The Idea Guy

The Improv Philosopher: Asaf Ronen’s Spirited approach to theater

The Improv Philosopher: Asaf Ronen’s Spirited approach to theater

Austin photo: News_Asaf Ronen_Spirited
Asaf Ronen in "Spirited" Courtesy of Control Images
Austin photo: News_Spirited_Poster
Austin photo: News_Spirited_Hideout Theatre
Emily Breedlove, Elizabeth Brammer, Marc Majcher, Taylor Overstreet, Asaf Ronen and Halyn Lee Erickson in "Spirited" Courtesy of Control Images
Austin photo: News_Asaf Ronen_Spirited
Austin photo: News_Spirited_Poster
Austin photo: News_Spirited_Hideout Theatre
Austin photo: News_Spirited_Asaf and Halyn

Asaf Ronen has some new ideas for a show.

In fact, he’s got about ten stewing in his brain, waiting to be realized on a stage. Some are too large for one person to direct. Some require a new style of improv that would need a uniquely designed cast to pull it off. Some are just not physically possible yet.

Currently, Ronen is in the midst of directing a month-long experimental improvisation show called Spirited: Improvised Dreamscapes that combines the storytelling techniques of Lewis Carroll, Hayao Miyazaki and Maurice Sendak into one complexly funny, touching, sometimes scary improv show at the Hideout Theatre’s upstairs space.

Ronen has been tweaking the concept in his own imagination for years, and the thought process is evident. “I carry ideas around for a long time,” states Ronen. “The original idea was much larger than what you saw. I had to talk myself down from that original idea to see this version happen.”

The actualized result is an utter delight to watch. With a giant cast of 18 improvisers, Ronen and his assistant, Marc Majcher, create a new “dreamscape” every night consisting of a young female protagonist (played either by Sarah Marie Curie or Halyn Erickson) dressed in their best Alice in Wonderland petticoats, wandering through a land of impossible creatures inspired by the casts’ imaginations and dreams.

In the 6pm "family-friendly" show I witnessed, Erickson was just as surprised by the comedic choices of her cast mates as the 4-year-olds in the crowd. Sentient raspberries complained of allergies and Ronen’s own eight-legged (four-actor-ed) centipede recited poetry before scaring off our heroine. Erickson’s reactions were priceless, and her ability to roll with everything that was presented to her proved as impressive as the other actors’ imaginations.

“The malleable dreamscape setting really is something I’ve never seen before in improv,” says Ronen. “Getting the cast to understand the concept and then really ‘get it’ in their bodies was a big step for us. It took until about the third rehearsal before everyone was on the same page.”

Ronen is no stranger to teaching foreign concepts through improvisational theater techniques. He’s the author of the book Directing Improv: Show the Way by Getting Out of the Way. And as the Educational Director at the newly renovated Institution Theater, Ronen generally juggles two or three improvisation classes at a time, teaching folks who have never performed in front of an audience how to enjoy the spotlight.

Ronen teaches what he calls "power improv," a curriculum based on The Annoyance Theatre’s teachings focused on empowering actors to trust their instincts and value their potential contributions to a scene. Explains Ronen, “A strong energy at the top carries a show through to its conclusion, and that is all established in the first couple steps in to the show. You might as well make those two steps as interesting as possible.”

A veteran of the New York improv scene, Ronen moved to Austin in 2006 after performing in the growing Out of Bounds Comedy Festival and experiencing the collaborative, supportive environment of Austin’s improv community. 

“I felt really good about being here, everyone was focused on collaboration and sharing—not like New York at all,” says Ronen. “I sort of felt like a big fish in a smaller pond, which was awesome. But that only lasted a few months before Tom got here.”

“Tom” refers to Tom Booker, the former Second City-trained improv comedy instructor and film/television/commercial actor who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles before eventually landing in Austin. “Tom totally stole my thunder,” jokes Ronen. After eyeing one another around town, Ronen and Booker realized that they both valued hard work and shared similar philosophies of performance.

Eventually Booker and Ronen would become roommates, best friends and co-workers. “I owe so much to Tom,” says Ronen. “He got me to realize how much I love teaching. And now here I am, the Educational Director at The Institution. I’m getting to do what I love.”

Last year, Ronen celebrated his twentieth year of doing improv with a two-day celebration called Asafapalooza that allowed him to try out several of his one-off improv concepts with many of the Austin players he always wanted to work with. The event opened Ronen’s eyes to the possibilities of making the rest of his larger show ideas manifest.

Spirited was my Holy Grail. And now that I’ve seen it, I’ve got all these ideas for Version 2.0,” laughs Ronen. “And now I’ve got a whole new Holy Grail I’m working on that involves drafting new theories of improv with every show, complete with improvised music, art and theater in one show.”

Still in the midst of directing and occasionally starring in Spirited throughout October, signing up new improv classes, running the monthly Best of Everything show at the Highball and producing new shows at improv theaters around town, Ronen has no shortage of projects on his plate to keep him busy.

“Initiative is the most important thing for an improviser,” states Ronen, sagely. As someone who’s stayed one step ahead of the game for over twenty years, it’ll be a delight to see what this self-proclaimed Mad Scientist of Improv will dream up next.

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Spirited: Improvised Dreamscapes runs Saturdays in October at The Hideout Theatre. Family friendly shows are at 6pm; adult shows are at 8pm.