Is Improv Art?

Is improv art? Apparently not in the state of Texas, according to the Texas State Commission on the Arts. When the 15-year old non-profit, volunteer-based Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin recently went to apply for some funding, they were told flat out by the commission that “improv is not art,” and therefore OOB “was not an arts organization.” And so guess what? No funding.

Really? Improv is not an art? Since when? If you haven’t heard of it, Out of Bounds is one of the premier improv and comedy festivals in the country. Over the years, they have consistently brought some of the biggest names in comedy – including sketch, stand-up and improv — to Austin for the festival. (Full disclosure: I was one of those big names they brought to the festival a couple of years back).

And this festival has been doing this before Austin was the cool, hipster, skinny-jeans-wearing capital of the world. Not to mention in those 15 years, Austin has become one of the hottest cities in the country for improv. They have five improv theaters that all do a good job of getting along with each other, which has turned Austin into a bit of an improv destination. All of this seems to be lost on the Texas State Commission on the Arts. If only they would open their eyes and see that improv has become just as much of Austin’s culture as live music, barbecue and food trucks.

So what makes improv an art form? I know that 95 percent of the people reading this blog probably don’t need me convincing them that improv is an art form, so please indulge me here. But for those who do need convincing, here’s why I think improv is art.

First and foremost, improv is theater, and theater is art. That should be the end to the argument right there and the start of the state of Texas writing a big ol’ check made out to OOB.

Unfortunately, some people think of improv as simply a type of comedy, and comedy is something that seems to still be unrecognized as an actual art form. We see it during the Academy Awards every year: A comedy may get nominated for something, but we all know that it never has a chance to actually win anything. Why? Because comedy never wins. Even though people are always saying things like comedy is much harder to do than drama, it doesn’t matter. Comedy doesn’t get any respect as an art.

The weird thing is comedy is more popular than ever in TV and films, but on some level, it’s still taken for granted. People think it’s easy to be funny. The general public doesn’t see it as a skill or a craft, and by all means, not an art. They admire people like Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Maria Bamford, but they would consider them comedians, not artists.

Those of us who are in the comedy world realize that they’re both. The problem is they are so skilled that they make comedy look easy, and worse, most of the time they are having fun doing it. And of course, people assume that if you’re having fun, you can’t be making art because art must be serious and hopefully pretentious. By all means, make us think, not laugh.

In fact, comedy usually makes fun of the people who take themselves too seriously, and those are usually the people who work for the state government who are in charge of funding.

But regardless of what the great state of Texas thinks, I know that improv is art. I know what some people say about improvisers: All we are doing up there on stage is screwing around. Making thing up. Having fun. All true, but do you know how many years it took to learn that skill? I am sorry we make it look so easy that you don’t realize we have trained for years to develop this craft. We know you can’t see that, we don’t want you to see that. Just like when you go to a play, we don’t want you to see we have memorized all the lines.

Saying “improv is not an art,” is an insult to all the improv artists in Texas. If you’d like to fight this, share this open letter written by the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, and use the hashtags #improvisart and #comedyisart.

And I really hope that someone forwards this blog to someone who works for the Texas Commission on the Arts who has a sense of humor.

Why do you think improv is an art? Tell us in the comments below.

Take your improv up a notch this fall! Sign up for Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class. Only $259 if you register by Sept. 1. Sign up today!

How Improv Inspired Free Hugs Day

I first met Paul Normandin in an workshop I was teaching at the Oklahoma Improv Festival, and months later I got to work with him again in Austin at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. I always like seeing him. He’s warm and friendly, and he is always a good reminder about how big the improv community really is.

I recently saw Paul again when I was in Austin, TX, to teach at The Institution Theater, and he told me about this wonderful event called Free Hugs Day that he does each year and how improv had inspired him to do it. I asked him if he would be willing to tell his story, and here it is. Enjoy!

As I was standing on the corner of 6th Street and Congress Avenue in downtown Austin at 9 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2011 holding a sign that read “Free Hugs,” I was thinking my idea was pretty crazy. It was a brisk 40 degrees and windy. I was in the shadow of tall buildings and sunrise had passed, but the heat was not finding my double socked feet, and I was shivering. I may have been dressed in a nice suit and tie, but they did little to stave off the cold. My friend, Gloria, gave me a hug, and I smiled when she left to get my coat from the car.

So why was I here?

Well, in 2010, I started taking improv classes from Andy Crouch at the Hideout Theatre in downtown Austin, not far from where I was standing that morning. That same month, my wife, Victoria, and I had institutionalized our adult child in far off Michigan. I needed to do something to help me cope, or to at least distract me from that. And when I asked myself, “What could drag my focus away from everything?,” the thought of standing on a stage without any script topped the list.

I was 48 years old when I came to improv. I did not want to get on Saturday Night Live or be the next Jay Leno. I just wanted to try to find something more challenging than raising a mentally ill child. I failed.

But I did find improv and all the people that go with that! I found best friends, “Yes, And…,” and a community of people who encourage and support each other. I had been taking classes for about 15 months, and I was at a bar after one of those classes with some of my best friends. (I don’t qualify the term “best friend” with “from improv” anymore). The conversation turned to scenes and formats and crazy ideas we have. Without thinking, I mentioned my crazy dream of standing on a street corner with a sign that read Free Hugs. I said I wanted to do it as a social experiment, but also because people are just too afraid of each other.

Before I could qualify how silly this idea was and how I could never muster the courage to do it, someone said, “That’s a cool idea.” People at the table recommended where I could stand, what I could wear, and what I could say. They projected how many people might hug me and how I could make the signs so they would last the whole time in any weather. Gloria Rabil Bankler said, “If you do it, I will be the first one to give you a hug.” She agreed this was crazy, but…

Friends started talking about joining me for an hour or so. People offered to bring the huggers food. Before I knew what had happened, an event sprung to life around me. I had been training for 15 months to say “Yes, and,” so I did. Thank goodness for Facebook and the ease with which you can make an event.

I have worked as a project management professional for most of my life. I have led big efforts to make big changes, but never for my own purposes. I bring enthusiasm to the projects I work on, but this event had a mind (and life) of its own. Encouragement and enthusiasm came from everywhere.

Back to the street corner. Before I knew it, it was 11 a.m. The light rain had stopped and Ryan Hill, Bob Olmstead and Allison Asher showed up at 6th and Congress. It was warming up and the hugs were plentiful. That moment remains etched in my soul. I had said something in a bar three months earlier and now it was happening because my friends all said “Yes, and…” to my crazy idea.

Since that day, we have continued to hold a Free Hugs Day in Austin every year, and we have steadily grown in participants.

The question “Why are you doing this?” is often quickly followed by, “What church are you with?”

But their questions are always answered with an enthusiastic response. We either say something like, “We want to make people feel less afraid of each other, and this event is not affiliated with any organization,” or “No church, and who doesn’t need more hugs in their lives?”

I say “no church,” but really I guess this event has its roots in the followers of Keith Johnstone and Del Close, because their followers trained me and my friends, so I guess that makes us disciples of the Church of Improv. Too much?

Over the first five years, I learned that Jan. 21 is International Free Hug Day. So naturally, I changed the date of the Austin event to align with that date. Thanks to my friend, Tim Coyle, I have a flag that flew over the Texas Capitol on Jan. 21, 2015. I have a letter that came with it saying why the State House of Representatives gave me the flag. I also have a proclamation from the City of Austin signed by the Mayor and City Council saying nice things about me and Austin Free Hug Day, which was all delivered with speeches and such in the guise of an improv show on stage at the Hideout Theatre, thanks to Roy Janik, the artistic director there. I cried a lot and someone filmed the whole damn thing!

As I finish this blog, it is 12:03 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2016. In less than nine hours, I will be on the street for the sixth annual Austin Free Hug Day. I will be giving out hugs with my friends and saying funny things to those passing by in hopes they are not so afraid to say yes and trust us with a hug.

Thanks, Jimmy, for giving me the opportunity to share my story about how improv and the Austin improv community gave me courage, encouragement and a tacit agreement to try to change the world, one hug at a time.

Are you interested in learning a new way of improvising that’s as easy as having a conversation? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 17. Early Bird special ends Feb. 1!

173: Shana Merlin

Shana Merlin is the owner and founder of Merlin Works in Austin, TX. Shana is a well-respected improviser and teacher with quite a following. In this lively episode recorded at the Institution Theater in Austin, Jimmy talks to Shana about starting to teach improv when she was only 22, her take on making mistakes in improv, and how having a baby can affect the business of running an improv theater.

172: Asaf Ronen

Asaf Ronen is the educational director at The Institution Theater in Austin, TX, and author of “Directing Improv.” Asaf has been involved in improv since 1990 and has improvised and taught all over the world. In this episode, which was recorded at The Institution Theater, Jimmy talks to Asaf about growing up as a latch-key kid, why he moved from New York to Austin, and how teaching improv helps with depression.