Like most people I interview on YesAndrew, Ruby Willmann performs and teaches improv. But that’s not why I interviewed her. I interviewed Ruby Willmann because I know that she is an improv thinker. Read on. You’ll see that she treats improv as both an end and the means to larger communal successes. For Ruby, it’s clear that improv is equal parts fun pastime and a lens through which we can consider the world and our roles within it. Elevating improv in this way — i.e., considering its social, moral, and spiritual implications — is a fantastic marketing strategy. It’s a nearly academic approach, and this will only help get improv into hands and minds of more humans.
If you’re serious about improv’s beauty, Ruby’s interview is damn near a must read.
Years doing improv:
Improv projects currently involved in:
You do almost 100% of your improv work — performing, teaching, and directing — at the Hideout Theatre. Why that theater and not another?
Oh man, improvised plays are my calling. I can’t get enough of them. This doesn’t mean that I blindly think all narrative shows are incredible, but I find the study of their mechanics and what makes them tick super fascinating.
Violet Underbelly (directed by Kareem Badr) was the show that really sold me on the Hideout. It was improvised film noir and they had costumes, props, musical scoring, and dramatic lighting. It was all just so professional and theatrical. They never went for jokes but I remember laughing incredibly hard. But I also remember gasping and spending most of the show on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t scripted. I was in the Level 4 improv class at the time, and I had no idea that that type of improv was possible. I loved it and I was hooked.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I married a Hideout teacher. It makes carpooling way easier.
You’re currently co-directing a weekly improv show (with Aaron Saenz), Wanderlust, in which two improvisers tell the story of going on a vacation/trip while the other half dozen cast members serve to “build the world” via physical movements and stances. In other words, most of the cast is silent for most of the show. Why did you decide to format your show this way and not in a more traditional manner?
Wanderlust is a compilation of my own needs and wants in improv. I struggle giving space, I struggle listening, I struggle keeping myself from directing from within, etc. So basically, Wanderlust is a show that works on building up all those skills. It’s kinda stupid because I’m not even in the show, but if you can’t do, teach, eh?
Here are some of the big thought points that culminated into Wanderlust:
I need to practice being selfless. A huge pet peeve of mine is someone getting a laugh at the detriment of the scene, and so this show is the antithesis of that. The ensemble’s biggest responsibility to the show is to be supportive and honor the story of the duo without stealing focus. They aren’t necessarily supposed to create, but merely reflect. It’s great practice to strengthen group mind, to increase patience, and to release one’s ego.
The ensemble adds so much to the show by creating ambience and environment. If someone thinks that that is a waste of their time, then this is not the show for them. Over the course of the run, it’s been so rewarding to see the ensemble mindset change from “Where can I add my own thing?” to “How can I reflect/enhance what the duo is putting forth?”
I want a chance to prove myself. The protagonists are on their own. They are in a 90-minute duo show, and they know that it’s kind of an all-or-nothing situation. That level of stress and pressure has brought out the absolute best in the Wanderlust cast. They are focused. They have their game face on and they are doing the best listening of their lives. It’s a do or die show, and it’s a really cool sight to witness.
I need to practice giving space. Often times when I see someone struggling, I am right there to give an offer and to support. I always have good intentions, but I support too often. And over the last year I’ve realized that sometimes I support because, in my heart of hearts, I’m not trusting that they can do it themselves, which is a super shitty and egotistical way to improvise. So I wanted a show where the mentality was more “You’ve got this, friend” and less “It’s cool, don’t worry, I’ll help you.” We’ve had a bunch of rehearsals focusing on reigning in all the active minds in the ensemble so that we can provide an open playground for our protagonists to stumble, fall, and thrive.
Give us the Reader’s Digest version of your improv origin story.
I saw my first show at the Hideout in 2010 and started taking classes the very next day. At the time, I was in a super depressed place in my life. I had moved back from California after a bad break-up and had been living in Austin for six months with no friends. I thought, “Whatever, I’ll take a class,” and I’m so glad I did.
I got cast in a show, False Matters, directed by Shannon McCormick. (Oh man, I had no business being in that show.) And it helped get my name into the mix for Live Nude Improv, which I got into a few months later. It was at that moment that I realized how important it was to capitalize on word of mouth and momentum as a new imp. It felt like people liked me and were excited to play with me, and so I just dove in 200%.
I was coaching/performing/rehearsing seven days a week for about a six-month span.
Everything was going great, but it didn’t take long before I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. I started becoming really territorial about my place at the Hideout and within the Austin improv community in general. Every audition started becoming way too connected to my ego and pride. I overbooked myself with projects and shows because I felt like the minute I said “no” I’d lose the new girl momentum and I’d just disappear. Other up-and-coming ladies became threats rather than friends. It all became very toxic. I didn’t like myself anymore, and I definitely lost a lot of friends in the process. At some point, I said “fuck this” and booked a ticket to Peru.
Seven months in Peru was everything it needed to be, and when I got back, I threw myself back into improv with a completely different mission statement: to be a positive part of this community. I started the Student Mainstage Productions, started teaching, and started having fun.
What’s a concrete thing an improviser could do right now, tonight, and become instantly better?
Mirror work! Mirrors can help break down so many insecurities. After the shower, dance around in front of the mirror. Squeeze your fat and make it talk with a weird accent. Make fun of your body. See how far you can twist and stretch, but do it all while talking like a drugged out yoga instructor. Crack yourself up with how good/bad/dumb/pretty/ugly/ridiculous you are.
When I first started improv, I used to try to do this stuff in front of the mirror, but I’d stop because I’d become too embarrassed or self-conscious. I think that’s very telling! How could I throw myself onstage unabashed if my internal judgment was so strong that it stunted me even when no one was watching?
Once I could do mirror work, improv became a breeze.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
Anytime I’m with the Escorts, I’m cracking up. Specifically, though, the Escorts went on a retreat in Lockhart. We did a version of Apples to Apples where everyone actually wrote out their own nouns to match the adjective. You had one minute to write as many as you could, and then the judge individually ranked all of them. It wouldn’t make sense to go into details without context, but trust me, it was the hardest I’ve laughed in years.
You’re moving to Los Angeles later this year. Do you intend to improvise in L.A.? And what’re your thoughts on making your way in a new community of artists?
I do improv in Austin because I love the community-oriented vibe, so it would be cool to find a niche of players who aren’t using improv as a stepping-stone towards stardom. All in all, I’ll probably end up taking a class with Troy. I’ll also be 25 and freshly graduated so it wouldn’t be the worst thing for me to try to, you know, get a job and start a career.
If you wrote an improv manual, what might be the titles of the first three chapters?
- Fuck with your friends without fucking them over
- Surprise! You’re dead! – The importance of losing when you don’t expect to
- Aim for the Heart – How to make every offer matter
Who’s the funniest person you personally know?
Melissa Patterson. Hands down. 100%. I highly recommend seeing her in all the things.
Who’s an underrated performer or troupe in Austin?
I am super excited to share the narrative stage with J.R. Zambrano and Margaret Rose. J.R. was in Aftermath and Margaret was in A Penny Dreadful. Those two are going places, it’s just a matter of time. I hope they keep auditioning and putting themselves out there.
Should improv be a meritocracy? Should stage time be given to the best troupes and shows, should it be given to everyone equally, or is there a happy medium?
In terms of putting troupes and shows into slots, happy medium all the way. Pair up a veteran troupe with a newer troupe. Boom! Short term, the audience had fun. Long term, the community continues to grow and strengthen.
In terms of casting, my personal ideology is that first and foremost, the person needs to be strong enough for the show. Merit should get someone in the running, but after that, other factors come into play. I mean, if someone does great scene-work but is a total pain in the ass to work with, I certainly don’t want them in my show (nor would I be excited to play with them).
There are other factors that come into play too, and I, personally, place a lot of value in creating a diverse cast. This sometimes means casting someone less experienced over someone more experienced. This might make people frustrated, but diversity is important, because the number one compliment I still get from both men and women is: “It was so impressive to see you hold your own with all those guys!”
Ugh. It fucking sucks that a talented woman is perceived to be an exception to the norm. It can be incredibly discouraging!
When it comes to a young female improviser who has just had a few bad shows, it can mean the difference between them thinking “I guess I’m not the exception after all” and quitting, versus thinking “oh well, I just need to keep practicing!” It makes me wonder how many ladies have quit improv (or never started) because they bought into this stigma against women in comedy.
The more diversity we see onstage, the more such stigmas are erased – stigmas discouraging women, people of color, age, etc. At the end of the day, diversity is a long-term investment in the accessibility of the AIC community. So while I don’t believe in casting someone before they’re ready, I also don’t believe taking the top ten people is always the best choice, either. To me, it’s all so much bigger than a single cast in a single show. It’s an overarching message. It’s a moral issue.
Give me an example of an opinion you once held (about improv) that you no longer think is true?
I used to think that some improv styles were better than others, but over the past year I’ve really internalized that there’s a big difference between “this way is better” and “I enjoy this way more.” At the end of the day, it takes all types. I’ve learned to appreciate the fact that some people gain joy from styles in which I have a harder time having fun. It’s gone from “well, they’re wrong” to “I’ll tolerate them” to “I value them.”
You’re married to Troy Miller, an old-school Austin improviser who’s done a ton of shows and been in plenty of troupes. Do you two talk improv shop constantly? How does improv influence your relationship?
A total bonus about marrying an improviser is that we are both really good at finding the game. There are just so many moments of Troy and I messing with each other and delighting one another.
Overall, though, Troy and I don’t talk improv shop at all. We are each other’s break from improv. Nevertheless, improv affects our relationship in all the classic ways: it helps us to apologize, to lose, to be sincere, to be affected, to love, to understand, and to compromise.
Anything you want to plug?
If you’re an improviser and have a troupe you’d like to show off to the Austin area, submit to the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival! It’s a roaring festival that takes place over Labor Day Weekend, and I’m super excited for what we have lined up this year! Check it out at www.outofboundscomedy.com.
Wanderlust at the Hideout Theatre! There is only one Saturday show left. It’s at 8:00 pm and stars Manuel Duran & Jordan T. Maxwell.
Date Night with the Escorts! It’s the third Friday of every month. It’s a great way to get stage time if you’re a newer student because we do a 25 minute lottery where four people get to come up and play with us in a montage. Also we have this new format with a flashlight, and it’s pretty badass.
What’s something that most people don’t know?
I hate any and all trivia games with a fiery passion.