Merlin Works Teacher Interview with Michael Joplin

A little tidbit of Austin Improv lore: Michael Joplin drove me to my first improv audition in Austin in 1997, giving me a ride from West Campus to the Velveeta room.

Michael was already on a team there, “Code Blue” and I auditioned, along with Jeremy Lamb and Chuy Zarate, for their newest team, “Los Paranoias” coached by Pam Ribon and David Lampe. It was years later that Michael and I really started to be true improv friends.

Now, Michael has been teaching for Merlin Works for years and is one of our most magnetic and exciting instructors, with a background in scripted acting, directing, and improv. Learn more about Michael in this interview:

Q: When and how did you get into improv?

A: I first began doing improv exercises in my high school theatre class in 1994.  I definitely took it too far in some school productions where I relished in any moments when I could say anything that wasn’t in the script.  I took a U.T. informal class with a friend from high school (Out of Bounds producer Jeremy Lamb.)  

We were so excited by all of it that in my senior year we auditioned for an improv troupe downtown at the Velveeta Room.  I got cast in the show even though I was too young to enter the club.  I got a lot of experience playing to hecklers and drunks at an early age.  Trial by fire, baby…

Q: When did you know you were bitten by the bug? 

A: I think I’ve had the bug my whole life really, making things up and wanting to make people laugh.  There have been so many eureka moments.  I’m not good at remembering them all.  My memory is very short term.  

But a real turning point I had was with my troupe The Knuckleball Now.  We’ve historically been a three piece, but we’ve gone through many lineup changes the years and at one point it was just myself and Craig Kotfas.  

We were playing two months worth of shows at Coldtowne every Friday night.  Our first two shows, I was very critical of some of the choices Craig was making onstage.  I would tell him about this stuff after the shows.  He had nothing but good things to say about me and as I was driving home after one of our shows I realized that it wasn’t Craig’s problem but my own.  I was the one with all the criticism and I was bringing this into our scene work preemptively.  

It all came down to trust, he was giving it to me unconditionally and I was making him pay for it by not being open with him onstage.  

When I realized this and thought about it for our next show and focused on giving him my trust completely, it was like we flipped a switch that was never there before.  Those two months were some of the best shows I’ve been a part of.  We were super-charged high octane improv daredevils.  We haven’t stopped since.

Q: What do you love about improv?

A: Collaboration.  I love collaborating with people and improv is the ultimate in the moment collaborative thing you can do.

Q: What are some highlights of your performance experience? 

A: Touring the country with Available Cupholders.  We toured college campuses for a year and a half, which was exciting and we never knew what kind of audience we were gonna get.  Which really helped me develop a do or die thick skinned attitude about performing.  It was like being in a punk rock band.  

Other highlights include playing the headlining shows at Out Of Bounds where the Cupholders got the chance to warm up the audience for some of our improv heroes from around the world.  Also performing in Dusk with Gnap Theater projects in NYC and in Atlanta were awesome moments for me.  Plus any Knuckleball Now show!!

Q: How would you describe your teaching style?

A: Faster and more furious-er.  The Vin Diesel of improv.  I try to bring a lot of my energy and commitment when I’m teaching and I like to take risks with the classes as well.

Q: What advice would you give a new improviser?

A: Don’t try to be funny.  Just try to be truthful and commit to the moment.  Trust in your scene partners and the fun will be there.

Q: What’s something you are passionate about that has nothing to do with improv?

A: Everything has everything to do with improv.  But to answer this question I would say music.  I’m a d.j, and I recently made a rap album about wizards.  Check it out!

P.S. Michael is teaching Improv 301 and Improv Lab in the Spring 2012 Session.

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.

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