Shana Merlin is not the only Austin creative that’s turned her art into a successful business. But she’s a great example of how something like improv comedy can go from hobby to entrepreneurial success. Her company,Merlin Works
, teaches public and corporate improv classes — to clients like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Four Seasons Hotels and Whole Foods.
As an improviser, she’s won accolades like “Best Improv Teacher” and “Best Female Improviser” from the Austin Improv Collective. As an entrepreneur, she’s been featured in Austin Woman Magazine, New York Press, Austinist and The Chronicle. Shana is a big part of improv comedy’s explosive Austin growth in the last five years — we’re home to a major national festival and four dedicated improv theaters — so we caught up with her to see how the city has played a part in her success.
Why have you found such passion for improv?
You get to use every part of yourself — your body, voice, heart and head, and all the experiences that you have had in life, all at the same time. You are also the writer, actor, director, and most importantly casting director all at once. So there’s a great sense of being in control in that you have all this power, and also the sense of being out of control as you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Why do audiences seem to really connect with it?
I think when improv is going well it’s magical. The audience comes up to you after the show and asks, “How did you do that?” — like they would a magician. Like, what’s the trick? If you can get people in the room, they will fall in love with it.
Can anyone do it?
Yes — just about anybody can improvise. People say, “Oh, I could never do that, I could never think that fast.” But improvisers aren’t thinking faster, they’re thinking less. It’s about letting go of self-censorship. And the way to do that is to have practice failing, and realizing that it’s okay, it’s fine — and actually, it’s more fun.
Let’s talk about the unlikely explosion of improv in Austin in the last 5 years.
My new saying is that “Austin has the most improv per capita in the U.S.” I don’t have statistics to back that up, but I think it may be true. Part of what’s great about Austin is that everyone has a day job and another job — some creative hobby. So, there are a ton of people here looking for creative outlets. Another great thing about the Austin community is that it is an actual community. Most cities that have a big improv scene, the improv theatres are isolated. They have their house team and they really don’t collaborate very often. Here, all the improvisers that now have their own venues were at one point working together. And all those founders have a real human connection with each other.
What about Austin inspires you personally?
One thing about Austin is that weird equals good here. So, the weirder the better. And I love being a host, so I think about where to take people when they visit. Of course, come see my improv show at Salvage Vanguard Theatre. And then other cool stuff on the Manor Road corridor, like East Side Cafe. But I gotta tell you, I think 30th and Guadalupe is one of the sweetest blocks in town. Texas French Bread, Toy Joy, Wheatsville, I Luv Video — I mean, what else do you need?
Salvage Vanguard Theatre
2803 Manor Rd.; 512-474-7886
East Side Cafe
2113 Manor Rd.; 512-476-5858
Texas French Bread
2900 Rio Grande St.; 512-499-0544
2900 Guadalupe; 512-320-0090
3101 Guadalupe St.; 512-478-2667
I Luv Video
2915 Guadalupe St.; 512-236-0759
Photo Courtesy of Shana Merlin
Troy A. Miller – Writer
Hailing from Kansas City, Troy has been living in Austin since 1995, making his way as a filmmaker and improv comedian. A former waiter, Troy definitely knows his way around the food and nightlife of the city.