The Sunday Interview: Aden Kirschner

Austin and Portland, Oregon, are often compared to each other. I’ve heard that “Austin is like a flatter Portland” and that “Portland is Austin minus the cowboys.” 

The truth is that Austin is better than Portland in every way except one: Soon, Portland will lay claim to Aden Kirschner, a mainstay of Austin improv who will be moving to Portland soon. And though she promises to return often, we’ll still miss her. Few people are more rooted in Austin’s improv community than Aden. 

She has a lot of great stuff to say. A lot. A whole lot. Enjoy!

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Aden Kirschner

Age:
37

Number of Years Doing Improv:
25

Web Presence:
www.adenkirschner.com + www.gggimprov.com + www.merlin-works.com + www.theartofchange.com

You’re moving to Oregon soon. Tell us about that move and your improv plans going forward.
Lucky for you, this should be an extremely long answer. Grab your coffee mug or beer or whatever and enjoy!

Though I haven’t been a resident since 1997, I grew up in Ashland, Oregon, and got my start on stage in a small town called Talent at the ripe age of six-years-old. This time around I will be in a small town called West Linn, which is part of Portland. The decision to move back to the Pacific Northwest was both extremely difficult and unbelievably obvious.

I have loved living in Austin for the past nine years. The community I have in Austin is open, talented, creative, and loving. It makes sense that I wouldn’t want to leave that, right? Not to mention breakfast tacos. I LOVE breakfast tacos (and yes, I am aware that I can make them at home). It’s the ease of grabbing a breakfast taco from a coffee shop when I’m running late that I think I love the most.

On the other hand, I am clearly still not acclimated to things in Texas. The weather drives me nuts. Truthfully I’d rather live anywhere else then spend another summer in Austin. At least that’s how I feel during the summer.

I’m also not acclimated to the political climate in Texas. Everywhere else I have lived politics have been made purposefully accessible to voters. In Oregon we get mailers and pamphlets from neutral organizations that list ballot issues complete with pro and con arguments, voting records for candidates and so on. In Oregon we want informed voters. In Texas … I just can’t figure out what’s wanted. The election days seem scattered and random to me. It’s difficult to get information, and the people who seem to have info often speak in very extreme terms.

I guess what I’m saying is: For me, the environment in Oregon is what suits me best.

(Now that I’ve said all of that, it seems kinda weird—but I guess I’ll just stick to my guns here.)

There is another very important reason for the move. Love! I haz it. I haz LOVE in Oregon! My family is there. In fact my dad and I have made a three-year plan for me taking over his business. Several of my closest friends are there. And let’s not forget that my sweetheart, my partner, my other half of my cookie—he lives in Oregon. As much as he loves Austin, and would love to join me where I currently live, he has a daughter that prevents him from moving as he is co-parenting with her mother.

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Aden in the boa. The love she haz on the far left.

So what does all of this mean moving forward?

Well, Shana Merlin at Merlin Works has become an unbelievable collaborative partner for me. So the plan right now is to continue that relationship and see what we can further develop for her company that keeps both of us inspired, growing and increases both of our success. In fact, this important relationship should keep me coming back to Austin on a fairly regular basis (Yay, breakfast tacos!).

I was joking with someone recently that because I’ll be in Austin for about a week in September, a week in October and a week in November, that I probably could have gotten away with not telling anyone I was moving, since that’s about how often I see some people anyway.

In Portland, thanks to Kaci Beeler, I have made some great connections at the Brody Theatre. My improv doppleganger teaches there and we have plans to work and play together in the future. Right now she is actually battling some pretty serious breast cancer (please donate if you are able), but is continuing to teach and I am excited about what a kick-ass lady she is and what we will be able to do when I get there and she kicks cancer’s ass.

Interestingly, the Brody has a Girls! Girls! Girls! troupe too. They are the female faculty for the theatre, and don’t do musical improv—so the doppleganger thing is very real. Eric, my honey, in addition to his connections with the Brody (he is doing a show with them right now) also runs an improv company called Infinite Improv! and I have already started performing and occasionally teaching with them. Eric and I are talking about running classes here in West Linn.

So the future is looking very bright!

You’ve performed improv in many settings and locations. Do you think Austin improv has a defining characteristic or style? How would describe it?
Austin’s performance and show style is actually very similar to a few places off the top of my head. Portland and Seattle being among them. The differences aren’t in the shows. The differences are in the people, the community.

Austin has a sense of openness and friendship that other places simply don’t.

The default in Austin is to cross-pollinate, to open up creative possibilities, and to party together. In my experiences of other places the sense of community is limited to this or that theatre, and crossover is the exception, not the norm.

What will you miss most about the Austin improv community?
The parties, the shows, the happy hours, the auditions, the hugs, the talks, the support, the friends, the acquaintances, the talent … THE EVERYTHING!

Luckily, I won’t have to miss any of it. I will be back as much as work brings me back, so I hope to continue to be part of the Austin Improv Community for a very long time!

Once, I told my dad that I was struggling with the decision to move. When I thought about moving to Oregon I would get excited, but when I thought about leaving Austin I would feel sad. He suggested that I think of it differently. I’m not leaving Austin, I’m just expanding to another city. I’m relocating my home office to Oregon, but I will be operating in both communities.

He’s right, and I am grateful for the perspective. Now I just have two communities I get to contribute to and enjoy!

Aden + some of the Merlin Works staff and performers

Aden + some of the Merlin Works staff and performers

I think most people associate you with musical improv (Girls Girls Girls). What do you most like about musical improv? Do you think of it differently than non-musical improv?
There are so many things I love about musical improv. It really is wonderful. One of my students, and now Merlin Works grad, Mitch Mills, likes to say that you get more joy per minute when you do musical improv. I agree!

All of the things that lend themselves to good improv are amplified when it comes to musical improv. Listening, building on each others ideas, being willing to take risks, and commit to your choices are all things that are really musts with improv singing. The nice thing is that the very nature of the art puts you in the right mindset immediately.

Musical improv is very forgiving. If an audience likes to see you on the edge of failure, imagine their delight when you bust out in to song! I’m convinced that the average audience member is thinking, “I could never in a million years… nor would I!” So anything you do really impresses them.

I feel like I’m showing my hand here by sharing this, but the truth is that improv singing is in many ways low risk + high reward. If all you do is make random noises at the same time the music plays, the audience is impressed. If you’ve got words and singing happening at the same time as music … they are blown away. If you can create a repeatable melody line, hook and build a structured song with catchy lyrics, verses and choruses and a bridge … they’re not even going to believe you when you tell them you made it up!

I have people come up to me referencing songs from shows I did years earlier. They still remember the melodies and lyrics! Unfortunately when they ask me if I do to, I am kinda like “well… I was really in the moment… so… NO.” But I’m always thrilled when that happens!

You’re also a teacher at Merlin Works. How did that come to be?
I started teaching improv and using improv in facilitation in high school and college, but everything I had done prior to moving to Austin was in small towns so in many ways I felt like I was starting over when I got to Texas.

I joined Girls Girls Girls (GGG) in 2006 or 2007 and I remember telling Shana Merlin that I missed teaching improv, and that I was interested in teaching again. She told me she would keep me in mind if there was every opportunity to add to her staff … and then I kinda forgot about it.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Shana offered me the opportunity to co-teach improv singing with her. And that was my gateway class. By then she had had plenty of opportunities to see me lead GGG rehearsals, and facilitate the slap-dash training we give each of our boy guest-stars during Boys of Summer.

Honestly, though, if you really wanna know how I came to be a teacher at Merlin Works you’d have to ask Shana, because that was her decision. All I can say about it is that I am immensely grateful. I have learned more teaching for and with Shana then I could have learned in a lifetime. She’s really knowledgeable and has the fabulous ability to give useful, immediately implementable feedback.

Do you remember the first class you ever taught?
I feel like you and anybody who is reading this will want me to say yes. Truthfully, I don’t. I’m lucky if I remember what I ate for lunch yesterday. Each class I teach feels so memorable in the moment, and then the next class comes along and then they seem so memorable.

The only thing I am really left with are specific moments from different classes along the line that really do stick out. And songs. I still remember several songs from different musical improv classes, even several years later!

How (and why) have you improved as an improv instructor?
When I first started teaching for Merlin Works, to be honest my confidence took a bit of a nose dive. Hopefully I hid it well, but it’s true. The main reason was that I had always done things my way, and now I was learning someone else’s method.

Shana (owner of Merlin Works) has put a lot of thought into her curriculum and how it works, and what is effective and what kind of pitfalls to look for. As I was teaching, I now also found myself back in the role of student. Ultimately, that’s been amazing for me as a performer, teacher, and human.

It turns out that the thing I was lacking in my performance was humility and vulnerability.Becoming a teacher for someone else’s program gave me both. Before, I would have never admitted this but I poo-poo’ed opportunities, workshops, classes, feedback etc. I knew I was amazing and that I was a finished product.

Now with the perspective I currently hold, I see myself as stagnant if I’m not learning and growing. I want to lead by example, as a player and as a student. I want my students to know that I am also still learning and growing. I once again hold a lot of confidence in my ability and I trust my instincts and my skills, maybe even more than before. The difference is that I no longer think of myself as a finished product. This allows me to think of my students as being on a continuum of growth as well, instead of my previously held belief that “either they get it or they don’t.”

I think this is a more helpful approach for all involved. I also now love taking workshops, swapping ideas and gaining new knowledge and perspective. Because that’s more awesome stuff I get to share with my students.

What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed at an improv performance?
The hardest I have ever laughed might just be during a show in which I was performing. In fact, I feel like I have a problem with breaking on stage sometimes. It’s just that I perform with such amazingly talented and entertaining people all of the time that it can be hard to keep a straight face!

A couple of months back I played in Maestro with a few members of Girls Girls Girls (GGG). Shana Merlin and I were told to answer questions about baking one-word-at-a-time—as if we were the same character, and which each contributed every other word.

We had the most ridiculous voices and went so fast that by the time our most ridiculous answer came out, I was already on the verge. Shana (who never breaks) started to break, and I thought I was gonna pee my pants. In front of a live audience. That’s when one of the directors asked us to repeat our answer …

Girls Girls Girls

Girls Girls Girls

Favorite warm-up exercise:
Anything physical. “Movement Evolution” played with just two people. Or the “hand slap” game while telling a story a word-at-a-time.

Least favorite warm-up exercise:
This is a tough one, because I love warm-up games. I guess I don’t like math games as much, like the one where you count frog parts. Blergh!

Favorite improv show (you’ve performed in):
I love character work so playing a sitcom mom in The Andersons was an amazing experience:

So was playing ‘The Equation’ in GGG’s unreality show Jerzey Shorez (the Muzical):

If you meet someone who’s hesitant to sign-up for an improv class, what do you tell them?
Interestingly enough, I tell someone who doesn’t want to sign up for class that it’s OK not to sign up for a class. While I think improv skills are super applicable in a variety of settings (I’ve built my entire career on it!) … I also don’t think that I need to proselytize anyone.

I think it’s weird when people say to non-imps that they “have to” take a class, or that it will “change your life.” It’s starts to feel culty when we as improvisers set out to convert the world. I also think that it’s OK for us to specialize in it while others specialize in math or other stuff. My approach to selling classes is to be sincere in my belief that it’s incredibly fun and incredibly valuable for those who are even mildly interested. If you have no interest, fine!

Why do you continue to improvise regularly all these years later?
Every now and then I’ll take a little time off to do something else, because I believe it’s important to broaden my horizons and to refresh the energy stores.

What keeps me coming back is that I am inherently driven by fun and I have not experienced the same levels of fun in anything else I’ve done. Yet. Also my career path is now built around it and I believe my skills as a teacher and facilitator would rust pretty quickly if I wasn’t also still playing and learning so it’s worth it to me to keep challenging myself to play more.

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How has improv improved your life? How can it improve others’ lives?
A significant amount of the really great opportunities in my life have stemmed not only from performing and teaching improv, but through the people I know and love because of improv.

Anything you want to plug?
Come see me in Oregon. I have some cool projects in the works, and Oregon is a beautiful place. I’ll come visit you, Austin, so you come visit me too. And then we all get to be happy!

The final chapter of your Improv Instruction Manual would be titled:
“If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. But if it is, DO!”

What’s one thing that you know that almost nobody else knows?
I tend to run my mouth off a lot, so I think people know a lot about me. I think a lot of people don’t know about Viola Spolin’s work. If you’re serious about improv, you should know about her work and contributions to our art form.

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