The Five Best Improv Shows I’ve Seen

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America loves a list! Especially at the end of the year. So here’s a list of the five best improv shows I can remember seeing. These are in no particular order, except when they are.

5. The Frank Mills – Out of Bounds Comedy Festival 2013

The Frank Mills are an old-school Austin troupe of five people, but I’d never seen them play at full strength until their OOB Comedy Festival show. On this night, in the cozy upstairs theater at the Hideout, they played like I imagine they did those many, many years ago when they first came together: inspired, playful, always on their toes. Erika McNichols’ character work remains some of the sharpest ever displayed. Her husband, Bob, is willing to be very quiet and very patient — which is some Jedi-level improv skill. All five were just superb.

4. Get Up – The Improvised Play Festival 2012

This night, the two actors who constitute Get Up, working with the confidence that comes from a long time spent working, created a 40-minute-long fairy tale. What they made up on the spot would’ve existed quite comfortably at an off-Broadway theater, it was that tidy. When audience members ask me, “Was that really made up? You sure that wasn’t scripted?” I sometimes think to myself, “Duh! Couldn’t you tell?” Get Up turns me into one of those wide-eyed inquirers: “Seriously, Shannon and Shana, seriously … that wasn’t a fully scripted one-act play you’ve been rehearsing for weeks? You actually improvised that?”

Shannon McCormick & Shana Merlin of Get Up

Shannon McCormick & Shana Merlin of Get Up

People should regularly pay good money to have Get Up come improvise plays for them. Can you hire Get Up? I don’t know. But you should be able to.

3. PGraph @ the Salvage Vanguard Theater 2012

This troupe’s been performing every week for something like 43 years (read eight years). But that’s not what makes them a big deal. What makes PGraph such a mainstay is their artistic curiosity. They understand that if you’re going to bother staying together for the better part of a decade, you’d better be trying new things, of pushing yourselves to the edge of improv.

PGraph about to perform their "French farce" improv show.

PGraph about to perform their “French farce” improv show.

On this night, they pulled out one of their many format flourishes, and they ended up improvising a sort of … well, the only phrase for the genre of the play they created would be “Orwellian primate soap opera.” It wasn’t just entertaining, it was deep. It was hilarious and deep.

2. Field Day – ColdTowne Cagematch

This is a troupe of recent improv school graduates. Five of them. All young and gorgeous and spirited. All of them clearly insane.

Field Day. The students become the masters!

Field Day. The students become the masters!

On the night I saw them, there were maybe ten people in the ColdTowne theater. A small crowd, and yet, and yet Field Day nearly spontaneously combusted onstage. They’re fully tuned into each other, eager to support each other regardless of the costs. Chicago would love them, I imagine. Plus, they prove the wisdom of Tim Orr’s plea for improvisers to get sweaty. Field Day (a perfect name for this assemblage) get very sweaty because Field Day never stop buzzing. Inspiring shit to witness, especially for some of us semi-pros who think we’re hot shit now and then.

1. Duran & Johnson – ColdTowne Cagematch Finals 2013

These two guys were students of mine (kind of not really). These two guys performed to a packed house at the ColdTowne Cagematch Finals — the culmination of a two-month-long tournament. I was nervous for these two guys, because this was their first big show, and I while I knew them to be smart and talented, I didn’t know if they could bring it. Because bringing it is difficult. Especially if you’re new, nervous, and in your head.

Duran & Johnson winning the Cagematch competition with a near-perfect show.

Duran & Johnson winning the Cagematch competition with a near-perfect show.

But they surely brought it. Oh yes, I sat in the front row and heaved with laughter. What stood out, even among the myriad wonderful things these two guys created that night, was their thoughtfulness. It was clear, even to the untrained eye I imagine, that Duran was thinking about what Johnson was doing, while Johnson was also thinking about what Duran was doing.

Thinking isn’t a bad thing in improv, if you’re willing to slow down.

Honorable Mentions

The above list isn’t in hierarchical order. Duran & Johnson’s show, for example, wasn’t “four spots better” than the Frank Mills. These simply are the five improv shows —of a couple hundred I’ve probably seen — that stand out the most. But there are others who are nipping at their heels…

• The Starborn
This is “character improv,” where the two improvisers — Mia Iseman and Ryan Austin — play the same characters every time. In this case, two aliens visiting Earth with the intention of blowing it up, but not before doing a bunch of audience-interactive improv. They wear elaborate costumes. They have elaborate tech. And the Starborn is clearly the most interesting improv project I saw last year. Very, very good. (And the fact they have only 104 Facebook ‘likes’ is a travesty.)

Ryan and Mia, as naughty aliens with German accents come to destroy us all!

Ryan and Mia, as naughty aliens with German accents come to destroy us all!

• Austin Secrets – opening night show, 2012
This show, produced almost every year by the Hideout, might go anywhere: sad, hilarious, disturbing, in-your-face, despair, unabashed delight, etc. It’s a show based on real like peoples’ real-life secrets, so the show naturally runs the emotional gamut. On opening night a couple of years ago (my first time to see the show) I ended up bawling like a child — the only time I’ve done that at an improv show. Three minutes later, I was howling in laughter, in no small part because of the tension release it offered.

• Midnight Society – random show 2013
Midnight Society, which contains about 32 guys (read five), performs every week at ColdTowne. And, despite not attending every performance, I’m willing to bet they always bring it. Because I’ve never seen them — the half dozen times I’ve been in their audience — do anything other than high-energy, smart improv. These are five comedy dudes, and as such, they usually know precisely what to do to earn a roar. They earn lots of roars.

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