The Sunday Interview 2: Ryan Austin

This is the second time we’ve heard from Ryan Austin—an improviser, teacher, and artist who’s been going pretty nonstop for 5+ years. But in the last year, he’s sharpened his improv philosophy and uncovered a deeper level of confidence in his performance. How? Why? Let’s find out…

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Age: I feel like I’m turning 30 all year this year. But it’s official in August.

Years doing improv: 5

Troupes/Shows:

What’s changed since last interview?
I’m teaching now! I’ve been teaching improv at The Hideout Theatre for a year-and-a-half. Teaching illuminates a lot of things you never bothered to find words for in your theory and approach. I also wasn’t prepared for how invested in the student’s growth as improvisors and
socially healthy people I would become.

I knew that I would be a dedicated teacher that enjoyed the work, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it this much:

  • I love setting them free of fear and pushing them to take risks and be silly.
  • I love shaping each class to the specific needs of the group and students as they grow from basic scene work to advanced scene work.
  • I love giving advice, offering encouragement, and challenging them.

When I teach, I develop new insights into my old skills. (Directing does this, too.) 

So how has your improv changed?
This may not be the best result but I think I’m a little cocky now. Haha.

I’ve always felt pretty confident in improv—more so than in any other area of my life—but I’ve noticed that directing and teaching have pushed me to a new level of confidence.

Now, I step onstage free of worry about scenes getting away from me. If they do, I have tools at the ready to re­align the scene because I teach and explain those tools so often.

I also don’t mind telling myself that I did a good job if the show was great. This improv thing is near impossible! You have to encourage yourself or you’ll spend too much energy on what you could have done and not on enough on what you did well.

It has resulted in me becoming a bit of a stage hog. I’m just so excited to play and so comfortable in improv now that if no one moves in that split second when the lights go down, I’m dashing on and going for it!

But I think there’s two kinds of stage hogs: Those that are confident and have something to add, and those that just want stage time. Dave Buckman gave a great piece of advice about that. He said “No one wants a level 1 stage hog, but give me a seasoned improvisor stage hog any day!”

I have to make sure I’m asking myself, “Are you entering the scene to add to it—or to simply to be in it?” Don’t get on that stage just because you want to. Get up there with a killer line, some scene painting, the character they so clearly need. You may end up in almost every scene of a Maestro that way, but people will thank you during post-show notes. (I know Dave Buckman will!)

What’s one thing someone can start doing right now to get better at improv? Be cocky?
Maybe! I’ve given timid or polite players the advice of “be cocky” before and seen incredible results. “Be cocky” is a way to correct an over-correction.

There is such an emphasis on supporting each other, on getting each others’ backs—which, duh, there should be—that we can easily forget how to take care of ourselves first.

People sometimes mistake “not hogging the stage” for “being a supportive improvisor.” But more likely, “not hogging the stage” means these improvisers are  hanging back too much and, in the process, hanging their scene partners out dry.

You have to learn how to make room for yourself. No one is going to improvise for you. Leaving too much space is just as unsupportive as taking all of it.

Aren’t you worried about following this new cocky attitude too far?
For sure! Just recently, I was reflecting on this new level of confidence and realized that I’ve been falling out of balance with it. I’m a man of faith, so I believe that the talents I have are gifts, and that my role is being a good manager of these gifts.

So, although I’m responsible for honing my gifts, I can’t take credit for them. Yeah, I’m good at improv—but only because of the opportunities and gifts that God has given me.

So if you see me tearing it up on stage, know that it isn’t because of me. As long as I remind myself and other people about that, the balance should fall back into “confident” rather than “cocky.”

Let’s talk about that a minute. You’re a Christian. Is it difficult to be a Christian in improv?
I think it’s difficult to be a Christian in anything, especially in artistic communities where the concept of Christianity is unpopular—really unpopular.

What saddens me is how much people have been hurt by the church. Jesus’ teachings weren’t always popular with people, but he wasn’t a hurtful person.

I encounter tension from people who have been hurt before and who view me as another one of “those” Christians. It’s very clear in the Bible that God loves you, and I’m supposed to as well. If I’m not doing that, it’s my fault. But God still loves you.

I also see a lot of ridicule of my faith on stage. People come out and play wild stereotypes of Christians or walk out as Robo­Jesus or whatever. I came up with a helpful reminder for anyone who wants to play an inoffensive Christian or Jesus on stage. The same care you put into trying to inoffensively play a homoesexual or person of another race is the same care you should put into playing a Christian or Jesus.

Why not play a gay man at work who’s frustrated with the printer being out of toner instead of a gay man cattiuly criticizing people’s outfits?

Similarly, why not play a Christian who’s drinking a beer or who’s friendly with someone who believes differently? Our go-­to is “ultra square” or “hyper judgemental Christians”—and I get that. Many Christians are. But not all of us. 

Pro tip: Don’t fall into the trap of improvising a Bible verse, you’ll always end up laughing at yourself and it’ll feel like you’re making fun of the faith. Just say, “I believe…” and let your character finish the sentence in their own words. I’ll tell you after the show if it’s in the Bible or not 😉

Enough serious talk! You’re the AIC’s most eligible bachelor! What’s the deal?
No current romances! I’m pretty close with my female friends so I’m sure that spurs a lot of rumors. But I promise you nothing is going on and I’m still available!

Which do you like more: Teaching, Directing, or Playing?
PLAYING. 100%. Please let me play more.

You can think into existence your ideal show, run or troupe. What is it?
I’d love to see improvised Marx Brothers! I don’t think I have the skill set to play in it, but man, I’d give anything to see it done well. I’d cast Curtis Luciani as Groucho, Michael Joplin as Chico, and Mia Iseman as Harpo.

I’d love to watch that. I’m getting jazzed just thinking about it. I hear Robert Slack does a one man “You Bet Your Life” improv show as Groucho and I’m dying to see it!

What makes Austin/Austin the one troupe you chose to commit to?
Quinn and I were both looking for the exact same thing: One troupe to commit to with all of our energy.

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For any troupe to be successful, you have to have the same level of
commitment. That’s hard to find in larger numbers so that’s probably one reason why we see so many duos.

Also I just love that Quinn guy. He’s got unwieldy amounts of talent that he, of course, can wield. Everyone talks about his spacework, which is obviously great, but what doesn’t get mentioned as often is his sniper­like narrative support. He can drop a callback or line that will
break your heart or crack you up. It’s genius level the way he knows how to present the characters with rich, complex choices.

We get along very well and crack each other up constantly. Neither of us is too high strung to make this duo a burden on each other. We’re serious as much as we can be, but never too much to steal the joy away from this art.

We challenge each other, inspire each other, and trust each other. Our styles also fit together very well. We catch the things the other one misses.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to duos?
Make sure you rehearse properly.

What I mean by that is a balance of actual rehearsing and intentional bonding. Run scenes when you’ve got a show coming up or
have something you need work on. And for bonding, don’t just hang out. Start a project together of some kind.

Quinn and I will pick a video game and play through the co­-op mode in
increments each week while teasing each other or doing bits to hone our playfulness.

Recently, we binged all seven “Saw” movies, spread across three nights as extreme commitment to a bit. We even ordered “Saw” shirts from China.

If we have a show on Friday night, we’ll skip our Saturday rehearsal and take that day off so we have a little balance in our lives.

Ask yourself if you should even be in this duo in the first place. Do
you have the same level of commitment? If you don’t, the duo will not be sustainable.

Are you in the duo simply because you love this person? There’s an overabundance of duos fighting for stage time, which will be difficult to get unless you’re the real deal. When I come across people I
love and want to do a show with, I’ll submit for the Free Fringe instead of forming a duo/troupe.

Or in serious cases, I’ll form a limited duo that only does a few shows or one specific format. Ruby Willmann and I did a duo for a few shows before she moved. Mia and I did The Starborn, which is a very specific format that never changes.

What’s your worst improv habit?
My character is in love with the other character! Ugh, all the time!

Watch me next show, I guarantee I’ll fall in love with the other character in a scene somewhere. It’s somehow become my go­-to move when I panic. No matter how often I try, I haven’t dropped this habit. 

I could be a playing an object (like a toaster) or an elevator with no lines and fall in love with people in the scene. It’s out of control.

What’s your greatest improv strength?
Narrative. I’m very comfortable in improvising stories. I studied screenwriting for many years and constantly break down stories to see what makes them work or not work. I love it. It helps me to instinctively know what needs to happen next or how to push a character’s arc in new ways.

Right now I’m in “Next Week On…Game of Thrones” which improvises the next episode of GoT—the one that hasn’t aired yet. It’s a wonderful new challenge for me to take established lore and characters—and then follow the current arcs toward new conclusions and craft a full story from a half told story—and still please the fans.

Honestly it feels a bit like what I was born to do. I’ve always wanted to take known properties and write reboots or sequels or episodes or whatever. I wish Marvel would ask me to write one of their movies. DC looks like they need help right now.

Anyways, I’m having a ball and I’m in heaven with this show. Please come see it!

It’s every Sunday night at 7:30 pm at the Hideout Theatre through this entire Season 6 of Game of Thrones. (And you can hang out after the improv and watch the actual episode on the big screen in the theater). 

What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
When Willem Dafoe throws the cat out of the window in The Grand Budapest Hotel. I couldn’t contain myself. It was so out of nowhere that even Goldblum’s character says “Did you just throw my cat out of the window?” in disbelief.

Poor Nicole Beckley was in the theater with me and I embarrassed her with my laughter.

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I worked on a Dakota Fanning movie and met her, Robin Wright, and David Morse (he’s a jerk).

Now the big question. Why do you improvise?
Because I love creating a story instantly and I love entertaining people.

When you’re collaborating with talented players, making a story moment by moment, and thrilling an audience as well as yourself, everyone is having a good time. Creating stories and entertaining—that’s why I improvise.

It goes back to that first improvised narrative I ever saw. I told myself, that’s what I want to do. It came out of nowhere. I was pursuing other creative endeavors at the time, but I honestly feel like God took those out of my hands and replaced them with improv, which I’ve come to
love even more than those other pursuits.

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