Interview: Amy Jordan of The New Movement & The Improv Wins Conference

This weekend is the Improv Wins Conference and Festival in Austin. From this Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 22-25), improvisers from around the world converge on The New Movement Theater to take workshops, perform a ton, and network with their peers. interviewed Amy Jordan, the director of education for The New Movement (TNM) and one of the main organizers of Improv Wins. She’s got plenty of great insights into TNM’s unique improv philosophy and this one-of-a-kind improv event. 

For more info on Improv Wins—and to buy tickets or sign up for their many wonderful workshops—visit

Amy Jordan - The New Movement
Amy Jordan – The New Movement

Hi, Amy! Many improvisers think there are basically two schools of improv—the Del Close style and the Keith Johnstone style. One emphasizes finding the funny thing and exploring it, while the other emphasizes being very present and telling a story. I get the impression that TNM offers a third, different approach. True?

How would you most succinctly describe how TNM’s improv philosophy is different from traditional approaches?

I feel like TNM combines both philosophies in a way. The idea of “living in the moment” is a big part of our style. And we certainly do not shy away from game. I just don’t think either one of those things are the driving force behind our efforts.

TNM believes that everything you need in a scene is right there in front of you. You can see the world beginning to bloom when you first lay eyes on your scene partner. In the first few moments of every scene, the improvisers are slowly, carefully building a world together.

We use the word “STUMBLE” to indicate this idea of discovering what is already happening between you and your scene partner, rather than inventing a story.

With each move an improviser makes, he/she is finding out more about the world they’re in and every movement and every phrase they use adds to the whole picture.

And because this process of finding the moment is so delicate, we really push the idea of being kind to each other and creating a safe space. We think that’s the best way to inspire the truest form of creativity.

And then to become the badasses that we all are, we at TNM exercise our improv muscles with focused and specific reps to develop the habits of Samurai phrasing, finding the Why, and contrast instead of conflict. (For more on what all that means, come take classes at TNM!)

I’ve seen a number of TNM shows, and I don’t believe any of them ever started with the improvisers taking a suggestion from the audience. How does not taking suggestions fit into the TNM approach?

We don’t take suggestions, which is different from a lot of improv schools, yes. We believe in training the improv brain to build from nothing. Plus, we think suggestions can limit what options you have to build your scene.

We trust our students to come up with ideas on their own without a suggestion and with practice, this gets easier and easier. If we provide a suggestion, it’s like we are giving our students a safety net and they don’t need one.

A philosophy inherent to every level of improv at TNM is UBH – Ultimate Back Having. This means that when you are in a scene, your job is to take care of your scene partner. During classes, we build trust between students and with that bond, they are able to be each other’s safety net during each scene.

How did you personally get involved in improv? Where did you study?

I performed some improv in college but it was mostly short form. My way into TNM was through stand-up. I had been a stand-up comic in NYC for a few years and I took a vacation to Austin one year to visit friends and happened to go to a comedy show that featured Chris Trew.

He and I became friends on Facebook and as soon as I moved to town, I started learning long form improv under the tutelage of Chris & Tami.

Since then, I have had great opportunities to take workshops from great improvisers like Joe Bill and Matt Donnelly and Tim Paul and I have to say, it was exactly the artform I was looking for. I like the team effort of improv so much better than stand-up.

And I just love teaching so completely. It warms my heart every time I get to do it!

Improv Wins is the name of your conference (Jan. 22-25, Austin) as well as the name of the improv book written by TNM founders Chris Trew and Tami Nelson. What does “Improv Wins” mean?

I can tell you what “Improv Wins” means to me: I think of the phrase like when people say they are winning at life. To me, “Improv Wins” is about how improv makes your life better every time you participate in it. Every time you put yourself out there and try to do some improv, you are winning. That’s how I use it.

But I think it’s open-ended. It can be, for you, what you need it to be, just like improv.

Also, just thinking about it now because you asked, part of me feels like “Improv Wins” is about trying to make the art form more palatable to a larger audience. I mean, how many times have you heard comedy people make fun of improv?

Well, if we show them how amazing improv is and how formative it can be to a creative community well then “improv wins,” you know?

Improv Wins2015_small

Why is it the Improv Wins Conference and Festival? That’s an interesting word to associate with improv, “conference.”

Improv Wins is an educational conference as well as a festival of shows. There will be shows featuring our visiting talent on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this weekend and that’s amazing, but for me, the best part is the workshops. I am TNM Austin’s Conservatory Director so for me, education is the most important!

We have workshops all day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday this weekend.

We have Kevin McDonald (Kids In the Hall) to teach his improv-to-sketch workshop on Friday, and then the attendees showcase their work that night at 7:30 p.m.—with Kevin McDonald acting with them!

On Saturday and Sunday, we have workshops all day – we have some really great teachers in this year!

We have a four-hour master classes with Kevin Mullaney of Under the Gun theater in Chicago and Alex Gross from Philly Improv Theater.

Plus, there will be a master class on rocking a weekly sketch comedy show, a master class on comedy video production, and many more workshops taught by visiting improvisers from Pittsburgh and Houston—as well as TNM Austin and TNM New Orleans faculty members.

We have workshops on improv, on sketch, and even a lunchtime lecture on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. about how to break into the TV business.

For the full line-up, visit the website.

Why should an improviser attend Improv Wins? Can non-TNM improvisers attend?
Anyone and everyone should attend Improv Wins!

It is a wonderful experience doing a full weekend of improv workshops. So many breakthroughs. So many moments of clarity. It is a true joy to watch and experience us all geek out over this art form that we love. And I love all the discussions we have, exploring the comedy world and working to make ourselves better performers within it.

There are workshops available for beginners as well as experienced performers. Please spread the word to everyone you know. This is a really affordable chance to get better onstage and to meet the other hungry performers in this town.

TNM offers plenty of stage time to TNM students. What responsibility does an improv school/theater have to create opportunities for its students?

We are all about giving students the power.

Our students invest in TNM by spending their time and money taking our classes and in turn, a large chunk of our weekly programming is dedicated to providing stage time to them.

All of our students are free to form troupes and pitch shows; they can play in TNM’s weekly student improv jam, Student Union (or in our monthly sketch open mic, The Lab); and, we give all of our Austin performers a chance to perform at our theater in New Orleans as well.

I think the responsibility of a theater is to empower their students to create their own projects. This is all about creativity, after all. So I want my students to find what makes them happy.

So we give them opportunities to try stuff out and then every couple months, we have a town hall meeting where hungry performers can come and develop their new ideas and pitch new show ideas.

At TNM, you can be as active as you want. You get out of the theater what you put into it.

What do you most love about improv?

I love that the more open you are—to the process, to your partner, to your own creative ideas—the better you are as an improviser.

It’s very different from the harsh realities of the real world to have kindness and support be the anchors, but they are. In such a kind environment, people are free to be who they are without judgment. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, so that’s what I bring to improv.

What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?

Gosh, I don’t know. I laugh often. I really enjoy the people around me when I am teaching them or coaching them or performing alongside them. I am lucky enough to have seen really amazing performances in my tenure at TNM and in my years as a stand-up in NYC in the early 2000s.

So I laugh a lot. (Plus, I can’t remember lots of hilarious events I’ve witnessed; I have a true Etch-a-Sketch of a brain.)

One of my most recent faves was an ad lib at the end of a sketch scene. There was a scene that had all the holidays as characters, and they all wanted to hang out with Christmas instead of Thanksgiving.

At the end of the scene, all of the partygoers have left and Thanksgiving is all alone. I played “All By Myself” to punctuate the moment, and as I brought the lights down, the guy playing Thanksgiving got up and did an improvised speech about how it was hard to be the one holiday that no one cares about.

It was amazing and hysterically funny. We added it to the show right then and there.

3 Ways to Amplify Your Improv

I’ve been watching and performing a lot of improv lately, and I’ve noticed some naughty trends emerging—both in my own play and in others. I think much of our improv education is about repetition—reminding ourselves, time and again, of the fundamentals, so that we don’t drift too far from them.

So here are some reminders:

#1 – Commit 

The difference between good improv and not-so-good improv seems to boil down to the same thing over and over: commitment.

Committed improv is never bad. 

OK yes sure, it might not be paradigm-shifting, mind-blowing Mega Art every time. But it’s never terrible. Because watching adult humans giving 100% of themselves to a moment, to create something out of nothing, and to do it only because they are together … that’s some sort of magic. And magic isn’t bad.


The best commitment in 1980s American film.

Look, we could—and we surely will—dive into a separate conversation about what “commitment” means in this context. But for now, suffice it to say: We aren’t committing enough.

It’s hard to commit, because it’s hard to be vulnerable in front of strangers. It’s hard to act well. It’s hard to suspend disbelief + listen to your partners + cheat out + keep track of names + do object work + pause for laughs + et cetera. It’s hard to commit.

But we have to try. Because not to try is to disrespect the art form and, way more importantly, your fellow players. To undercut your scene/character/story by refusing to commit to the reality of the scene is to yank the audience out of their reverie, to smack them across the cheek and shout, “You dumb p.o.s., we’re not REALLY on a pirate ship! We’re only pretending! And you believe us! You fool!”

Don’t be a jerk. Commit.

#2 – Stay on the Sideline

Now that I’ve implored us all to commit, let me implore us all to stay on the sidelines more often. Make like Buster Bluth and stay just out of frame:

You can always tell a Milford man!

To put it bluntly and center justified:

Usually, the best way for you to support a scene is not to enter it.

I’m not talking about improv jams, which are supposed to be frenetic improv bacchanals (though even those could stand some muffling).

Here’s an example: Maestro, the beloved short-form weekly show at The Hideout, features about a dozen improvisers. It’s gamey, and it moves fast, and there’s a lot of audience feedback. And before each show, the two directors will often implore the improvisers to “support each other.”

(They’ll often follow this up with the warning that they will “let you know” if your support isn’t welcome. A few weeks ago, two characters were going to do a scene about their dead mother. I was on the sidelines, not in this scene, but I decided it would be helpful to have a dead body to reference. So I stepped out onto the stage and fell to the ground, just as the lights came up and the scene began. That’s when one of the directors said, “No thank you, Number Four” (I was Number Four). Which meant I looked like a huge idiot in front of the audience and, thus, a bit more hesitant to support in the future.)


Now and then, Maestro turns into a “support orgy,” with anyone and everyone seeming to come into any scene—playing waitresses, playing neighbors, playing furniture, whatever. The scenes become cluttered. The audience gets lost. The whole thing just kind of explodes into meaninglessness.

A two-person scene is vastly different than a three-person scene. 

In fact, I’d argue that the difference is greater than any subsequent addition of players, e.g., two-to-three people is far more extreme a shift than three-to-four or seven-to-eight, etc.

This is a tricky business, of course. Because yes, sometimes a scene could really use some sort of support. But it doesn’t need your help nearly as often as you think it does. (What it needs, if anything, is more commitment.)

And there are some inherent disadvantages to coming into a scene, which you must overcome by virtue of your excellent support. For starters, if two characters are talking and a third character enters, the audience stops paying attention to the first two people, and they look to this new character entering. Energy shifts. Balance tips. Things get missed. Everything changes.

What I think I’m witnessing is ego. Our egos tell us, “Oh snap! Woudn’t it be awesome if you walked on as a Russian janitor right now? THIS SCENE NEEDS A RUSSIAN JANITOR!!!” And on you go, and the audience scratches its head. “What the hell is happening in this scene?”

#3 – Talk Louder

There’s not much to say about this one, but I’ll try.

ColdTowne Theater is pretty small. It seats about 50 folks in a tight proximity. On sold-out nights, the room is electric, and the front rowers rest their feet on the edge of the stage. But even in ColdTowne—even when it’s only half-full—I’m yearning to hear the players.


Do it for your country!
Can Obama hear you? If not, you’re speaking too softly. (Or in a different state.)

You think you’re in a smallish space and don’t need to talk loud? You’re wrong.

Because it’s not just enough for you to be hearable, you need to be heard

Be more Broadway about your improv. Put a little Bob Fosse into your performance. Give us the improv equivalent of jazz hands. Project your voice. Cheat out to the audience. Because nobody gives a crap how subtle or clever you are if they can’t hear you. It’s the very first thing you should concern yourself with when you speak in an improv scene: being heard.

And just when you think you’re being too loud, be a little louder. Trust me. Austin is full of church mice improvisers. Volume is an audience’s dearest friend.

Kevin Miller of “History Under the Influence”

dinEvery Thursday in May, the headlining show at The Hideout Theatre is History Under the Influence. The premise of this show is simple enough: a narrator, played formidably by Austin improv veteran Mr. Kevin Miller, spends the afternoon getting drunk on whisky and beer, and then he describes a historical event or two. A team of improvisers, all of them stone cold sober, then act out Mr. Miller’s inebriated story.


It should be noted here that Mr. Miller is not an expert on history. He works for Apple. But he is imaginative and he is drunk—and what else does a show called History Under the Influence need than that?

I recently sat down with the drunken Mr. Miller to discuss his show and some of his views on history. Here is that interview:

Thank you for meeting me, Mr. Miller.


So what sparked your interest in history?

I’m like history.


I like history.

Ah. And why is that?

It’s about people, and things that happen to people, and places where happen.

But why an improvised Drunk History show?

Other people like history. Or drinks. Both. It’s for everybody. And improv! It’s for everybody!

Is there anything people show know before they come?

We go on third. So the first people will not be drunk probably. And the cast isn’t drunk. I got all the drunk. It’s fun.

And you walk us through a historical event?


Is it accurate?

Is your mom accurate?

Yes it’s accurate. Well last week I got the date of the Louisiana Purchase right. And there were Indians and white people were racist to them, so that’s accurate. Other stuff we make up cause it’s improv and that’s it.

Do you have a favorite period in history you’d like the shows to cover?


…Any others?

Chinese Wall. Great Wall of China, I mean. But that would probably be racist. Last week was racist too. History is pretty racist now that I’m talkin about it. So maybe a happy story. Peasants and the pole that you go around with the flaps. Maypole!

Your knowledge of history is clearly encyclopedic. Do you consider yourself an authority on history?

I was a liberal arts major so yes. History. Anthropology. Trivia. Science. Bourbon.


Science of people. I dunno, I know about history!

But, have you… 

*looks around for unopened beer*

…done any historical research for the show?


Have you looked into history for the show?

History. I love it.

Right, but did you do any…

*leaves room*

Mr. Miller?

*returns with beer*

Mr. Miller, did you do any research for the show?

I like beer. Beer. Yes I looked up history research. Like stories. Five bucks. The show is five bucks. In May. Thursdays in May the show is five bucks.


I’m gonna go this is the wrong beer.

What does the wrong beer mean?



History Under the Influence plays every Thursday in May at The Hideout Theatre in downtown Austin. Click here for more info and tickets.


How to Survive a Bad Improv Show (or Two)

Guilty as charged! Sometimes, I take improvisation too seriously. Other times, I don’t take it seriously enough. And an imbalance in either direction produces what Wall Street might call … “suboptimal returns.”

Two quick and recent examples:

1. A couple of nights ago, I was in a show titled History Under the Influence” at The Hideout Theatre. About ten minutes in to this 30-minute show, things were unfolding nicely—a bit absurdly, but nicely. 

The story we were telling was set in in 1891, San Francisco. Pretty cool setting, huh? It’s ripe with potential, it’s evocative. There is plenty of great narrative fodder to sow: real cowboys, gold prospectors, madams and damsels, railroads, saloons, newspapers, Native Americans, expansion, etc.

Even fucking Manifest Destiny was on the table. There was a gosh-darn glut of reasonable moves for an improviser to make.

So, what did I do?

I leapt onstage and announced that I was Spider-Man’s grandfather.

Card-carrying member of the AARS.
Card-carrying member of the AARS.

Let that sink in a moment. Or better yet: imagine you’re at a Paula Cole concert, and she’s just launched into a solo acoustic rendition of “I Don’t Want to Wait” from Dawson’s Creek. Imagine that Paula is about a minute into her seminal song, and she’s really on her game tonight. Ms. Paula Cole—nearly two decades since she first wrote this song—is feeling it this evening. And you’re feeling it too. All is cheery and pleasant and comfy. All is right with this groovy melody, man.

And then, out of nowhere, comes a naked Donald Trump violently eating chili from a cowboy boot.

This face is the opposite of improv.
This face is the opposite of improv.

It was jarring is what I’m saying.

Why did I come onstage as Spider-Man’s grandfather? I blame my legs, which yanked me onstage before my brain could censor them. (My legs would like to state, for the record, that they were yanked onstage involuntarily by the two pre-show shots of Jager I shared with the show’s narrator, Kevin.)

We improvisers are told early and often: There are no mistakes in improv! 

That’s mostly true. There are no mistakes in improv, unless you fly onstage and announce you’re Spider-Man’s grandfather.

2. The following night, my first and dearest improv love, Mandinka, was doing the Friday night 10 o’clock show at The Hideout. We were debuting a new format we call “Masters & Servants.” It is an homage to Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstaris: British, turn of the 20th century, soap opera, butlers and maids, etc. 

Our performance could objectively be labeled “alright” and “forgettable.” From my POV, my performance was cloying and cute—and not the good cute, not miniature-Alison-Brie-eating-too-many-marshmallows cute.

I should emphasize that Mia, the fairer half of Mandinka, was on top of her game as usual: making bold choices, playing the game, giving it everything she had. But I felt desperate, completely at the audience’s whim. I was laugh hunting at the expense of any coherent theater. 

I mugged.

I made a few cheap jokes.

I didn’t commit to my characters for long. And when I left the stage, the flogging began. Since my early days performing in junior-high-school speech competitions, I’ve been quick to accentuate my own performance’s shortcomings. (The unintended consequence of my extreme self-criticism is that when I do put in a great performance, I anticipate great praise and feel gypped when it isn’t immediately forthcoming. No roses for Liza?!?!) 

So. How do we prevent a few stinker performances from discouraging us and infecting our next performance?

Let me answer that question with another question: What is the interplay of improv and ego? If we can identify, quickly enough, how our “sense of self” affects (and is affected by) our improv shows, we might be able to avoid some needless flagellation.

I’m not Freud. I’m not even Freud adjacent. So I’ll keep it simple enough:

Ego is unwelcome during performance. But ego should be addressed between performances.

Juuuuust when I begin to feel like an improv King Kong—most often because a show went well and I went well in it—the planes show up and shoot me down. Juuuust when I feel like I’ve maybe hacked improv and discovered its Rambaldi device … it shape-shifts and slips away.

This slipping away is mostly fantastic, because it means that improv is unknowable (and, thus, worth trying to know). We can never get too comfortable. Improv will remind you real quick that it is un-pin-downable. 

Still, in the moments—or hours or days—after an especially poor show it’s easy to see the slipping away as real. It’s not a gigantic logical leap from “Gosh, I was terrible in that show tonight” to “Gosh, I’m terrible.”

I want to emphasize that these kinds of shows are pretty rare. In my three years, I can think of maybe four or five that could qualify as miniature disasters (and really, only my performance on Thursday could be considered terrible; Friday was just mediocre).

When these minor tragedies occur, my inner monologue goes something like this:

I’m not funny. I’m not a comedian, I’m a comedy historian. I’m a comedy nerd who doesn’t have a funny bone. I don’t know comedy. I can’t even spell comedy, I bet. K-A-M-A-D-Y???

One key to getting beyond this line of reasoning is: Wait it out. That turd of a performance won’t smell so awful tomorrow. But also: Don’t confuse a moment with eternity.

Take Andrew Luck, the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts (and one-letter-away brethren of mine). Luck is considered by the pundits to be a prototype quarterback—the kind of QB you’d create if you went all Weird Science with a computer and tried to invent the perfect NFL player. And certainly he looks the part: big, strong, a bit beat-up, a persistent goofy grin.

But what makes Luck so promising—such a low-risk investment with a potentially huge payout–is that he has a short memory. Teammates and coaches all point out that Luck doesn’t spend a microsecond worrying about the previous play. The moment one play ends, Luck resets himself back to zero and focuses on executing the next play perfectly.

My name is Andrew Buck. This guy’s name is Andrew Luck. What a difference a letter makes.

Which isn’t to suggest he’s a robot. Watch him and you’ll see: He’s clearly a passionate leader … between series. When he’s on the field, however, he’s playing; and when he’s playing, he’s moving forward, trying to put his full self into each successive play, to be as perfect as he can be in that moment.

For most quarterbacks, memories aren’t so short. One bad play can ripple forward into the next play. Confidence disappears, focus erodes, and things go downhill. Momentary hiccups balloon into honest-to-goodness slumps. And that ain’t no fun, no sir.

Longview, Texas

Indulge me a moment. Here’s my Improv Math:

  • I have been improvising three years.
  • If I’m fortunate, I’ll be involved at least another 20 years.
  • 23 years = 276 months
  • If I average three shows per month (conservatively) that’s 828 shows. Let’s round up to 900.

900 shows means that this latest pair of  “bad” performances amounts to one-fourth of 1%. Peanuts! A statistical non-entity! Nunca! Nevermore!

Now, of course, I will have other shows I consider exceptionally poor. But if I had to guess, I’d put it at a maximum of 5%. Which would equal 45 shows out of 900. Again, perspective helps. 


Another thought experiment in the wake of a bad show: Reframe the definition of “bad.” Stephen Kearin: “When you’re improvising, you have the worst seat in the house.” In other words, because you’re in the show you’re uniquely disqualified from accurately evaluating the show. Some more scientifically sound mathematics:

  • The improviser in the scene sees maybe 20% of what’s happening.
  • The improviser on the sideline waiting to edit or enter sees maybe 50% of what’s happening.
  • The audience is at or damn near 100%.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Girl’s night this Thursday! Martinis and dancing!” She also said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” 


Nobody is analyzing your choices onstage nearly as much as you might, especially when you’re feeling off your game. The audience may notice everything, but they have short memories—and they’re far more forgiving than you think.

What feels stuttered and amateurish to you might not even register on the audience’s “Bad Improv Meter.” What you classify as “bad” improv might simply be the quivering of a weak, heretofore unexploited improv muscle.

Improv instructors, especially the Level One teachers, take note: When we begin learning this craft, we naturally lean hardest on whatever talents we arrive with. For me, it was my comfort onstage. I was experienced in being silly in front of audiences. Other folks are witty. Others do fantastic characters. Others are skilled listeners. Others are physical phenomenons. Etc.

Select few folks enjoy all of these inborn talents. I loathe those people—those compelling, wonderful, charming people. They’re the absolute worst.

We arrive to improv like the guy who arrives at the gym with supremely muscular legs. For whatever reason, this guy, who I’m naming Strong Leg Larry, has exercised his leg muscles exclusively. They are granite, nothing but muscle. Meanwhile, Strong Leg Larry has shriveled little arms. 

Strong Leg Larry, the President of the United States is on the phone...
Strong Leg Larry, the President of the United States is on the phone…

If he’s going to bring his arm strength in line with his leg strength, Strong Leg Larry is going to quiver, struggle, and he’s going to feel like a beginner all over again

So. Perhaps what we perceive as a bad show is just a really hard cardio session, maybe we were discovering new things that work, new things that don’t. We are getting stronger by momentarily feeling weak.

At the very least, we’re accumulating experience. We’re getting incrementally closer to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. After all, boats don’t come into port on a straight line. The captain makes dozens, even hundreds of tiny adjustments—right, then left, then right, then left. Even bad shows help us aim more accurately next time.

If we can re-frame “bad” into simply “underdeveloped” or, better still, “potentially awesome” —- then perhaps we can stop moping and get back to having fun. 

Post Script…

I wrote the bulk of this piece on Saturday morning—the morning after the Mandinka show. Later on Saturday, after trying to make sense of my two terrible performances, I had two more performances. And whaddyaknow, I wasn’t terrible! Funny how that works.

Specifically, my slump was busted at precisely 9:32 p.m., near the end of Theatresports. By the time I was halfway into Maestro an hour later, I was practically moonwalking. I wasn’t a hyper-self-conscious mummy onstage. I was playing. I was being a grown man playing make believe.

Mark Twain probably said, “Feel the fear, and then do it anyway.” In our creative endeavors, we will often come up short of the Platonic ideal (somewhere around 99% of the time, in fact). But 100% of the time we will emerge from the momentary muck into the infinite sublime.

Amen, compadres.

Post-Post Script

I know that the timeline of Spider Man’s grandfather being an adult in 1891 doesn’t work out. At best, my character would’ve been a great-grandfather. But either way, my character wouldn’t have known he would one day produce a superhero.