Aaron Saenz (pronounced “signs”) is easy to envy. He’s as smart as anyone in the improv community (see: Physics degree from Harvard University), he’s as fit as a fiddle (see: Aaron doing deep lunges before an improv show just for the hell of it), he’s handsome (see: photos), and he’s a fantastic improviser (see: Fandom, The 44-Hour Marathon, The Awkwards, Past Lives, and Austin Secrets). But his humility disengages any jealousy his massive talents may spur. After first doing improv in Austin many years ago, back when it was a much smaller community, Aaron has returned to our fair city and this fine art form. And we’re all thankful for that. The Sunday Interview presents the Superman of Austin Improv…
City: Austin, TX
Years Doing Improv: 15 or 19 (depending on when you start counting)
Primary Web Presence: Google?
Who’s your improv hero?
I think I have a lot of people I admire rather than hero worship. Maybe Marc Maron? Jim Henson. And I guess it would be a puppet show. But mostly it would be an awe-inspiring show. Why? Because the dude had the most amazing blend of hilarity, sincerity, and nobility that has ever graced a felt-lined colon.
Who’s your improv nemesis?
I’m not even sure what this kind of relationship would look like. Is this someone who keeps coming into your scenes and messing everything up? In that case it’s Aaron Saenz. The bastard.
Who first inspired you to start improvising?
Evan Ragland. He needed a partner for a UIL competition and Ben Sterling and Jon Benner were already paired up. Middle school politics – you know how it goes.
Who’s the funniest famous person?
Doc Hammer and Jackson Polick – are they famous?
Who’s the funniest non-famous person?
Bill Stern – soon to be famous.
Your most memorable improv experience in 30 words or less:
I had the party quirk “embodies Hooke’s Law of Motion” and the party was a woman and her current lover hosting a dinner for all her ex-boyfriends.
The hardest you’ve ever laughed at an improv performance was:
In the middle of a college sponsored comedy and rock concert the president of the university decided to give a speech. My friend Sarah Haskins dressed up as a polar bear and sat down at a drum kit on stage. She then proceeded to do rim shots at all of the president’s half-assed jokes (and many of his sincere statements). He eventually stepped down and the show continued.
Your biggest onstage improv pet peeve:
Your biggest offstage improv pet peeve:
The ends of shows. It’s just a weird awkward mess of trying to make last minute plans to go out, gathering clothes/costumes, deciding to see the next show, saying goodbye, etc. I’d love for the last scene/game of each show to be a decision about what’s happening afterwards just to make things easier. God, that makes me sound socially awkward. But it’s true.
The warm-up game you loathe is:
“Showing Up Late.” It’s super easy to play—e.g., you just show up late—but it’s really hard to win. And once people get competitive about it, this game can really destroy a troupe dynamic.
The warm-up game you adore is:
“Horseshoe.” Like Big Booty, this is a “hot potato” game where everyone stands in a horseshoe and gets assigned a number. When your number is called you have to call someone else’s number (not the person who called you). If you take too long to respond, or otherwise mess up, you go to the end of the horseshoe and everyone shifts positions and numbers. The variations of the game – layering on letters, sounds, and hand gestures as alternatives to the numbers – really make it a fast-paced and mind-focusing exercise.
One of the most valuable improv lessons you learned was when:
Our troupe told all the other improvisers at a festival that we were from UC Santa Cruz (Go Banana Slugs!) and adopted false identities. When the truth was found out, many of the people I had met were honestly hurt. The lesson: make sure your audience is part of the fun, or else you’re just a performing bully.
Your go-to move when you’re lost or confused in a scene is:
I like “Look, Listen, Lean” which is just an alliterative way of saying “make eye contact or otherwise watch your scene partner”, “listen to what’s being (un)said”, and “use your physicality.”
Your go-to character or character trait is:
I tend to default towards characters that aren’t in the know. Awkward guy at a bar, dumb thug, or even scientist trying to make a discovery. There’s something easy about playing characters that are trying to figure out what’s going on when you yourself are a person who’s trying to figure out what’s going on onstage.
The best way to connect with your scene partner is:
Offstage: cuddling and/or playing poker.
Onstage: passing some time in silence. If you haven’t done a rehearsal/workshop on silence I really recommend it. When you can’t say anything funny, or use your voice to claim space, you really end up paying more attention to your scene partners and sharing the stage in a more mutually beneficial way.
The best way to end a scene is:
On a question, either stated or unstated. It’s amazingly satisfying as an audience member to watch good actors play make-believe on stage. It’s even more satisfying when their production lets you in on the fun and gives you questions you can dream about and discuss for days afterwards.
You’re writing an improv manual based on your personal improv philosophy. What are the titles of the first three chapters?
(Is every improviser actually doing this, because I am. It’s a little creepy you knew that.) Um, the first few chapters are:
“Improvising as an Ensemble”
“Improvising as an Actor”
“Improvising as a Writer”
“Improvising as a Director”
“Improvising as an Audience Member”
“Improvising in the World”
How many hours have you spent as a student in improv classes or workshops?
This is a great question I do not have a straight answer to. I got started in improv because we used to play improv games in theater classes in middle and high school. Then I was in many troupes where older members would instruct younger members. If you count that time as “class” or “workshop” then I’ve probably had hundreds of hours of instruction.
If, however, you mean a situation where I go to an improv studio and take a formal class or go to a festival and attend a workshop … I think less than 12 hours. Maybe less than five. It’s a little ambiguous. I’ve never taken a class and most of the workshops I’ve attended I was also co-teaching.
[This is further reason to envy Aaron. Less than five hours of proper improv instruction and he’s still that good? NOT. FAIR!]
What’s the coolest venue in which you’ve performed?
Sanders Theater is this absurdly posh lecture hall/stage that’s covered in antique wood panels, stained glass, busts/statues of classical thinkers, and seats that are essentially 200-year-old church pews. Performing improv there is like masturbating in the Louvre: thrillingly perverse.
The “coolest” place though was a set of underground steam tunnels where there was a combination party/show going on in the dead of winter. You’ve never really felt cool doing improv until you have a rave DJ remixing your lines and scratching records in between the scenes of your show.
Got a juicy improv festival story?
Um, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this interview, please skip the following:
So in the same festival where we were pretending to be UC Banana Slugs, our troupe also decided it would be fun to get kicked out of the festival. We did a really professional show the first night (Friday) and then acted terribly the rest of the weekend. Two members got up during the all-troupe jam sessions, pretending they didn’t know each other and then sabotaging each other’s scenes. This culminated in a fist fight on stage wherein the much larger, whiter member of our troupe seemingly perpetrated a hate crime on the much smaller blacker member of our troupe (secretly they were best friends). The audience was slightly miffed about this.
Meanwhile the rest of us sat front and center and started passing bottles of booze down the aisles while getting very inebriated ourselves. Our troupe leader had taken too much cold medicine with her alcohol and subsequently ran to the bathroom where she vomited on the shoes of one of the deans of the school. This was considered in poor taste. Soon the rest of us were being rounded up by the festival organizers and reunited with the two fighters.
Those organizers sat our whole troupe down backstage and demanded to be told what was going on. Here began a delicate dance as we wanted to be kicked out, but we didn’t want to be in the wrong. So we made a lot of open-ended statements like “What is improv?”, “Isn’t being drunk just another way of experiencing reality?” and other douchey philosophical statements. While we did admit we weren’t Banana Slugs, no one would cop to the fact that the fight was staged, so the head of the festival uttered this amazingly beautiful line: “You guys are too dangerously drunk to stay here, I want you to drive back to Massachusetts tonight.”
We did just that, but first we may or may not have peed on a lot of university property.
I think the lesson here is that if you have a time machine please travel back to 1999 and slap me in the face. And tell me to get a better haircut and lay off all the cookies.
…and then warn me about 9/11, because otherwise you’re really just wasting that time machine.
Have you spent more than $1,000 on improv-related expenses?
If you include travel expenses then yes. Otherwise, no.
More than $5,000?
Even if you include travel expenses I think the answer is no. I’m a notorious cheapskate.
What’s the funniest (real) improv troupe name you’ve heard?
For a troupe it’s Fair Bears, but that’s mostly because Kyle and Quinn won’t admit that’s the troupe’s name.
For a show it’s Oedipus for Kids. Which wasn’t really improvised, but is still just a phenomenal name and premise.
What are your long-term goals as an improviser?
I’d love to lead the league in assists.
What’s the one thing you’d like people to think when they think back on your time as an improviser?
Am I dead? Then I guess I’d like people to think that my ghost is really sexy and a great scene partner.
If your improv was ____________ it would be _____________:
Breakfast Cereal: The Smurfs
TV Show: The Smurfs
Baked Good: Smurfberry Pie
College Course: “The Smurfs: A Discussion on the Primacy of Television as a Children’s Medium in the 1980s”
Piece of Technology: The Smurf-inator
Geographic Feature: Estuary
Song: The Smurfs Theme Song: La la, la-la la la, la la-la la la…
The worst thing that ever happened to you during a show was:
I vomited into my mouth but couldn’t get to a trash can so I just swallowed it down and continued on. There was a kiss at the end of the scene.
If you could offer advice to an improviser considering dropping out of improv altogether, what might you say?
You can never leave improv, you can only leave the stage.
If you could wear one outfit during improv shows for the rest of your life is would be:
Scrubs. I tried this during the marathon and it was the most amazingly comfortable I’ve ever been. Seriously, we should all just perform in scrubs from now on, the world would be so much better.
The difference between a good improviser and a not-so-good improviser is:
What’s the longest you’ve gone without performing improv?
Six months or so, but that’s happened twice. First time I was working on my thesis in grad school and I really did nothing besides panic in the lab and panic as I was writing in my room. The second time I had just moved to San Francisco, didn’t know anyone, and got really anxious about meeting new people.
Who do you have an “improv crush” on, if anyone?
The list here is really long. I only recently moved back to Austin after being gone for most of a decade so I’m constantly meeting these wonderfully talented veteran improvisers who are still new to me. Maybe it’s best to say I have an improv crush on the whole Austin community and leave it at that.
[For the record, YesAndrew.com consider this answer a complete and total cop-out. It’s painfully obvious that Aaron Saenz is desperately in improv-love with Andrew Buck.]