Quinn Buckner was the teacher’s assistant for my very first improv class—Level 1 at Merlin Works, taught by the esteemed Shana Merlin. Quinn was, and remains, a pretty quiet guy, more likely to analyze than crack wise.
I don’t remember much from that first improv course, but I do remember thinking: This Quinn guy should do ballet. For starters, he wore slippers—which I’ve since learned are the TOMS shoes that are all the rage with the kids. But when Shana had Quinn illustrate some improv warm-up or game for us, he did so with a physical ease I envied. He was comfy in his skin.
But instead of a ballerina, Quinn Buckner is a computer engineer, improviser, improv teacher, and this week’s subject of the Sunday Interview.
Years doing improv: 5
Web presence: Facebook
Troupes and shows you’re currently in:
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Why did you get involved in improv?
In college (at UT-Austin) I was spending time working through the standard middle-class checklist: finish college, get a job, find a wife, have kids, blah blah blah.
Then I saw Gigglepants, the unofficial UT improv troupe. That first show hit me like a pike in the chest: It jolted me with inspiration, and I wanted to get up there and do what they were doing. I decided I wanted more than a boring day-to-day existence, and improv seemed to be just what I was looking for.
Your girlfriend is Lacy Shawn, an improviser who directs and stars in mainstage shows. Tell us the short version of your improv love story.
We officially met each other at the AIC [Austin Improv Community] Thanksgiving Potluck and hit it off enough to start rock climbing together (shared interest!) and hanging out as friends. We planned a New Years Eve movie marathon and it was pretty apparent at that point that we liked each other …
Soon after, we decided to try dating in secret because the class I was assisting with got cancelled, and I was moved into the class in which Lacy was a student. (There’s more to our secrecy, but you’ll have to ask Lacy for the rest of that story.)
Being involved with improv definitely helps the relationship, as we understand the commitment it takes and we can “yes and” each other in our pursuits, communication, and relationship. We’ll be celebrating our three-year anniversary in January, and I think it’s safe to say we’ve both never been happier with a relationship.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
My best friend, Kyle Traughber, has a few pairs of colorful climbing pants that he keeps in the back of his car between climbing sessions. One day, I noticed what I thought was a new pair of purple pants in his trunk, but was really just a blanket. We had a good laugh thinking about climbing in what would essentially be a pair of M.C. Hammer parachute pants.
The purple pants come up randomly in conversation, but the biggest laugh came when I was thoroughly exhausted one summer day from biking home from work. Kyle mentioned the pants, and for some reason it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I just started laughing the kind of involuntary laughter you have to let run its course and at the end you’re just crying.
You seem tireless. You’re in three active troupes, the Big Bash weekly show, and you co-teach improv classes. Plus, you have a full-time job as an engineer. Tell us how to do all that. And why.
It’s all about scheduling, I do a lot, but I don’t over commit myself. I hate skipping rehearsals and shows, and when I sign up to do a project I’m in it 100%.
I have to turn things down, which sucks because I want to be doing so much more than I am already but 仕方がない. I guess I could technically do more improv-related projects, but I have a ton of other things I’m doing as well. I think Johnstone said something about the importance of living and having experiences (outside of improv) in order to do improv. I try and take that sentiment to heart:
I rock climb twice a week; I’m taking a Aikikai class; I play Ultimate Frisbee on the weekends; I’m starting a podcast soon; I teach a class during the week, and have 1-2 rehearsals and 1-2 shows a week; I cycle to work; I have a full time job; and countless minor hobbies (e.g. gunpla, anime, learning Japanese, crafting, woodworking, sewing, video games, baking), and I’m always looking for new experiences and projects. It’s these experiences that give me different viewpoints and reference anchors to latch onto and hopefully make my improv more approachable and realistic.
I do it all because you live only once. Not the “act-like-a-fool, slap-an-old-person, drink-a-beer-from-someone-else’s-butt” version of YOLO, but the “being-alive-now-is-all-we-know-for-sure-so-why-not-make-the-most-of-it?” version of YOLO. If I were guaranteed immortality, I’d probably take it a little slower; but I’m not, so I gotta cram a couple of lifetime’s worth of stuff into this one.
What’s your worst habit onstage?
My lack of emotional range is stifling sometimes. I’m getting better at it slowly, but I think it will be something I have to work on for years.
Now brag. What’s one of your strongest “value adds” onstage?
Patience. I feel like I know when there is too much going on, and similarly, I have a good sense of when support needs to happen in order to get information into the scene.
Tell us about your new-ish troupe (with former Sunday Interviewee, Ryan Austin), Austin/Austin. What are y’all trying to accomplish?
I think Ryan Austin and I are ultimately trying to form a space where we can grow as improvisers. We both have slightly different outlooks on the craft and different skill sets that I think work well together. But also, we both like to experiment and give each other’s ideas a shot. I feel like this is my first deliberate attempt at a long-lasting troupe. We want to make a troupe that can headline a run, or have a permanent weekly slot somewhere—and have people say “Yep, they deserve to be there.”
What is something you think improvisers could generally stand to get better at?
I think space work and physicality are killer tools that people tend to underutilize.
Stephen Kearin is one of my favorite improvisers because of his space work and physicality. His command of space is awesome, and every action he takes draws me further into the world he’s creating—which is kind of the point, right?
We don’t have props or costumes, so we can—must—create worlds and characters at a moment’s notice. But if the audience doesn’t see that, you’ve reduced yourself from “two knights wearing armor talking in the main hall of a castle” to “two guys who say they’re knights talking about a castle.”
Right. And I think you’re often associated with great space work. Is that something that comes naturally, or do you do “space work drills” alone in your bedroom every night for years, or both?
A little bit of both. I think I have great spatial and body awareness, which gives me an affinity for space work and physicality.
Now and then, out in the world, I’ll pay attention to what I’m holding or standing near, and I’ll take a moment to absorb everything about it: its dimensions, its weight, its movement, its limitations. Keeping all that info locked in my brain somewhere comes naturally, I guess, but I still rock a “mirror session” every once in a while, checking out how my space work looks to an audience. I’ve been starting to think about movement in relation to space work, and I want to get good at conveying that movement; like climbing a ladder or climbing over something.
At the end of the day I find it super fun, and that gives me fuel to keep working on it. I’ll never be Marcel Marceau, but if I can make it to the level of Keegan-Michael Key then I’ll be happy.
Who’s an underrated performer or troupe in Austin?
Katie Thornton. I don’t think she qualifies as underrated, but she consistently cracks my shit up. I love the way she melts away into her character. Check her out, she’s top notch. [Editor’s note: Agreed, 100%.]
You’ve been around about five years now. What changes have you seen in the Austin improv community in that time?
I haven’t been here as long as the old guard, obviously, but in my time in the scene I feel like the biggest change has been the saturation of improvisers. Theatres can’t simply put anyone on stage anymore, and I think we passed that rubicon a couple years back.
I think the Hideout Theatre is doing a great job of creating a space for students with their student mainstages and Maestro Raw, while Coldtowne Theater allows for more play time in general with having a show every day of the week.
A side effect of the saturation is the competition for the stage time we do have. I just hope that, as a community, we can keep it all together and still be friendly. I think oversaturation could bring about an alienation of newbies, with little stage time for them; and potentially the isolation of theaters from each other. Not from want, but from the necessity of keeping the theater’s brand alive and making money so that they can stay open. They’re businesses, after all.
Who’s the best improv troupe you’ve ever seen?
I flip flop between the Available Cupholders and P-graph as my favorite troupe. P-graph is so consistently good, and with good reason, since they’ve been performing weekly for years and years. On top of that, they have some of the best ensemble chemistry and can really dig into a format, all of which is sweet.
Available Cupholders is great because, when you get to the heart of it, they are genuinely just friends having fun. These are the groups of people that I looked up to when I first started. They are, to me, what improv greats like Johnstone and Del Close are to them, and the best part is that I get to play with most of them on a regular basis.
If you write an improv instruction manual, what’re the titles of the first three chapters?
1) Let’s have some fun!
2) Alright this part might not be as much fun, but trust me, it’s tasty!
3) Whew! Now it’s back to the fun!
Anything you want to plug?
Time to get shameless!
- Rhinodino has a monthly show at Salvage Vanguard Theater. Fourth Fridays at 10pm and it’s super free.
- Please “like” the Austin/Austin and Tastemaker pages for posts about upcoming shows
- Patrick Creamer and I are starting a podcast soon called “Now You Know a Little Bit More About Us,” so keep your eyes open for that in the next couple of weeks.
What’s something that most people don’t know?
I watch anime everyday, and have for at least the last seven years.
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