Gary Austin: Making Surprising Sense
I’ve studied improvisation with Gary Austin, founder of the legendary Groundlings, since 1996. Working with him has shown me how to physicalize my words and forced me out of my head. The discoveries I make through improvisation have led me to view even the most seemingly mundane actions of life as opportunities for adventure. But Austin is hardly your typical stand-up comedian. Recently I have become curious about the connections between this kind of improvisation practice and the beliefs of atheism, which many artists, including Austin, espouse. I spoke with him by phone about religion, reason, and comedy—and his answers surprised me.
As the founder of The Groundlings, home to many internationally known comedians, why do you call what you do improvisation and not improv comedy?
Most people who do improv do it for laughs, and it comes off in a very shallow way. I do theater, and most improv is not theater. For me it’s about the process of making discoveries. If I touch the audience, it’s theater, regardless if I make them laugh or not.
One of your mantras is that you can make meaning without making sense.
If I try to make sense, then I will make boring, predictable sense. But if I make choices that don’t make sense to me, I will make sense that surprises me. I trust that the audience is smart, and they can make connections that justify the nonsense.
You sounds a bit like fellow Texan Bill Hicks when he said, “The voice of reason is in us all…and everyone can recognize it because it makes sense and everyone benefits from it equally.”
This comes out of living in the moment. I always had a problem as a stand-up comedian because I never tried to make them laugh. In my shows, I’d sing songs and tell true stories that would get tons of laughs. My favorite comedians are Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor. Now, I have a lot of other comics I admire, but these are the three I really love, because they always told the truth. For example, Lenny Bruce saw a hypocritical society and he wanted to expose it. He created pieces that exposed this hypocrisy in the way that Jesus did, which is to tell parables. If you got it, you got it, if you didn’t, then you didn’t.
Why is it important to force students out of their heads?
When you’re in your head, you’re making the sense that you already know about and that you already understand. When I’m in my body, my body is telling me what the sense is. Then I understand the sense. It’s as if God gave me the sense that I come up with. And this sense means something different to every person.
You mentioned God. I thought you were an atheist.
I’m not talking about God as this vengeful father figure. It’s more, there’s something outside of me. I don’t know stuff and I’m OK with that. When I die, as the Bible says, now I see through a glass darkly. So it’s possible there will come a time after my demise when I’ll go, “Oh that’s what that is.” But I know it’s not going to happen while I’m still here.
Is improvisation a playful way to seek out the truth in serious topics like religion and atheism?
I don’t have goals to explore topics when I do improvisation. The only one truth I understand when I improvise is the truth of the moment. Viola Spolin called it the eternal moment. It’s the most spiritual place I can be in. There is no time. Everything is eternal. I’m aware of everything in my skin and outside my skin. I’m aware of my breath, everyone around me, and my environment. Everything that’s happening is now and there’s nothing else. I don’t have a sense of the whole. The audience always sees the whole. Take the analogy of a train. If I’m in a train going down the track, I’m only aware of the train car I’m in. If I look out the window as we round a curve and I can see the whole train, I have an awareness of the train. But when I’m in the train, I can never see the entire train. The people in cars waiting to cross the tracks see the whole train. They’re the audience.
How did your one-man show “Church” come about?
It was really simple. I needed to tell people this story. Things happened when I was a kid growing up in the Nazarene Church in Texas and California that I have to tell people about. It’s an obsession. Let’s say you saw a crime. You would need to tell people about that. The same thing happens with me when I teach. I tell stories that relate to what’s going on in the class. I have to tell these stories at the risk of some people becoming impatient because they think I’m telling stories and not teaching them. But if they stick around long enough, they’ll get the connection.
You’ve been through serious health crises, including cancer and heart disease. How have these informed your work?
My status quo is being maintained and I’m taking medication. Being so close to death reminds me that I’m sick and tired of discovering that I don’t want to work with a particular person. My wife, Wendy, is a much better judge of people. When she says someone is poison, she’s almost always right. I want to work with people where I’m forming connections that pay off.
So how do you form spiritual connections when doing your work as an improvisor?
It’s about empathy. I must have absolute empathy for my partner onstage, regardless of the character he’s playing, his behavior or his point of view. That doesn’t mean I have to condone who he the character is and what he says and does, but I must empathize. Just as important as having empathy for his character, I must have empathy for him the person and artist. That doesn’t mean I have to like him personally. I did a tender love scene with an actress at The Committee. The scene was in the show for at least a year. We were like Julie and David Eisenhower and I was going off to war. It was our good-bye. I didn’t like this actor on a personal level, and I assume she couldn’t bear me. But the empathy for each other was there, even personally, while we were doing the scene.
As an animal-rights advocate, my empathy for animals who are unable to defend themselves against the barbarism of man feels much the same as my empathy onstage. Everything I say here regarding improvisation applies to my work as an actor (with written text), a teacher, a director, a writer. As a concert performer, my empathy for the audience must be foremost in my awareness as I focus on the tasks at hand.
To learn more about Austin’s upcoming classes in LA, NYC, Seattle, and D.C., visit his website. He also is one of the lead actors in the indie film comedy We’ve Got Balls, which is currently on the festival circuit.
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).