What Makes Austin Secrets Tick?

The first mainstage show The Hideout will be doing in 2011 will be the return of Austin Secrets. I am very excited to be a part of this show again. I had some of my favorite improv moments on stage during the first run of this show, and I’ve heard other cast members express the same sentiment.

So what makes this show feel different, for both the performers and the audience?

Austin Secrets debuted last year in January, the brain-child of The Hideout’s Artistic Director, Roy Janik. He had the seed of the idea: to do a show that taps into the general cultural trend towards sharing. The public airing of grievances and celebration of triumphs that we do on a daily basis via Twitter, Facebook, and through more tangible media like Post Secret and physical journals.

When we did the show the first time, we really had no idea how the audience would react. But week after week, we noticed that the theater felt different during Austin Secrets. The nature of the show somehow united the audience and the performers. The show’s curator (usually Roy) would bring the next slide up on the TV. The players crowd around the front of the stage, craning their neck to read it. And the audience members slowly read the secret to themselves. Usually small chuckles, or audible cringing, come from the stage and audience as everyone reads the secret together. The lights go down, and the improvised scene based on the secret begins.

In addition to the technical aspects of the show that make it unique, I was reminded how different the actual improv can be during the rehearsals for the upcoming January/February run. More than almost any other improv show I’ve done, it allows for extended periods of silence and tension. I’ve been trying to figure out what about this show in particular allows that kind of energy, and I think I’ve figured it out: Subtext. All good theatre–good fiction in general–has subtext. The meaning under and behind the literal dialog that characters say tell the real story. Since all the scenes in Austin Secrets draw their inspiration from real peoples’ secrets, we are essentially given the subtext of every scene. What this means in practical terms is that a scene can take place between two people, never directly addressing a secret like “I love you” but every glance, every head turn, every long pause is just dripping with the secret begging to be shouted out. The longer the secret goes un-spoken, the more the audience gets sucked into the scene.

And I noticed in rehearsal that this subtext can make even the less-dramatic scenes feel different as well. For a lot of the scenes, the laughter that occurs is more of a slow-rolling laugh that moves over the audience. Sometimes it takes a second or two for the laugh to reach its height. I think this is the comedic equivalent of the audience saying “Ah ha!” It is the laughter of recognition, as audience members witness a secret revealed in what would be, in another context, innocuous dialog.

Everything about this show feels different. It creates shared experiences for the players and audience members alike. It produces improvisational theatre that shifts from comedy to drama. It makes people hold their breath. It makes people gasp. It really has the potential to do so much of what The Hideout set out to do with improv.

I cannot wait to hit the stage to perform this show for an audience again. I hope the audiences enjoy watching it as much as I enjoy performing in it.

Curious what Austin Secrets is all about? Here’s your chance to check it out!