Say “hi” to Nathan. Or is it Nate? Or Nathaniel?
Whatever. Pick one and learn it, because he has fast become one of the busiest men in the Austin improv community. A member of improv/sketch supertroupe Nice Astronaut—and 1.2 million other improv troupes and projects—Nathan is a ColdTowne Theater mainstay. But he can be seen all over town—including with yours truly as part of our buddy cop show, “Kopp & Buddy: Buddy Cops” (next Thursday, July 17, at The Hideout). With his Chicago improv bona fides in his back pocket, Nathan brings to Austin stages a compelling mix of sincerity, wit, and unabashed support.
This guy is the real improv deal, and if you haven’t seen him play yet … well, you must not ever go see improv, because seriously, this dude is in every show. Enjoy this fantastic interview with …
Nathan (“Nate” “Nathaniel”) Sowell
Years doing improv:
First of all, what the hell do we call you—Nathan? Nate? Nathaniel? I’m so confused!
I answer to anything. It really depends on my mood and the situation with how I will introduce myself, but the safest bet will be Nathan.
Give us the Reader’s Digest version of your improv journey. Where’d you start, where have you studied, etc.?
I moved to Chicago to pursue a Theater Degree at Columbia College-Chicago. My second semester there, I had a class with Brian Posen. (He actually runs the Chicago SketchFest and is a big force in the town.) He encouraged us to see as many shows as possible, and after my first show at iO, I was hooked.
I decided to drop out of college and focus all of my efforts on improv. I took classes at iO, had an independent team, did lot’s of bar-prov, and failed at a good amount of auditions. Then one winter a giant storm came through and shut the whole city down for a month. My southern roots had had enough. I was ready for a change of scenery, so I moved down here with two buds.
I took a free class at TiT and level 1 at The Hideout but never found my foothold. Then one day I auditioned with Nice Astronaut, started playing with them, and within three months I was taking classes and performing at ColdTowne.
It seems to me like you’re onstage ALL THE TIME. Are you really as busy as you seem? What all are you working on these days? What’s on the horizon?
It ebbs and flows, as I’m sure you know. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. Over the last year I’ve learned how better to prioritize and … USE GOOGLE CALENDARS.
Right now, Nice Astronaut is my base of operation. I have a couple of monthly shows going on right now: Improvaoke, Silent Letters/Dervish has a grounded show, Highdeas is a high concept improv show we are working on, and I am the Commissioner of CageMatch.
Then for troupes: Silent Letters, Concrete, Skutch, Kopp and Buddy: Buddy Cops. I have a new one called IDKY that I am excited about. On the horizon: I will be a part of the TiT show “Late Night Time Machine,” directed by Clifton Highfield, which will be happening every Friday in September.
[Editor’s note: Nathan says it ebbs and flows. But looking at that list, it appears to be all flow right now.]
You and I had a spirited debate about improv styles and forms recently. What “style” of improv most interests you these days? Are there styles of improv that you don’t like at all?
I am all about the relationship. It is probably because I had the iO style drilled into my head for a couple of years and would watch some amazing troupes just commit to each other on stage and create some breathtaking scenes from that.
Take care of your partner, they will take care of you, and together you will reach this special place that you could never have done on your own.
“Don’t like” is a strong term. It is definitely more of a personal preference thing. I would say that I tend not to gravitate toward the short form or the narrative styles of play. That sense of discovery seems limited to me within those constructs.
What’s your greatest strength as a performer? What is uniquely “Nathan” onstage
Vulnerability. My own experiences and background are what make me unique onstage. I am a very emotional guy who has a hard time shutting up. It can be pretty annoying off stage, but seems to work wonders in front of an audience.
What’s a weakness, something you’re working to improve?
My space work can always improve. I am trying to expand the types of characters I play on stage
Why aren’t you teaching improv? You seem like a natural candidate for that. Are you interested in it?
I am not currently teaching at a Training Center, but Nice Astronaut has been teaching workshops during this past year and we don’t plan on slowing down any time soon. There was a little while that I coached a couple of troupes around town, but then I started to have time only to rehearse, perform, or coach, and I slowly realized that I am not at the point of my improv life where coaching is going to be a top priority.
Talk to us about Nice Astronaut.
I owe everything I have done in Austin over these last three years to Nice Astronaut. These guys welcomed me with arms wide open, introduced me to everyone I needed to know, and made me feel like I was a part of the community.
Nice Astronaut had a rocky reputation when I joined them, something that happens to a team that has been around awhile. Within the last three years, we have gone from a scrappy troupe playing every now and then to a force to be reckoned with.
There is no one person responsible for this, it was very much a team effort. If I had to single anybody out, it would be Tim Honker. His steadfast nature and attention to detail is what got us to teach in multiple cities in the southwest, got us to turn Nice Astronaut into an actual legal entity, and got us to one of the best stages to perform improv for the last two years. We meet every 2-3 months and discuss our goals, and we meet them! That is more than I can say for any other project I have ever been involved in.
What’s something that can make someone a better improviser right now?
Jam Jam Jam.
Play Play Play.
Fail Fail Fail.
Learn Learn Learn.
Who’s your favorite non-Austin improviser?
Jet Eveleth from The Reckoning. She goes all in on every scene. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually. I aspire to be at her level one day.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
There was a lock in bit, my first year at ColdTowne. It was called The Larry. It was just four performers looking upward and confessing their failures and love to some man named Larry. It was so stupid, and SOOOOO FUNNY. I was delirious by the end of that set.
Anything you want to plug?
Come see some crazy grounded improv the last Sunday of every month at ColdTowne. Dervish and Silent Letters will open your mind, and spew laughter into it.
What’s something most people don’t know?
When I was 15, I had a couple of videos that were on the front page of Youtube, which turned me into a Youtube star for 15 minutes. I ended up getting rid of most of those videos when I decided to pursue comedy because I didn’t want to be known as that guy who does lip syncing videos. It is incredibly embarrassing.