of a melting pot.
You’ve seen tens of thousands of student scenes. Most of them are terribly dull, I’m sure. How do you stay engaged after all these years of seeing the same terrible improv?
When I first discovered improv I wanted to watch everything I could get my eyes on: the good shows were inspiring and the bad shows were instructional. But at this point I’m a pretty terrible improv audience member. I get antsy watching anything that’s not really, really good (either because it’s so skillful, or the performers are having so much fun, or they’re trying something especially novel and totally pulling it off).
That said, somehow when I’m teaching class or directing student shows, my brain goes to a different place. I’m not an audience member waiting to be engaged or impressed; I’m part of the process of these people who are relatively new to improv making discoveries and surprising themselves. Which is what intrigued me about improv in the first place. Performance and comedy are great, but I love watching people step into that risky place where they’re bravely trying to do things that they’re not entirely equipped to deal with.
You conduct corporate training that uses improv techniques. What’s your approach to planning and delivering those trainings?
Similar to the way I teach classes, I’m looking for the most efficient and painless way of helping them try out these improv principles/tools that I hope they’ll find exciting and that I genuinely believe can be an empowering and liberating influence in any environment.
I spend the first few minutes of any training doing stupidly simple games and exercises that are guaranteed to get them laughing and not judging themselves or their performance — to diffuse any anxiety or skepticism they might bring into the room.
After that, we bang through three or four big ideas of improv that are imminently applicable to business:
- Embrace Failure as Proof that You’re Taking Risks
- Make “Yes And” the Default for Collaboration
- Replace Criticism with Playful Feedback Loops
- Be Aware of the Status Choices You’re Making, etc.
In most professional development you hear about new ideas, but you don’t get a chance to try them out. The power of improv is that you get to experience the ideas in real time, dig into them through discussion, and then cement them with more repetitions in games and exercises. Failure isn’t an abstract idea in Whoosh Bang Pow; it’s a real thing that you’re learning to cope with moment to moment.
Most folks who’ve met you would describe you as laid back. Very, very laid back. Were you always this calm and patient, or did improv make you this way?
Hard to say. There are plenty of people from my college days who would not put “laid back” at the top of their list of Andy’s Best Qualities. I’d love to see an alternate reality version of myself that got into classical guitar or ended up going to law school or something.
Part of me likes to think that any passionate pursuit will get you where you need to be, but another part of me does believe that improv is especially suited to the healing and general improvement of people.
You’ve said before that a perfect improv class could — should? — consist of only three simple improv games: Ball, the Hat Game, and Dolphin Training. Give us a sentence or two about why each of those games are pure improv.
Ball — a game which is simply a circle of people batting a ball around, trying to keep it in the air — teaches you to chill out, achieve basic competence at working on a common goal with a group of people, and then to start dicking around — showing off and having fun with the mad skills you’ve acquired.
Dolphin Training is an improv game in which the audience uses “dings” to try and get a clueless improviser to perform a simple task onstage, similar to the way dolphins are trained via positive reinforcement. It teaches how to be the best version of yourself on stage, to be focused and playful, and to understand that you don’t really know what all of your options are until you’ve tried a bunch of “wrong” directions.
Hat Game, in which two improvisers do a scene while attempting to snatch off each other’s hat, demands that you stay in the moment with your scene partner. If you’re anywhere else (thinking about what to say or do next, worrying about what people think of your choices, etc.) you’re done; someone who is more present will steal your hat.
Don’t get to perform as much as I like? True, but I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving nature of teaching and directing more than the final product of performance. Some people thrill on performance; you can tell that they light up on stage with an audience, and that it’s energizing and fueling for them. I get that in the classroom, figuring out the best way to communicate and share this creative experience.
Who’s an underrated troupe or performer in Austin?
My wife Nadine Latief! She took classes a million years ago, founded Improv for Evil and then dropped improv like a bad habit. Which means that I’m the only one it town with a front row seat for one of the most unselfconsciously hilarious players in town.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
My memory for improv is so shockingly bad that I have almost no recall for specific scenes or shows that blew my mind with funny (although there have been plenty of them over the years). The things that I do end up remembering are unusually truthful or artful moments in improv shows over the years.
A couple years ago, in the Harry Potter episode of Fandom: Improvised Fan Fiction, Halyn Erickson took a moment to share with the audience her memories of her father who had recently passed away, and it was so genuine and heart-wrenching that half of the audience was in tears.
But the hardest I’ve laughed outside of improv is the final act of Four Lions. If you haven’t seen that movie, find it and watch it now.
If you wrote a book about improv, what would be the titles of the first three chapters?
- What Does Having Fun Really Mean?
- Basic Care and Maintenance of Your Failure
- The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Improvisers
What’re you especially good at in improv scenes?
I like to think of myself as a utility player with a decent sense of the shape of the show. So on a good day I can see what a show or a scene needs and bring that to the table.
What’s a bad habit or two you’d still like to shake?
On a bad day, if someone makes a move that I don’t agree with it’s easy for me to step back and judge instead of jumping in to support.
Anything you’d like to plug?
- Austin Secrets on Saturdays at 8pm in March and April!
- New Level One classes starting at the Hideout every month!
- Hire me to come to your company and blow your collective mind with improv!
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I drew a comic strip called Pseudo Intullectual for a few years in college. I eventually got bored with that and started looking for another creative/funny outlet, which ended up being improv!