Winner of “Best Coach” in 2016, Nathan Sowell is the complete package. Knowledgeable and encouraging as a teacher and joyful as a performer, he is a critic, audience and student favorite. We posed a couple of questions about his background and philosophy in this post.
Tell us about your background, Nathan.
I started taking improv classes in Chicago at Columbia College from a very nice man, Brian Posen. He encouraged me to continue pursuing the craft which led me to iO Chicago. There I fell in love with the art formby watching Cook County Social Club, The Reckoning, and Carl and the Passions religiously. At the time, I was taught and coached by The Improvised Shakespeare Company’s Andy Carey to whom I credit a large amount of my improv foundation. I played the occasional show with my indie team Boom Boom Washington at different indie theaters in town like Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, The Cornservatory, and The Playground. I grew to miss Texas and its mild winters, which led me to pack up all of my stuff and move to Austin with two good friends. Within my first two weeks in town, I answered an audition notice on the AIC Forum for a ColdTowne troupe that was looking for new members, Nice Astronaut. They graciously opened their arms to me, and introduced me to ColdTowne. It was love at first sight. Over the next two years, I was able to attain something that felt missing in Chicago, reps. I was given the opportunity to hone my craft and love for improvisation, and over the last couple of years that has blossomed into not only performing but coaching and teaching some truly amazing individuals at our theater.
You won “Outstanding Coach” this year. What is your approach to coaching improv troupes?
When I begin working with a new troupe, I always start with a session that focuses on what I consider to be the fundamentals of scenework: creating and exploring your relationship with the other individual you are performing with. I strongly believe that great improv is borne out of a willingness to trust your and your scene partners natural reactions, and embrace the fear of the unknown together. With this in mind, I craft warm ups and exercises that work specific performance muscles during the coaching session. The stronger we get those muscles, the more we can rely on our instincts, as opposed to our brains, when we are up in front of an audience.
How do you approach teaching improv to brand new students when you lead the Improv 101 classes?
The same way I approach coaching and teaching normally, but with a focus on the aspects of improv that I have grown to cherish. We run exercises that focus on putting yourself out there in a room full of strangers, supporting the first offer made with haste and enthusiasm, and appreciating the unlimited potential for unique scenework that comes with collaborating with individuals from all backgrounds. In fact, that last one is something I try to instill in all of the young improvisers I come into contact with. As humans, we have the tendency to form cliques with others most like ourselves. Improv encourages, and is elevated by those of completely different backgrounds, race, age, gender identification, sexual orientation coming together and creating a group mind that can only and will only exist with that particular amalgamation of individuals. Through improvising and learning improv, we get to discover what we have in common with each other, and how different our perspectives are.
How do you feel like the Coldtowne philosophy intersects with your own approach to teaching and performing?
What really stood out to me, when I first started classes at ColdTowne, was the rich talent that was teaching. The faculty was comprised of improvisers with such varied backgrounds and philosophies. Nothing taught was ever treated as though it was sacred. We were made very well aware of the fact that the only right answer was the one that worked best for you. This allowed me to craft my own voice through the voices of my teachers. I may not have agreed with everything one particular instructor taught, but I wasn’t meant to. They provided me with the answers they had found on their journey, and I try to do the same for my students. At the end of the day, it will be up to them to decide which tools work best for themselves.
What else are you up to these days?
Along with teaching at ColdTowne, I also work for Vigilante Bar, a new board gaming bar and restaurant that is opening up right across the street from ColdTowne Conservatory. I am also in the process of creating a multitude of workshops that focus and hone some of my favorite improv skills. My ObjectWorkout workshop on Object Work will be a monthly elective open to everyone in the Austin Improv Community. You can catch me playing every Saturday in February at 7:00pm with Missed Connections ATX, and with Nice Astronaut on the second Saturday of every month at 11:30pm.
Nathan teaches our introductory Improv 101 class, every other Monday at 7pm.