While this week’s Out of Bounds Comedy Fest showcases dozens of Austin’s best improv acts, it also attracts teams from across the country. And this year one of OOB’s longtime favorites, Phoenix, Ariz.’s Torch Theatre, is representing in full force.
Formed in 2007, The Torch has fast become one of Phoenix’s strongest comedy powerhouses, having recently opened their own downtown theater and training space.
For years, they’ve been mainstays on the Out of Bounds stages, sending representative teams like Galapagos and Apollo 12 to Austin’s biggest improv festival (and Austin comedy reciprocates; this year, both ColdTowne and The New Movement were a part of the Phoenix Improv Festival).
This week, three teams from The Torch: The Foundation, Ulautilde and Los Subtitulos are on the schedule.
Before they set off, we caught up with Torch Theatre co-founder Jose Gonzalez to talk about improv, the festival circuit and the best breakfast tacos in Austin.
CultureMap: So, how many shows are you doing at Out of Bounds?
Jose Gonzalez: I’m in two shows; I’m in The Foundation, which is basically the founders and teachers of the Torch Theatre, and I’m also in Umlautilde, which is a two person show I do with Bob Fisher. He’s an amazing performer — he actually is just spent a week in Chicago because he’s part of the Annoyance Theatre’s 25th Anniversary. There’s another team from Phoenix called Los Subtitulos at Out of Bounds, too; they perform bilingual comedy.
CM: When did you get your start in improv?
JG: I didn’t go through a formal training program, but my first improv class was in Phoenix. They asked me to join the group right after that, so from there, it was kind of just learning from doing. I’ve taken workshops from tons of people — Joe Bill, Miles Stroth, Susan Messing. There was a summer I ended up doing almost 12 hours of workshops with Joe Bill over the course of a summer; he came here for the Phoenix Improv Festival and ran a workshop, and we did some stuff when he was at UCB — it was a crazy summer. It’s been mostly through festival workshops, though and then going out of town. We actually took trips to LA to work with people like Bob Dassie, that’s kind of what we would do in lieu of having a training center in Phoenix.
CM: How did the Torch Theatre officially form?
JG: A lot of us came together because of the Phoenix Improv Festival, which started in 2002. Most of us were in long-form groups that were producing our own shows independently around town. We started working together and doing shows together and we kind of decided that, to build something long lasting, we’d have to come together to teach classes. Part of it was wanting improv to be more prominent in Phoenix, especially long-form, but part of it was also that we’d like more people to play with and that’ll be fun. Galapagos, which is one of my earliest groups, we were teaching classes for awhile before we came together as the Torch. Then there was kind of a transition from those classes to the Torch [curriculum]. That happened about five years ago.
CM: You’ve worked with Austin-based theaters like ColdTowne for years; how did you first get involved with them?
JG: Originally, Apollo 12 went to the Southern Improv Festival, which was in early 2005 or late 2004, I think, and they actually met people from Coldtowne. I think they had just formed Coldtowne in New Orleans. And then Katrina happened, and Apollo 12 was at Out of Bounds the year Coldtowne arrived there. That’s kind of what originally started our connection with them, and then from there, over 2005 and 2006 Coldtowne toured so much, they did so many festivals, that’s how we got into contact; we did the Del Close Marathon, the Toronto Improv Festival, they also came to Tucson.
We love Torchy’s Tacos. Torchy’s: if you’re listening, we can hook up a Torchy’s and The Torch connection!
CM: Torch teams definitely travel to a lot of festivals.
JG: We do a lot of festivals, definitely to the detriment of our bank accounts. For us, I think we were so big on festivals because we also got the opportunity to do workshops that weren’t available in Phoenix. And it’s really great to go to Del Close every year, and to Out of Bounds, because you get a good read on some of the stuff that’s happening across the country. We’re constantly always trying to learn; as an improviser you’re always a student, when you’re not learning and growing, that’s the end. So to stave that off, we’ve always enjoyed festivals.
CM: It’s been great to see Out of Bounds grow as the comedy scene in Austin gets bigger.
JG: I think that Austin is a great city with a lot of great people, and I’m amazed at how many music festivals are happening all the time there. Everything ends up a festival in Austin. I think the Austin improv community is really amazing — there are people who’ve had roots in some of the earlier improv that was happening there, in the late 80s and early 90s, and just the way that the community has grown, it’s been really awesome. It’s interesting how that spark happens and you build momentum. Sometimes, people’s only experience of the Austin scene is at Out of Bounds, which I think is a really good representative. But I’ve also been lucky enough to go when it’s not Out of Bounds, and there’s still so much going on and so many cool things happening, improv-wise.
CM: Do you have places you always hit when you’re in town?
JG: Definitely, breakfast tacos are always a main priority! We make trips to Tamale House because they’re cheap and tasty, and Juan in a Million is one of our favorite places. We love Torchy’s Tacos. Torchy’s: if you’re listening, we can hook up a Torchy’s and The Torch connection! Sometimes more touristy stuff, like seeing the bats emerge from the Bridge, that’s always fun. Oh, man, and Bloody Mary’s at Rio Rita. Epoch Coffee, that’s a great place.
In Phoenix we’re all about supporting local businesses, especially since they’re so supportive of us; local businesses are the people and places that make the culture, so we definitely dig how Austin’s that way, too. I’ve been lucky enough to spend an enormous amount of time in Austin for someone who doesn’t live there, so every time I go it feels like a second home.
You’ve got a few chances to see Torch performers at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival on Friday, August 31. Los Subtitulos perform at The Institution at 7 p.m. The Foundation appears at The Hideout at 7:30 p.m. And Umlautilde appears at The Institution at 10 p.m.