Sean Hill started the Hideout Theatre. Without him, it would not exist. Which is the same as saying that with Sean Hill, the Austin improv scene would be different and, almost surely, smaller. But Sean’s a man of many pursuits, all of which he seems to nail. This is a guy who just wins.
That fact alone makes his interview worth reading. But check out how he answers my very first question — it’s a nutshell history of The Hideout and, thus, Austin improv.
Ready? Very well. Let’s all chant a little prayer of gratitude for …
Years doing improv: 25
Sean, how did The Hideout Theatre come to be?
I created The Hideout as a reaction to my previous life.
When I was 19, I wrote a best-selling computer game with some friends. I had no idea at the time it would lead to one of the worst days of my life.
The game I wrote was called Gato. It was very successful and opened a lot of doors for me. I started my own computer game development company, developed more games, and started hiring people.
Fast forward 15 years. By this time I had about 50 employees and a $150,000 a month payroll in a large space in downtown Austin at Congress and 3rd.
Things were going great – and then I made a mistake.
I had too many projects with one publisher…and the relationship went bad. There was nothing I could do to save it. They cancelled the titles we had in development with them. Which meant that we were not going to have the funds to meet the payroll.
I didn’t know what to do. I called a big meeting out in the lobby next to the ping pong table and told everyone what was going on. I made them vote on what to do. We could either all work for free for a few weeks while I tried to round up some new contracts or we could close up and all go home.
They voted to go home. I was devastated. The company that had been my passion was gone. I went home and stayed home. I don’t think I left my house for a few weeks. I really had no idea what to do next.
And then somehow I ended up at the Loose Moose Improv Summer School in Calgary. I spent two weeks immersed in improv with fun, positive people from all over the world.
It renewed me. By the time I got home, I knew what I wanted to do. I would open an improv theatre. My friends who had improv theaters seemed happy. I loved improvising, and I wanted to build community for myself like I had experienced at Bats Improv and the Loose Moose.
And that’s what I did.
David Lampe helped me hold the first auditions where we selected the original cast which included Craig Kotfas, Lauren Zinn Buck, Shana Merlin, Jeremy Lamb, Mike D’Alonzo, Louis Wells, Edi Patterson O’Connor, and eight others.
We bonded as a group and had a ton of fun. The energy of collaborating with all of those creative people fueled me and carried me through the early years of The Hideout when there was so much to do to get it off the ground. We started rehearsing and performed at the Public Domain Theater and Hyde Park Theater while I searched for a space that would become The Hideout.
I knew from talking to Rebecca Stockley, William Hall, and Dennis Cahill that I needed a space with more than one room. Their spaces had one room, which meant if something was happening on the stage you couldn’t have a class at the same time. So my strategy was to have two performance spaces — one to rent out to theatre groups as a way to pay the bills and one to perform improv in. I also wanted dedicated classroom because I knew that improv classes were the backbone of a successful improv business. The coffee house was a logical addition because it gave us a way to make money during the daytime.
[Triva: I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life.]
I love The Hideout. I put my heart and soul into its creation. Many of my close friends I’ve met through The Hideout. It has provided community for myself and so many others, and it always makes me happy when I’m in the building.
At some point, you sold the Hideout to Roy Danger, Kareem Badr, and Jessica Arjet. Why did you sell, and what were your emotions about it at that time?
I sold The Hideout after 10 years when the lease was up for renewal. I was a single parent at the time with two little improvisers who required a lot of energy. I also had another full-time business with Les McGehee which took a lot of my attention.
Andy Crouch did a great job of keeping the Hideout going while I was busy with other challenges.
I’m not sure what I would have done if Roy, Kareem, and Jessica had not bought The Hideout. It would have been hard to shoot it dead. I originally tried to buy the building and if that had worked out, I would have kept running it forever. When I sold it I felt happy that it would continue on. Roy, Kareem, Kaci, Jessica, and everyone else involved are doing a great job. I built The Hideout because it didn’t exist. Now that it does, I don’t need to own it to enjoy it.
Give us the Reader’s Digest version of how you came to be involved in improv in the first place.
When I lived in the Bay Area, I went to see a friend in a show at Bay Area TheatreSports (now BATS Improv).
It looked like a lot of fun. I wanted to play those games. I started taking classes and performing. After about a year I thought, “Wait a minute, this isn’t just games, this is acting. Hmmm. OK.” And I kept going.
Back in the early days of the improv scene in Austin, was the style of improv fundamentally different than it is today, or was it just fewer improvisers and venues?
When I started improvising in Austin there were two improv troupes, ComedySportz and Monk’s Nite Out. ComedySportz was focused on games and family-friendly improv. Monk’s performed at the Velvetta Room and was what I call bar-prov.
Neither was the type of improv I was drawn to. The style of improv in Austin has totally changed. I was trained in the Keith Johnstone style and that is what I love, believe in, and instilled at The Hideout.
These days most of the shows in Austin seemed to be narrative based. The performers seem to really enjoy creating longer stories and trying new things.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
I am not a big laugher. It takes a lot to get me to laugh. I see a lot of jokes coming. The best laughs I get are when I am hanging out with my improv friends and we’re just horsing around.
How did “Very Short Story” come to be? Did you work hard to make it an internet sensation, or did it kind of happen to you?
I attended a search engine marketing conference where Guy Kawasaki was talking about Twitter. I love technology and like trying out new things, so I got my phone out and got an account.
It was easy to see there were a lot of possibilities about how to use Twitter.
I got curious about trying to improvise on twitter and tried a few different things. One of the things I tried was Madeup Word. I would send people a made-up word and ask them to define it. Didn’t work.
I finally decided to treat Twitter as an improv show. I would ask for suggestions and then make stuff up. That’s what I did. I asked followers for nouns and turned them into tiny stories.
It caught on. People started following @VeryShortStory. I have close to 200,000 followers now. I made a conscious choice to not dilute my timeline by tweeting other things besides stories. I tweet 99% stories, 1% promoting other things I’m doing.
Rainn Wilson retweeted me once and I picked up 10,000 followers in under 10 minutes.
Another author, Patrick Carmen, followed the stories on Twitter, liked them, and then introduced me to his agent. It lead to my signing with their agency and getting a book deal.
You’re a family man. Do your kids do improv? What can improv do for pre-teens and teenagers?
Two of our kids took improv classes at The Hideout this summer and loved it.
I think everyone should be required to take improv classes. It makes people more fun to work with and interact with. Improv teaches people to live in the moment, listen to their partner, and notice more.
Improv is my approach to life and I try to share that with my kiddos.
Do you see much improv these days? What have you seen lately that caught your eye?
I rarely get out to see improv unless I’m performing. If I saw anything right now it would be the Chekhov show.
I’ve been directing Maestro lately and enjoyed that. So many new and talented improvisers here in town. The future is safe.
Got any wacky stories from the early days of Austin improv you’d like to share?
When we were first building The Hideout there where two large glass display cases at the front of the building.
One night after rehearsal we all went to dinner together. After dinner I went back to The Hideout because I’d forgotten something. There sitting in the display case looking out at the sidewalk was Craig Kotfas. He gotten locked in the building when we left and no one noticed he was missing. Sorry Craig.
Who’s the funniest improviser you know?
Stephen Kearin in L.A. Super talented, in the moment, and willing to go there. A joy to watch.
You travel the world teaching people how to be better at business. How does your original improv training and performance experience tie in to the work you’re doing now? Can you teach anyone to do improv?
My improv training helps me immensely any time I’m training or coaching others. The ability to be in the moment and notice what is going on is critical to the work I do — also the ability to give feedback in a positive, matter-of-fact way that keeps me from crushing other peoples’ souls.
And yes, you can teach anyone to improvise (except that guy who was in the very first improv class I taught and said, “I talked to my therapist and decided I’m just not ready for this”).
If you were writing an improv manual, what would be the titles of the first three chapters?
1. Being Present
2. Saying Yes
3. Giving Your Partner a Good Time
Got anything to plug?
I coach entrepreneurs and other creators who are feeling stuck and need help finding the path to their goals.
Also, Troy Miller and I have a training company called Braver Faster Stronger where we use applied improv to build high-performing teams.
What’s something that most people don’t know?
When I was 12, I came home from school one day and my Mom said “You have a job. It starts tomorrow.” It was bagging groceries at a store in Houston. It was a gift to get that job. It was the beginning of my business education.
My favorite animal is the hippo.
• • • • •