Non-Profit vs. for Profit Festivals

by Jeff Thompson

“Oh!  An article about the tax implications of various business entities, this is the type of article that improvisers are dying to read,” he said to himself, unaware of his self-delusion.  I nerd out about this stuff and I have helped lots of actors, writers, and other creative professionals decide how to properly structure their businesses from a tax perspective.

Image result for non-profit

What is A Non-Profit?

When it comes to theaters and festivals, the big question is always “Should I be a non-profit company?”  Let’s first clarify what a non-profit 501(c)3 company is not:

  1. It is not a company that cannot make a profit. There are many profitable non-profit companies (I’ll explain this weird oxymoron in a bit).
  2. It is not a company that has to give any profits that it makes to charity or distribute it to it’s members at the end of the year (there are different types of 501(c) organizations, but the 501(c)3 is the type we’re talking about – we don’t really have time to get into the rest of them).
  3. It is not a type of organization that guarantees that you’re going to be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants your first year in operation. It just makes you eligible to apply for them. Big difference.

So, what is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization?  It is a corporation that is formed within a US state whose sole purpose is some public benefit and whose profits will not benefit any specific individual or individuals.  In a regular company, if you own the company the profits of the company are yours to keep and you’re taxed on those profits.  In a nonprofit company, you can’t just take out the money from the company whenever you feel like it.  That’s super illegal and that’s when you’ll get a call from the Attorney General (or Attorneys General if you’re operating in multiple states).  You can pay yourself a fair salary though!

Why Would I Want to Be A Non-Profit?

The big draw?  You don’t have to pay income taxes.  That’s hella cool.  You make $20,000 in profit and not one cent of that goes to the IRS.  Screw you, Uncle Sam!  You still have to pay payroll taxes to your employees, property taxes on property you might own, and sales taxes for any items that you might sell (and if you run an unrelated business under your non-profit, you will be taxed on that income), but you are still mostly exempt from Federal, State, and Local taxes.  Cool!

Also, it makes you eligible for grants!  Now, grant writing is a whole art in-and-of itself, so we won’t go into details, but there are private and public organizations that are looking to support organizations potentially like yours!

Also, donations!  Now anyone can donate to any company you want.  You can technically just send Jeff Bezos a check for $1,000 and call it a donation, but only 501(c)3 organizations can receive tax-deductible donations, so come tax-time your patrons can try to itemize their donations on their taxes and get those sweet, sweet tax refunds.

Why Wouldn’t I Choose to Be A Non-Profit?

Do you like paperwork / can you hire a lawyer or accountant to handle the paperwork for you?  In order to become a 501(c)3, you must file a Form 1023 with the IRS and pay a $600 (or $275, depending on the size of your organization) application fee.  You will also have to form the company at the State level, request exemption at the State level, and sometimes register with an additional governing body (for example, CA requires charities to register with the Office of the Attorney General in order to solicit donations), so you can very easily find yourself spending $1,000 or more just to form the organization.

Also, what happens if you want to pay yourself?  As a board member of the non-profit (non-profit organizations don’t issue stock, so they don’t have owners), if you are managing the day-to-day matters of the company you are an employee, which means you can’t just write yourself a check and call it a day.  You have to run payroll and do all those fun withholdings (you know all those random taxes and such that get taken out whenever your employer pays you), which might mean hiring an accountant or just getting real familiar with QuickBooks.  It’s not something that people are often ready to deal with.

So, I Should Be a For-Profit Festival?

I mean, maybe?  If you’re doing it by yourself and you know you’re going to be investing a lot of your personal funds, then you get to write off the loss personally in the years that you’re running the festival.  And if you make a profit, you will pay taxes on it, but you don’t have to do any fancy paperwork to put the money in your bank account.

If you have multiple partners (in a business sense, not a romantic sense), then you’ll have to form a partnership (or perhaps even an LLC or corporation), which does mean more paperwork to make sure everything is divided and accounted for properly, and there are various tax implications involved in that decision as well.

Just Tell Me What I Should Do, Jeff!

Nah, I’m a man of mystery.  But also, it really depends on what YOU want to do with the festival.

  • Are you and your business-minded friends planning on producing a festival for profit that you’re wanting to grow into a large business where you produce several festivals nationwide? Maybe the LLC or C-Corp is your best bet.
  • Are you by yourself just wanting to have a reason to invite amazing performers from all around the world to your hometown and maybe make a little money on the side? Then you’d probably just want to be a sole proprietorship (i.e. the default business model if you haven’t registered your business as an LLC or corporation)
  • Does your festival have a charitable purpose or one that benefits a specific population and are you looking for support from larger organizations (in the form of grants) or corporations (in the form of donations or sponsorships) to help support that purpose? Then the nonprofit might be best for you.

It’s important to have a vision for how your festival will grow and ultimately what you want from it.  This will help you decide on the best format to start with.  And if things change as the festival grows over time, just know that you can adopt a new format later in the festival’s life.

Good luck and happy producing!

How to Make Your Improv Theater More Trans Friendly

In improv, we aim to create an all-inclusive community of diverse people who come together to create something that disappears as quickly as it was created. It’s beautiful and by its very nature, those diverse voices are essential to creating unique and dynamic work. I want to talk about ways we can make our community safer for transgender and gender non-conforming people.

I’m a trans and non-binary person, but I’ve been improvising since before I had the language to describe my experience of gender. My understanding of myself has shifted, but in the years I’ve been improvising, few changes have been made in the community to make our theaters easier to navigate for trans people. Most of the changes I’m suggesting are cheap and easy to adopt, but could significantly improve the climate of our theaters. Check cosmetic surgeon specializing in ear surgery in Minneapolis when you want cheap and quality surgery.

Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

One way to make your theater safer for transgender people is to do away with “men’s” and “women’s” restrooms and opt for gender-neutral ones instead. A survey conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that 59% of transgender people had avoided using a public restroom in the past year, and that 24% had been verbally harassed or had their gender challenged. That study doesn’t even begin to touch on the experiences of restroom related violence that is all too familiar to trans people. Public restrooms are one of the most unsafe places for transgender people, largely because they are broken down into men’s and women’s – a binary system that best protects those who adhere most strongly to gender roles.

You can instead opt for gender-neutral signs on your restrooms. Some cities already require a single-occupant, gender-neutral restroom in all businesses, but it’s not widely mandated. Instead of men’s and women’s signs, you can replace both with a sign that says “Unisex” or “Both” or “We don’t care. Just wash your hands.” This option works especially well for theaters that have single occupancy restrooms.

For restrooms with multiple stalls, it’s slightly trickier. In some states, it’s required that theaters have both a men’s and a women’s restroom. Heck, some buildings are just built that way. In this case, you could use a small sign near your restrooms to indicate that your patrons should use whichever space makes them most comfortable. Something like: “Presently, our restrooms are labeled men’s and women’s, but we encourage you to use whichever restroom makes you feel most comfortable. If you experience any problems, please talk to our staff. Thank you.” It’s short, sweet, and lets trans and gender non-conforming people know the theater’s management is there to support them, despite unfavorable laws. Avoid language like, “use whichever restroom fits your gender identity” because it ignores gender non-conforming and non-binary identities who don’t identify with either the men’s or women’s option.

Share Pronouns

When you’re all learning each other’s names at the beginning of a new improv class, ask for pronouns as well! Pronouns are just words we use in place of names, so it only makes sense that we would share them with each other as part of introductions. If you’re feeling extra fancy, you could add a place to give your pronouns in your online class sign-up forms – that way they show up on rosters automatically. Just be sure that if someone gives you a different pronoun from the one they listed in their signup sheet, you honor the ones they shared with the class.

Names and pronouns should be relearned at the beginning of every new class or level. This allows people the opportunity to share new pronouns they might be using. Identities change and the words we use to describe ourselves change along with them! All of this advice goes for the formation of new house teams, new staff members, etc. – names and pronouns once again! It’s a good habit to get into.

In my experience, when you ask a class to share their pronouns, at least one person won’t know what that means. That’s ok! I like to say, “Pronouns are the words we could use instead of your name. Like, she, or he, or they.” There are more pronouns than just those three, but that usually gets the point across quickly. If not, you can give an example in a sentence. It’s ok if someone doesn’t understand pronouns or why it’s important. We’re all adjusting to a new culture surrounding gender! It’s rewarding to lend a hand to improvisers who are feeling a little left behind.

Lastly, people will make pronoun mistakes. Teachers, students, staff, audience members. It happens. In my experience, the best way to fix it is to correct them in the moment and move on immediately. No one should be shamed for making a mistake, but it’s also important not to make trans people feel guilty for insisting that everyone honor their pronouns. I once had an improv teacher who stopped referring to me or giving me feedback in class because she was too caught up in trying to get my pronouns correct. I’d rather that she mess up than have my identity impact my experience of the class.

Pronouns Should Be Listed on Staff Name Badges

If your staff and teachers wear name badges, their pronouns should be listed below their name. This prevents people from being misgendered while working and shows your theater’s commitment to gender inclusivity.

Ditch Gendered Terms

Replace “guys” with “folks” or “friends.” Replace “ladies and gentlemen” with “everybody.” A lot of times, especially with English, we’re forced to use gendered language that excludes some groups. This isn’t just for transgender and gender non-conforming people; I’d bet cis* women have felt alienated by these words, too!

Sounds nitpicky? I get it! I grew up in southern California, where it’s routine to call everyone dude, so this one was a little hard for me. Language is inherently gendered. If this switch feels tough to do, it’s because you’ve spent your entire life using language that alienates certain genders. The only way to change it is to start with the words we opt for on a daily basis. It’s tough, but at the end of the day, making your community feel included should matter more to you than cool slang you picked up as a kid.

Sell Gender-Neutral Merchandise

This one’s small, but if your theater sells shirts you don’t need to label them men’s and women’s. Instead, opt for “crew neck” and “scoop neck” or “t-shirt” and “fitted shirt.” Small, but everything counts.

Have a Clearcut Discrimination Policy

When a student signs up for a class or a new staff member is brought on board, they should be asked to sign a discrimination policy and a sexual harassment policy. These policies should be zero tolerance, and should detail the consequences for harassment and discrimination of any kind. You can have a lawyer draft this policy, but if you’re looking for some inspiration, I like HUGE Theater’s. You can find it on their website, and I especially like theirs because they’ve made a clear protocol that allows students and staff to report harassment and transphobia to a third party for investigation.

These are just a handful of ways improv theaters can be better toward their transgender students, patrons, and staff. I haven’t even touched on the world of inclusion initiatives and scholarships. There are a million things to be done, but it’s a start. Thank you for reading and valuing the safety and diversity of our community.

Thanks,

Laurel Posakony

they/them

(See? It’s that easy!)

*Cis is short for cisgender, which refers to anyone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Femprovisor Fest Offers Woman a Voice!

We  had a chance to interview Jill Eickmann who runs the Femprovisor fest now in its 5th year. Take a look and consider submitting for this fest. It takes place in San Francisco, CA.

What are you looking forward to most this year for the fest?

This is our fifth year! We are looking to showcase a diverse women collective.  We are crossing our fingers that a trio of femprovisors from Improv Mumbai will be joining us this year, making this our first year as an international festival.

How important is this festival for women in improv, especially in light to what is happening in our industry?

What I find so important right now- is creating a safe space for womxn to connect and play together.  We need a space to truly be ourselves without any pressure to conform to any female stereotype or role.  Those of us in all lady teams often agree- this pressure to be a certain type of woman starts to fade once you are not the “only” or “one of the only” womxn on a team.

We need a space to be unapologetic with our voice, truly be ourselves- in all its multiplicities, and take big risks. Most importantly, we need a space where our sisters can support our choices.  When in a male majority or patriarchal industry, a feeling of scarcity can ensue for female artists.  In addition to healing our male/female relationships, we also need a great deal of healing from our sisters.  Femprovisor Fest gives women the opportunity to support and lift one another up.  This festival is about supporting cooperation over competition.  I also see this festival as a space to recharge and get support from other bad-ass Femprovisors to then go home and keep your voice alive.

What kind of shows are you looking for?

We want to see womxn play together with delight and love for one another.  We want to see unique and under-represented voices, experimental forms, and performers who share their voices unapologetically. Off the stage, we are seeking artists who support building community and are excited about engaging in the many festival offerings: workshops, seeing shows, participating in panels, and of course- PARTIES!

Tell us about the venue

This will be our second year at The EXIT Theater- MainStage in downtown SF.  The EXIT is home of the SF Fringe and a wonderful, risk-taking venue that has been a haven for SF Bay Area artists of all walks of life since 1983.  From magicians to burlesque dancers to Shakespeare to new works to the rowdy sketchy show- The EXIT is home to ALL.  The MainStage theater is an 80 seat house with an intimate and fun cabaret feel- perfect for improvisational theatre of all kinds.

Why choose the Femprovisor Fest?

You are an improvisor who not only wants to play boldly and take big risks but you also are extremely passionate about social change.  You want to be a part of the conversation, you want to inspire others, and you want to lift up and support your sisters on and off the improv stage.

You can instantly submit to the Femprovisor fest right HERE.

What I’ve Learned, So Far, as an Artistic Director

October was my official one year anniversary as Artistic Director for M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, CA. It’s been an amazing learning experience. You see, there are tons of books on how to do improv, maybe too many now, but there’s not a book about how to be an Artistic Director. It’s like only other AD’s can pass their stories down from generations past, much like the Native Americans did passing on their stories on and on to preserve their history. I know this blog might not interest a lot of you, I’m sure there are only a handful of AD’s in the world that specifically run comedy theaters. But I want improvisers to see the insides a little bit and show you what’s up in the business end of things. Here are some observations, advice I’ve learned over my year as AD:

  1. It’s rewarding! You get to see the growth of many of your performers. It’s an honor to help artists reach their full potential and seeing it is an amazing experience. You see novices turn into masters at playing the piano and actors shine brighter than the first first day they stepped onto the stage. I never get tired of it and it’s what keeps me going.
  2. It is a hard job. You have to cut troupes, players, your friends. This is a very hard thing to do, to e-mail or call a friend or performer to tell them you can not longer perform for now. This sometimes causes strains in friendships and with your performers.
  3. Professionalism – You find out, who is a professional and who is not, really fast. People who don’t show up for a show, are unorganized, flaky. You name it you’ll find them fast and have to deal with it.
  4. You’re the middle man! Yes, you’re the balance of the force. You are the liaison between the business itself and the artists that perform with you. You have to find compromise on a daily basis.
  5. You can’t please everyone – You’re dealing with a ton of personalities. Imagine you can’t even get your team of 8 to decide on a Monday rehearsal, imagine that with hundreds of people and having to get decisions made.
  6. Compromise – I’m not always right and some decisions I’ve made are not the best. But you have to make those mistakes so you can learn from them.
  7. You Should do this – You’ll hear this a lot. So what do you do? Listen, their could be a good idea in there. But know that most of the time the person saying “you should do this.” will not help you carry out that idea. Try to get them involved in helping with  the idea instead of just suggesting. I’ve actually found out when I was more forward about that and gave them tasks it worked.
  8. You hear more complaints then praise. Not that I’m looking for praise at all, but your job is to have a vision and direct a theater into that vision. Sometimes people have issues with that, again see 5 and 6 above. HA!
  9. Have a vision and communicate your vision – You can’t just be an admin. You have to have a vision on what you want done and how it fits with the theater. Communicate all your ideas and why you’re doing them with your community. To make sure the community is involved so they have a say.
  10. The Community – That’s what it’s all about. My community has surprised me on many levels and I’ve been doing this for years. At the end of the day you do it for them. They are awesome, deserving and most of the time do this for free. That’s one thing I will always remember when I go into the theater. My philosophy I’ve made with them, if you’re doing this for free you should be A. Be having fun and B. Learning something. If you’re not let’s talk and make sure you can accomplish those.
  11. Be Available – Don’t hide in an office, be available to talk to your community. I have an open door policy. I can be available for anyone in my community to give them notes, listen to what they have to say etc.
  12. Lead by example – Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do.

I’m sure their are a ton more little things I’ve learned along the way, but these are the pretty major ones I’ve learned and hopefully a little advice and an open door to see what your theaters owners or Artistic Directors go through. I’m pretty lucky to have a wonderful comedy community at The Westside Comedy Theater. They make my job worth it and they are a great group of people.

Your Submissions Can Excel

Excel CSVOne feature requested for a long time from festival producers has been the ability to download the list of festival submissions into an Excel spreadsheet. It was actually in the original outline for the site way back in 2011. Between usability and security settings, it actually turned out to be harder than anticipated, but it’s finally here.

Festival producers* can now download all submission lists (troupes, instructors and/or ensemble submissions) into a .CSV file. For those not super tech literate. This file can be downloaded to your computer and opened by Microsoft Excel. The .CSV format was chosen over the actual Microsoft Excel file format as it is more universal. Users with any spreadsheet program (Open Office, Google Docs etc) can use these file. In addition anyone who is all fancy pants and uses database software instead of regular spreadsheets can import the data as well.

What’s in the sheet? Well, between your festivals information, the troupe’s information, the submission information and the contact person’s information, there could potentially be hundreds of columns and that wouldn’t be useful for anyone. The current spreadsheets contain basic info on each troupe including where they’re from, how to contact them, when they’re available, they’re acceptance status and whether they’ve been contacted (And hey, don’t forget to contact everyone who submits if they’re accepted or not.)

To download the CSV file. Simply go to the submission review page. There will be a button at the top that says “Download CSV”. That’s it. That’s the whole instruction set.

Can this information be changed in the future if needs change? Sure. Might we offer other formats for more tech heavy users (SQL, JSON)? Maybe. We’ll see how it goes and how users needs change. But for now, please check it out and best of luck going through those submissions.

*For now, only the producer (or whoever they assign to be admin for the festival) can download this. It didn’t seem like something all reviewers would need access to. Disagree? My ears are open to any feedback. Drop me a line or leave a comment.

7 Ways Improv Festivals Need to Step Up Their Game to Get Submissions

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to a ton of festivals over the past several years. They have all, for the most part, been great. Also, helping run this site with Bill Binder I also get to see how many festivals there are in the world now and interact with them on a daily basis. Currently listed on our site is 118 improv festivals. Some major cities have two or more festivals now. Holy crap right? What does this mean? It means that more then ever you will be competing for submissions. It may be easier to get local teams, but getting teams from out of town is becoming harder and harder. Here are 7 ways you can step up your game to keep the submissions rolling in and attracting troupes to your festival.

  1. Make it even more inexpensive for Improvisors – They are mostly coming for free, paying for transportation, hotel, food. A good example is The Detroit Improv Festival and The Phoenix Improv Festival. Both festivals help ease the pocket pain of improvisors. DIF offers food for performers during the entire fest with free BBQ’s and food in their greenroom for performers to eat between workshops and shows. PIF gives each team a free night for hotel the night they are performing. This is incredible and very generous, but the reasons these two festivals are hugely popular when it comes to submissions. Word of mouth in the improv world is king!
  2. Try to schedule your festivals better – Look at your region. When are other festivals running? Maybe spread it out so you’re not crossing over each other or running submissions at the same time. This could bring your submissions down as you’ll be competing for them.
  3. Do something new and different – Is your festival getting tired? Are you just doing the same thing every year? Giving out the same gift bags? Shirts? Buttons? Maybe look to spice it up with something new or even in the way you format your festival. You don’t want to just attract new teams all the time, but maybe bring back teams that are amazing and do well at your fest. You don’t have to do much to adjust things just a bit every year. Look if it’s not broken don’t fix it. But enhance it. Don’t let it become stale water.
  4. Listen to your troupes – If you’re not sending out a post festival survey you’re doing yourself the biggest disservice. It hurts to read these sometimes because of how much work you put in to this and for the most part you aren’t getting paid probably. But you still are running a festival and you have a responsibility to the people who come to it because they’re paying to come. Sometimes your troupes may be pointing out a big flaw or even a minor one that can cause big problems. You can’t please everyone, but if you get the same note three times, it needs to be addressed. You should have a post festival pow-wow where you go over the positives and negatives of your festival with your board, fest commission or whatever you call it.
  5. What else do you have to offer? Sell your town or city. What can you offer them to do? The Alaska State Improv Festival offers Whale watching, The Red Rocks Improv Festival offers hikes in Zion National Park. These are huge things that bring tons of improvisors from around the country to come to these remote festivals. For how remote these festivals are they get good submissions. Even if you’re not a remote festival you have a big city to show off, find deals, get discounts, do what you can to attract troupes. Make your festival a vacation destination. Also, don’t just offer workshops. Have parties, conference style meetings add value to your festival in an inexpensive way. Some festival even split the door with their troupes. Paying your troupes is a great way to get more submissions.
  6. Make a more specific festival – If you are in a town or city that has multiple festivals or are in a region where you have a bunch, consider doing a more specific festival. A genre improv festival, musical improv festival, trio festival etc. This may pull you away from the pack a bit.
  7. Travel to festivals yourself – If you’re a festival producer you have to go to other festivals and theaters. See what they’re doing, how they’re run, network. You can also see acts perform and invite them to come to your festival. You get a live view of what’s going on. Sometimes better then watching little videos on your computer. 😉

That’s it for now gang! I hope this helps. If a small festival in Cedar City, Utah or one in the Last Frontier of Alaska can attract troupes so can you. I can say the festivals listed in this blog follow these 7 steps for sure and I know that’s why they do well. If you feel like you can add to this please do so in the comments.

Ensemble Performer Submissions are Here

There’s a new feature launching on the site today. And to many people around the world, it might seem long overdue. To people in the U.S., it might seem a bit confusing since it’s a concept we’re only just beginning to explore.

When Nick and I spend time in Europe and Canada trying to learn more about how festivals and theatres operate, one question we were asked many times was “How do individual performers submit to be part of festival ensembles?” We didn’t have an answer. It’s something I personally had only recently been exposed, but it’s such a wonderful idea, and one so in the spirit of improv festivals, I’m amazed it’s only now popping up in the U.S.

In the model that’s been going on for years, a troupe submits to a festival and – if accepted – comes and performs their show. This is great, but it doesn’t typically give performers a chance to play with anyone new. Sometimes, there is a jam, a Maestro or an All-Star Show, but that’s about it.

The new model doesn’t replace troupes visiting, but it offers an additional option. One, or sometimes a few shows will be scheduled during a festival with a cast of performers who may have never played together, or even met before. Sometimes this show is as simple as a jam. Sometimes the performers come into town well before the festival to meet and work to create a show together.

Alice, Bob and Carla are all great players from around the world. Each of them may want to visit a festival, but doesn’t have a troupe to submit. All three of them are invited to be part of the festival ensemble. They come from their respective home towns and build a show unique to that festival bringing the styles and loves from their home and learning about the way other people play.

Why this is cool?

There are a few reasons bringing a festival ensemble to your festival can bring something really cool that you haven’t had before.

1. Visitors who don’t have traveling troupes can visit your festival. Sometimes a performer is part of a troupe with people who cannot travel. Sometimes a performer finds themselves without a troupe at all. Traveling to festivals is a very difficult proposition for these players. It’s hard to justify the cost of traveling if there are no performance opportunities. This allows them to visit and hopefully bring some of the festival greatness back to their city.

2. Playing with new people. I can speak to this personally. Having done a couple ensembles now, I’ve gained amazing new insights into performing, both from my coaches and from my fellow players. I’ve had the opportunity to play with people from other parts of the country and the world that I never would have had the opportunity to play with otherwise.

3. It’s ephemeral. It’s the very spirit of what we do in some ways. An festival ensemble is a show that exists only for one weekend. Only for one festival. It is a shared experience, and then it is gone.

What are ensemble shows like?

There’s no one answer to that. Some festivals have an existing structure that they work visitors into. Some have the group find a format that compliments the players. Some ensembles only meet a few hours before the show. Some ensembles spend a week together. It’s really up to the festival how they want to format this.

How do I submit on The Improv Network

Go to the festival submission page like you would if you were submitting a troupe.
Look for a button that looks like this
submit
The submission page will ask you for a brief introduction explaining why you’d like to be invited as a featured performer and asks you to include a video link to a show you were in.
That’s it.

How do I accept performer submissions at my festival?

During your setup process for your festival, you will check a box on the first page indicating if you want to run performer submissions. You will then be asked to give a brief description of how your ensemble will work.
That’s it.

You can submit to be in an ensemble today

I really hope more festivals around the world keep doing it, and I hope festivals in the U.S. start adopting it. Improvaganza in Hawai’i just had their first ensemble and I hear it went great. Phoenix and San Diego will both be announcing their ensembles later today. (Thanks to both for your patience while we got this tool off the ground). Please visit their respective pages on the site when they go live. I know it’s kind of a new concept to understand it’s potential for some, but it can be a great way to build our community even more.

A few special shout-outs. Thanks to Improvaganza in Edmonton and The Vancouver International Improv Festival for letting me be a part of their festival ensembles. Also, click that link in the last sentence to learn more about VIIF’s ensemble which is coincidentally starting today and will be performing this weekend. Thanks to Marisol Chavez and Lauren Morris who helped me beta test this new feature and gave some really great feedback.

The Rubric

Looking Into a Festival Producer’s Mind, or How Do They Decide Who to Choose?

THE RUBRIC: Looking Into a Festival Producer’s Mind, or How Do They Decide Who to Choose?

In the years I’ve produced the Alaska State Improv Festival (AS IF), I’ve heard performers ask “What can I do to improve my submission?” I’ve also heard my fellow producers bemoan that their 1 to 5 judging scale leads to a massive swath of “3” scores from their reviewers, making it impossible to figure out whether an ensemble is in the 25th percentile or the 75th percentile of the submission pool. More rarely, I hear of a rubric that takes a background in advanced statistics to comprehend where even the person creating it can only hope that it reflects more than a mathematical curiosity.

We do things a little differently in Alaska. The way we review submissions has made it much easier for our production team to determine where in the pool each ensemble fits. By describing the AS IF way, I hope that it helps performers understand what goes on in the mind of a producer. I also hope it helps other producers create a meaningful rubric for their own submission review processes.

Our Rubric:

The AS IF production team has always valued variety as well as skill. This became central to our scoring rubric which is divided into four parts, each scored on a 1 to 5 scale (minimum score of 4; maximum score of 20).

Originality – Does the show contain original elements? If we read the description of your show and say, “We’ve never seen that before. This sounds great!” then you’ve done well on originality.

Execution of Concept – Does the show deliver on its intended premise? If the show is described as an improvised detective show in the style of Columbo but the video contains a montage of disconnected scenes, then you probably lost almost all of these points.

Marketability – Can we describe your show to a lay person in one or two sentences and get them excited to see it? Think of a show like Jill Bernard’s Drum Machine – It’s a one-woman improvised musical based on a historical event. Her accompanist is the Zoomtronic 123 drum machine. Two sentences, you know the gist of the show, and you want to buy a ticket.

Skill – Regardless of whether the show was original or delivered on its promise, was it skillfully performed?

What’s The Reasoning Behind the Rubric?

We decided early that we wanted to provide not only quality shows, but to a broad spectrum of shows to introduce our audience to what improv can be.

Instead of asking “On a scale of 1 to 5, how were they?” the four parts of the rubric force the reviewers to consider more deeply what the show’s strengths and weaknesses, and whether the show is a fit for AS IF.

How Does It Work in the Real World?

Our results have been remarkably consistent. Groups that have received scores above 15 have proven to be exceptional additions to the festival. Groups in the 13 to 15 range have mostly been either placed on the waitlist or accepted as “last group in.” A couple of these groups have underwhelmed, but several have flashed brilliance that was not seen on the submission video. Groups who score under 13 are generally not considered for inclusion

Most importantly, we have been able to retain a consistently high bar for the festival. The sets at the festival are of high quality, yet are quite varied in style, composition, geography, etc., and the whole package reflects the overall vision of AS IF.

Anything Else?

The numbers don’t tell the whole tale. There are times when a producer makes a choice that goes against the numbers. This can happen based on personal knowledge of the performers, a reference from a trusted insider, a desire to not have too many of a particular type of show, or just a gut instinct regarding whether the submission video reflects the ensemble’s ceiling or their floor. If you are a producer, you have a right and a responsibility to look beyond the numbers to include the acts that best represent the festival’s vision.

If you are a performer who is caught on the wrong end of a producer’s decision, please understand that the number of submissions often greatly exceeds the number of available slots and that in a different pool of submissions you may have made the cut. If there is a festival you have targeted and you have not been accepted, don’t presume that’s the end of the story. Submit with another video, submit with a different ensemble, ask the producer where the submission fell short – and be ready to take the hard note.

So that’s a look inside the head of a producer heading into the submission period. Alaska State Improv Festival is in its open submission period through the end of September, and we hope to see many of you join us in Alaska next April!


Eric Caldwell is the Producer of the Alaska State Improv Festival, entering its fifth year in 2017.

Consider Teacher Workshops at Your Theater or Festivals

NIN’s year of the teacher was amazing. We created the Teacher Tool which will allow you to submit yourself, for free, as a teacher to a festival and let theaters know when you’re in town so they can hire you if you in the neighborhood…NEATO!  With that said, I’d like to chat with our readers about hiring veteran teachers to come to your festival and/or theater to do teaching or coaching workshops. There is huge value in this. I think we have a responsibility as theaters and festivals to start training the next generation of improvisors to become great teachers and have the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.

A lot of theaters, festivals and communities are still young. I’d say about 80 percent of the theaters and festivals I go to  fit in this category. For theaters, a lot of communities are growing pretty fast and we are basically making teachers out of students or recent alums. I get it, the demand is there from incoming students and you want your business to push forward, but what about the teachers? Teaching is a different art all together. Especially teaching something like improv. Just like improvisors who need training, so do teachers. Sure, you may have to shell out a few dollars to get a master teacher to come out, but your return on investment is going to be huge. The better the teacher, the better the business, and the more chance to have returning students. The better the student, the better the performer, the better your audiences will get because of the quality of work – Trickle-down Improv-nomics. You may not see the money right away, but invest in your theater it will be worth it in the long run. I know some theaters are doing this already and to you guys! YAY! You’re ahead of the game and I’d be interested to hear about the experience. You have to think big picture. I know it’s hard to think that as we try to figure out how to pay our rent for next month or buy more paper towels for the bathroom, but the long game is where it is at and it’s worth it.

For festivals, what a great opportunity to offer this course to your community and improvisors coming into town. We are so focused on the teaching of improv skills and forms, we are forgetting that a lot of these improvisors are going to become coaches or teachers eventually. If you’re inviting a master teacher to come to your festival, have them do an improv workshop, but also have them add an instructor workshop. Why not? You have them there. Again, may cost more, but I feel this is something that would do really well. After all these people are the best in the business and have years of experience in teaching. They know what works with students and what doesn’t.

I want to take a second to thank all the teachers and coaches out there for doing the work and committing to our art form. You’re paving the way for the future of improv. Right now we may not get paid as much as we deserve but I do see a day where that will change and it’s all because of the blood, sweat and tears coming from your passion. So, thank you!

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California, Yosemite and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West and The Groundlings. He has also taught many workshops at theaters and festivals around the world.

Let’s Be Alpacas Together

For a group of people who pride themselves on never going on a script, we fall back into a lot of the same sayings over and over again; “Support Your Partner”, “Heighten the Game”, “Play to the Top of Your Intelligence”. We sometimes get into such vain repetition that we kind of forget what those words really mean, and also assume that those we’re saying it to will somehow understand exactly what we mean.

Around NIN circles, one of those sayings is “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Now, if you know me, you know I believe that to the core of my soul. But just because we say those words a lot doesn’t mean we can always back them up. We’ve become so confident that it is true, that we never really talk about that idea in a real clinical or analytical sense. Maybe we should.

Well, it turns out there is some math to support it. Some 18th Century Math to be specific. That kind of thing was all the rage among the prominent nerds of the 1760s. But I don’t think we want to go that far back today.

Instead let’s go back to 2008 and Dan Gilbert’s excellent Ted Talk.

If you haven’t watched his videos or read his book, they are absolutely filled with very straightforward ideas which are great tools for marketing your theatre or your festival. In fact, you should really watch his whole video here when you can. Each of his points could be the topic of a blog post (and if there’s interest, perhaps there will be.) But today, let’s just talk about one of them.(slightly altered to fit this post)

Thought Experiment

If you’re reading this you may live in a major city, or at least near one. I want you to think about that city and answer the following question. You can’t Google or research this answer. Simply answer.

Are there more dogs or alpacas within the city limits of the city you’re thinking of?

It’s not a trick question. You know the answer. It’s obviously dogs. You don’t need statistics to know that’s correct. But why do you know that?

You know that because you see dogs. There are dog parks. There are dog grooming centers. There are magazines about dogs. There are clearly lots of dogs in the city. That doesn’t mean there are no alpacas around. There probably are. Maybe in a zoo or in a farm somewhere. There just aren’t nearly the same number of dogs, or you’d know.

The brain is pretty smart. That kind of reasoning is how humans cope day to day with making informed decisions without firm hard statistics at every moment. It helps us make good decisions. But that part of the brain can also be hacked.

As few alpacas as there are in your city, there are probably even fewer Powerball millionaire winners. But it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Every week on the news, they show the newest winner. Every jackpot billboard has a picture of a winner. A different winner on every billboard. You start seeing Powerball winners. They must be real, because you see them. And the more Powerball winners you see, the more likely you are to get a Powerball ticket. Even if you’ve never bought a lottery ticket. I’ll bet you thought about it more than you thought about getting an alpaca. Tell me I’m wrong.

The truth is, people make decisions based on familiar things. When I am hanging with my troupe and we think about grabbing a bite, pizza is an option. Because pizza places are everywhere. When I visited Vancouver last month and we talked about where to eat, people suggested grabbing donairs because there are donair joints everywhere in Vancouver. You know why we don’t consider that in Phoenix? Because no one I know has ever heard of a donair. There is actually a Canadian donair places within short driving distance of me. I just never saw it. And even if I saw it before, I probably wouldn’t have gone in because it wasn’t familiar. Pizza must be good or there wouldn’t be pizza places everywhere.

We’re Alpacas

If you own an improv theatre, if you run a festival, if you have a troupe: You, my friend, are an alpaca in your town. Improv is growing faster than it ever has. People know it beyond just a TV show now. Some day we’ll be ferrets. Some day we’ll be goldfish. And I know someday, we’ll be adorable puppies. But today? We’re alpacas. It’s OK. Own it.

When the people in your town think of getting a pet. They think about getting a dog. When they think about going out. They think about going to a movie. Advertising your shows, fliering the local record store, putting a poster up on that community board? It’s not enough. The people who see those fliers know that you have it in your mind to do improv. Big whoop. It doesn’t mean it’s worth their time. That attitude is not going to change as long as you’re the only improv flier they ever see.

There are more improvisors in your town than there are alpapacas. There are way more improvisors in your town than there are Powerball winners. There are probably more troupes and theatres in your town than there are Powerball winners. So act like it. Put that face out to the people of your city. Let them see a different improv troupe when they turn the corner. Let them know about what the guys across town are doing. Put up a poster for the festival being put on by the people you only talk to three times a year.

There are still so few of us out there, people don’t know we’re here. Why in God’s name would you hide that fact by not promoting shows around town that are not your own? Show your city that improv is worth doing. Show your city that improv is worth seeing. Invite those people to join a real true improv community. Because if you do, they will. It’s not just a warm fuzzy thought, it’s solid business sense.

So yeah, a rising tide lift all boats. But that tide doesn’t just appear from nowhere. That tide is the people of your city and they will lift you up. But you have to let them see the boats.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. And he wants to give a special shout out to Jeter’Z, NCT Phoenix, Chaos Comedy and ImprovMania who make the greater Phoenix area an place of improv.

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