Peter Rogers would’ve made a very good Founding Father.
That’s all I’ll say to introduce this week’s Sunday Interviewee, because Peter has plenty to say for himself…
Years doing improv: 14, with a three-year sabbatical (’04-’07)
Web presence: peter.austinimprov.com (It’s awful. I desperately need to update it. Don’t go there.)
Troupes and shows you’re involved in currently:
- Nothing and Everything
- Pick Your Own Path
- And I suppose the Black Vault is pretty much a troupe at this point
I’m going to start by asking you to brag, because I don’t think it comes naturally to you. You’re an exceedingly humble man, but you’re also very good at improv. So tell us, why do you think you perform so well and so often? Please be as brazen as possible.
BECAUSE ALL ARE MERE ANTS IN THE PRESENCE OF MY GODLIKE TALEEEEENT
BOW BEFORE ME, PEONS!
MU HU HA HA HA HA!!!
People say, and I’d agree, that I’m good at (1) sensing how a bunch of stuff that’s happened in a narrative show all fits together, (2) knowing enough about a wide variety of subjects to be hyper-specific in all sorts of circumstances, and (3) being totally willing to cede the spotlight and offer support. 
Ideally, I can be a sort of Phil Hartman utility player who’s playing “plot sheepdog” and holding things together.
And speaking to “getting cast often,” at least part of that is just bland professionalism. There’s a lot to be said for showing up on time, doing your homework, and being easy to get along with. Yes, there are plenty of responsible people who don’t get cast much, but there are very, very few “oops, I flaked out again” people who do.
Plus I’ve taken a few lengthy breaks, which has perhaps kept the Austin improv community from getting bored with me.
What purpose does improv serve in your life?
If there’s a spectrum between “improv is my god and purpose” and “improv is my weekly poker night,” I’m probably closer to the “weekly poker night” end of things.
It’s relaxing to have a place I regularly visit where everything is crazy and that’s OK. Socially, improvisors are fabulous—by and large they’re inventive, funny, adventurous, and good-natured. I feel like the improv community is a great base of operations: if I want to do any kind of whimsical creative project, there are folks willing to help out with it. And I’m always interested in seeing what different directions the art of improv can go in.
You’ve been doing improv for awhile now. What does it take to excite you about an improv endeavor these days? Are you pickier than you used to be about how you spend your improv time?
I’ve absolutely gotten pickier with time. At this point, if I’m doing a show that requires an investment of effort and money and time, that show has to be new and different somehow. If I’m just doing improv to do improv, I can do that at an improv jam, or I could try & get cast in the week’s Maestro, or I could do a quick one-off at the Free Fringe. If I’m going to do some serious endeavor, then I want to attempt something that’s impossible — or at least impossible for me personally. (Y halo thar, stand-up comedy.)
What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading a book about Kickstarter projects. We just launched a Kickstarter project for the Black Vault, so I’m learning everything I can about crowdfunding.
I’m also reading SuperFreakonomics, the second pop economics essay collection from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I keep coming back to economics in my reading, and I keep trying to understand it. So much of economics seems baffling to me.
Like, how come so much of the nation’s income goes to people in the financial industry? The reductive answer is that duh, they’re financial wizards, so they’ve collectively found some way to game the system to their own advantage. But then again, being able to have loans and bonds and investments and financial instruments is really useful to society. But surely spending billions to shave nanoseconds off of stock trades doesn’t do the world any good. It’s all very puzzling.
(Oh, and you can see all my blathering about books [and TV, and movies] at this LJ tag.)
You built and administer the Austin Improv Wiki. Why on earth take on such a huge project for zero money? I mean, it’s fantastic. (God knows this blog links to it regularly.) But don’t you want some cash or, at least, serious public recognition?
Heh. Well, honestly, I first started on it figuring it would be a crowd-written thing. That is, I thought I could just make the basic wiki site, and then everybody in the community would make pages for it, and it would sort of manage itself à la Wikipedia. And, yeah, it hasn’t really turned out like that. A few AIC-ers have made content on the wiki, for which I’m very grateful, but I’d guess that only 20% of the people who use the wiki even know that they can, in fact, edit it. 
It’s been a lot of fun online detective work. I liked piecing together the history of mainstage shows at the Hideout. I enjoyed writing a Python program that generated pages for every troupe that had ever applied to play there. I’ve learned a lot of things I genuinely never knew, like the long, long history of Start Trekkin‘.
And looking back on the wiki, it’s kind of baffling how much stuff is on there. I think it’s about half the size of the IRC wiki, the acknowledged wiki for the global improv community.
Mainly, the payoff is my own convenience. When I made the intro to Confidence Men’s 100th show, it was really handy having links to every photoset of them ever posted.
When I want to tell somebody about, say, One More Night, it’s really handy to give them a link with all of the relevant info. I even use it to call up the cast list for shows I’m in. (“Okay, which two cast members still haven’t made it to rehearsal?”)
I’ve had to deal with some weird backlash against the wiki. Several people have gotten actively irate with me for documenting something “insignificant.” I’ve gotten some blowback about how improv is ephemeral, so there shouldn’t be documentation about it. You can’t please everyone, I guess. But I’ve gotten some recognition and gratitude, which I always appreciate.
Who’s an underrated troupe or performer in Austin?
I don’t know if they’re underrated, but I will always sing the praises of Franz & Dave. There are so many things to like about that duo. They leverage “persona improv” wonderfully, with fun takes on both Franz Kafka and David Lynch. Their stage pictures are gorgeous:
They make you realize, to your own disappointment, just how many scenes you’ve seen (and done) that were “two guys standing center stage, talking at each other and not doing any space work”. I’m so happy they’ll be going to the Alaska State Improv Festival to blow some minds there.
To your opinion, what’s most often the difference between a successful improv scene and an unsuccessful one?
That’s a good question, because different scenes have different definitions of “success.” My experience of Chicago was that they were exploring organic work—primarily Harolds—and just going as deep into that style as possible. Austin likes to go for more breadth, exploring a variety of styles and drawing in unexplored genres and art forms. Both are succeeding at what they’ve set out to do.
One big difference between “successful” and “unsuccessful” is business savvy. This isn’t the sexy part of improv, but face it: if your scene doesn’t know how to market shows, nobody will come see them. If your scene doesn’t know how to manage expenses, it’ll go broke. If your scene doesn’t have a business plan, then it won’t grow. We can have endless discussions about what artistic decisions foster growth and success, but if the business infrastructure isn’t there, it’s all moot.
The bottom line is, in any improv scene that’s working, somebody’s unclogging the toilets. There are hardworking people who love the art so much that they’re willing to write the grant proposals, fix the lighting grids, arrange the workshops, and on and on and on. If the logistics of a scene are running soundly, then it can succeed in any number of directions.
You’re quite nimble with words in improv scenes. Your onstage vocabulary is about 50% larger than the average improviser’s. What do you make of that? Do you notice it? Do you have to turn up your onstage focus in order to select le mot juste?
Thanks! (Le mot what now?)
But seriously, answering your last question first: no, I don’t make an effort to say interesting and nuanced words. Instead, I have to make an effort not to pick weird words—all part of my lifelong effort to sound not like a pretentious, incomprehensible ass. I have to put up a filter (not a ‘bulwark,’ Peter, nobody knows ‘bulwark‘) to keep “perspicacious” and “jejune” at bay.
I know lots of words because I’ve always been obsessed with learning words.
When I was a little kid I had a tattered copy of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary that I read all the time. These days I check in on Word Spy to see what new words have cropped up. And the Kindle lets you instantly look up words you don’t know, which is convenient. Of course, that just leads to the question “why is Peter obsessed with learning new words?” Answer: no idea.
I can’t remember ever seeing you do short form. Why don’t you do more short form?
I think it’s that bias towards doing things I haven’t done before. If I’m doing a short-form game, it’ll be pleasant enough, but I often have to find some new twist on it—a game within the game—to keep myself interested.  Sadly, I can never just settle into a game, finding new facets of it and enjoying it for what it is.
Still, I don’t have quite such a “newness” bias against short scenes. I often find that improv jams are the best places to scratch that itch. It’s great to work with new people, and there’s always a great energy to the room, doing scenes for a bunch of fellow improvisors who want you to succeed.
There is a lot of improv in Austin. And you started back when there was far, far less. Predict for us the general contours of the Austin improv community two years, five years, ten years from now. Where are we headed?
We will scrape out meager scenes in the underground sewers, as we flee the swarms of sentient killbots unleashed by science gone awry. It will be an endless hat game, except instead of guarding against getting your hat stolen, you’ll be watching for the laser sights of deadly heli-drone snipers.
I mean, we all know that’s the endgame, right?
In the meantime, I find myself wondering how well the improv audience will grow over the years. If we hit a ceiling on the audience size, then we hit a limit to how many shows we can put on, and then we get that steady-state you see in a lot of cities where the improv schools churn out lots of graduates, but there’s an old guard that holds on to all the stage time. And I suppose that can foster a sort of complacency—e.g., “Well, the improv audience likes <x>, and the audience is always going to be the size it is, so let’s just keep doing <x>.”
But I think the Austin improv audience still has plenty of room to grow, at least for now.
And I can’t really see Austin improv becoming the “oh no, will the fancy talent agent notice me?” stepping stone it often is in L.A. or New York, simply because any improvisor who thinks like that will, quite sensibly, move away to L.A. or New York. It means Austin should keep a self-selected sample of improvisors who just like improvising.
So I like to think that the Austin improv community (AIC) of the future is like the AIC of the present, only more so. Maybe the scene expands out geographically to include permanent theaters in Round Rock or East Austin. And I’d like to think our bent towards experimentation stays strong. I could see an AIC where Maestro runs forever, but the experimental edge keeps expanding out from there — more mixed media, more intriguing uses of technology, more crazy performance art. I’d like to think that today’s Free Fringe is tomorrow’s staid and traditional performance.
And again, ten years from now: killbot swarms. Everywhere.
You’re in rehearsals for Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays, directed by Jon Bolden. You’ve previously done plenty of genre improv, including a Charles Dickens show. How does this show differ from those?
Oh, man. First off: genre shows are all different. It’s kind of ironic that all “genre improv” sometimes gets lumped together, when the defining quality of genre improv is that each genre has its own language, its own tropes, its own demands on the performer. And Chekhov is one of the more out-there genres I’ve taken on.
For instance: there’s no hero. There’s no one person that a Chekhov show is about.  For narrative, that’s a real curve ball. We have to commit absolutely to making it an ensemble piece: scenes shift focus on the fly from conversation to conversation; a character can’t just serve someone else’s story, they have to have their own plot going on; and in a cast of twelve people, it’s difficult to judge whether you’re taking enough focus while leaving enough space for all the other threads.
And keep in mind: you’re not doing a Harold. You’re still doing narrative improv, and plot is still progressing throughout this, so, y’know, good luck tracking everything that’s going on.
The other thing I’m noticing in Chekhov is its combination of farce and realism. You have characters who are ridiculous, characters who are blatant hypocrites, characters who are caught in silly, self-destructive patterns of behavior—and yet these are real, credible people. You don’t get to go the Dickens route of creating engaging grotesques. You have to somehow thread the needle of “this character is ludicrous” and “this character is us.” It’s like you’re trying to do Arrested Development and mumblecore at the same time. I’m still trying to get a bead on that, but hey, I’ve still got, what, four days ’til the preview show? It’ll be fine.
What’s the hardest you’ve laughed in your life?
Watching There’s Something About Mary in the theater in a blue-collar part of Boston. It’s really rare that seeing a movie with a crowd really changes the experience for me, but that was one of those rare times. The flick has never been nearly as good since.
If you wrote an improv instruction manual, what would be the titles of the first three chapters?
My chapter titles would be soooo pretentious. It’d be awesome.
1. Baffled Dancers
Okay, lemme explain. You want to see something funny? Find a beginning social dance student. Tell them to go from point A to point B. They’ll walk, perfectly normally, from point A to point B.
And then, at some other time, tell them to go from point A to point B during a dance. Suddenly, all their movements are stiff, stilted, and informed, down to the tiniest detail, by “holy crap holy crap am I doing this right am I screwing this up oh no.” So you have this person, who knows perfectly well how to walk, staggering twitchily from point A to point B.
So it is with improv. You get beginners—who know perfectly well how to just be a human being—suddenly seize up and panic at the prospect of being a human being on a stage. As far as I can tell, step one is always going to be to make a beginner feel safe enough to be themselves.
Note: I would totally rip off this chapter’s material from Shana Merlin, who is the best around at this kind of training.
2. Making Observations
I wrote a post about improv narration a while back, and it got me thinking that a big thing I’d want to emphasize for beginners is the importance of watching the show. If you’re able to be a normal person onstage, and you’re able to observe what’s going on around you on stage, then for many varieties of improv, you’re all set. And then, once you’re watching the show, you can also make observations of what you see. Basically I’m emphasizing the “yes” and “yes and” here.
And I find that, if you observe closely enough, and you “yes” hard enough, you’ll inevitably spill over into some amount of “and.” The thing that you “see” happening onstage might actually be an inference nobody else has made.
3. The Whole Picture
Nobody improvises in a vacuum. I’d want to plant seeds early on for new improvisors about working with tech, working with directors, working with troupes and rehearsal groups, and the whole bird’s eye view of the sorts of people that come together to make a show happen. It’s not that they have to know all of this at the start, but (1) it gives them an idea of where the road can lead them — maybe they wind up in a especially technical mainstage show, or maybe they form a regularly performing troupe, or they might actually want to help out with supporting the community; and (2) it makes sure we train improvisors who can see beyond their own performance. If, say, you don’t know how to find your light onstage, you’re a bit of a liability. 
Anything you want to plug?
Absolutely! (Although I’ll be shocked if anybody’s read this far.)
We just launched a Kickstarter for Tales from the Black Vault, and I’m really excited about it. It’s an audiodrama podcast inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, AKA “the best horror writer of all time.” You can find out more, and listen to our first episode (with yours truly narrating!), at http://blackvault.austinimprov.com.
What’s one thing that most people don’t know?
Well, really, all the relevant personal facts are in Michael Joplin’s informative song.
Oh, here’s my favorite piece of trivia, but it’s a bit lengthy:
Say I have a six-sided die. If you roll the die and get a “1,” you win! Say six people play this game. The odds that somebody wins is about two-thirds.
Now, say it’s a twenty-sided die. If you roll the die and get a “1,” you win! Say twenty people play this game. The odds that somebody wins is… still about two-thirds.
Okay, say we invent some kind of game where the odds of winning are one in a million. And a million people play that game. The odds that somebody wins is… still about two-thirds.
And so it goes, up to infinity.
Math is weird.
 The flip side of that is that I kind of suck at taking the spotlight, and tend to meekly hug the wings in large cast shows.
 For those who are curious, the help page explains all.
 For the longest time, I played “Category Die!” by picking a category before the game started and rattling off items in that category for as long as I could, no matter what the audience wanted. I nearly made it through an entire 12-person “Category Die” game with “woodwind and brass instruments.” Good times.
 Hell, Uncle Vanya isn’t really about Uncle Vanya.
 … he said, having stood stupidly in the dark onstage many, many times.
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