Spotlight On: Houston Improv Festival


If your an improvisor on the west coast, you know two things about Texas. First, it’s very big. Second, all the good improv festivals are on the east side. That makes for some pretty long drives with your troupe through less than scenic West Texas. But it’s worth it every time. Houston is a big part of that, and with the opening of The Station Theater and really passionate people like Shyla Ray, Todd Boring, Jessica Brown and a dozen others, it’s going to become more so. Houston is growing quick into a town where fantastic improv is happening all the time. I was fortunate enough to learn a little bit more about the Houston Improv Festival with Jessica.

Houston’s improv scene has really grown quite a bit in the last few years. Many performers – even touring ones – having been out there yet. What’s been happening in the last few years that lead to this growth?

P-Graph

P-Graph

This has been a huge year for improv in Houston. ComedySportz Houston just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Station Theater officially opened its new theater space last April, allowing them to increase their weekly performances and class offerings. The University of Houston’s Glaundor from won the National College Improv Tournament. Rice University added improv to their curriculum with Station’s Shyla Ray at the helm. We also have fantastic independent troupes like Rice University’s Spontaneous Combustion, The Univesity of Houston’s Phortasics, Opehlia’s Rope, Feelings and Babyknuckle.

Additionally, both theaters have welcomed special guest performers like Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall, Parallellogramophonograph, Greg Tavares, Chris & Tami, Jill Bernard and more.

Houston improvisers are growing a passionate community. We love what we do and we want to share it with the world. We also want to share the creativity and diversity of the world of improv with Houston.

What’s the scene like now?

The scene has a strong backbone of veteran performers but it is growing rapidly so there is a strong influx of youthful exuberance. Show offerings have drastically expanded. The overall improv audience is not only growing, it is embracing non-traditional forms. There is lot of experimenting and expansion of forms. ComedySportz expanded into long form offerings with Ampersand and their Unscripted series. This Infinite Closet, who performed at HIF last year, took home Best Original Comedy at the Houston Fringe Festival this year for their version of a Bat. Station also took on improvised Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick this year.

I know many of the theatres in Houston have had a lot of shared performers and ideals as other theatres in Texas and Louisiana, as well as their festivals. What are you hoping to bring from their festivals to Houston?

The best festivals and theaters promote the growth of a community and sharing of ideas. We want to continue to bring in strong talent and strong educational opportunities so that this community can continue to grow. We want to embrace all forms and all improvisers yet still keep the spirit of independence that is key to improv.

What are some of the things you think you can actually shake up and make your own?

We have really enjoyed the intimacy of the Houston Improv Festival the last two years. Last year was our first year to offer workshops. It was a powerful experience for groups from local theaters and universities to mix, mingle and share ideas. We want the Houston Improv Festival to continue to be a community building event and an opportunity for attendees to learn from some of the best in the business.

What are some of your goals in terms of exposing audiences to improv this year? What kind of groups are you hoping to submit?

We would like to see a strong mix of long form and short form troupes. Even though we have grown tremendously, Houston’s improv scene is still in its early stages. We want to showcase the diversity of talent in our region so that audiences have a broader understanding of improv overall

What can performers expect outside of shows when they visit? Will there be workshops or other events planned as part of the festival?

Last year we had hang-outs after both Friday and Saturday night shows. Those gave everyone an opportunity to do some networking with our performers and instructors. We are definitely going to continue that this year. For workshops, we are bringing in Jet Eveleth from iO Chicago, and our own Dianah Dulany of ComedySportz Houston. Finally, Sunday afternoon we will be screening “Close Quarters,” a movie featuring some of the improv greats of modern times.

What’s the weather going to be like in April?

One of the reasons we have the festival in April is that the weather is amazing – mid 70s to low 80s and gorgeous. It’s a great time to be in Houston.

When shows aren’t going on? What are some of the things performers can visit and do during the day?

Museum of Funeral History

Museum of Funeral History

There is so much to do in Houston. Of course, we will have our second annual karaoke party at Hefley’s Sports Bar on Saturday night. Our performance venue is not far from the main MetroRail which gives you easy access to Downtown, the Houston Museum District (www.houstonmuseumdistrict.org) and even the Houston Zoo. We have world-class museums like the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Art Houston, The Menil Collection, The Holocaust Museum and so much more. We also have some unusual museums like the The National Museum of Funeral History, which is probably my favorite museum in Texas. I am in the tourism industry so I am pretty spoiled when it comes to attractions. I tend to go for the unusual!

The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau website (www.visithoustontexas.com) is a great resource if you want to explore Houston.

When the festival’s over, what would you consider the greatest compliment you could receive?

We had a blast and can’t wait for next year!

There’s so much to do and see in Houston. It’s a great chance to perform and play with passionate people. Submissions are still open, but they’re closing this week. For more info, feel free to contact Jessica directly.

(512) 689-3729
jessica@houstonimprovfestival.com


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

Advice on Public Relations for Improv

I put it out there a few weeks back about what kind of blogs people wanted to see. Well I got a few answers back and public relations won out this time so here goes! I used to work a 9 to 5 job working marketing, advertising and public relations in Los Angeles so I’m going to give you a little bit of advice on  things you can do to improve your PR. Now PR is one of those things that changes from town to town Los Angeles is going to be much different than Cedar City, Utah. But some of the PR principles still remain the same.

If You Don’t Have Anything to Say Don’t Say it at All:

Magazines, newspaper, online media they like interesting, sexy and bold. Be careful of putting too much PR out there, meaning writing a press release every week announcing just your weekly shows because you will become a nuisance to the editor and you will begin to get ignored. If you’re going to do a press release it has to be a news worthy story or something special. Always look at it from the point of view of the media you’re pitching to, they have subscribers that pay often times or advertisers they have to sell to so they have to have great stories that keep people coming back and they have to offer things to their readers. They’re not going to just print “Random Team has Another Weekly Improv Show.” Think about it, if you want to get attention from the media make an event  out of it. Do you have local celebrities playing? Is it an improv festival your throwing? Are you throwing a benefit for the community? It has to be press worthy.

The Unfortunate Real Deal in Press:

So, the real deal. The reason why some companies get stories all the time to media outlets is usually because they buy advertising in that certain magazine or online outlet. I know it’s shitty, but it’s true. When I worked in PR we would buy ad space in every trade magazine, newspaper, online media etc. What did that mean? They would offer us interviews, stories and even cover stories as part of the package deal for advertising in them for a year. Now does that mean you can’t still get press no but it makes it way easier. I always say buy advertising if you can, you don’t have to spend $10,000 but get yourself listed or buy a small add with your local paper or community magazine. Then you have a relationship with them and then you can start getting some leverage. If you’re a theater, improv troupe or festival I’d highly recommend you put aside some of your budget to do this. Just make sure you track your results, which is a whole other blog I need to write, so you know what your spending is working. Meaning did you get audience or maybe you got some PR out of it, maybe even a relationship out of it?

Like a Moth to the Flame – Have Them Come to You:

Have an event! Start an improv festival or some sort of festival. Invite a local celebrity to play with your theater and see what happens. Do something extraordinary. Throw a fundraiser for your local charity. The press love these things. These are interesting, sexy and bold and will more than likely get you press.  Some communities have a bunch of improv theaters and festivals. Work together to garner press, this mostly happens when a town or city runs a festival. Improv is a community that thrives on support so support each other and get together for the good of everyone and work together to throw and event or get the press to come to you. Together you are better. It only benefits you to work together for the awareness of improv.

Social Media: Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy

This is most improv theater or troupes way of doing PR. Why? It’s easy and free. But remember you still have readers and those readers can easily be annoyed and turn you off. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you should abuse it. This is really the gateway to your show or theater so use it wisely. Don’t always just promote your shows. This is an opportunity to show people your brand and voice. This is a great way to show them who you are. Make your troupe or theater have a personality, give advice, give your audience something for reading. Isn’t improv all about support anyway? Know your readers and give them what they want. You want to make your reader keep you on their radar not take you out of their newsfeed. Share! That’s right share others stories and shows if you share theirs they’ll share yours! Work together.  I guarantee you readers will erase you if all you do is promote shows. Offer them things like discounts and free tickets. Engage them. Don’t scare them away.

You Better Have a Good Product!

I can’t express this enough. Have a good product. Have a great show or a great night to promote. If you’re a theater you have to give the press the best night to come to or the best show you have. Don’t invite press or put out a release about some show if it’s not ready for prime time. This may be your one shot so you want to put your best foot forward.

Writing a Press Release:

When you’re writing a press release follow the advice above before you write.  Now when you write this it better have no mistakes and be written as if it will be copied and pasted into the media outlets you’re throwing them out to. That’s usually what happens, they either take the whole thing or parts of it and slap their name on it. But that’s what you want! If there are mistakes it will look amateur and tossed away. If you have someone with experience in your theater or group have them do it. Your press release is not the only one they’re getting that day so make it stand out.

How Can I Learn More About This? – NIN Improv Summit at Camp Improv Utopia:

The National Improv Network will be hosting the Improv Summits at Camp Improv Utopia in Pennsylvania and California in 2014. Camp gets theaters and improvisors together from all over the US and even outside the US. Improvisors come from all walks of life and it brings together experts in the legal world, marketing, PR, improv directing and more! If you want to learn more about this and learn how to better your theater, your improv, work on press releases and more check it out and come we’d love to have your input, ideas and help you out.

In The End:

Don’t rely on PR. Don’t rely on the press. This is just one plan of attack to bring awareness to your team or theater. Public Relations is always tricky and experimental. Sometimes you just have to put things out there and see what sticks. Just be careful what you’re putting out there. Every place is different and you have to really learn and research how your press works. See what stories they do, research and see who their editors are and most importantly know your audience and give them a show they won’t forget because your best PR is the people sitting in the audience watching your show. Best of luck and please comment if you have anymore suggestions or questions.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania, a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit company that gives back to the improv community. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

Spotlight On: Twin Cities Improv Festival

A little under two years ago, I was sitting in a hotel room at an improv conference with festival organizers and theatre owners from across the country. It was the end of the day and ideas were being spitballed back and forth about the possibility of a webpage for performers, directors, owners, festival organizers, etc. It was the meeting that lead to the website you’re reading right now.

One of the people at that meeting was Butch Roy from HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis. I had made a point to listen to Butch’s presentation earlier in the day, because of all the various types of improvisors; traveling performers, theater owners, festival organizers, Butch represents the best of each of them. He’s a smart guy with amazing insight and passion for watching improv grow. It was a great presentation and a great meeting afterwards.

Butch is a smart guy who knows how to take charge and get things done. And he’s blessed to be in a city filled with similarly talented people. It’s no wonder that the Twin Cities Improv Festival is one of the destinations for performers across the country.

But many people have never been to Minneapolis and don’t know about the incredible energy in that city. I got to talk with Butch a bit about the upcoming 8th Improv Festival in the Twin Cities.

The Twin Cities Improv Festival has been around for eight years now, but many changes have probably happened since HUGE opened its doors. How has HUGE’s presence in Minneapolis changed the festival in the last few years?

When we started out, the Festival was often the only time of year a lot of our audience would come see improv, we knew that many of them were coming because we had special guests from other cities coming in. We have always tried really hard to reinforce the message to them that “you live in a city full of amazing improv all year long” and even though HUGE has changed the landscape we still see a lot of people at TCIF that need to hear that message.

We set up the Festival to pair visiting groups with locals – both to create a really complementary pairing that is a great show to see, but also to trick people that don’t otherwise come out to shows all year into seeing the local groups that they will probably love.

I was worried that HUGE’s constant presence would hurt the Festival in a way – by giving people their great improv fix all the time – but that has not been the case at all. We still treat the shows all year in a very serious way and try to showcase the very best of what we can do on stage, and then treat the Festival as the showcase of the very best of the best.

A quick look at the festival board and most people will see that one of you have been to just about every major festival in North America. As travelling performers, what are some of the trends you see that you try to bring back to Minnesota? What are some things you try to do differently in terms of the travelling performer’s experience?

Butch Roy

Butch Roy

That’s hard to list since it’s kind of the core of how we approach the Festival.

When we were starting the Festival I certainly paid more attention to things I saw in other cities that, as a performer, I really liked or really disliked. It’s one thing to put on a festival and showcase the best performers for a few days, keeping in mind the little things that will be important to those performers over the course of the Festival is a very different mindset.

So it was less about trends and more about approaching the Festival from the performers’ standpoint at all times – if we’re doing our jobs when we make selections, we don’t need to worry about the quality of the shows we’re putting up. They will take care of the audience – so we should be spending our energy making sure the performers have a great experience and have a great audience to perform for.

I’ve been to festivals that were poorly marketed but really focused on the art, some that were well marketed but poorly planned, some where the producers didn’t even know we were there. Any time I ran into something that made me question if I should have come to a festival, we made note of in the “Never do this” column and we try our best to keep those things at the forefront of our process.

The biggest change we’ve made this year is to separate the submissions from visiting groups from the local submissions – to give traveling groups enough time to properly plan for their trip but also make sure we’re getting the most current snapshot of what’s going on in the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis has a somewhat rare city that has very strong longform and shortform theatres – and many shared performers. How does that landscape affect the festival?

I think it makes us more welcoming – both in terms of what we’re looking for when we make selections and being able to see really great shows in both long and short form – but also in terms of how Minnesotan improvisers know that there’s a lot to be learned from both.

It promotes an environment in which quality is the most important criteria instead of artificial divisions.

Because of that balance, your audiences have a very good vocabulary for improv. What kinds of shows do you hope to attract to Minneapolis to introduce them to something new and challenging?

Our audience not only has an unbelievable improv vocabulary – they see and appreciate really great work, not just the moves that get laughs. They’re savvy. They appreciate a really smart callback or some of the more subtle moves you see in a really great ensemble – which can be so rewarding as a performer.

One of the things I’m most excited about every year is introducing new performers to our audience!

I almost don’t feel like we look at shows as challenging our audience, since they see such a wide variety and have a pretty nuanced understanding of what we do – but when we find something really new, really eye-opening in terms of “I’ve never seen an improv show that feels like this before!” I get really excited as a producer. Waiting months for the audience to see what I’ve been anxiously waiting for them to see is one of the hardest parts of being the producer.

The pairings of groups is one of the more exciting parts of producing the Festival every year for that reason – knowing what the audience is in for and how it’s going to play together – like getting to put a duo that uses movement and dance (the Raving Jaynes) with a duo that features an engineer and dance instructor (Foxtrot) and an ensemble that uses no spoken words at all and just uses music played from audience iPods as the backbone of the scenes (The Score) is really fun.

Any one of those shows alone would be great and engaging and fun – but when you can put them together you get this really amazing trip across the whole spectrum of what you can do in an improv show.

June is probably a smart time for a festival in The Twin Cities. What kind of weather can visitors expect? What should they pack?

HUGE Improv Theater

HUGE Improv Theater

June is the ONLY good time to visit Minnesota, in terms of weather.

I hear from people all the time that say “I visited once, never went back” and I always ask when they came – if they say “January” I just apologize and tell them to come back in June.

Typically we will see high 80’s and sun all day, high 60’s or 70’s at night.

Only once did we have a rainy Festival but the temps are generally always very nice – bring an umbrella, shorts and t-shirts during the day but you aren’t going to be too hot if you’re wearing long sleeves and pants in the evening.

There are many top shelf instructors in Minneapolis, and even more in the cities nearby. That’s something many travelers don’t have access to year round. What kind of workshops or panels will be available this year?

We are still putting this year’s workshops together right now – we will announce those along with the selections. We always have workshops for the experienced performers, we’ve never had great response to the entry level workshops – so everything is focused on serving the performers rather than intro work.

What, outside of the festival, will improvisors be able to do and see while visiting?

There is so much going on in June in MN – the city goes a little crazy when everything thaws out and we know we only have a dozen or so really nice days to have fun – so you can see food truck festivals, film festivals, baseball games, awesome outdoor mini golf – you name it.

If anyone has a request of something they’ve heard of and want to try to see while in town, let us know and the Festival will reach out and see what we can arrange!

Eight years means a lot of time to grow. What have you learned from past festivals that will be part of TCIF 8? What are your goals for the 2014 festival?

I mentioned the change in submissions before – that’s probably the biggest shift in terms of the Festival mechanics – in past years we’d have a group that was really active in Minneapolis and had a great submission in January so they were invited to do the Festival…only to disband a couple months later because of scheduling or real-life conflicts or something – so you end up getting a “reunion show” instead of a catching them in their prime.

The biggest thing we’ve learned is to relax and let the improvisers take some ownership of the experience – we run the shows and workshops but the community here is so warm and welcoming that they throw BBQ’s for the performers and have the after-parties at their houses and really make it their own.

There are always things we’re learning in terms of mechanics of holding so many shows in such a short time – long lines, temp control in the theater, you name it – but the biggest thing we try to keep in mind is that we’re always learning and trying to improve.


For real. If you haven’t been to the Twin Cities Improv Festival, you’re missing out on something special. Submissions are still open for out of town performers, but closing soon.

Happy Holidays from NIN!

Hey everyone, Nick and Bill here wishing you all a wonderful Holiday! When we launched in May we didn’t know what to expect, we created a resource for improvisors based on our passion and love for the art. Today, we have 800 members, 400 troupes, 62 Improv theaters listed and 66 festivals listed with 20 running submissions through us and more on the way. We want to thank everyone who has supported this great experiment especially our members. We are grateful for our wonderful improv community!

As 2013 comes to a close we look forward to bringing you even more resources for 2014. We look forward to showing you what we have planned!

We’ll be monitoring the site but we will not be releasing any new content till the New Year. If you have any questions you can PM us on NIN or e-mail at bill@nationalimprovnetwork.com and nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com.

Nick and Bill

Festivus Traditions

DSC_0613

ComedySportz Richmond

I might not be a traveled as our guest blogger Mike this year, but I’ve done a fair amount of traveling and performing this year. I count myself blessed for the amount of stages I’ve been allowed to play in 2013. I thought DSI in North Carolina would be the last stop of the year, but a last minute invite to Richmond was something I couldn’t resist. I’d never played in Virginia for one thing and I admit that with a few exceptions, the east coast one area I don’t know as many people.

ComedySportz Richmond has been producing Festivus for three years now, and it’s run as smoothly as much longer running and larger events. The volunteers, staff and performers did a great job of making everyone feel welcome and the audiences have a great time.

ComedySportz Richmond is the kind of inviting theatre more should strive for. ComedySportz shows go down often, but several other shows happen as well. The Coalition Theater is the other improv theater in town, and from what I can see they work together to learn and grow.

The Festival was largely a regional one, (yours truly being the exception). Lots of great shows from North Carolina, D.C., New York and Virginia. Many old friends coming together. So many great shows happened and I noticed that shows were of a much faster pace than I’m used to seeing. Scenes were almost universally fast and hard, but not hasty or sloppy. There was genuine excitement pushing the scenes forward. Of course – Tara DiFrancisco’s headline performance was well earned. Her performance with a member of local group “No String Attached” was patient, and beautiful throughout.

Improv Kung Fu

Improv Kung Fu

Workshops happened on Saturday and, with the exception of the master class, were free for registered performers. I didn’t get to take any morning classes, although I heard great things about the workshop from the Nashville Improv Company and I’m certain the others went well. I got to teach “Starting Out Strong” above a Kung Fu dojo to a very cool mixture of performers from various backgrounds. It lead to some really good discussions on finding the meat of a scene and having confidence when starting a show. I hope I brough a fresh perspective to openings.

Between the shows, the volunteers and the workshops, I think it was a great experience for all performers. I’m pretty sure Dave Gau wouldn’t like to be singed out, because everyone from Virginia was willing to put in the sweat to make the festival great, but his leadership was very clear. He inspired those around him on and off stage. Big thanks to him, Zach Arnold, Susan Scoville, Kelly Scruggs,Kim Thurston, Dominic Wall and to the girl who went out of her way to get me my swag bag (which included a DVD of “The Long Kiss Goodnight” with Geena Davis and is thus the greatest festival swag bag ever). If you’re ever in Richmond, drop by and see some great shows.

Oh, and I ripped the arm off a tuxedo.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.
 

When A Stoppable Force Meets A Movable Object – How Many Festivals?

Today I submitted to the 17th annual Chicago Improv Festival; which got me to thinking. How many festivals HAVE I submitted to this year? By my count, this year alone I’ve submitted to 12 festivals, attended 8, performed in 7, and taught workshops (either during or as a result of attending) at 3. Wow! When you see the numbers before you it’s quite daunting.

So here’s how I make it work with the flight attendant gig: improv is (and always will be) my #1 love. If you truly love something, you’ll find time for it. That’s what I do with comedy. I submit, I book, I rearrange. I always make improv my priority. Now having said that, I also have to know my limits.

There was a time when I was flying over 100 hours a month (which doesn’t sound like a lot because that number only reflects my pay. Not the amount of hours I actually work. It’s messed up, I know), running my own improv team (Trapper John), taking classes (at The Magnet), figuring out how to do Solo Improv (with personal coach Alan Fessenden), and also dating a girl long-distance who lived outside of Detroit. Doing all of this just about killed me, so I had to learn the art of Time Management.
Long story long, I’m still learning how to effectively manage my time, but suffice it to say, I’ve learned how to mix classes, shows, and festivals into my time table. Here’s how:

1) I make a very general map in my head as to how I want the upcoming year to go down. Let’s take 2013 for example. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish levels 4 AND 5 at The PIT before 2012 was over, thus not making me eligible to audition for house teams come January 2013. I had also applied and was accepted to perform in the first ever Alaska State Improv Festival (ASIf!) in April as well as the LA Improv Festival in June.
2) My next step was to figure out my goals and then fit them around what I already had planned. I knew that I wanted to finish classes before the year was out. I had also recently become an intern at The PIT with a regular Tuesday night Box Office shift. The real trick for me was figuring out what days of the week I would be free to fill my schedule with non flight attendant stuff.
3) Now that I had a few specifics in mind, I could start the process of filling my schedule. As a flight attendant, I’m usually on-call 20 days out of the month. I know in advance when these days are going to be, as well as my days off, so that I can plan my schedule. Working in the international base, I know that all of my trips are going to be either 3 or 6-day trips. (ie. day 1, fly to London. Day 2, stay the day in London. Day 3, fly back from London. Days 4-6, repeat). So, I always knew that on days 3 and 6 that I’d always be back in New York. This way I can plan to take classes, work a shift as an intern, teach classes, or do a show. Plus, I had my days off to plan things.
4) Rearranging the schedule. I would always plan my improv stuff first and then rearrange my schedule to accommodate. Generally, it hasn’t been too difficult a task. I just know better than to plan things on the weekend. And if I do, I can only plan to do something one weekend a month, as weekends have proven murderous to try and get off.

Anyway, technical mumbo jumbo aside, I’ve been playing this game of planning and rearranging my schedule to accommodate the love of my life for seven years now, and has become so commonplace for me that I forget what it’s like to have a typical 9-5 where I know that every evening and every weekend is going to be free.
And as for the girlfriend outside of Detroit… Yeah, that didn’t last long.

So…this is my life. It gets daunting. A lot. Which is why I try to take the advice of Peter Gwinn in his book “Group Improvisation” and take some time to live and experience life (and in my case, sleep!)

 

Improv Warrior: Jill Bernard

Improv Warrior (n.) Someone who goes above and beyond the call of duty. An improvisor, who is not just a performer, but lives and breaths improv, heightens the art, cares for the art and brings it to new levels.

Today’s Improv Warrior is Jill Bernard. I have had the pleasure of performing with Jill and bumping into her at practically every festival in the country. She is an amazing teacher and an amazing talent. But beyond that she is just a wonderful human being. Jill recently celebrated 20 Years as an improvisor and celebrated it in a major way! –Nick Armstrong

Here is what she had to say:

From Jill Bernard:

On Sunday December 1, 2013 I did a show called “JILLVITATIONAL: 20 duos in 12 hours to celebrate 20 years” – the length of time since I began improvising.

My favorite part was the sensation of each new partner. Jeff Wirth has taught me many things, but one little interesting tidbit is to read how an audience volunteer wants to play when brought up onstage. Are they a clinical person or an emotional person? I thought of that concept a lot during my twenty duos, because each pairing was an opportunity to be the scene partner my friend was asking for. When someone steps onstage, they’re proposing a game. If your opening line is, “I don’t know, Edgar, perhaps this climb was too ambitious, the temperature’s dropping faster than we could’ve predicted,” you’re basically saying, “Hello, would you like to play doomed mountain expedition with me, in a slightly old-fashioned and serious style?” and my answer will be yes yes a million times yes thank you, let’s let’s.

I was charmed by the opportunity to do so twenty times in a row, especially since I am rather infamous for being an ungenerous player who will drag your corpse behind the sled of my agenda. It felt like a lovely challenge to play the Venn Diagram of just the two of us to the nth degree, in the Viola Spolin sense of ‘following the follower.’

I picked twenty friends but I could’ve picked a million friends. The feeling I was left with after it was all over was “Oh, what’s wrong with the limits of my body and my brain that I can’t just keep doing this hour after hour and get to share the stage with everyone ever?” Being alone with just another person is the full dose of them. It’s the extra virgin million parts per million version of their aesthetic, and you get to take a bath in it. I could get used to that. Trish Berrong and I neared the final moments of the final duo and my eyes filled with tears for all the gratitude I felt in that moment – gratitude that Trish Berrong and Bailey Williams would come up from Kansas City, Lindsay Gonzales would come from Chicago; Samantha Pereira , Katy Kessler, Kelvin Hatle, Eric Heiberg, Doug Neithercott , Lauren Anderson and Josh Kuehn would come do improv before noon; Butch Roy would play and let me use our theater for this silly project all day long; Mary Strutzel, Eric Knobel and James Moore who were alongside me when I started would still be alongside me now; Clay Macartney, Bernard Armada would just hop into the unknown; Nate Morse would bring me a cat piano; Meghan Wolff, Jason Bindas and Carolyn Blomberg would be those kinds of friends who will play with you just because; and for everyone who came to watch and cheer and bartend and tech and box office. That’s a lot to be emotionally touched by, especially after a long day fueled by mostly Topperstix and runner’s Goo.

It was good, it was fun, but I won’t make an annual event of it as it’s exceedingly odd? arrogant? pathetic? to make up an event named after yourself. I did it because, as I told a reporter, “Improvisational comedy is the kind of an unsustainable ridiculous career where you ask yourself what you’re doing with your life every 12 months or so. I used this idea to kind of cheer myself up. It’s also an uncelebrated art form. Improvised theater is not even eligible for an Ivey award, none of the newspapers or online calendars have an ‘improv comedy’ section. As a result, improvisers can’t sit around waiting for recognition, we have to celebrate ourselves.” I feel so celebrated now. What a wonderful boost to spur me on for twenty more years.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

 

When A Stoppable Force Meets A Movable Object

We have been reaching out to many of the people we’ve been meeting on the site and at festivals around the country. I met Mike through NIN first, then saw him on the road. He had an interesting story to tell. Mike will be one of the contributors to our site, we are reaching out to more people too as to give you a variety of ideas, thoughts and advice. –Nick Armstrong

Here’s Mike’s Intro Blog:

When Nick Armstrong asked me to start a blog on the NIN I was completely flattered and honored to be part of one of the best (and fastest growing) online communities that exists for improvisers! I felt as though someone was finally taking notice of my hard work. For once, someone that matters is taking an interest in what I do an a comedian. Almost immediately afterwards I freaked out because I had no clue what I would write about. I’m just a little twerp from Oil City, Pennsylvania. I’m a nobody. Who would honestly want to hear my story?

Then Nick offered a tip as to what I might write about: for the past seven years I have been working as a flight attendant for United (previously Continental) Airlines. I literally travel the globe on a daily basis and perform improv wherever I can. Plus, as an added unique feature to add to my repertoire, I specialize in Solo Improv which I have patterned exactly after a normal ensemble improv troupe. It’s a portable one-man show that takes me around the world doing what I love best: making people laugh.

In this blog, I aim to offer a weekly glimpse into my life as a Solo Improv artist that has the opportunity to travel the world. Some weeks will focus on what is currently happening in my life, while others will shed some light on my past and how I got to where I am now.

If it at all comes across arrogant and self indulgent, then I apologize. I am actually aiming for conceded, self righteous, and all important. So let’s all work together to keep me on the right track, shall we?

Mike Brown

Mike was born in Franklin, PA, raised in Oil City, PA, and now resides in Harlem, NYC with fellow improviser, Josh Hurley, and his cat, Minerva. He works as an international flight attendant for United Airlines and performs Solo Improv around North America and Europe. Mike teaches and coaches improv via 10,000 Hours, The University of Oxford, John Jay College, and Skype & FaceTime. For more info, visit soloimprov.com

Our Improv Family

The improv world lost a great improv legend. Mr. Jay Leggett. Last week at iO West in Hollywood they had a memorial for Jay, an amazing improvisor who I had the honor of seeing in Joel Murray and Friends at iO. Jay was on the legendary improv Harold team Blue Velveeta. Not only was he an amazing performer and coach he was just a warm and friendly person who would always stick around after shows that he coached or performed in and chat with you.

Being in the bar after the memorial was awe inspiring. Seeing a family come together for an amazing person. I say the word family because it dawned on me how this crazy thing we do called improv is more than just a stage, tag outs and make’em ups it’s really a family. No matter what theater or team you’re on, we are all a part of something bigger. I think Susan Messing said it best on her Facebook Page…

From Susan:

Last night, in the haze of sadness and joy in celebrating Jay, an overwhelming feeling came over me. It’s not until one of our comedy friends leave us that we really get to take stock of how fortunate we are to know each other, to have been able to grow up together, how privileged we are to be able/allowed to do comedy and to be members of this tribe. As someone who tries to always look forward, sometimes it is good to sit back and take stock of how long we have known each other- I am so grateful to be a member of this community, to have the opportunity to take such pride in your collective brilliance- and I look forward to the opportunity to play with you again. Infinite Love to You All.

Thank you Jay for your contributions to improv and everyone you made laugh, taught and inspired. The improv world has lost a great soul.

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Blue Velveeta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

The Improvisors Project – A Discussion with Sam Willard

If you’ve been lucky at an improv festival or camp in the last year, you may have been lucky enough to have had your picture taken by Sam Willard. Sam is a photographer who has been capturing improvisors offstage expressing emotions and feelings through his photographs. It’s a fascinating project and Sam was kind enough to share some thoughts on the project.

Sam WIllard photographing David Razowsky back stage at the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2012.

Sam Willard photographing David Razowsky back stage at the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2012.

It’s clear from just the avatars on this page that many people on the National Improv Network have been involved with the Improvisors Project, but for everyone else. What’s the project about?

The Improvisors Project documents and celebrates the diverse pool of talent in the improv community, through portraits of its many members. As soon as I started getting involved with improv a few years ago, I saw the amazingly expressive people and knew that they had the potential to be great portrait subjects. That realization planted the seed for the project.  My first photo shoot was in 2012. Since then, I have had shoots all over the country and photographed over 200 improvisors.

Everyone here loves improv. You love photography with equal zeal. But we’re all artists who appreciate the process. What brought you to photography?

I was always an artistic kid. From early childhood, I had a passion for drawing. I spent hours drawing every day after school. In my teens, I got more into making portraits, instead of just ideas from my imagination. But creating realistic drawings of faces was difficult for me. I suppose that the camera’s ability to realistically render faces is part of the reason I shifted toward photography, as my interest in portraiture deepened.

I spent years taking pictures as an amateur, starting in college and on into my twenties. I discovered that photography was a way to engage with people, and to draw out and capture something essential about them. During the time I was learning photography, I got a business degree and worked in business and tech for several years. When that started to lose its appeal—and at the same time my photography skills were maturing—I decided to make a career switch. That was ten years ago. I have been a professional photographer ever since.

Improv and photography are two very interesting art forms to bring together. One celebrates the immediacy and intimacy of a shared moment that will never be recreated. The other is about finding the beauty of a moment and preserving it. Being part of both worlds, how do those ideas play off of each other? How do you feel the marriage of the two helps you grow as an artist.

As I mentioned, photography was a way for me to engage with people and make authentic connections. I guess improv appeals to me for the same reasons. As you say, improv is ephemeral, and photography is more permanent. But that difference is in the product. I like both art forms because of the process. And in terms of process, portraiture and improv are remarkably similar.

When I meet with a portrait client, they have hired me because they need to project an authentic image of themselves, capturing those qualities that best communicate to their intended audience. But they have never met me before. I have never met them. And usually (unless they are a celebrity) I don’t know much about them. It can be awkward. And the photo studio is an intimidating place, with bright lights and this stranger pointing a camera at you. On top of all that, the only tools I have to tell my client’s story within the rectangle of the image, is their face and body, and my simple background.

If you think about it, this scenario is almost exactly like a basic improv scene: Two people. Simple stage. Bright lights. No props. Just your body and your voice to connect with each other and tell a story. Both performers have to engage and discover some essential truth, and go from there.

Without a doubt, my experience as a portraitist informs my improv, and vice versa. And they both strip away all the bullshit. Just two human beings, creating an authentic human connection. One is ephemeral and one leaves a record, but both are awesome. Life is full of so much noise. Authentic connections are precious, even thrilling. It is why I love portraiture. It is why I love improv.

Looking at your photos, it’s clear that this isn’t The Improv Project, it’s the Improvisors Project. Most improv photography in years past has focused on performance and the ensemble, but this project captures the individual performers outside of that environment. As a photographer this probably gives you a more individual connection. What was the motivation for the focus on the performer rather than the show?

What amazes me about improv is that so much can be created with just vocal and physical expression. For me, the best way to capture expression is by isolating the individual. This strips away context and narrative, and leaves pure expression. Also, these portraits are meant to be viewed in groups. The identical composition, lighting, and backdrop, framing the individual subject, makes it easier for the viewer to see the amazing variety of expression from person to person and shot to shot.

These aren’t mug shots. The photographs in your collection are filled with incredible variations in expression and ideas. What are you hoping to get out of an individual photo shoot? What goes into the decisions you make on a performer by performer basis?

My goal with every photo shoot is to capture a wide range of improvisors, and to make photographs that capture big, authentic emotion. I usually schedule photo shoots at times and places when I am going to get a lot of people in a short period (festivals, workshops, camp, etc).  I photograph each improvisor for only about five minutes, but I schedule many people over a period of several hours on one or more days, so I end up with a lot of portraits at a single event.

When an improvisor steps in front of my camera, I don’t have any set ideas of what I want before I begin. I start with a clean slate and an open mind, like at the beginning of an improv scene. I usually let their physicality cue me toward an emotional state of mind, then I prompt them to heighten. For example, if they look uncomfortable (as people often do when first in front of a camera), I might say—as if I am their inner voice—“Timmy Jenkins, don’t you dare wet your pants, no matter how bad you have to pee! Everyone on this school bus is going to call you pissy-pants, and you will be the laughing stock of Third Grade!” Then, once he or she starts to squirm, and get into the state of mind, I might engage with them as a scene partner. “Hey guys, look! Timmy looks like he’s gonna piss himself! Pissy-pants! Pissy-pants! Hah, hah!” This heightening can go on for a few rounds. When the emotion gets dialed up as high as it can go, that’s when I start making pictures. The whole process from start to peak to done lasts just a few minutes, then it’s over and the slate is wiped clean again with each new person.

I should say that much of my work goes on after the fact, during the editing process. The photo shoot is a frenzy of activity where I try to create as much raw material as possible. Sorting through everything afterwards is where I do the precision work of finding those peak moments of authentic emotion. And, as you said, the end result from a series of portraits is incredible variation.

You’ve had the opportunity to meet many incredible performers, but specifically, you’ve had the opportunity to work with The Committee. That’s a pretty rare and special thing. What are your memories with working with that group of incredibly talented performers?

Hands down, the best part of doing this project has been the access it has provided me to people I otherwise would probably never have met. Photographing members of the Committee did indeed feel rare and special.

The 50th anniversary reunion event earlier this year had almost every living Committee member in attendance, and I jumped at the chance to participate. Many guests were in their 80s, and hadn’t performed in decades. But every individual brought incredible presence when they stepped in front of my camera. And to my pleasant surprise, many of them twinkled with incredible mischief and glee, as if they were still young actors creating live improvised theater every night.

Some of my favorite portraits from The Improvisors Project were created that night. But I have to say the highlight of the evening happened off-camera. As the event started, and the room filled up with people, arriving one by one, old friends lit up seeing each other for the first time in ages. Many of the original Committee members in attendance had lived 40+ years living elsewhere and doing other things after the Committee. But being together with dear old friends brought everyone back to 1963, and all the youthful camaraderie that time held for them. I wasn’t even alive in the 1960s, yet I was overcome by the emotion in the room. Like seeing old soldiers being reunited long after the war had ended. I was reminded of the great fraternity that improv creates, and the close bonds I have in my own group of improvisors.

I notice one important omission from the project so far. No pictures of Sam Willard. At least none that I’ve seen publicly. Do you consider yourself – as an improvisor – to be part of this collective, or do you feel yourself more the observer in this project?

Hah. I definitely consider myself to be part of the improv community. It’s just technically a bit hard to do a self-portrait, with the way these images are made. I actually did get in front of the camera on my very first Improvisors photo shoot. I wasn’t thrilled with the results. Maybe there will be a Sam Willard portrait at some point.

Just like any great improv set, this project started from a simple idea. Where it went from there was not based on invention, but discovery. What have been the discoveries you’ve made along the way? How has the project shaped you and those around you?

As an artist, this project has shown me that the old axiom is true—follow your passion. The elements of this project are things that I am passionate about, things that excite me. That got me energized, and in turn energized others whose support have been essential to the project’s success.

I also discovered that—like in an improv scene—being open to serendipity is more fruitful than having a rigid plan. At each step of the way, I was uncertain what was next for the project. The more open I have been to possibilities, the better things have worked out.

Finally, by meeting so many improvisors, I have discovered that the improv community is even more awesome than I had thought. I have been fortunate to meet a ton of people who are fantastic on and off the stage, and it motivates me to continue the project, so I can meet and photograph many more.

Along those lines, what’s next? Do you think this is a project that will ever be complete or will it keep on growing? Have your ideas on what to do with these photographs changed over time? What’s the next step for The Improvisor Project?

This year I got married and had a lot of other big events in my personal life. Time to work on The Improvisors Project was limited. Now that my schedule is opening up a bit, I am planning to dedicate more energy to the project in 2014. I hope to travel to several cities and festivals, and photograph many more awesome improvisors. I have a “bucket list” of people who I particularly admire, and hope to photograph starting next year. All the while, I hope to continue sharing the project with the improv community that it represents.

I recently set up Facebook and Twitter pages to announce photo shoots and show off new work. I share an “Improvisor of the Week” every Friday. I plan to roll out a dedicated website in early 2014 (and in the meantime, you can see portraits from the series on samwillardphoto.com). A year from now, I will probably be thinking about putting together a book and exhibition.

The project is ongoing. As long as there are improvisors expressing themselves so creatively, I don’t see why I would stop.

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Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

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