Improv is Jessica Austgen’s stepping-off point and theatrical bailiwick, but she’s the complete package. As an actor, instructor, director, author and playwright, Denver renaissance woman Austgen manages the art of telling stories both on stage and on the page, sometimes winging it at an improv fest and at other times running the whole show. She's also an admitted nerd and frequent flyer with Off-Center's Cult Following. We asked this quick thinker to slow down for a minute and tell us more. Keep reading for Austgen’s answers to the 100CC questionnaire.
Jessica Austgen: I wish I could have known and worked with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière. His work was so cutting and incisive, yet crowd-pleasing. He managed to find comedy by poking at the faults of his peers in sixteenth-century France, and eventually ended up being celebrated by Louis XIV. He was able to shine a light on social issues via comedy, and I find that incredibly fascinating. Comedy can be an amazing engine for social change, and Molière is a wonderful example of that. Also, Molière wrote some brilliant female characters. I feel like he was a bit of a feminist: His women are always the smartest and sharpest, calling out the idiocy of the male characters. Molière wrote for strong women, and I love that.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
I have a massive improv crush on L.A.-based improviser and teacher Carla Cackowski right now. She is married to a kick-ass, high-profile improviser/actor (Craig Cackowski of Drunk History and Community fame) but has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with in her own right. I’m currently struggling to find my own artistic footing while married to a prominent Denver theater person (actor, fight director and director Geoffrey Kent), but Carla’s badassery has inspired me to make sure that I’m maintaining my own career and artistic goals while still supporting my partner.
It’s a tricky world out there for artistic couples, and sometimes one person in the relationship diminishes in the light of their partner, but Carla shines on her own, and that inspires me to keep on my own path and not be afraid to do my thing.
I really want to stop seeing under-cooked new plays being produced. I know this sounds a little weird coming from a budding playwright, but I see so many scripts that receive a full production and are considered “done” that could use a workshop process. Or so many plays that really want to be something else — a film, a television pilot, a web series — but end up on the stage because that seems "easy.” Workshop your plays. Revise them. Make sure they are plays. Then the audience can feel good about forking over $20-plus to see the show.
What's your day job?
For the past ten years, I’ve been a teaching artist at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Teaching artistry is such an amazing niche position: It’s not necessarily our job to create the artists of the future (although that is a huge part of it), but to help students of all ages discover a new facet to themselves via art. Also, I ghostwrite romance novels. Yes, that is a real thing that I do. It’s tawdry and weird, but super fun.
I would immediately buy a theater space in Denver. There are so many wonderful theaters that are, unfortunately, being turned into restaurants or dispensaries because theater isn’t profitable. And resurrect Impulse Theater – Denver’s longest-running show. In there, we’d also have a space for long-form improv and a robust youth improv program. I can’t even begin to express how important improv is, and not just as an entertaining lark for audiences. Improv classes and performances help so many people uncover a sense of play and inspiration.
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Oh, Denver. Love it! The Denver art scene is so cool because people here simply do it for the love of their art form. In bigger cities — L.A., New York, Chicago — there is a sense that your “art” will serve as a springboard to fame and fortune. But Denver isn’t a springboard city. Denver artists do it for the art, not for fame or recognition. And I find that so beautiful and inspiring. We love our art here in Denver, and Denver loves art.
It would be great if there was a hub or fund for promoting the little guy. I see the big Broadway tours selling out at the Buell. Good for them! But an amazing local production might be under-attended because there isn’t any money for aggressive advertising or promotion. It would be wonderful if the City of Denver or State of Colorado could help spread the word about homegrown shows.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
The crew at Buntport Theater has consistently been kicking ass over the last fifteen-plus years. Their shows are so funny, yet poignant. They have such a unique point of view on whatever subject they’re examining, and that translates into a deeply passionate, grounded, usually hilarious night of theater. The crew at Buntport is, in my opinion, the epitome of Denver theater.
My first play commission, DragOn, a Comic Con-themed drag adventure, is now in the Garner Galleria Theater at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. I’ve got another play in workshop and am shopping my debut novel around to literary agents. I’ll be performing improv with my duo, BAUS, around the Denver metro area. In the spring, I’ll be a part of the Arvada Center’s Black Box repertory company, performing next year in Sense and Sensibility and All My Sons. I’ll also be a part of a “Women in Comedy” panel this summer and am so excited to discuss this topic. The female perspective has become a hot-button topic in comedy lately, and I’m looking forward to hashing this out with a panel of my peers.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
There is an amazing director/arts administrator named Lynne Collins who is doing some wonderful things at the Arvada Center. Phillip Sneed brought her to Colorado, and Lynne went and created a repertory company in their Black Box theater. Repertory companies are an institution that has been withering and dying across the country and in Denver. When I auditioned for grad schools, I told one interviewer that my dream was to be a part of rep company some day, and he straight-up laughed in my face and told me that those things didn’t exist anymore. Well, Lynne is proving him wrong. She’s bringing rep back to the Denver metro area, as well as choosing challenging, thought-provoking programming for the Arvada Center.
I think it’s so cool for an audience to get to know a group of actors across a season of theater programming. The Denver Center used to have a robust rep company, and I loved going to see my favorite actors – Kathleen Brady, Jamie Horton, John Hutton, Jacqueline Antaramian, etc. – perform various roles across an entire season. Lynne is bringing that back to Arvada, and I absolutely love it and feel so lucky to be a part of it. Take that, grad school interviewer! I did the thing that you said I couldn’t do!
DragOn runs through June 25 at the Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex. Reserve tickets online. Learn more about Jessica Austgen at her website.