Bill Binder is a fixture of the downtown Phoenix arts scene — he even lived in a tree in front of The Trunk Space for a couple days. While you might see him running around town supporting local artists, he’s also responsible for helping foster longform improv in the Valley. As a founding member of The Torch Theatre in Phoenix, Binder has helped put on the Phoenix Improv Festival for the past 11 years of its existence, and he currently is an instructor with The Torch Theatre as well as one who travels around the country teaching improv, in addition to performing in festivals. Learn what brought the Detroit native to Arizona, as well as hear five reasons that are keeping him here, below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I moved here in the very beginning of 2001. I was living in Michigan at the time, and I was doing improv there. I loved the people there, but it was kind of at the limit where I could grow as an improviser, so I started looking into moving to some of the more established cities. They’re amazing, but I knew that I would be 1 of 1,000 people who were on the same path. So I looked for a place that really didn’t have any improv, where I kind of would have to fight for what I believed in and build the kind of improv that is what I wanted to do, knowing struggle would be good for me as a performer. Phoenix is one of the cities I looked at and one of the nicest, and my parents also live in Arizona so I could be close to my family.
We’re doing your interview at Ticoz. Why’d you choose to the do the interview here?
I think Ticoz has one of the best brunches I’ve had. It’s a limited menu, but the breakfasts with eggs are so good, and I’m a Bloody Mary fan, and Ticoz has one of the top five Bloody Mary’s in town here.
What got you interested in improv?
I was getting my degree in computer science, and improviser Sue Stevens found some scientists and some engineers at the local school, and she just sort of went and took them and said, ‘Look, you’re doing improv now.’ I had no idea what it was, but it just seemed interesting and like something new. I was into the arts, so I very much fell in love with it. I would have been 19.
What kind of improv did you first start learning?
There was a lot of mask work, a lot of movement, a lot of silence. Not all of it was comedy, some of it was closer to what we consider shortform today. It was much more bohemian, much more influenced by dance. I enjoyed that. It was towards the end of my time there that I realized, ‘This is fun, but I think there’s a greater art in this.’
What were your goals when you started doing improv in Phoenix?
To start a longform community here and to not be exactly what New York or Chicago were. I didn’t know exactly how I wanted it to be different, but I just wanted to start it in a place where we weren’t putting any preconception of what improv was. Every city has a preconception of what improv is, partly because of the TV shows and other things throughout the decade. I didn’t want to start against an existing big influence in a city that people had one way in their mind of what it was.
How did you start building up the longform scene here?
When I got here, there was a little bit of improv, but there wasn’t a huge breakout influence on people’s perceptions. I knew there was room for another kind of improv to grow. The first batch was from Comedy Sportz. They had auditions for their shortform show like maybe 10 days after I moved to town, so I went and met them, and there are still a lot of people from that who are in the Torch now. I was really honest with them, I was like, ‘I really love doing this, but I want to start longform, too,’ and they were like, ‘Awesome, why can’t they both co-exist?’ Most of the people who joined The Torch after that was through the Phoenix Improv Festival. As we had done it for years and years, people would come from out of town, and their first exposure to improv in Phoenix was the Phoenix Improv Festival.
How would you describe The Torch Theatre’s philosophy?
I think the most important philosophy to The Torch Theatre is we’re always looking to grow, instead of working towards a finished, polished product. We have a couple of shows that have existed for a long time, and they’re going to be there for awhile, but we celebrate our students going out and learning from us and also going to other places beyond the Torch. Don’t emulate what we’re doing, try and go way beyond that. A lot of the shows are experimental shows. If you want to try something that’s never been done before, we want to be a place where that can happen. We want people to grow and learn in the art form rather than stagnate on what our perception of that is.
How was the curriculum for The Torch Theatre created?
Instead of creating a strict curriculum in the beginning, we went to the Arizona Department of Education‘s teaching standards to learn how to build a teaching program, not in terms of specifics. Many members of the Torch are also teachers themselves. We wanted to have a set of skills and ideas we wanted each student to have at each step at the program, but we didn’t want to create a curriculum so tight that each instructor didn’t have the freedom to teach in their own way or to their strengths. When they’re done with Level I, for example, each student has the same vocabulary when they enter Level 2. We say, “Create, relate, evaluate.” For every skill we taught the students, we don’t just teach them that skill itself, we teach them how to relate it to the rest of the art and how to self-evaluate how they’re doing that skill.
What makes a great improviser?
A lot of people get to improv, because of its presence in pop culture, for ego satisfaction. They want to be the next Adam Sandler — especially males. With them, they want to prove how quick-witted and clever and how macho they are and how much of a star they can be, and they’ll shoot down everyone else’s ideas to make them the star of the show. A great improviser is one who is a great listener and a great recognizer of patterns, someone who listens to the whole ensemble and supports every idea to make it grow.
What are your strengths as an improviser?
I am really able to emotionally get in touch with my characters. I think that makes my characters more fun to play and hopefully more fun to watch. When I do longform shows, I think I’m a pretty good recognizer of patterns, because after a lot of scenes, I can start recognizing that certain characters are on similar journeys or have similar themes so that at the end of the show, I can start bringing those themes together.
How did The Torch Theatre come about?
Before the Torch, there were a few groups who were very like-minded in philosophy and working towards great improv. In 2007, we said, ‘We’re not working against each other, so why aren’t we working together as a unit?’ So many people, when they’re involved with The Torch Theatre, talk about ‘our theater’ — everyone belongs, including audience members, and there is no real ownership. We have a board that makes decisions, and board meetings are open to anyone on Sunday nights at The Torch Theatre. We’re forming a student council now so students can have a more specific and direct voice in what’s going on with things. We want to make students know that if they have a concern with a class or instructor or any aspect of how the students are being treated, they have an avenue to voice their concerns.
How can people apply to become an instructor with The Torch Theatre?
Generally, people who know improv and know the philosophies of the Torch may apply to be an instructor. We ask them to sit down in a couple classes and try a class taught with another instructor before they teach on their own.
Who should take improv classes?
Everyone. A lot of people think improv is about quick-wittedness, and a lot of people think they can never do it. We always tell them it’s not about being quick-witted. Some people choose to play that way, but it’s not about being clever or funny — it’s about learning to really listen and really have an honest emotional response and really learn to be honest with your choices. At the end of Level I, almost all of our students say they were expecting it to be a comedy class, and now off-stage, they find themselves at work getting along better with their co-workers because they’re listening to them and really hearing what they say. They learn that even if they really disagree with something someone’s saying, they can look harder and go, ‘Well, I can agree with you on this. How can we do that together?’ A lot of people do it for social anxiety or because of public speaking. It gives you a confidence in yourself and the ability to trust your choices. We’d much rather see a bold choice than a weak choice on-stage and off-stage, because if you believe in your choice, we believe in you.
What are future plans for The Torch Theatre?
In 2013-2014, we’re working on raising the national standard of recognizing improv. We want to start raising awareness that there is a difference between the improv you might see at your cousin’s birthday party and then the theater. We’re nationally trying to raise awareness through branding and raising education. We started 11 years ago with our festival and are still learning. We made so many mistakes in our early years because we just didn’t know better. We’re trying to teach stuff like how to keep a budget, how to produce fliers that will be seen by more people, how to use social media wisely, etc. We’re going to be doing workshops, we’re going to be sending people to cities, we’re going to be providing more stuff online so there are more resources for people to download. We’re going to be showing people how to make submission videos for festivals. A lot of these things will be in packets people can download and read so other cities can start growing faster and getting to a really great place in less time than it took other cities.