Stepping into the front door of The Institution Theater, you might not realize this is the home of one of the most prominent improv comedy houses in Austin. There's a couch, a collapsible table, some folding chairs, a miniature leftover Christmas tree and a couple standing lamps. The floors are cold concrete, the walls pale yellow brick and faux log cabin paneling. Needless to say, it’s a bit stark.
Still, the room is warm and inviting, imbued with the charismatic personalities of the two men buzzing about, turning on lights, setting up chairs. After a quick tour of the space by the theater’s infectiously energetic owner, Tom Booker, we sit down at the table serving as an impromptu box office to discuss the immensity of this upcoming weekend.
Several years after the theater opened its doors to shows and classes in Austin, The Institution Theatre is holding its weekend-long Grand Opening celebration.
“We’ve had the theater for a while, but we’re ready now to have a grand opening because we’re at a place where we can really say ‘Look, we did it!’” explains Booker with his signature wide-eyed grin. “We wanted [the theater] to be polished and done, but we really wanted to just get going. There are so many enthusiastic young people here that I just want to see putting on a show, and we can’t wait around for that.”
This year also marks the 25th Anniversary of Booker’s original improv house, the influential Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, and the kickoff of their 30-day Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for the theater’s completion. So far, all of the work on the theater has been done by the Institution staff and generous student volunteers who share Booker’s grand vision for the Theater.
Joining Booker every step of the way through the process has been his best friend, roommate, cast mate and fellow improv lover, Institution Education Director Asaf Ronen. “We both moved to Austin about six months apart from one another,” says Booker. “And we wouldn’t be in this position to celebrate this weekend if it weren’t for Asaf. I always say he loves improv, and I just love attention.”
“Tom always forgets that he’s the owner of the theater and I just work here,” jokes Ronen. “It’s like that at home, too; he's always checking in with me. But, strangely, we both take way better care of the theater than we do our home. The refrigerator is always stocked at the theater.”
“And we always pay our rent on time at the theater!” adds Booker.
Ronen: “And the bathrooms are always cleaner!”
Booker: “Oh, I love cleaning the bathrooms at the theater. I’ve never had so much fun buying urinal cakes!”
Like they’ve practiced hundreds of times before — both on stage and off — Booker and Ronen are constantly razzing one another, topping each other's jokes, and finishing one another’s sentences. “People wonder all the time if we’re dating because we act so much like an old married couple,” laughs Ronen. “We spend so much time together at home and here at the theater that it was inevitable we’d end up sounding this way.”
You’ll get a chance to see this chemistry in action on Friday night, when the two take the stage on the opening night of the grand opening in Tom Booker & Asaf Ronen Back Together Again and Again and Again. They’ll be playing their alter egos Baxter and Bernard, (“the nice gay couple our neighbors assume we are,” according to Ronen), and then with John Ratliff and Dave Buckman in You’re Not My Real Dad, before joining their fast-talking all-male crew in Confidence Men: Improvised Mamet.
While Booker and Ronen are, in fact, not a couple, their mutual respect for one another and love for their art has built a warm, welcoming environment for hundreds of improvisers who have walked through their many doors throughout the years. Originally, Booker held Institution classes at The Velveeta Room at Esther’s Follies. Later, at a photo studio in downtown Austin. The permanent warehouse location in South Austin was the next sensible step in the Institution’s trajectory.
The Institution Theater shares warehouse space with an indoor baseball pitching clinic and a salsa and brownie making kitchen. "On Wednesdays, the whole theater smells like fresh salsa," says Booker. "But on Fridays, the parking lot smells like fresh brownies. Isn't that nice?"
The theater now has 84 seats to include in their theater proper, along with a backstage, and a combined dressing room/green room. (And, as reported, the refrigerator is fully stocked.) A partitioned side room will serve as the Theater’s eventual box office, and the wood paneled bathroom contains a full bathtub and shower. (Supposedly, Booker’s friend and colleague Troy Dillinger, who ran the space and hosted The Austin Variety Show here, would sometimes stay in the warehouse space from time to time.)
The Theater’s large open lobby will also be partitioned off into a separate classroom, says Booker, since classroom space is already overflowing into three other locations in town. “Mostly through positive word-of-mouth advertising, we expect to keep growing in the coming year,” predicts Booker. “So we have to be prepared for that.”
Amazingly, improv comedy has proven especially resilient to the recent economic woes of the country, perhaps in spite or because of it. There are four additional thriving improv houses in town: ColdTowne Theater, The Hideout Theatre, The New Movement Theater and Gnap! Theater Projects. And all five will be represented on the Saturday evening of The Institution’s grand opening weekend, in a show they’re calling The Five Families.
“The improv vibe in Austin is like how Chicago was in the 80s,” explains Booker. “It’s so amazing to have all of these theaters that get along with one another, and that’s why it’s important for us to have them all in the show this weekend.”
Finally, on Sunday night, prominent Institution alumni and staff will be on hand to join interested audience members in a series of their favorite games and formats. Joining in the show is part of the fun of this weekend that celebrates the art form that Booker and Ronen have spent a collective 46 years honing.
“We’re just trying to stay smart about the shows that we’re putting up,” says Booker. “You never know what works until you try it!”
“We’re just trying to help people get out of their own way and try something new,” Ronen philosophizes.
“Oh, and we want to be the theater in town with the most fake guns and wigs!” Booker exclaims.
"Speaking of which, these are actually lamps from our house," says Ronen, pointing to a nearby standing lamp. "We need this lamp at home, Tom, I can hardly see anything. I'm going to take this one home with us."
“And he wonders why people think we’re married,” sighs Booker.
So much good natured bickering makes this theater, despite its bare walls and unfinished floors, really feel like a home.
The Institution Theater Grand Opening Weekend runs Jan 6 -8 at 3708 Woodbury Drive. All shows begin at 8 p.m. and cost $5.00. Tickets are available on their website.