12 Secrets of the Longest Running Improv Troupe in Austin: The Merlin Works November Newsletter

My Love Letter to GGG
With a Dozen of Tips for
Making the Improv Love Last

How do you make love last? How can you keep those relationships strong through all the changes of life?

This year marks the 15th anniversary for Austin’s longest continuous running improv troupe, Girls Girls Girls Improvised Musicals. I’m a founding member of the group, then called Rock Star Girls Galactical 3000, and I’m the only remaining original member.

We were founded in 2002 by Amy McCurdy, who wanted an opportunity for all the female members of the Hideout Theatre house team (The Heroes of Comedy) to rehearse and play together. So we started rehearsing in the upstairs classroom of the Hideout and very quickly got in to slumber party mentality: choreographing a dance number to Bel Biv Devoe’s Poison for our opening number, chatting improv theory and personal gossip, and figuring out our first format, which involved telephone conversations, like real telephones, which we now call “landlines.”

In one of our early rehearsals, Rebecca Stockley of BATS Improv in San Francisco came and coached us. I don’t remember what improv games we played, but I remember her advice at the end of the workshop. “The boys are going to want to come to your rehearsals and play in your shows. Don’t let them.” It was fantastic advice, encouraging us to defend the integrity of what we created. Sure enough, male improvisers started asking to get involved, and we politely declined.

As the Austin improv venues changed and collapsed, we changed our name to Girls Girls Girls (remember: this is still pre-Google times and we didn’t understand how hard we would be to find online in the coming internet age.) We also became an independent troupe, not attached exclusively to any one theater. By 2006, we won the Chronicle’s Best of Austin for Best Improv Group, alongside some up-and-comers named Coldtowne.

We were the first Austin improv troupe to rehearse at RLM, the physics building on the UT campus, where dozens of troupes since have rehearsed, most never knowing how it started. (One of our members, Andrea Young, happened to be a PhD Math student at the time.) We went through all kinds of growing pains. We had discussions about attendance, adding and ousting members, and so on. We had retreats. We had feedback sessions. We churned through musicians. We went on shopping trips together. We had spa days. We had photo shoots.

In 2012 we won our first B. Iden Payne Award (the Austin-equivalent of a Tony.)

For almost all of the 15 years, we have rehearsed weekly, with periodic breaks. We invented new formats. We had members leave, and then come back and audition and return to the group. We’ve done… a lot.

People sometimes ask me: how does GGG work? (A lot of people mistakenly think I’m in charge of GGG.) How do we stay together for so long? Here’s what I want to share about how we work, how to make the love last, and how that works for me:

1) We have an artistic vision larger than any individual member. Because we had a clear identity: improvised Broadway-style musicals, thatkeeps the group going through changing seasons and members. We are campy, big, broad, and bawdy–and we know it.

2) We have a standing weekly rehearsal. It’s been on Sunday afternoons as long as I can remember. We never stop rehearsing.

3) We take official breaks. We take December off, for the most part, except our holiday show and holiday party. Nowadays we go on break in July, since so many of us have school-aged kids.

4) We have a retreat. For one weekend a year, we go to Amy’s family’s ranch house and have some long meetings to set our artistic and troupe goals, our calendar, redistribute labor, and check in with each other. (We also have a lot of fun.)

5) We give feedback, at the right time. We share individual feedback from the group each year at the retreat around the campfire. Show notes happen at the beginning of a rehearsal, so we can figure out what to work on to make our next show better.

6) We play. We perform shows all over town. We sing. We dance. We clown around. We wear pink and black and however much or as little makeup as we want.

7) If we can, we go have a drink after the show. We don’t do notes during the show, after the show, or at the bar. Show night is our reward and our time to play and laugh together. We let everyone have their own show and can give compliments and relive highlight moments and that’s it.

8) We all have troupe jobs. Everyone does some work for the group. I schedule the musicians and update the website and social media. Megan is the treasurer. Caitlin does the rehearsal planning and minutes. This has been the cause for discussion for many years, with some people overworking and others undercontributing, but we’ve found a good balance lately, and sometimes that means taking on less for the group as a whole if members feel stretched thin: RIP LAFF and AMILF.

9) We have policies. If you haven’t figured this out yet, we are nerds. We like to make things professional. So if you need to take a break from the group because of life’s demands or just to get a breather, you must go on hiatus, hand off your jobs, and set when you will check in with the group. We have official colors: pink and black. And more recently white.

10) We are consensus-based. We make decisions as a group and try to come to agreement with everyone, or at least something everyone is okay with. And it can be a slow and messy process, but it works for us.

11) We continue to grow. We do a new format every year for our spring run that stretches us in some way. We just decided next year’s show… stay tuned for an official announcement! We produce our own shows. We do marketing, social media, press releases, book theaters and more. We don’t wait to be asked or invited.

12) We have the right mix of people. Being in an improv troupe is like being in a band, and we all know legendary stories about the drama that happens behind the music. Unlike other performing arts, which often are project-based, improv troupes just go on and on. For a troupe to work, I believe you have to align on commitment level, artistic vision, and personalities. That’s a tall order, especially as you grow! GGG definitely had some growing pains getting to the right mix of people. Many of our former members were hilarious, brilliant and talented, but had a different vision. Or lacked the commitment. Or didn’t have the talent level we needed to grow. Some had all three and it still didn’t work out for all kinds of reasons. It’s tough. But if you don’t deal with your membership issues, your troupe will eventually dissipate, possibly reforming a few months or years later with a slightly different cast and totally different name.

So we haven’t been without our struggles and conflicts and sloppy sendoffs, but we have worked hard to get to where we are. And we are excited to welcome back some of our alumni to celebrate our anniversary show with us this Saturday November 11th, 2017 at 7:30pm at The Hideout Upstairs, as a part of WaffleFest.

Get your tickets now to this special show and come to our after party to help us celebrate.

13) We are grown up women. All these women are so amazing. They are so FUN. So hilarious and playful. And they are so on the ball–they have careers, raise kids, contribute to their communities. They’ve got demands on their time and energy–more than most. And yet, they show up. They show up to PLAY!

That’s what’s so amazing to me about GGG. It’s this unique friend group where we are united by a common endeavor: making broadway style musicals on the spot. And that is why I’ve always had those two hours a week carved out of my schedule. But that also means that’s why I showed up with my mom, who was in from out of town, or 36 weeks pregnant and ready to pop, or with a tiny baby that the ladies would hold when it was my turn to play, or when I was sad and didn’t feel like it, or when I had great news I couldn’t wait to share with the group.

These ladies have had my back through all of it. And we have created amazing things together. And more than any other group in my life, I can be the most parts of myself with them. They see it all: daughter, mother, business owner, single lady, co-parent, improv nerd, goofball, emotional wreck, dancing queen, soul sister, and more . I love these ladies and this group more than I can say. And I’m fucking grateful for all those bi-laws, and fruitless rehearsals, and long meetings, and email threads, and forum posts, and group texts, and got-your-backs that weave us into a unique group of independent women who are stronger together.

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
Replies: 1

One comment

  1. Cary Merlin said:

    In Austin, Ha! GGG may be the longest lasting, most stable, group ,of any set of “free-range adults” in the galaxy! Seriously! Women build civilizations. Humans of the “other primary persuasion” build fiefdoms and armys. Not Kidding!
    Mistake #1 was giving the latter group the vote.

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