The only thing an improv show cannot be is scripted. Other than that, everything is fair game. In fact, what sets Austin apart from some improv communities is how willing our five theaters are to push the boundaries of what an improv show can look and feel like.
Take, for example, Wanderlust, the new show at the Hideout Theatre.
Wanderlust’s hook is simple enough: Two improvisers create an 80-minute (with intermission!) story about two people going on a trip. After all, what better way to explore a relationship’s intricacies than travel?
Alone, this hook wouldn’t be enough to raise eyebrows or sell many tickets. But check this out, the official description of the show from one of the co-directors, Ruby Willmann:
… the joyful narrative of our leads is wrapped by an ensemble of fellow improvisers who will uniquely use their bodies and voices to convey the sights and sounds of this journey into the unknown.
There it is! There’s the juice!
Wanderlust is the first improv show I’ve seen in Austin that is so dependent — in fact, is largely designed around — physical movement and space work. (Note: Later this year, the Hideout will be mounting a completely silent improv show called Golden.)
I saw this show twice already, and it’s exactly what you might imagine: Two of the improvisers are doing 95% of the talking. They’re the focus of the story, the “leads.” But then other seven or eight improvisers in the cast serve as everything else. They use their bodies to build cars, bridges, airplanes, statues, trees — whatever the scene cries out for.
Imagine the audacity of Wanderlust’s directors, Ruby and Aaron Saenz. After all, these are trained improvisers, not trained mimes or dancers or clowns (with one notable exception). And there’s no choreography! It’s difficult enough to make up funny words on the spot; it’s quite another to contort your body into something clear, compelling, and helpful instantly.
There’s another layer at work here, too. In addition to simply “becoming” the props and set pieces, the Wanderlust ensemble players are also making offers of their own. It’s a give and take between them and the lead players. When the offers flow both ways, everyone must pay attention to everything at all times. That’s tough. And exhausting.
Do they pull it off? Mostly. The second show I saw was better than the first, and I’m sure the third will be better than the second, and so on. This show is exactly the kind that will improve and grow over its two-month run (there are seven shows remaining, all through February). And even when the sort of trippy vibe of the show stutters or stalls, it’s still imminently watchable, because it’s almost always compelling to watch a group of people try to create something together.
And even if the group physicality doesn’t excite you, the nuts-and-bolts improv will. This is a cast of veterans who never disappoint.
But perhaps the most important reason to go see Wanderlust? To support the notion that improv can be anything it wants to be. Improv is not just bearded white guys in their early 20s telling fart jokes. It’s theater.
For info and tickets to Wanderlust, click here.