This week: Karen Jane DeWitt
By day, Karen Jane DeWitt is a professional chef, but by night, she could be anything – a young mother with a storied past in the Hideout Theatre’s “Austin Secrets,” a time-traveling assistant in “The Professor: Improv Inspired By Doctor Who” at the Institution, or an over-the-top dating show contestant in “Duck Duck Boom” at the Velveeta Room. This week she’s playing the Hideout Theatre with her improv troupe Local Genius Society. Here DeWitt talks about surviving the 42 Hour Improv Marathon and why celebrating the holidays means learning to play a toy accordion.
You’ve been involved in a number of different improv shows that utilize very different styles – The Professor, Austin Secrets, Duck Duck Boom – what’s it like improvising in so many different styles?
Karen Jane DeWitt: There are definitely different things that you want to hold on to in your head when you’re approaching a different type of show. Like with The Professor you really want to work on building a world that’s not necessarily like an everyday world on earth. But you can do any type of improv no matter what style it is, short-form or long-form or grounded or insane as long as you keep in mind relationship. Relationship really drives scenes.
You were also involved in the Hideout’s 42 Hour Marathon this year. How did being in the Marathon affect your view of improv?
KJD: I think it took away a lot of my fear with improv. When you first start performing you think that you’re not worthy of the show that you’re in. You don’t know if you’re going to do it right, or if you’re going to treat it with the respect and the kind of skill that it takes to pull the show off. But with the 42 Hour Marathon, you would get a one-minute explanation of the show right before you went on stage. So you would just have to trust that your partners were going to take care of you and that yes, you do have the ability of doing any type of show. You can’t break improv, no matter how hard you try.
What made you first want to try improv?
KJD: I had just quit grad school and so I was starting to re-enter the real world. I had done some theater in high school, dabbled in it, but hadn’t really ever been in any productions. I was talking to my friend and she’d done an interview for the Austinist with the owners of the Hideout. I’d mentioned to her that I wanted to do some theater and she emailed me this 10-minute interview that she had done. Before the interview was even over I signed up for improv classes. I didn’t even really fully understand what improv was, but the interview was so good I was like, I need this in my life, whatever it is, I know it’s going to be good for me.
Had you ever even seen an improv show at that point?
KJD: I hadn’t ever seen an improv show in a theater. I’d seen “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and that type of thing on TV when I was a kid, but I was really more interested in that whole “yes, and” and going with the flow. Whenever you hear people talk about improv it sounds like they’re describing a very spiritual experience. And I maybe was searching for that.
Your husband, Patrick Herzfeld, is a musician in Graham Wilkinson’s band – do you feel like you all take turns being on stage and being in the audience?
KJD: Oh definitely. I have more than paid my dues going to his gigs for the past eight years, and he picked up right where I left off. As soon as I started performing, he was right there. He’s definitely my biggest fan and my sounding board for all my crazy ideas. He’s really supportive.
Is there something that you all look forward to each year at this time of year?
KJD: I look forward to Patrick’s mom; she buys us all these gifts that are basically like gifts for little children. She doesn’t do a stocking, but it’s sort of what you would consider a stocking stuffer. We have this toy accordion and every year we get it out and try to play “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Cause that was the song that came with the instruction booklet.
Did you ever go caroling growing up?
KJD: I did. I used to go Christmas caroling with my church group. We would get in the church van and then we’d go to all the widow’s houses. They knew we were coming and so they’d have the heater on full-blast, and we’d all be sweating while we were singing. Then they’d have cookies for us and hot chocolate and we’d spend a few minutes there and then get back in the van and go to the next place and do it all over again. By the end of it we were so sick of cookies we didn’t know what to do.
A couple of the Threefer shows have already taken place – is there anything that you hope might happen in the next couple of Threefer shows?
My wish for the remaining shows is that I’d like to see something sort of magical happen. Something otherworldly, that would be fun.
Local Genius Society headlines the Thursday Threefer at the Hideout Theater December 15th at 8PM.