Out of Bounds Comedy Festival
Out of Bounds Preview: Get out and see Get Up
Out of Bounds Comedy Festival starts Tuesday, and there’s a lot you should know about it before you jump in.
First of all, OoB is a comedy festival, and it features representatives from the improv, sketch and standup comedy scenes from across the United States (and even some from Canada). Their goals while being here are: performing on stage, learning from their peers, visiting Austin, and drinking — not necessarily in that order.
To help prepare your taste buds for the week-long comedy buffet ahead, we sat down with two of Austin’s greatest connoisseurs of comedy, Shana Merlin and Shannon McCormick, to discuss what they’re most excited about for this year’s OoB.
In case you’ve never met, Merlin is the founder and head teacher of Merlin Works, the popular series of improvisation workshops taught at the State and Salvage Vanguard Theaters. McCormick is the Artistic Director of GNAP! Theatre Projects, a teacher at Merlin Works, and a proverbial jack-of-all-trades in the performance world of Austin. Together, Merlin and McCormick are one-third of the improv team, Get Up, with troupe member Sara Farr.
As improv troupes and their niches go, Get Up uses a long-form narrative style that allows its genre and progression to be determined by the music clips played for the actors as prompts. Farr is the puppeteer, sitting behind a computer with thousands of sound cues. Merlin and McCormick are the quick-thinking puppets, creating fully realized characters and scenes matching the details of the sound cues.
Says McCormick, “There’s a lot of people in town who do narrative shows, but we’re unique in that we don’t know what genre we’re going to perform until we get there. We almost exclusively go off of the music Sara provides for us.”
Merlin was McCormick’s first improv instructor, and after graduation, the two began performing around town in various group incarnations. Eventually, the two friends agreed they worked well enough together to create their own two-person troupe with an original format.
“Our first show as a team was at FronteraFest, and it was a 25 minute send-up of the show 24,” recalls Merlin. “We had a boombox that played the ticking clock sound from that show. And Sara, who was one of my students, offered to do our sound effects for us. After that is when it really started to gel.”
It was at the 2006 Out of Bounds Festival that the now three-person Get Up debuted their new sound cue narrative form to the world. And now they’re back for their sixth Anniversary. In wedding terms, this is their “Candy or Iron Anniversary", so Skittles and golf clubs would be equally appropriate.
Speaking of anniversaries, both Merlin and McCormick have been involved in Out of Bounds since its inception ten years ago. ("Aluminum Anniversary.") McCormick is still on the Board of Directors and Merlin is on the selection committee to determine each year’s participants. Additionally, each are performing at least twice in the festival.
“I’m taking it easy this year. I’m only in two shows: Get Up and All-Star Maestro,” says McCormick, a busy father of two. “I’m sort of an anomaly because there are so many people here in four or more shows. The festival is just always so full of improv sluts.”
Greg Proops? As in, that funny man with the one-letter-off funnier name who starred for so many years on the British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Yes, thatGreg Proops. He’s doing standup and improv at the Festival, bridging a gap that many thought impossible.
Well, McCormick and Merlin—along with most of the Austin comedy scene — apparently thought it was possible. According to rosy-colored glasses wearing McCormick, “This is a period of goodwill between the comedy communities in Austin. I think that standups sometimes think improvisers are lazy for doing their homework on stage. And the improvisers are like, ‘You’re just a loner, Standup Comedian. Why are you so surly?’ But there’s a real feeling of goodwill at Out of Bounds.”
Adds an equally positive Merlin, “There have been a number of great community leaders from both worlds like Kerri Lendo and Bob Khosravi who have been instrumental in Austin comedy to help bridge the two groups.”
Well, without any scandal to report, let’s go back to saying Greg Proops’ name again.
“I’m performing at the State with Proops, and I’m so excited,” says Merlin. “First of all, I’ve never performed on that stage before. But it’s also going to be me and [OoB Executive Director] Jeremy Lamb and Jill Bernard [of the solo improv musical, Drum Machine] and Greg Proops. I’m buying a new top, so it’s kind of a big deal.”
“Shana and I are getting whole new wardrobes for Out of Bounds,” adds McCormick, excitedly.
“Yeah, my whole beauty routine is determined by the Festival,” laughs Merlin. “Today, I’m getting a pedicure, and I’m getting my highlights done next week. I might even do my eyebrows…”
From what I gather, Out of Bounds is a formal attire event, and dressing up is important to make a good impression on the out-of-towners. They flew all the way in from Canada, in some cases. The least you can do is buy a new pair of jorts. We have a reputation to uphold after all.
“Out of Bounds is actually a very welcoming festival,” states Merlin. “At some festivals, there are competitors and rivals and it doesn’t feel as involving. For us, Out of Bounds is all about giving good festival. There are after parties every night, performers get in to a lot of shows for free, and great networking happens here.”
When they’re not at parties “networking,” the comedians are also taking classes from fellow comedy experts. Even veterans like Merlin and McCormick find the (5-hour) energy to attend classes taught by visiting instructors from Chicago, Minneapolis, L.A. and New York comedy houses.
“If you’re teaching in Austin, it can feel a little weird taking classes from other teachers here,” explains Merlin. “So what’s cool about Out of Bounds is that these teachers come in, and you get to learn what they’re doing in other cities. And all the local teachers are in there learning and taking notes with you.”
Adds McCormick, “Most of the people taking these classes live here. The folks visiting from out of town see this as their Improv vacation. They don’t want to take classes, they want to see the shows and experience Austin.”
Again with the partying. Now we’re getting a good taste of what these comedians are really up to…
“That’s one of the things Out of Bounds has done for Austin,” says Merlin. “We’ve let the nation know about how great this place is for comedy. More and more experienced improvisers have started moving to Austin after attending Out of Bounds to start a theater here. I like to call Austin ‘Improv Rehab’ for that reason.”
Wait. Is it vacation or rehab? I suppose for celebrities, it’s both. And for local celebrities, it’s a homecoming of sorts.
“With Austin and the size it is, there’s also a lot of really talented people who lived here five or six years ago and come back to perform here again,” says Merlin. “It’s great seeing all your friends who are insanely talented and making it happen in other parts of the country. It really is one of my favorite times of the year.”
“There’s also a really special thing that comes from watching those groups that have been together a long time,” says McCormick. “They’ve known each other so long, their chemistry has a magical quality to it.”
As someone who has witnessed Get Up’s magic levels firsthand (and noticed the magical quality of Merlin’s last name), I can attest that these two improv professionals have achieved that same level of higher-order chemistry they describe. They’re just too humble to admit it.
“The goal for me as an improviser is to perform on as many stages as I can,” says Merlin, philosophically, when McCormick gets up for a pee break. “Improv is ephemeral. After the performance is done, that performance is gone. So performing on a different stage, of any kind of stage, is an accomplishment. That’s what’s fun for me.”
Merlin and McCormick call improvisational acting “playing.” And that’s precisely what they’re doing up on stage each night, kindly, strategically, aggressively and freely. This is a lesson all of us could benefit from learning. Or watching, really, since that's their job.