It’s 1:30 am on Sunday, June 19, and East Austin's The New Movement is packed with comedy fans who spent the past six hours in the cozy theater watching nearly 20 improv troupes take the stage.
Now, as the last night of the Megaphone Marathons comedy festival wraps up, TNM co-founders Chris Trew and Tami Nelson are doling out accolades. As they reflect on the success of the second annual, month-long, four-city festival, the theater erupts in applause. For many, the buoyant atmosphere is bittersweet: in just two weeks, Louisiana natives Trew and Nelson will be returning home to New Orleans.
When Trew and Nelson moved to Austin in 2005, they were part of a post-Katrina exodus that included the rest of the original ColdTowne comedy troupe. The five members immediately started booking shows around town—including a relocation-themed sketch revue titled “Hurricanes Are Funny”—and eventually founded ColdTowne Theater, a conservatory that (arguably) set the stage for the local comedy scene’s recent notable growth. In 2009, following a restructuring that divided allegiances of devoted comics, Trew and Nelson split from ColdTowne and founded The New Movement.
The TNM family is involved in a lot more than improv. Trew is also the figurehead of the internationally popular Air Sex competition and the Alamo Drafthouse’s Open Screen Night, and the theater has directly contributed to the growth of Fun Fun Fun Fest’s comedy programming in recent years.
Most notably, they’ve been building up an army of students, performers and hardcore fans who increasingly represent and evangelize TNM across Austin. It seems like the theater is beginning to hit its stride—why leave now?
“There’s a couple reasons why we’re going back,” explains Trew. “The most important one is that we love the city and we want to live there. We’ve figured out our personal secret to living a fulfilling, awesome life, and we’re doing that here. If we can do it in our favorite city, it seems like the best case scenario to go and do it.”
It’ll be anything but an early retirement. TNM already has a strong presence in New Orleans; NOLA-based comedy troupe Stupid Time Machine, trained by Trew and Nelson, have been teaching classes and performing under the name “TNM New Orleans” for several months now.
“New Orleans now very much reminds me of Austin five years ago, when we first came here,” says Trew. “It seems like if you go there and you bust your ass you’ll be successful – in comedy and in general.”
And if there’s anyone equipped to take advantage of a growing creative scene, it’s Trew and Nelson. While their curriculum sets them apart from other local theaters, it’s their open, welcoming approach to programming and participation that makes them so appealing to performers. It’s not unusual for new students to pitch, or act in shows, and self-starting comics have plenty of opportunities to test out ideas on the TNM stage.
Ultimately, Trew and Nelson have found a way to make comedy their career, and this move is a way for them to help others do the same.
“The theater will always be evolving,” explains Trew. “We’re constantly learning, and I think that the people who are taking over [TNM Austin] understand that, and I trust them. They understand that if we can all pull this off together, we could make it into a life where we don’t have to also work at video stores or wait tables.”
For the past six months, several of the theater’s top comics have been rigorously training to take the reins, participating in weekend-long teach camps and creating lesson plans. Dan Grimm, the theater’s most seasoned performer (and a graduate of both Second City and iO Chicago), will remain on hand to teach upper level courses.
Alex Berry, who teaches sketch comedy and performs in several house troupes, will be transitioning into the role of Artistic Director, while Vanessa Gonzalez, of popular group Delta Burka, will assist Nelson with the conservatory’s daily tasks.
Trew and Nelson’s move home is the first step in creating a multi-city comedy family whose unique structure gives students and performers more opportunities to learn and perform. It doesn’t stop with Austin and New Orleans: The New Movement Houston is currently in development.
“We’re not sure if it’s the right fit,” Trew says of Houston’s satellite operation, “but we are definitely going to do there what we’ve been doing in New Orleans the last year, which is rent out a variety of spaces and do classes and shows and spread the word.“
As if that wasn’t enough, Trew is also working on projects with Studio8.net, a video production company he co-founded with several Louisiana pals. With so much to do, is it possible Chris and Tami may not make it back to Austin anytime soon? Unlikely.
“We want people to know that we weren’t kidding when we said we’d be back all the time.”