The Yeti was Out of Bounds

I roll my sleeves up all the time. If I’m not wearing a t-shirt, you might as well pin those bad boys up permanently cause they aren’t coming down unless I got a suit jacket going over them and Alaska is not the type of place that gives you the excuse often. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember and I think this gives me a certain style, sometimes even a certain voice. Yeah, not a big deal worthy of a blog but it gets kind of fun to start recognizing the style of others. Bright shoes, crazy long socks, custom tee’s, accenting tattoos or belts, pure flannel, you name it. It’s funny because with such diversity in play, whenever you see something you like, you rarely go out and immediately buy it and incorporate it into your wardrobe. You really just notice, like it, even love it sometimes and continue to use it as motivation to find your own expressive voice.

You’ll recall my last blog post was describing a wonderful experience at the Del Close Marathon in New York City. To this day I still recommend going to DCM for exposure to one of the biggest comedy houses in the world (Upright Citizen’s Brigade) and the industry of comedy. However, after our recent adventure to Austin I realized I was really exposed to a distinct, single styling at DCM. We saw over 30 long form sets and a lot of them done by people taking classes or previously trained in the UCB system.

But let me tell you something: The diversity of comedy can be so much sweeter. I feel I came away from our recent journey having seen much more of the comedy spectrum.

The Yeti has just returned from the experience known as the Out of Bounds (OoB) Comedy Festival, which took place this month in Austin, Texas. We saw different improv, sketch, stand-up and play experiences over our five night adventure, performed our own short form product and took a variety of workshops. I worked duo scene strategy with Sean Cooley out of iO in Chicago, audited an object course put on by Rich Talarico of iO and Annoyance Theatre notoriety and finished big with a master class from Mick Napier himself. I don’t name drop for my sake, I name drop for the festival to give you a picture of what OoB brings to the table. On top of it all, we truly experienced Austin, the Portland of the South, a haven of artistic perspective nestled in a very traditional part of the country. It was hot, it was humid, and I weigh more from all the BBQ I ate. We also came back with more than just experiences, but with new friends in the ever growing improv community.

It’s the diversity that sells it, and I’m not just going to spend all my time in this entry cheerleading the Yeti experience or spending pages on building the Out of Bounds mythos. I’ll do the direct recap succinctly:

  • OoB was amazing and a strong thank you goes out to the Austin community, including theatres, tech, volunteers, publicists, photographers, and most of all producers who made it happen. I can put it no more simply than go to this festival and have an amazing time like us.
  • Urban Yeti had a great set. We had fun, it was a great space, full crowd and we had a lot of engagement. I am proud of our ensemble for being able to put up such quality in such new and diverse environments.
  • Thank you to family and friends who came to see us so far away from home. You know who you are, we know who you are and we won’t forget.

But I think a true testament of this experience is how much it got me thinking about our place in the comedy world, finding Yeti’s style, it’s voice, but even more questioning how much time I was spending on my personal development.

I was challenged a bit by the social aspects of the after parties and networking with folks around the festival. OoB gave us plenty of opportunity and went above and beyond, but it is difficult for someone outside of a vibrant arts community like Austin to find out where to pick up and keep people’s interest. We got better and looser as the festival went on and we met a lot of awesome people with the added bi-product of a solidified strong reputation. But imagine my surprise, as the Yeti’s converge on a patio picnic table to talk about their festival experience, when Mick Napier comes over, plops down and spends 30 minutes getting to know us. Don’t worry, if you don’t know who he is, this story is satisfied by the simple fact I specifically named him and he was nice enough to get to know us. Something I have been very proud of this year is the Yeti team taking a lot of workshops together and coming out with kind performance remarks from instructors, but even more importantly with other workshops participants continually saying we are really fun to play with. Mick capped this feeling off by telling us he was surprised by our talent and thought Alaska improv was doing just fine. I endeavoured in the conversation with him to ask how to find resources for better improv in a community as far away as Anchorage. His message was very unique and unexpected: Take advantage of the fact you are in a market outside of Chicago or New York because it allows you to find your own voice, the machine can often be a lot of bull shit. There was no name dropping, workshop selling or book pushing. There was only a simple message to carve out a piece of that comedy world for yourself. You, out there, I want to tell you I’m a guilty man. I am quick to judge good or bad and label an improv show strong and weak, question the ability of players to put up products worthy of an audience. Art is judgement, this will never go away. But comedy is about style and just because I perceive a struggling set, it does not mean there isn’t an amazing voice to it.

There were several styles I loved at Out of Bounds. My favourite overall experiences were seeing original plays through ‘Everything is Established’ and the New York Neo-Futurists. Just absolutely outstanding, unique and well done with superb acting. Remember those names and go endeavour to see them in your life. I don’t think anyone walked away from Coldtowne theatre on Saturday night without fawning over the style of Whiskey Tango from Portland. I have a close friend in the ensemble from the college improv years and it was my first time seeing this group. I would love to Tango again someday soon. I saw a clown called Honeybuns take an audience to the edge of their seat in beautiful discomfort, I saw some inspiring talent run through the gauntlet of All Star Maestro (competitive short form improv) and I even got a chance to appreciate the growing style of musical improv. Finally, I want to give a shout out to a set by Mark Kendall from Dad’s Garage in Atlanta. I give him my top honors because he took on a tough New Movement venue and won an audience over with personal sketches that he poured his heart and soul into. He worked hard and earned his keep. I hope to travel to see him and the rest of Dad’s Garage some day because I am seeing and hearing great things coming out of this theatre. Festivals allow you to bank styles you like and I will cherish these moments, but I will also be careful not to emulate. We still need to work every day to find our own creation and voice.

Something else unexpected emerged from our social extravaganza catalogued above: I started to question if I was in too deep. I try to keep up appearances, I try to be the rock if improv and spend my time deep in the trenches of bringing a diverse comedy experience to Urban Yeti and Anchorage. I try to be the most knowledgeable, the most prepared, put up the best product, get people to the table, give the audience a unique experience and keep a diverse set of projects going that interest our performers. I am, however, starting to see a different person emerge, someone I’m having a hard time tempering as of late, someone that is too vulnerable. I get nervous in workshops and sometimes I overcome to put up some impressive scenes and other times I let it pull me down into a jumble of confusion. I am constantly looking for some sort of reinforcement after performances, which have to be rare if I want to maintain a distinct director/ensemble atmosphere. I keep having conversations with people about wanting more time to get a better improv product out of Yeti when I just need to realize I am projecting my own desire for more of MY time to find a voice where someone would walk away from a show saying I like John Hanus’ style. Why am I spinning this blog so inward? Regardless of vulnerabilities, I don’t seek pity but instead believe there is some learning here. This blog is about bringing you along in our development and even these type of threads can lead to some important lessons. Directing requires you to sacrifice personal voice to find the style of others for showcase and the OoB festival is so awesome and diverse it turns your vulnerabilities into a desire to lean in and figure it out. You, you out there, you and I are going to keep pushing ourselves to be uncomfortable because the diversity is so much sweeter.

Thanks for the renewed passion OoB. I hope we can return and continue the party. Most of all, thank you to Mallory Hanus, John Parsi, Mary Jo Mrochinski, Aneliese Palmer and Erik Dahl for traveling down this road together and working with me to find our path. Let’s keep going, I hear there is always something better ahead…

Here are 10 things I think I know to close out my musings for you:

  1.  Whoever came up with the concept of trading cards at a festival is a damn genius. OoB offers trading card packs for purchase with all the acts of the festival on them. It gets people wanting to collect their own cards and sets they enjoyed. Great social icebreaker as well as we met a bunch of people just from wanting to trade cards.
  2. Thank you Eric Caldwell for helping us navigate Austin. There were several times when I was having a drink and Mr. Caldwell would bring a friend up and say ‘I really wanted you to get a chance to meet the Yeti’s.’ That helped a lot and you are a true gentleman and scholar. Seriously, thanks for being you.
  3. I’m getting itchy to go to Chicago to experience more Annoyance Theatre and check out some of the other big schools. Trigger Happy was a unique experience. I thought the format was downright insane and refreshing to see. Each member of the group understood a secret language in their set that caused them to transition scenes, which they did about 50 times in a 45 minute set. I’m happy to pocket this experience for when my players tell me I put too much structure into some of our show ideas.
  4. OoB used to be a mini golf and improv festival back in the early 2000’s when things were a bit less popular. They continue the tradition today by playing a mini golf tournament. The person on the winning team who lives furthest away gets to take the 1st place jacket home with them, add something unique to it and return it for the next year’s tournament. Mallory took home the jacket and you know something Alaskan and Yeti is getting sewed on to that bad boy.
  5. Saw a silent improv set with soundtrack called Golden. Loved their style and product.
  6. Don’t walk into a festival and question a small theatre. A lot of the times if it only seats 40-60, you’re going to enjoy your experience more.
  7. If you do improv, do Maestro, it’s like eating your vegetables. I did it for the 2nd time and it takes a lot of maturity and can easily get out of hand given the competitive nature of it. But that’s not what it’s about nor is it why I emphasize it. Do it purely for the fact that you have to stand in front of an audience full of people and not have the slightest idea of what you are going to be asked to do.
  8. If you’re out there ‘Ball and Chain’, you get the award for my hardest laugh at the festival. Your scene about training for the Olympic shooting competition and who you imagine when you fire the gun was top notch.
  9. 6th Street in downtown Austin. What a shit show. I’ve never seen anything like it.
  10. We missed Erik and Josh on this trip. Let’s not make this a recurring theme gentlemen.