Of the many admirable traits of this week’s interviewee, Sir Michael Joplin, my favorite might be his creative energy. To meet Michael Joplin is to know that energy is in surplus; the man, even in repose, is crackling with the stuff. But most impressive is how he applies that energy toward the actual creation of act works of art. The man just makes. stuff. happen. A couple of months back, he reprised the theatrical homage to wrestling known at the Blue High Machine, one of the biggest spectacles I’ve ever witnessed in the theater. Then last month I saw him play (excellently) the lead in the Soviet-era play, The Suicide. He’s also an improviser from way back and an integral member of two long-running godtroupes, The Knuckleball Now and The Available Cupholders.
Long story short: Michael Joplin is an artist, and you should listen to him. I mean, there are about a dozen supremely wise statements lurking in here. SEE IF YOU CAN SPOT THEM!!! SEND IN A SELF-ADDRESSED STAMPED ENVELOPE!!!
Years doing improv:
You’ve been around Austin improv for a long, long time. Tell us a little about how you first got involved and what the community looked like then.
I first got involved in high school at Westwood High School, where a lot of our Austin improvisers went to school. My senior year I was cast in a troupe called Monk’s Night Out. I was 18 at the time, I think. I couldn’t get into the bar [where the show’s were] sometimes and I had to remind them I was a performer in the show. Legend of the game, David Lampe, would come outside and smoke cigarettes in front of Casino El Camino with me after shows while everyone else was hanging out inside. (Yes, he looked exactly the same in 1997.)
There weren’t any improv schools or improv theaters. I think there was Theatersports going down at Northcross Mall. There was very little improv to speak of other than bar-prov for drunk people. We played lots of games and made lots of dick jokes. It was a great era.
You’re also a proper actor, stage and screen. What does improv provide that those outlets don’t, and vice versa?
Improv greatly helps as an actor because it’s all about being in the moment, tying yourself to the present. It’s all about what is happening now, and now, and now. Constantly changing. When you are using a script the same principal applies, but you know the words already. Great acting, like great improv, happens when it feels completely spontaneous. It’s when you see the performers are using their gut instincts without hesitation.
The audience can get lost for a moment and believe they are the characters. Improvisation can help an actor give him or herself permission to trust their instincts.
Your troupe, The Knuckleball Now, is a powerhouse that’s been around a long time. Why’s it been around so long? How do you not grow tired of it?
Knuckleball has changed quite a bit over the years. I joined the group after it had several years under its belt. But I think the secret to our success is that we love one another. We trust one another. We can give each other criticism. We don’t take it personal. We know how to collaborate.
You teach improv at Merlin Works. What’s the most difficult improv lesson to impart to students?
Relax. Enjoy the ride. It can be a struggle to get better. Especially starting out in this thriving improv community we have full of talented people. Don’t measure anyone against yourself. It doesn’t happen overnight or over the course of eight classes. If you want to be really great at something you have to be willing to be truly terrible. Before you go onstage ask yourself if you are willing to fail. When you truly believe that success isn’t the goal you will free yourself up to do your best work.
What can make someone a better improviser right now?
Read books, especially playwrights. Pay attention to people. Find interesting characters out there in the world.
You seem to play very quickly. Is that something you’ve learned or is it natural? Can you teach someone “improv speed”?
I’m a pretty intense dude. Any game or warmup can be modified to focus on pacing. Also, I think sometimes people mistake a willingness to edit scenes quickly as playing faster. I just really enjoy the moment when you reset the space and change up the magic. That doesn’t mean that I always feel the need to speak quickly or pick up the space between the lines.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
Most likely in a rental car somewhere with Kaci, Jeremy, Ace, and Bill on a Cupholders trip. We have squandered hours of comedy gold just driving around.
What’s the creative dream?
To do what I love with my time. To make enough money to support myself through those endeavors and keep collaborating with people who inspire me.
Want to plug anything?
Yes, a couple of things. The Available Cupholders will be doing a scripted performance of Tom Stoppard’s The Fifteen Minute Hamlet at the Institution Theater in early July. I will also be in a play at Salvage Vanguard this fall called Am I White. Check out my music via Manateemann. And sign up for some Merlin Works classes!
What’s something most people don’t know?
I have carnie blood.