We were happy to see that one of our instructors, John Ratliff, was chosen to be Best Improv Instructor of 2011 in the Austin Chronicle. Recently, we caught up with him to discuss his philosophy on improv and his thoughts on ColdTowne.
CT: How did you get involved with the ColdTowne Conservatory? What makes you passionate about teaching improv?
JR: When I first found out about ColdTowne, I was the musical accompanist for Girls Girls Girls and was pretty happy staying on my side of the piano. I enjoyed improv and had taken some classes from my friend Shana Merlin, but I wasn’t really driven to pursue it onstage until I saw Tight (a forerunner of The Frank Mills) and a McNichol & May show, and my synapses all lit up and I said, “I want to do THAT.”
And then I found out that ColdTowne Conservatory was teaching this style of improv and that Bob and Erika and Dave and Rachel (of the Frank Mills) all taught here, so I signed up, and as it turned out, I was basically saying goodbye to my life as I knew it. I was in the second graduating class with Leah Moss of Look Cookie and about half of Midnight Society.
I love teaching improv because I still remember how I felt like this whole new world was opening up for me. It was like a life-experience supercollider banging together all these different things I’d learned in other areas, but in really surprising ways. It was a way to make sense of things that was simultaneously fun and freeing and challenging, and seeing people discover that for the first time always affects me.
I completely understand that for some people improv is just a way to have a good time and blow off a little steam, and it’s great for that, but I feel like even at that casual level it has the potential to change the way you live your life.
Needless to say, I sometimes have to throttle back a little when discussing this in class, but that’s how I feel about it.
CT: What has been your favorite thing about your experiences in class? Generally and specifically?
JR: Obviously, I like it when someone says they really enjoyed a class or got something out of a specific exercise. But really, just seeing people grow so fast right in front of my eyes never ceases to amaze me. Over the course of eight weeks, people make these astonishing leaps, and of course most of the time they don’t even realize it. In fact, they usually think they’re getting worse, because their awareness grows so much faster than their ability to execute. It’s frustrating for them, but it’s a natural part of the process: you can’t get better until you see where you’re at.
But where you’re at is so much more interesting than you think it is! Beginning students think we’re just blowing smoke when we tell them they’re awesome, because they’re comparing what they’re doing to polished, experienced improv and they’re painfully aware that they’re not there yet. But a lot of it really is awesome, and I think a huge part of the teacher’s job is to try to make people aware of how much they’re bringing to the table before they’ve even had a chance to develop any technique.
A scene can be a mess technically but still be an amazing, hilarious, real moment that none of us will ever get to see again, and I try to draw people’s attention to that when it happens.
CT: What moments from shows or scenes from classes have inspired you?
JR: When they were in Level 1, Nathan Livni and Rick Heineman did a scene in which they danced around the stage singing “We’re daffodils, we’re daffodils!” There was no dialogue, there was no plot, there was no stopping the dance and justifying it or telling each other they were doing it wrong. There was only a couple of supposedly grown men rigorously and insanely committed to singing and dancing about being daffodils. This went on for about a minute while everyone else in the room was convulsed in hysterical laughter. If all my improv could be half that good, I’d be happy.