Take the time to read this interview, because it’s chock full of supreme improv wisdom. And this week’s Sunday Interview stirs up a bit of personal nostalgia. Mrs. Shana Merlin was my first improv teacher, as she has been for hundreds of other improvisers. As the founder of Merlin Works Improv, she teaches improv, musical improv, hosts monthly improv mixers, does corporate training, and she recently moved her operations into the gorgeous new Zach Scott Theater. She’s also one-half of one of the most impressive duos you’ll ever see, Get Up, and is a current (and original) member of Austin’s premier musical improv show, Girls Girls Girls.
Shana—pronounced Shay-nuh—brings a lightness, professionalism, and enthusiasm to improv that should be a model for us all. Any success I personally have in this art form I can trace back to her kindness and support in those first few classes. Please enjoy learning from…
Number of Years Doing Improv: 20
Primary Web Presence: www.merlin-works.com
Who’s your improv hero?
Stephen Kearin. He’s an improv superhero. Is that guy even real?
Who’s your improv nemesis? Name names!
Reality television? Email overload? Biological needs? These are the things that keep me from doing more improv.
You get to do an improv show with any human, alive or otherwise. Who would it be? And what type of show would you want to do with them?
My grandmother on my mom’s side passed away long before I was born. I was always told she was a card, did musical theater at the community level, and looks like a real character in photos. (Her go-to joke after cleaning her plate at dinner: “Nice snack. When do we eat?”) I think I might have gotten a lot of my chutzpah from her, so it would be neat to do a duo act. Maybe a cabaret act: some songs, some schtick, some drinks. Plus, the forties are my decade, fashion-wise. So I’d look great in the clothing. So, Bubbie Hilda is my pick.
Who, if anyone, first encouraged you to try improv?
I followed my older sister Mia, who is the funny one in the family, along on an improv troupe audition when I was in middle school. She didn’t have a great time, left early, and didn’t make the troupe. But she let me know that improv was cool and worth going out for. She’s an artist and I feel has always been a role model for me in the arts, and encouraged me along the way.
Who’s the funniest famous person?
Right now I’m loving Melissa McCarthy. She’s like a female Will Ferrell–incredibly committed, making strong emotional choices and physical risks. She can be awful and lovable at the same time. Not to mention all the ripple effects her magnetism has in terms of women on screen, body image, and size bias. In a few years I hope I start calling some actor the male Melissa McCarthy.
Who’s the funniest non-famous person?
Oh man. That’s hard. So much amazing unsung talent. I always have a smile on my face watching Michael Joplin.
Your most memorable improv experience in 30 words or less:
Leading Texas Rainstorm for almost 3,000 people at Bass Concert hall while I was in college. The sound of the crowd was thrilling.
The hardest I’ve ever laughed at an improv performance was:
When, shaking hands with the audience after doing a corporate show in Lubbock with Megan Flynn, Les McGhee, Craig Kotfas, and Michael Brockman, a visually impaired audience member asked to, “Meet the dwarf.” It was after several repeated requests that we realized he was asking for Megan. I then died laughing while Megan explained to him, “No punkin’ there’s no dwarf in the show.” If you have heard Megan’s voice, you’ll get the joke.
Your biggest onstage improv pet peeve?
Being rude to the audience. I’m surprised how quickly people forget that without the audience, there would be no show. The show is actually for them. I don’t care if you are doing a mental trick with yourself to forget about the audience. You are doing that to trick yourself into doing a great show for the audience.
Your biggest offstage improv pet peeve?
Flaking. Be realistic in what you say you can do. Then do what you say you are gonna do. We are all busy, man. And we are all doing this in our spare time.
In scripted theater, you can’t just skip out on shows or rehearsals because you are needed to do your part. In improv, that’s not the case, so it’s easy to get sloppy about showing up.
It’s about honoring your teammate’s time.
The warm-up you love the most:
I love a party atmosphere before a show. Like we are just enjoying hanging out. So I love to do a dance or a song game. Soul train, where you turn up the jam of the summer and people form two lines and improvisers dance down the middle of the tracks in ones or twos dancing is always fun.
The warm-up you hate the most:
Can I pick two? I hate it when people take energy warmups too far and get manic. We want to be energized, but it should be a relaxed, focused energy. If you are just spazzing out because you are nervous, it’s not helping you get ready for the show. It makes me want to get quiet and withdraw, which I doesn’t help me either.
For me the most frustrating is group mind games like group count or group mirror. It’s hard for me to be patient and not want to lead and get things done. By its probably good for me. They have gotten more tolerable over the years.
Okay, I lied, three. I hate games where you do the opposite of how you want the show to be to “get it out of your system.” Like there was a while before a clean show where a cast would do dirty limericks. Or being super silly right before a grounded show to get the wiggles out. I don’t think it works that way. You just get a wiggly show.
The thing that experienced improvisers do that drives you nuts:
Stop learning, stop rehearsing. I believe that learning to be in the moment and Yes And is lifelong journey. Not something you master and move on from. The more experienced you are, the harder you have to push yourself to actually improvise.
I tell that to my improv 101 students in class 2: we are workings on Yes And in today’s class, and next week, and for the rest of your life.
I’m still working on it.
A piece of common improv wisdom that you tend to disagree with is:
That “X” is the way to start at scene: spacework, who/what/where, finding the game, totally organic, physically, whatever. These are all tools for the tool belt. To me the goal is to master lots of tools and be relaxed and open enough to use the right one in the right situation.
If you are really Yes Anding, then the opening move will shape the whole scene, so you don’t want to start every scene the same way or you will always get the same kinds of scenes.
My improv mantra: It’s all good.
Your “go to” move when you’re lost or confused in a scene is to:
Repeat. It gives clarity. It keeps me listening. It puts everyone on the same page. Repeat it enough and almost anything gets funny.
Your “go to” character or character trait:
Stillness. It’s usually a strong choice in a scene and makes any action that breaks the stillness more powerful. I think it’s part of my complimentary personality style, where I tend to fill in what’s missing in a situation, and most players have an excess of nervous energy or movement. On the flip side, I think it can make my playing stiff or formal.
The best way to connect with the other person in the scene is:
Eye contact. If that doesn’t work, touch them. Repeat back what you just heard or saw.
The second best way to connect with them is:
Haha. I’m one step ahead of you!
You’re publishing a short manifesto entitled “My Personal Improv Philosophy.” What are the titles of the first three chapters of that book?
1. Open Mind
2. Open Eyes
3. Open Heart
I’m working on this manifesto, FYI. Other chapters:
What’s the coolest venue in which you’ve done a show?
I was in the Intergalactic Nemesis at the Dell Hall in the Long Center. Fantastic to play a leading lady on the biggest, newest stage in my hometown. It was a scripted show. Is that allowed?
Got a good improv festival story?
Ask Andy Crouch what he did to our hotel room in Vegas when we performed Start Trekkin’ at the real Star Trek Convention there.
What’s the biggest mistake improv theaters routinely make?
Not explaining what improv is to their audience every night. Or, in other words, having their shows for insiders and not the general public. You can start getting weird feedback about what’s working and what’s not.
The funniest troupe or show name you’ve heard:
Renob patrol. It’s also the worst. Without Annette. The classiest. I went to their blog for years without getting the joke.
Your 2013 improv goal:
Get cast in a run at another theater. (My problem is I’m too busy teaching improv to rehearse improv with regular people, so I don’t know if it’s gonna happen.)
Your lifetime improv goal:
To have a lasting body of work in this fleeting art–whether its a book, on video, or something else.
What is the one thing you’d like people to think when they think back on your as an improviser?
She helped me live a better life by making normally hard lessons as fun and easy as possible.
Analogies & Errata
If my personal style of improvisation were a _______________ it’d be ______________:
Example: If my improv were a superhero it would be The Hulk.
Breakfast Cereal: Life
TV show: Slings and Arrows
Baked Good: Peach cobbler (Georgia, y’all!)
College class: Psychology of Presence
Piece of technology: Computer. All technology is computers.
Geographic feature: Basin. To hold you gently.
Song: When You’re Good to Mama, from Chicago
The worst thing that’s ever happened to me during a show was when:
When I offended the only two African American audience members and they walked out of the theater in the middle of the show.
If you could offer one piece of advice to an improviser who’s considering dropping out of improv altogether, you’d tell them:
Improv should be fun. If its not, take a break. Improv will always be here if you are ready to come back.
If you are just feeling in a rut, that’s natural, it will pass. A plateau is a sign of a breakthrough to come.
If you could wear only one outfit in every improv show for the rest of your life it would be:
Black pants with lots of stretch. Black shoes with at least a 2 inch heel. An amazing bra. A white tank top. A fitted mens vest. A simple necklace. Hair out of my face, contacts on. Mascara and lip gloss.
The difference between a good improviser and a bad improviser is:
What’s the longest period of time you’ve gone without performing any improv since you began?
About five or six months, when I had my son. Coming back to Improv was so great when I was a new mom who was still feeling pretty inadequate at motherhood. It was great to feel the mastery of improv again. I was like, I know what I’m doing. I might not know why that baby is crying, but I know what I can do to make this improv scene great.
I have an improv crush on:
My cast from Dusk: Improvised Tween Erotica. They filled my heart and turned me on in all the best ways, including improv.
It’s a tale as old as time: Because of your rudeness to a homeless gypsy woman, she curses you. The curse, known in Romania as Klok dáng, presents an interesting dilemma for you…
You’re instantly blessed with perfect improvisational talent. Perfect. Everything you do in improvisation is the ideal. Every line is exactly what the scene needs at that moment. You’re funny when the audience needs funny, and you’re heartwarming when they’re feeling a bit cynical. Your physical movements redefine the discipline. Your spacework is so realistic that the more entranced members of the audience would swear you were holding an actual coffee mug. You are handsome but malleable and can play any status required of you. You can do all formats and genres. You’re infinitely watchable onstage, and yet you maintain humility and deference to the art form.
In other words, you are the best improviser the world will ever know.
With that talent comes some nice fringe benefits. You’re a bigger deal than Del Close and Keith Johnstone rolled into one. You’re the messiah of modern improv, and you get plenty of opportunities to perform. Everyone’s dying for your time and wisdom. They pay you enormous sums to fly all over the world doing whatever show you want, with whomever you want. Your influence and talent makes you rich, famous (but not too famous!), and well respected. Life is grand.
Except for one thing…
Every time you use the word “you” or “I” in an improv scene, somewhere in the world a koala explodes.
Now, there are plenty of koalas. They aren’t endangered or anything. You’re not going to drive them to extinction with your deathly powers. It’s just simply this: If you say “you” or “I” in a scene, a koala explodes.
Gatorade, who for some reason has decided to sponsor you, calls you up one day to finalize your plans for a new worldwide “Improv Guru” tour. Five million bucks, the finest hotels and travel in the world, and tens of thousands of fans cramming into theaters to watch you perform.
The Gatorade rep on the phone asks you, “So! We’re very excited to get you out there on the road. But first, we need to know if you have any conditions that would prevent you from starting this latest tour. Anything at all?”
What do you say?
I will say whatever I need to without using you or I onstage. Duh.