Chris Trew and Tami Nelson hit the ground running, almost literally, when they made their return voyage to New Orleans last year. After spending several post-Hurricane Katrina years building a comedy theater and scene in Austin, Texas while in exile, they're back, and the doors are open to another The New Movement (TNM) comedy theater, this one in their hometown.
Before their return, classes were taught, conferences were attended (and planned), tours were planned, plans were planned, dozens of shows and performances were planned (and performed), and a full-time physical theater was in the works.
TNM hosts shows in venues across town from Uptown to the Marigny and elsewhere, and it offers five-level conservatory comedy training — two hours a week, for eight weeks. "We're not putting all our toys in one basket," Trew says — TNM now has as a brain center, not a stronghold, for comedy performances, whether standup, sketch or improv.
Tonight, the theater hosts its grand opening, and Chris & Tami will perform with Claws with Fangs and Austin's Handbomb. Here's the Gambit sit-down with TNM's head honchos...
Trew: We're both from New Orleans. Tami grew up in Houston as as child and came back here as an adult. I moved to the Northshore for junior high and high school. I went to LSU then I came back here. ... I didn't really start being super serious about comedy until I was at LSU. I guess about my senior year in high school, when the Internet started being a thing in '99, we got involved that way, then at LSU we had a sketch show on Tiger TV. That's where studio8 came from. Studio8 was my dorm my freshman year. Then we were about to go out to the west coast, ... that's when we, we being studio8, moved here, and that was when I met Tami, and we started doing a lot of comedy around then, then pretty soon I fell super in love with doing improv, pretty fast, and went to Chicago for a summer to study there, at (iO Improv) and Second City, but mostly iO. Then Katrina happened, and we ended up in Austin.
Tami, you also were performing?
Nelson: I was. I was doing comedy with Chris, and we were actually then a budding brand new little baby improv group together when Katrina hit. We went to Austin as a troupe, evacuated en masse.
That was with ColdTowne?
Trew: Yes. Then we pretty much spent the next like year, two years, spending all our time and money going to improv festivals, taking workshops, all over the country. Pretty soon Tami and I started teaching, and then we fell in love with the idea of running a theater and teaching, and kept on doing it.
Tami: So we started running a theater and teaching classes. So we actually started doing it.
And it was a pretty fast how you guys incorporated into the scene there and built up?
Trew: In Austin, they weren't really doing long form (improv) yet. It was a couple of short form shows, and a little bit of long form, but nobody was teaching it, nobody really knew what they were doing. Someone would go to Chicago and come back like, "I know how to do this now!" But we were like, "We really know how to do this!"
Nelson: Or rather, "we really want to learn how to do this." I think when we first walked into it, we were still trying to develop a style. ... We didn't have full time jobs. Us coming in, it wasn't incredibly rapid growth, but it was what we did... Chris and I specifically, it was all we did. We didn't have to go work selling gold during the daytime, then at night, try and put together a theater together. It was our "careers" at that point. And I'm doing air quotes with careers.
Trew: It was an old laundromat in East Austin we converted to a theater, a blackbox theater. We worked really, really hard for a long time, and we had had a difficult... that first year was really rough.
Trying to convince people to go?
Nelson: The thing Chris and I wanted to do and eventually did do, our vision never strained, we wanted to teach a unique form of improv. Everyone else in Austin and elsewhere is teaching a watered down version of what they learned at iO, (Upright Citizens Brigade) or Second City or whatever, and borrowing directly from syllabus they learned in Chicago, L.A. or New York. So when we opened The New Movement, we sat down like, "What do we like about improv, what do we like about how WE do improv, what do we like about how we teach improv, and let's try and articulate that in a syllabus." And we came up with a really good syllabus. And we're super proud of it. We know, because we've seen the results of it. In the way we teach improv, it puts people on a quicker, easier path to success. Improv is hard. Doing comedy is hard. But we put a lot of our brains into it. Convincing everyone in Austin what we were doing was unique, it did have a specific voice, it will yield a different kind of product — that was challenging.
Trew: One of the things, about the specific voice, is that we don't shy away from us teaching comedy. A common thing you hear in improv circles is it's not about being funny, that it's about using these other things, and you shouldn't try to be funny on stage. Ideally, people are going to laugh at these shows, so what if we were actually talking about how to be funny. People say you can't teach funny, but I think we've proven you can. We can teach you how to hone what is naturally funny about each individual person. Our classes are much less theater-y and "self-discovery." It's more about comic theory, and you naturally go down these roads of self-discovery. ... Notes you get in our classes are sometimes, "This was funny, but I think a funnier choice is this," as opposed to a more loosey goosey...
Nelson: "Thank you for being honest in this scene." Which is great. We do that too, but...
Trew: The reason UCB was so successful was because they took what they learned at iO and they were like, "Let's put our shit into it and then go this way." We have bigger plans than just being the best comedy theater in Austin, the best comedy theater in New Orleans. Our plans are much more grand. Our plans are that people are going to treat the South like they treat Chicago, or New York or L.A. We HAVE created our own language, and we work really hard to maintain that language. It feels good to say we're doing a good job, because I think we are. It's a fun time, and it's also our three years anniversary in Austin.
Getting back to New Orleans, after Katrina and after Austin, you had tapped Stupid Time Machine to get the ball rolling on the theater?
Trew: We had similar feeling about like, we all want to do this all the time, and when you want to do it all the time and make a living, you consider, well, where do I have to go to do it? And they didn't want to go anywhere. They wanted to be here. Same with us. So we shared a very common long term goal. ... I guess it's cool to tell the story now but it'll be even cooler in like 20 years when the theater is this hardcore institution. ... We didn't know when we were going back here. Tami and I delayed our return to New Orleans six months at a time for over a year. "We're moving here in June!" Then April would come. "There is no f—ng way we can leave Austin right now!" ... (Stupid Time Machine) would come to Austin a lot, we would run intensives with them and teach them all the things we wanted to do, Tami would come here and run two weeks of the syllabus with them — we gave them a crash course in how TNM operates. ... This was 2009-2010.
Nelson: TNM didn't open until 2009.
Trew: They kept holding down the fort, changing venues. I remember (Stupid Time Machine's) Derek (Dupuy) calling me all the time. "It feels like we're holding the door, we're putting all the weight on this door and the monsters are beating it down. New Orleans is so hungry for comedy." And then we were like, "Six months!" Then six months would go by and we were like "F—!" Then finally, we got the right leadership in place in Austin where we were able to take a big chance and come here.
Were you reluctant to come here because you wanted to work, like you had more stuff to do there?
Nelson: It was our baby.
Trew: We missed New Orleans terribly. We never would've left if it weren't for the storm, and we never would've stayed in Austin if we never had success. ... I have no idea what would've happened. I would probably still be doing comedy. Maybe I would've gotten tired sooner, and everyone got spread out... We still came to the city all the time and after our 10th time here it was like, "We want to f—ing live here so bad." ... Then we started busting ass with the people we put in leadership roles. Those people had done a really good job. Putting it together was really difficult, because they had to fill our shoes…
Nelson: Which are huge. And everyone loves them a lot. We’re really, really good at what we do, and that sounds like a joke, but I'm being totally serious. Nobody can really speak with our voices except for us and that’s what everyone had kind of come to expect from the theater, this very collective voice from Chris and Tami, then had to go and train, like, "Take our voices, but filter it through your own megaphone! And shout from the hilltops!" It’s hard. They’ve been doing an incredible job, but it’s a very difficult for like, no money.
Trew: For some money.
Nelson: It is for money. But they deserve to be eating nothing but steak dinners. Or whatever.
Trew: We’ve been talking a pretty big game for the past year. "We’re going to move to New Orleans and open a comedy theater."
Nelson: Chris, you’ve been talking a big game the past six years.
What has it been like building essentially what you just did, but in a new place?
Nelson: This is the fourth time we’ve done it. I think we’ve figured out how to do it pretty well. Of course every city and every community is different.
But now you're "home."
Nelson: Yes. And with Stupid Time Machine, there was already a lot of familiarity with what we’re doing. All we had to do was unlock the door for the monster to come through.
Trew: We also had been planting seeds the past couple years with all our trademark events. We’ve been doing the Megaphone Marathon here the past couple years which is a big comedy marathon that’s every city in a row. Like a traveling summer camp, family reunion sort of thing. We’ve been doing that since even when our circle of improvisers was only 10 people. Things like that and also Hell Yes Fest last year, which has a huge success.
You're kind of hell bent on people seeing comedy. I’m sure your conscious of that. You must know, "I’m going to manipulate people to see shows and get excited about comedy." And I don’t mean that negatively. It’s like an on switch.
Trew: We can trick anyone.
Nelson: [laughs] We’re throwing a different kind of party. There’s always going to be open mic nights and other improv theaters, and that’s great. I think we have to have all these different things. But what we’re doing is a very specific thing and it ties nicely with our name — Chris and I are motivated not just by opening a comedy club. This is a social movement for us. This is a comedy movement. We want to expose other parts of the country to in-depth, intelligent, unique comedy.
Trew: Our theater is our community. When people email us and say things like, "Oh man, I’m dying to do a show. I wrote a sketch show." No idea who you are, and we have a buzzing community full of people who’ve been busting their ass, taking workshops, traveling to Houston and Austin to perform and meet folks, and think about this all the time, and come to our hang outs — those are the people who get to play. I don’t want to come across the wrong way. We’re open-minded. You don’t have to pay to play. We have a certain style, and the last thing we want — and this is what hurts comedy clubs all over the country — is they’ll just put anything up. ... We want, after every single show, someone asking "How did you do that?" And we can say, "Here’s how."
Tami and I kind of cut our teeth on doing improv shows at places that don’t necessarily have an improv scene. We literally went on a comedy tour. We got in a car and did a show every day for two weeks. … We would do comedy tours, we would do shows at a bar in downtown Jackson, Miss., someone’s house in Kansas City, some weird half-casino, half-restaurant in Cleveland, and a giant art center in Baltimore. We’ve done tons of shows in places where people don’t understand everything going on. And in a way, it dawned on us a couple years ago, that what we’re going to be doing here too, as far as improv. People clearly understand improv. The city doesn’t necessarily understand how far you can push improv. We’re excited about showing them. … You went on vacation to L.A. and went to the Groundlings and lost your mind? Guess what, you should come to TNM. It’s the same premise. There’s a comedy theater here with a bunch of really funny people, a lot of people who are moving here specifically to study with us. There are people in Austin who are considering moving here. Austin has a good film scene as well, but not nearly as good it is here. Now we have people all over the Gulf South and Texas thinking "Where should I move to do comedy?" They’ll be waiting tables during the day and doing comedy at night and auditioning — why not do it in New Orleans?
Nelson: We also have a nice, buxom student body. When students start getting bit by the improv bug, they get hungry and want to see other shows, and start talking their co workers’ ears off about this silly scene they did last night, they convince a coworker to go… This is what happened in Austin. Our students come, bring friends, and the shows we sell aren’t moneymakers. Students come see the shows for free. Because they see shows for free, they come to a lot of shows. And it’s not very often we have empty shows.
When people think theater, they think of a clique of people doing stuff all the time themselves, but the talk of a community is a turnaround. Why do you want to do that? Why do you want to be "positive"?
Nelson: Because. ... There’s something really magical about people when they start taking improv classes, and start getting trained, and the rules are you have to support each other, we have to agree to ideas, and we’re all collaborating with each other in a strange way. We’re making shit up with strangers from Day 1. You’re super exposed, and you’re having these very intimate ties with people very quickly and you crisis bond. And it feels really good when you get rewarded for doing that. You get rewarded by laughter, you get rewarded from teachers saying "That was so funny and so good!" Also you’re learning a lot about who the hell you are, because you’re challenging yourself every week, two hours a week, to do this really weird thing, and that feels good. ... This is community about people who give a shit about doing something important, even if it’s just in their personal circumference. They want to do something that’s important. A lot of that translates into how to behave in the world, a lot of it will translate into how you behave yourself, and we believe improv makes you a better person and could change the world if the whole world started practicing these nice guy things. So, on top of all of that, the sandwich top on all that magic — because all magic has sandwich tops — is it’s really fun to have a whole bunch of friends who love you and want to party with you all the time and also think you’re really funny and cool and cute.
Trew: There’s some incredibly talented, really fun people who are about be performing multiple times a week, and creating fan bases for themselves here and go on the road and do tours. And they stayed here, they’re from here, they got involved with us, and we were able to help them figure out what they’re next step is. And they didn’t have to go anywhere. They were all saving their money to go to New York because they thought they had to. But they don’t. You still totally can. I definitely feel like if someone from the New Orleans comedy scene is involved with TNM, if they leave to go to Chicago, New York or L.A., part of me feels like I didn’t do my job. I feel like our responsibility is to build a bad ass thing here. If you keep the talent here, let’s figure out a way to make this work. Five years ago, 10 years ago, yesterday, of all places feel like, "oh, take improv classes and you’ll get on Saturday Night Live," or "do standup and get a sitcom." F— that. Why take improv classes then write a sketch show then have that sketch show be so good you take it on the road. Why don’t you build a f—ing web series here and get a sponsor for it. Why don’t you make your own way, bro? ... We want to create this colony, this island, this world of people who all work hard and do bad ass stuff. Anyone willing to put in the work, we’ll match that. … Don’t move.
Nelson: It’s a moon, maybe.
Trew: Yeah, we’re all on a moon.
Nelson: One of cool moons somewhere.
Trew: We have gotten to send people on fancy auditions. We were able to get people on SNL auditions — I kind of doo doo’ed on them a while ago. ... They didn’t have to go to iO. ... You can do those things here.
Your metric for success has changed.
Nelson: There are a lot of people whose success has been redefined.
Trew: With the exception of Second City, which is a sketch theater, we have more locations then UCB. We’re in more places than iO. We’re not as big as those guys, but our competition is UCB. We actively tour the country. I know Second City and iO do that as well, but we do it independently. … I think Tami feels the same way, but my dream scenario is not to be Louis CK or Will Ferrell or someone famous on SNL right now. Best case scenario for me is… Chris Owens. [laughs] That we help hundreds of people fulfill their comedy dreams, that we have a really strong following in the cities we give the most shit about, I get to sit in the lower bowl for the Hornets games all the time, and we get to eat out whenever we want. We get to do all the fun things and that’s best case scenario for us. We’re not obsessed with "What’s the next thing that has to get out of here to be in movies?" We can do all that here.