I think of Arthur Simone as the D.B. Cooper of Austin improv. Back in the 1950s, D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane, extorted $200,000, then jumped out of the plane to escape. He was never found. So he’s either living in anonymity somewhere or he was eaten by vultures after his body slammed into the Oregon soil.
My point is, Arthur Simone is a man of mystery. He’s reserved and thoughtful and wise offstage, but onstage, his reservations evaporate — i.e., this guy will do anything that an improv scene cries out for. He’ll go there. And he’s a fantastic actor to boot, so he’ll go there and make you believe you’re right there with him. As one of the founding members of ColdTowne Theater, his reputation is cemented into Austin improv lore. A smart, intriguing guy.
But mostly I interviewed him to see if he’s D.B. Cooper, Jr. or what.
Years doing improv:
• Arthur’s Etsy Store features his original artwork
Troupes or shows you’re involved in now:
• Bot Party
• Fusebox Festival (April 9-11, 2015)
What is the origin story for ColdTowne Theater?
Jastroch, Justin, Chris, Tami, and I blew into town after Hurricane Katrina, making friends with and performing at the Hideout Theatre during some dark, confusing times at the end of 2005. We did some bonkers, cathartic shows all over town — from the Austin Museum of Art to the Carousel Lounge to the original Drafthouse on Colorado, and Austin loved us for it. John Dorgan and Conrad Bejarano of Spiderhouse Cafe offered to let us use an unused storage room at I Luv Video as a performance space, so we jumped.
Once the Frank Mills caught wind that we were thinking of teaching Chicago-style long form in Austin, they joined forces to help us open the Conservatory and the Theater in October of 2006. Our first show was a monoscene in a baseball dugout; we all took turns at bat and I remember it like it was yesterday.
Some Johnstonian dupes named Parallelogramophonograph agreed to anchor a Thursday night long form slot, while comics like Seth Cockfield and the Texas Travesty helped us organize stand-up on Fridays. We wanted to work with funny people whom we liked without having to really define what kind of venue we were.
Several graduations and student teams later we added show slots and the front space to accommodate more of everything we loved; we won awards and got recognized (!) as local personalities at a packed restaurant and scored a table and felt unstoppable. In 2008-2009 we partnered with SXSW and the Austin improv community (AIC) to bring Upright Citizens Brigade and TJ & Dave down for shows and workshops, and basked in being able to turn our newly adopted home on to the kind of improv we lived for.
That year ended with a bang! Despite our success, we couldn’t stand one another. Long simmering personal, professional, and artistic differences boiled over and in the end Chris Trew and Tami Nelson were shown the door. I’ve had several years to think about the split, and while I have some old rusty regrets I know in my heart that ColdTowne Theater and The New Movement were both given necessary breathing room to refine our respective philosophies and breathe the right kind of energy into a nationally emerging art form hungry for a Southern identity.
Why is ColdTowne open seven days per week? Making that decision must have meant a few trade-offs and challenges.
I poo-pooed expanding the schedule almost every step of the way, fearing that we’d dilute the audience that we had worked hard for. Fortunately, our student and performer base stepped up and put on kick-ass shows that filled the house and proved me wrong. The intern system and next-man-up mentality prevailed from a logistical standpoint, and Austin gobbled up more and more of the right kind of improv.
A prospective student corners you at a party and asks, “Why should I study at ColdTowne, anyway?!?!” How do you reply? What is ColdTowne’s simple philosophy about improv?
Ha-HA! That’s right, I said “the right kind of improv!” I regret nothing!
ColdTowne Theater teaches and performs a kind of Improv Minimalism, if you (and, uh, enough of the CT faculty) can stomach that term… Minimal in costumes, lights, sound cues, plots, and character arcs. I prefer it when sympathetic human characters are evoked rather than shoe-horned into an audience’s imagination. My favorite laughter to hear comes rattling out of a crowd like a pebble in a soda can.
Who’s the funniest human who’s lived?
Probably the Buddha, though he never really put out an album
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
Not sure, though most recently the UK’s Peep Show had me giggling like I was eight again.
What’s something you’re especially good at in an improv scene?
I’ve got decent acting chops and can sell an absurd reality or character pretty well. I’m generally comfortable on a stage; you could give me 30 minutes of silence and I think I could make it work.
You’ve been doing this a long, long time. What does it take to get or keep you engaged in the art form (and community) of improv?
Everything’s been done and there are no good jokes anymore and art is dead.
That said, long-form improvisation is becoming an undeniable force in American theatre. It is accessible and it is immediate and it can jump from silly to surreal to visceral to bittersweet like nothing else. I’m proud of what the community has accomplished, both as a result, and in spite of, our efforts. When stuffy theatre historians deign to include improv in their texts, I want to make sure Austin and ColdTowne are in the mix.
You’re the guy who makes ColdTowne run, literally. You fix things when they break, you make capital improvements to the theater, you work. What do you like about serving that role for your theater? Or is it just out of necessity?
These days it’s people like Katie Moore and Andrew Basile that keep the space and team running, and I thank my lucky stars for the energy that Cody Dearing brings to our theater. What their efforts have blessed me with is headspace to start planning for a future venue and a Conservatory that lasts for years and years past my own death, which you’ll find at the end of this interview.
You’re a space buff. What’s the most amazing outer space fact you know of?
We’re in space now! It’s here and there and made to absorb jokes like a sponge.
If you were writing an improv manual, what would be the titles of the first three chapters?
• Futurism, Artaud, Brook, Brecht and Grotowski in a Blender
• Meatspace and Paths of Action
• We Are All Complicit in a Lie
What will the Austin improv scene look like in 10 years?
Austin’s growth is uncanny, which is a blessing and a curse. Actors and artists are being steadily squeezed out of affordable housing and living wages, and reasonable commercial leases are tough as hell to find. We’d all be wise to seek out sustainable models for moving companies forward and growing a scene that nurtures the authentic Southern spirit that the rest of the country is so desperate for. There are currently five improv families in five theaters; let’s aim for ten in ten, why the hell not? If you can imagine it you can make it happen.
What’s your worst onstage tendency?
Taking myself emotionally out of a scene because it isn’t good enough. I sometimes stay offstage for months on end because of a bad show, I’m very hard on myself as a performer.
Anything you want to plug?
I’ve become fascinated by the notion of clowning in a space with robotic systems, and will be doing a full comedic production of Bot Party for Fusebox Festival this coming April.
Robots have to be given very narrow parameters for how to when to ‘act,’ so applying improvisation to theatrical machines has been just the kind of mind-fuck I need to stay inspired.
What’s one thing that most people don’t know?
A few years ago I had the temerity to go onstage with my dog Robin Goodfellow to improvise for America’s Got Talent and got slaughtered within seconds. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be assaulted by a wall of thunderous boos from thousands of people, it’s not as fun as you’d think. I froze. Thankfully the segment didn’t air.
And now my death, as promised.
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