As Austin improv’s John Ratliff puts it, he came to Improv through the backdoor as one of the original musical accompanists of Girls Girls Girls. He quickly fell in love with the art form and went all in, dedicating many (if not most) of his waking hours to performing and teaching improv.
John Ratliff is a member of one of the ColdTowne Conservatory’s very first graduating classes and performs regularly with Austin improv mainstays The Glamping Trip, Ratliff and Jackson, and Dervish. He’s perhaps best known as an improv educator, having won an Austin Chronicle critic’s pick for “Best Improv Teacher” as well as several nods from the ColdTowne community for “Best Improv Teacher/Coach.”
Ratliff has coached several improv groups, but he is making his directorial debut on Sunday, April 20th at 7pm with the The Church of Indeterminate Divinity. The show weaves together improv comedy, unconventional theater, and live musical accompaniment in a full-immersion experience unlike anything else. Part tent meeting, part house concert, and part flash mob, it’s church for people who don’t go to church: real as rent and funny as hell.
So why “Church?”
It was an idea that I’d been batting around in my head for a while, but for some reason this time I submitted it. I was literally falling asleep as I wrote the pitch, so my semi-conscious state might have influenced both the description and the decision to hit Send. When the schedule came out I was like, “Oh, shit, now I have to actually do this.”
How is this show going to be different from your typical improv experience?
That’s going to change over the course of the run; it’s definitely a work in progress. The first show is kind of an exoskeleton that the show will eventually burst and shatter once it develops its own muscles.
But I think even the first show will distinguish itself from typical improv by the fact that it expresses a point of view. I was trying to convey the philosophy of the show to the cast, and Kasey Borger finally said, “So it’s basically the Church of Improv,” which sums it up perfectly. There are parts of it that are sincere, which I know will send some people out the door like kerosened cats, but it’s a great cast so at its core it’s still a very funny improv show.
And of course it has music, which will become a much bigger part of it the longer we do it. If we were to get picked up for a longer run, my ultimate goal would be to assemble a group of killer musicians who can improvise along with the players, something like Todd Stashwick’s Mayfly shows, or if Array had worked with a live band, and then let that organic stuff flow in and out of the scenes and set pieces. I only had about a month to throw the first show together, so the music is still pretty basic and more separated from the rest of the show. So far it’s mostly just Justin Soileau and Ian Townsend and me ploinking around under the singing. But at least we’ve got that piece in place.
The whole thing will continue to evolve, and probably not at all like I think it will.
Where did the seeds of this idea come from?
Oh, man, so many places. Growing up, I was always completely opposed to organized religion. Then I started going to AA, and I was like, “Oh, so this is why people go to church.” The value of it wasn’t really in whether your beliefs match up with the other people’s, because in AA they emphatically do not. But there are important, practical things that happen in these communal spaces that have nothing to do with dogma or belief. And fun things. I once interviewed a duelling-piano-bar pianist who pointed out that piano bars and church are the only places where complete strangers sing together.
So to me the parallels to improv are glaringly obvious. It’s a situation where you have to let go of your ego to become part of something much bigger than yourself — but the reward is that you’re completely supported by everyone around you, so you know you can be more open and vulnerable than you could be out in the world, because no matter what happens, you’ll be taken care of. And if enough people do that together, you can create something that couldn’t possibly have existed outside of this space.
(But remember, everybody, this show is REALLY FUNNY.)
What continues to excite you about improv?
Seeing all these incredibly talented people who keep showing up at our theater. I can sometimes go to pretty dark places agonizing about my own improv and how I’m never gonna be as good as I want to be, but one great thing about getting older is that I can finally take unrestrained pleasure in other people being awesome without comparing myself to them. It’s not a zero-sum game. I went to see the CageMatch last night (Patio Talk vs. Control Match) and I was pretty much giddy with delight for the entire show, whereas when I was younger my one thought would have been “Shit, I’m never gonna be that good.”
But as I mentioned to Jericho after the last student auditions, I’m really glad I’m already grandfathered in.
I also think we’re just now starting to scratch the surface of what improv can do. I feel like someone in 1962 who loves rock music and who can’t possibly know about The Velvet Underground or My Bloody Valentine or PJ Harvey but who senses that amazing things are possible that nobody’s gotten to yet.
As a director, what do you look for when you’re casting someone in a show like this?
Because I didn’t have time for auditions, I wanted people that I knew could play together, so I basically approached Collective Alibi and asked if any of them wanted to do it, because I knew that any possible combination of that group would be great together. Some of them couldn’t do it, but some of them (at press time: Kasey Borger, Jake Millward, Steve Moore, Ian Townsend, Javier Ungo, and Amy Wright) are going to be with the show at various points during this four-month run, and our assistant director Chrissy Shackelford will also be playing.
But we’re going to be adding to the cast, so in answer to your question: I’m looking for improvisers who are willing to put the same amount of work into an improv show that you’d put into professional scripted theater, who can play emotionally believable scenes, and who are open to exploring less conventional stuff like organic work and abstract physicality. And who love improv so much that they love working hard to get better at it. I’ve pretty much had it with improvisers who don’t want to do anything they’re not already good at.
There, that should eliminate just about everybody. Whoever’s left, get in touch with me.
The impression I get is that you’re very passionate about teaching? What drew you to being an improv teacher?
I come from a long line of teachers and preachers, so it’s not surprising that I’d wind up doing one or the other (or now both, I guess). Before I discovered improv I went through yoga teacher training, so apparently some part of me desperately wanted to tell other people how to do things I couldn’t really do myself.
Not to be fucking pious about it, but I feel like teaching is currently the best way I can serve the art of improv. I’m always trying to be a better player, and if the Devil offered me infinite performance ability in exchange for all my teaching ability, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted, but teaching is something I can contribute that seems to be useful to people, and that’s a privilege, really.
I know I get too wrapped up in it sometimes. When I feel like I did a bad job teaching or coaching it pretty much destroys me for the rest of the night.
But to tie all this together (and give you one more answer to an earlier question): I was teaching a class at another theater once and we were doing a bunch of organic stuff and this one student absolutely refused to participate. Worse, she wanted to argue about it. So after class we were talking and I was telling her that she had to commit even though it was uncomfortable, and she kept arguing, and I kept insisting, and finally she asked, “What do you care what I do in class?” and I just reared back and bellowed, “BECAUSE THIS IS MY CHURCH, AND YOU’RE SHITTING IN IT!”
7pm the third Sunday of every month, everybody! Pay what you want! And it’ll be funny, I promise!