The Hideout Theatre offers unique improv experience

Chris Boyd Peck

The name may imply otherwise, but comedy at the Hideout Theatre is out in the open.

The Hideout Theatre was founded in 1999 by Sean Hill to provide Austin with a space for improvisational theater. Current co-owner Kareem Badr said the Hideout has thrived due to the variety of shows, the low ticket prices of $5-$15 and because of the improv itself.

“(Improv is) the theatrical equivalent of a high wire act,” Badr said. “You’re watching something happen that at any moment could just fall to pieces, and that creates this inherent risk and tension that when it does pay off the audience loves it even more.”

On Thursday nights, the theater offers their most experimental improv show, the Free Fringe. Badr said the show is free to remove the pressure on artists feeling as though they have to give the audience their money’s worth. Hideout Stage Manager Caeriel Crestin said the low cost of attendance gives audience members low expectations that are often exceeded by the performers.

“(The Free Fringe is) the one space where we can really say ‘Yes And’ to anything,” Hideout Stage Manager Crestin said. “Any ridiculous, crazy, far-fetched, untenable idea that will break improv we give it a go.”

When designing the stage for a Free Fringe show, Crestin said it is important for the stage to be as freeing as possible in order to give the performers space to experiment. Performers are also allowed to make use of the upstairs stage, which consists of a door and window for entrances and exits.

“I’ve seen (Free Fringe) improv shows where I really could see all those details because the performers were able to bring them to life in a very vivid way and that was actually much more compelling and much more realistic in my eyes than even a well-painted set of that stuff would have been,” Crestin said.

While it is standard to keep stages simple, the Hideout breaks from tradition in that they often have a variety of props, sets and costumes. Badr said these productions, though still improvised, have a director to guide scenes and put actors back on track. A couple years ago they did an improvised version of Anton Chekhov, but instead of going in blind, the performers knew the style of the story they wanted to tell.

“The Hideout's reputation and audience is built off of and anchored by these high-concept shows that we do that are still improvised but are more easily understandable and marketable to audiences,” said Badr.
While improv is very much about the present and being in the moment, the Hideout Theatre is looking to the future. Hideout co-owner and youth director Jessica Arjet said the Theater offers a variety of at-risk youth programs and programs for kids with special needs or on the autism spectrum.

“Improv is fantastic for helping kids grow because it really teaches them that their voice is important (and) other people’s voices are also important,” Arjet said.

Improv encourages kids, as well as adults, to engage with others and see risks as opportunities. Arjet said the Hideout has acted as a base from which the Austin improv scene has grown out of over the past two
decades and will continue to grow into the future.

“Before I did improv, ‘no’ was my default,” Crestin said. “Improv made ‘yes’ my default. I would’ve said ‘no’ to this interview right off the bat, but now it’s like ‘yeah, I’ll try it.’”