The Sunday Interview: Kareem Badr

Kareem Badr is one-third of the ownership squad at the Hideout Theatre in downtown Austin. He’s also one-fourth of Austin’s longest continuously running improv troupe Parallelogramophonograph. He’s also 1/11th of Everything & Nothing: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays, playing Saturday nights at the Hideout. He’s around 20% of the production team for the annual Out of Bounds Comedy Festival.

He’s also 100% of Kareem Badr. (Pronounced “Bah-drah.”) This man is fascinating, knowledgeable, and opinionated. Enjoy getting to know him a bit better…

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KAREEM BADR

Age: 36
Years doing improv: Just under 10
Troupes/shows currently involved in:

• Parallelogramophonograph
• The Big Bash
• Nothing and Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays

Web presence: No personal sites at the moment. But pgraph.com and hideouttheatre.com for the usual improv-y things.


Kareem, you’re a co-owner of The Hideout Theatre. Why did you buy a theatre?
The honest answer is that we just didn’t want The Hideout to go away.

Roy Janik and I were just talking about this recently, actually. I think it was during the Austin Improv Thanksgiving Potluck in 2007 when Andy Crouch kind of pulled Roy and I aside and mentioned that Sean Hill, the original owner, wasn’t going to sign the lease again when it came up for renewal in 2009.

We got together with Jessica Arjet soon after and started the long process of getting the landlords to let us sign a lease for the upstairs space only, and then convinced Sean to sell us the business.

I had kind of joked about owning a theater someday for a while, but I had no intention of owning the theater I first learned at. The opportunity presented itself and we were too naive to realize we had absolutely no business owning a theater. Roy and I had been improvising less than three years, we hadn’t owned a business before, and we were actively trying to buy The Hideout?! Reading that sentence, I think we must have been insane.

P-Graph, your troupe, has been doing a weekly improv show for what–six years? eight? How do you maintain interest after so many shows? How do you keep yourself engaged?
Eight years of weekly shows. We took a month off once, in between moving from Coldtowne to The Hideout, and we all went crazy and regretted the decision.

Maintaining interest isn’t really a problem for us. Being in a troupe for nine years creates a trust and group mind that gets stronger with time. I don’t think any of us take that for granted. It has been pretty hard for us to develop new formats and show concepts as PGraph with the frequency that we used to, but that’s because we’re all individually producing and directing shows at The Hideout.

But we continue to push ourselves week to week, and we travel a lot to reach for new experiences. Plus we’ve always been collectively easily-dissatisfied and grow bored if we do the same thing for too long. I guess the key to staying engaged is that we’re all terrified of becoming stagnant, so we find news ways to push ourselves as a group and shake things up.

PGraph in their recent "silent film" format show.

PGraph in their recent “silent film” format show.

What’s something you think newer improvisers could do (or not do) right now to become better improvisers right away?
Slow. The Fuck. Down.

When we first start improvising, our minds are racing a mile a minute. We just run our mouths to fill that terrifying silence instead of looking at the other people who are on stage with us and taking in everything that’s going on. I think newer improvisers tend to think that if they’re not saying something on stage it means they’re not contributing to the scene.

Being comfortable with that silence and the unknown was a huge milestone for me.

And space work! I find it infinitely inspiring and it doubles as a tool for slowing down, since you have to go slower to mime things with precision.

What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
This is such a hard question, and I have a terrible memory, but here’s what came to mind …

I have a distinct memory of being a kid (10? 12?), watching Airplane with my best friend. There’s this stupid joke where someone in the ground crew says “They’re lost? But that’s impossible, they’ve got instruments!” and then it jump cuts to four characters in the cockpit of the plane playing raucous New Orleans jazz.

Jesus, I lost my shit when I saw that. I think we rewound the VHS tape over and over and over. I am hesitant to find the clip on YouTube because I’m sure it’s underwhelming now…

Nope, still funny as shit. I just scared my dog laughing.

Do you think you intimidate other improvisers? Why or why not?
Oh … yeah. “Intimidating” is the adjective people use to describe me pretty regularly. But usually it’s months after the person has become my friend and they confide in me “When I first met you, I was really intimidated by you…” The number of times I’ve heard that is kind of depressing, actually.

Now I am sad.

I don’t really know why I intimidate other improvisers. Partly, it’s probably because I am one of the owners of The Hideout and am the one mostly responsible for all the fiddly little physical things that break and need to be repaired. And a lot of people forget that the place they’re going to cut loose and have fun also happens to be my job (as well as my hobby.) So people sometimes see me marching through the theater or the coffee house with my head down, on a mission to fix this, replace that, or whatever, and they get intimidated.

I’ve made a concerted effort not to be like that in recent years, but people’s memories and perceptions of others tend to take a while to adjust or fade.

It’s weird, though, because I feel like as a performer and teacher, I’m a pretty supportive and positive improviser. I don’t really have an ego or voice of judgement while I’m improvising, and I actually adore playing with less-experienced, or completely inexperienced, improvisers. *Shrug* I’m nice! Come on guys! Stop being intimidated by me. I SAID STOP BEING INTIMIDATED!

Kareem not being intimidating.

Kareem not being intimidating.

What’s a non-improv book/movie/piece of music that has taught you how to be a better improviser?
I am hesitant to say this, only because I heard Roy name drop it in a recent podcast he did, and I am on a futile mission to prove that we are independent people who don’t share a brain, but…

Story, by Robert McKee.

It’s a classic screenwriting book. When I first started improvising and messing around with doing narrative improv, I devoured lots of story theory and storytelling books, as an attempt to kind of internalize it all. Story is mostly unhelpful as an improviser, since McKee talks a lot about re-writing and editing, but he does make the point that any scene that’s in a film has to be there for a reason. And the longer a scene is, the more significant it must be.

We can’t do re-writes as improvisers, but we definitely use that concept in the moment and sort of take stock of how long we’ve spent on a particular idea or relationship in a show, and find ways to justify it and make it important as a choice.

That idea — of showing the audience the important stuff — also helped me a lot as a teacher. When I first started teaching, there would usually be one or two students who would push back against in-scene direction I gave with the argument “but that’s what I’d do in real life.” For a while I didn’t know why that was wrong, but I knew it was. The way McKee described the purpose of scenes in screenplay helped me articulate why most events as they happen in real life don’t really belong on stage. We want to see the important stuff: the drama or the moment of change or the revelation. The boring real life parts get edited out of films and plays and novels.

There are other resources that have influenced me as well, of course. Joseph Campbell, Akira Kurosawa, the aikido sword classes I’ve been taking. But I realize that once I was bitten by the improv bug I started to filter everything through that lens, looking for applications.

You seem very selective about which non-P-Graph shows you do. What’s your criteria for what you devote your creative energy and time to?
This took me by surprise, actually. I think this has probably been true lately, in the last 2-3 years, but there was a time when I was involved in almost every mainstage show at The Hideout. It was rare if I wasn’t, actually.

I was traveling once per month for half of 2012, so that kind of prevented me from being able to commit to mainstage shows. And then once we took over the Coffee House (downstairs of the Hideout) in November of 2012, I felt pretty overwhelmed and it took a long time to feel adjusted to the new workload. Beyond scheduling conflicts and exhaustion, I think I’ve been less likely to jump into a show unless I’m really compelled and excited to do it.

There are so many amazing improvisers who want to do these shows that I don’t feel like I’m really needed. So if I’m not super jazzed about a show concept, I don’t feel the need to do it.

Got any good “P-Graph on tour” stories you’d like to share? You’ve done a ton of traveling, after all.
Man, I dunno. We’re rather tame as a traveling arts group. We’re pretty boring and focused on the road.

Getting recognized on the street in Edinburgh as being part of Roy and Kaci’s wedding party was really weird.

Waking up in our tiny Edinburgh flat to see Kaci hunched over her suitcase, brandishing a fire extinguisher, shouting “DIE! DIE!” at a mouse will always make me smile.

Where will the Hideout be in five years?
617 Congress Avenue.

That is both a joke and completely serious.

I love that building, for all its leaks and faults. And the location was a huge factor in our decision to take over the business. So if the theatre gods smile upon us, we’ll hopefully be in the same location. And we’ll just keep growing as we have been since we took over in 2009. We’ll have more classes, hopefully in both a north studio and a permanent downtown auxiliary space, as well as bigger audiences across the board. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a couple more little Hideout Coffee Bars around the city, assuming the one we opened this summer proves to be successful.

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Bemoaning the empty vodka decanter in “Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays”

 

There are basically so many aspects to The Hideout that it’s hard to list where we’ll be in five years. I want every part of it to grow and succeed.

As a business owner, I’ve also had a goal for a while of providing health care to the coffee house employees. We’re nowhere near being able to do that now, but having the goal in mind tends to act as a compass that slowly guides decisions to get you there.

If a prospective student asks you what “type of improv” the Hideout will teach them, what do you say?
I would say that it’s rooted in the work of Keith Johnstone, who is one of the founders of modern improvisation. And that early on in the classes, we focus on making you aware of, and then silencing, all those little voices of self-doubt that you have in your head, telling you you’re not good enough and your ideas are terrible. And then we get into improvising stories of all shapes and sizes. From short scenes all the way to full shows, eventually.

I think The Hideout’s kind of productive training wheels approach resonated with me, personally, and it’s become the basis of how I teach and direct everything.

Who’s an underrated Austin improviser or troupe?
Ammon Taylor.

Valerie has been saying for a while that he’s the best improviser in Austin. Or most generous. He’s amazingly talented and humble and a delight to play with. I think anyone who’s worked with him sings his praises [I swear that was not an intentional pun], so its hard to really call him “underrated,” but I think more people should know and recognize how wonderful he is.

I’ve gotten to work with him a lot over the last year as part of The Big Bash and it’s been so fun and effortless. PGraph has him guest with us once in a while, and we take twisted delight in torturing and poking him on stage because we know he loves it and is totally capable and down for anything.

Let’s say you’re writing an improv manual. What’re the titles of the first three chapters?
(PGraph is actually working on a book, on and off, but rather than lift the first three chapter titles from our outline, I’ll list some of my own common teaching phrases.)

1. This is a chair and this is how you move it from one place to another.
2. Fuckin’ Do It!
3. F.S.U.

Speaking of writing, you’re a writer—stories and novels and whatnot. Can you tell us how improv influences your writing or vice versa?
Oh, I am hesitant to call myself a writer. Mostly because I “don’t write.” At least not with regularity. I have some plans to fix that in the coming months, though.

But to answer your question, I definitely noticed a difference between when I first tried to write 12 or 15 years ago and when I write now. I used to try to think of an interesting idea, and then I’d think it to death and either write it or think it into a corner and decide it wasn’t any good.

Now, when I do sit down to write, I just want a single spark of inspiration. An image or a setting. Something that’s enough to grab my attention and make me ask “what’s that about?” and then I start writing to discover it. The act of writing has become an act of discovery and I kind of embrace that in a way I never used to. I’m sure that’s the result of years of improv training.

Who’s funnier, Steve Martin or Bill Hicks?
They are both hilarious and I love them both, but I think I have to say Steve Martin.

Bill Hicks pioneered a certain brand of angry politically-aware humor, and I think there was a time where I really dug that shouty cynical white guy stand-up, but I’m kind of over that now.

And Steve Martin was just…so…weird. Truly unique and constantly pushing on the boundaries of what worked and didn’t work. The (totally insincere) arrogant celebrity personality he created for himself is so wonderfully absurd and he did it with such a straight face. He also apparently used to hand out these pre-autographed business cards in the 80s:

steve-martin-business-card

… and that’s so perfectly in line with his sense of humor and that arrogant persona he created. His autobiography is fantastic. Also, some of his New Yorker pieces are amazing. This one is so unbelievably dry, and the reveal of casino bit absolutely kills me.

Give us a two-word description of your fellow P-Graphers.
Roy Janik: Relentlessly positive
Kaci Beeler: Stubbornly driven
Valerie Ward: Nurturing and Crafty

Who’s your hero?
I don’t know that I have one. I have so many people that I admire and am inspired by. I tend to obsess over crazy, super-productive creative people, though. One that comes to mind is Craig Ferguson. I don’t even watch his show anymore, but I find him endlessly fascinating. He started his career as a drummer in a punk band, touring the UK and Europe. Then he started doing standup and became a successful touring performer for years before moving to the US, where he wrote and directed a couple films, wrote a novel, and got his late night show. His opening monologues are improvised and pure silly joy, and then his interviews can be meaningful and poignant. That’s a hell of a diverse career and set of skills for one person.

Anything you want to plug?
• PGraph, every Friday at 10pm at The Hideout.
Nothing and Everything: Improvised Chekhov, every Saturday at 8 at The Hideout through December.
• The Burning Page Podcast. Coming soon. I’m only putting this here writing so I get off my ass and actually do something with it.

What’s something that most people don’t know?
I’ll give you two.

1. I barely move when I sleep and have been told that I go from sleeping to eyes wide open awake in an instant. I also fall asleep almost immediately. So maybe I’m actually a robot.

2. I have a small birthmark on the left side of my stomach. It has a tiny freckle in it, and my father has the same exact birthmark in the same exact spot, freckle and all. I’ve been told that his mother had it, too, and I have no idea how far back in my family it goes, why on earth that would be encoded in my DNA, or what magic powers it’s supposed to give me.

PGraph in Las Vegas!

PGraph in Las Vegas!

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