When I meet up with Asaf Ronen, he greets me with a big kiss on the cheek. He’s charming, friendly, and he happens to be the author of Directing Improv and the owner of YESand.com, favorites among improv nerds across the country. Since moving to Austin from New York, Asaf has brought it to the local improv scene. He’s fresh, fun to watch, and incredibly talented – I feel comfortable speaking for others when I say we’re glad he’s here.
That Other Paper What were your first impressions of Austin when you came to perform at last year’s Out of Bounds Improv Festival and Miniature Golf Tournament?
Asaf Ronen Before I came to Austin in August, I didn’t know much about the city outside of the huge arts scene here, but even that was a vague, dreamy kind of knowledge. I guess that’s why Austin was top of my list of cities to visit next. I had a lot of friends who used to be involved in improv here – Mike D’Alonzo and Tyler Bryce, who were both involved with Heroes [of Comedy]. I got some idea from them. And then of course there was the Big Stinkin’ Festival, which I had lots of friends attend. I was jealous for many years. I still regret that I never had the chance to be at one of them, but Out of Bounds turned that around.
TOP So after Out of Bounds, you decided that Austin was the place to be. This is quite an honor, considering you run the largest improv website in the nation and you’ve written the book on directing improv – literally. Do you have any big improv plans for Austin?
AR I have too many ideas to list in one interview. I have ideas regularly, and it’s nice to be in a city where there’s such a nice pool of talent to pull from. New York has a lot of talent, but it also has a lot of unnecessary competition. I get the sense here in Austin that people are more relaxed and more focused on creativity. I’m hoping to launch a few projects through the Austin Improv Collective that not only push how we use improv but how we can integrate other forms of art: visual, music, storytelling, whatever. I also hope to teach improv in public schools. This was something that I did out east that I always loved doing. I think improv is a great tool to help kids in junior high school develop better coping mechanisms. But first, I’m going to start simple with a show that John Ratliff and I are going to co-produce: It’s an improvised show set in a record store, a la High Fidelity or Empire Records. I’m very excited about it. We’re doing auditions this weekend.
TOP You mentioned the Austin Improv Collective. What are your thoughts regarding the AIC?
AR I am very impressed by it, actually. I hate to keep mentioning NYC as if it’s the before picture on a weight-loss ad, but I was trying to start something similar there with very little success. In New York, they’re under the impression that we’re all fighting for the same audience; here, people are working together to build an audience. I feel that’s the right mindset. That feeling is why I’m here. I want to help the improv community in Austin grow as much as possible, and I need the AIC’s help to grow as much as I can as a director, teacher, and performer. I want to build it to a nice, healthy level of co-dependency.
TOP Do you feel like the improv styles here match what you know, love, and teach? Or is it more like that Pace Picante commercial where they all find out the guy’s salsa is from New York City?
AR I don’t know that commercial. Is that one of the southern things I need to learn about?
TOP I think you’ll get along fine without getting references to commercials from the ’90s. My apologies for the confusion. Just so no one else is confused: You mentioned some auditions earlier. Are they open to all of Austin, or just those within the AIC?
AR Considering the nature of the project, I’d be curious to see people outside of the AIC audition for it – people who would bring in different sensibilities. I’m worrying my partner whenever I mention to him how I love throwing wildcards into productions. I mean, improv is risky. We’re taking a chance every time we get on stage. When you’re directing an improv show, you feel that risk most. So sometimes I like to tweak those odds in unexpected ways. There’s info posted on the AIC Forums, though people should be forewarned that the auditions will involve improvisation.