Fall with Grace

In September of 2016, I took over as Artistic Director of M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, California. And in the months I’ve been there I learned an important lesson, probably one of the most important ones an artist should learn… It’s just as important to fall with grace as it is to get the part. It’s all about being a professional.

In my time as AD so far I’ve had to make some very tough decisions on the infrastructure of house teams and personnel at the theater and I had to do the hardest job any AD ever has to do. To cut teams and to restructure things. Now to give you some insight on what an AD goes through to make a hard decision like this. Here are some things AD’s do and think about to make this hard decision:

  1. Watch as many shows as possible and take notes, not just on the team but the individuals on it. Study them.
  2. Before cutting them give them the opportunity to grow by giving them or their coaches notes to help guide the team.
  3. Is the team progressing artistically as an ensemble?
  4. Are the individuals progressing with this ensemble or are they being hindered by the ensemble?
  5. Is the show bringing a consistent house? – Yes we have to think about this as we also have to keep the business afloat.
    1. More times then not, if it’s not bringing a house it’s a team that’s not doing a great job.
  6. Is there commitment to the team?
    1. Players showing up is consistent in rehearsal and the show
    2. Coach showing up
    3. Consistency in rehearsal
  7. Do they care? Is there passion?

Now I’m sure I am missing some, and I’d love for AD’s to chime in if they read this, but going back to my point…It’s just as important to fall with grace as it is to get the part. This is huge to me. Getting a slot as a player on a MainStage team is huge. Congrats, you’ve gone through some good filter to get there. Now that you’re on the team it’s a commitment and you have to really show up for that commitment. We watch for this and it’s the professional thing to do. You auditioned, took a spot someone else might have got and you have to represent not only yourself but the theater. Now, when you get cut from a team or your team gets cut, fall with grace. I’ve cut teams in the past, or made students repeat classes and have received a ton of e-mails thanking me for the opportunity to perform or take a class. But some e-mails I’ve received are down right nasty and/or just unprofessional. It really irks me to see this happen. I take this into account going forward with anyone. I am a forgiving person, but watching someone handle themselves in a professional way, goes a long way. That’s someone I see making it, or becoming a stronger performer. Performers that take things for granted is not my cup of tea.

When you get cut or leave a team, get held back in class an AD has taken great care in their decision. The question you should be asking yourself when you get cut is, “How can I get better as an artist?” This should be the e-mail you send to the AD. More then likely they will be armed and ready to help you succeed.

 

Improv Is My Therapy (Part 2)

**This piece is an editorial, and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Improv Network or any of its members or staff.  It is also not an endorsement of any political candidate for office.**

Several months ago, I wrote an article entitled “Improv Is My Therapy” which detailed how some of the philosophies that we are taught in improvisation are similar to those that one might experience during the course of therapy.  A few days ago, Donald Trump, was nominated to be the 45th President of the United States.  Many people in the community have felt very upset by this, and I too have felt a roller coaster of feelings since the announcement.  Regardless of where you stand on the election, we can agree that this election has been extremely divisive.  But, in the end, we’re all on the same team.  So once again, I call upon the great wisdom of the improv philosophers who have come before us to guide us in this difficult time.

Rule #1: Don’t Deny

Our two-party system is essentially a two-person show in which instead of building something together, we just wait until we have a chance to initiate and dominate the scene.  There are also some people sitting on the back line, wanting to contribute, but they are largely ignored (we should probably also listen to what they have to say).  One of the first things we learn in improv is to never say no.  It’s safer to say no, it’s easier, it means that we get to be in complete control of a situation that nobody has the answers to.  (Improv and real life are oddly similar, no one really knows what is going to happen next – and some people claim that they definitely know what should happen next).

And this isn’t to teeter into moral relativism.  There are times when one side is wrong, when something is clearly going in one direction and someone throws in an upsetting curveball.  But in many cases, we have something to learn from the other side.  If you want to play the game of a scene, but your partner wants to play with patient narrative work, you both bring something valuable to the stage and you can build something amazing if you work together to integrate both of your respective strengths.  But before you build, you must accept what is given to you.  The reflex to outright deny someone else’s perspective because they aren’t like you is dangerous and unproductive.

Rule #2: Yes, And

Accepting isn’t the only step.  Once we’ve come to a place where we have acknowledged each other, we should then build.  Both parties come in with an idea of what will be, but somewhere in between those two perspectives is the actuality of what should be.  America is a wonderful mix of diverse viewpoints and perspectives; consequently, there will be many views on what is right for our nation to do.  There is no answer or decision that will be universally loved by everyone.  People are going to walk away from the stage feeling like the initiation that they had wasn’t listened to, that their scene was edited too quickly, or that people didn’t get the game that they were trying to set up.  And it sucks, but we are building something together.

Rule #3: Treating Your Partner Like a Genius

<Insert Party Affiliation Here> are a bunch of <insert pejorative term here>! Every, last one of them!  They’re irrational, selfish, and worst of all, they don’t care about American values.  Anything that they say is completely farfetched and not worth the air molecules that were vibrated to transmit the sound wave carrying their message.  Look, there are definitely people from either party that are dumb as hell.  But there are also sane, educated people who are going to make decisions that you disagree with.  Why did my teammate initiate a Harold opening in which everyone had to do a handstand?  Why is that a good idea?  Ugh, those Groundlings-trained people are ridiculous!  (Ridiculously funny, such great shows!)  If we don’t’ take the time to understand the other side, we’ll just build more animosity.  And yes, there’s a chance that it won’t always be reciprocated, but when it is it’ll be worth it!

Rule #4: Don’t Be An Asshole

All of what I’ve said assumes that the other person is acting in a relatively civil manner.  In the same way that we should have respect for each other on stage (not grabbing, kissing, choking, etc… without consent), we should also be respectful to each other in this discourse.  I have many friends who are legitimately scared for their lives because of what they feel a Trump Presidency may enable people to do (and the events in the past few days have corroborated those fears).  Using your views or the success of your chosen candidate to terrorize others is just as bad as the person who always initiates honeymoon scenes to try and kiss their fellow teammates.  It may feel like we are in different countries, but we all pledge allegiance to the same flag (there are some people who pledge allegiance to a slightly outdated American flag – I don’t know what to say in response to them).

Last Thoughts

Part of what fueled the fervor of this election was a group of Americans who felt that they were not listened to, and supported the first person to tell them “I hear you.  Your concerns are valid.  And let’s take those concerns and let’s make your country be as great as you want it to be.”  And yes, we might not agree 100% with all their concerns, but if we don’t ever listen, if we never assume that they might have valid concerns, and if we don’t try to build something together with them, then we can never grow as a team.  In that regard, Donald Trump is a helluva good improviser and I sincerely hope that he will be a good President (even though I personally, have many concerns about his recent and past actions).  As artists, it is important to use our voices to build bridges and support the voices of those who feel unheard, but also to stand up for what is right in the world.  Striking that balance between the two in the upcoming years might be difficult, but I believe in our ability to do it.  You all look like geniuses to me.

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.

For example:

team

Mike, Jaclynn and Robert 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 Improv Network Interviews the Improv Nerd Jimmy Carrane!

Jimmy Carrane is without a doubt a force of nature when it comes to the improv world. With his hugely successful podcast Improv Nerd to traveling all over the country teaching at festivals and theaters. If you don’t know him by now you’ve probably been living under a rock. But hey! We turned the tables on Mr. Carrane and are interviewing him for The Improv Network. Here is an interview I did with Jimmy:

What excites you about improv today?

As I travel around the country and teach in both big and small markets, what keeps blowing me away is how good so many people are and how good the training is getting all over the country. It’s so cool to leave Chicago, the mecca of improv, and share what I have learned in over 30 years of doing this to all of these thriving improv communities. So, I would say without a doubt it is teaching, actually even more than doing shows. I love how my teaching has evolved, too. Today, I am actually improvising my lesson plan with the class, and just like in a good improv scene, we are discovering it together. This is going to sound really like therapy speak, but I don’t care: I love when I see my students start speaking up in class and not only start to find their voice on stage, but off stage as well.

When you first started doing improv, what would you say is the difference from improv then and improv now?

So much I don’t know where to start. For one, the size of improv has changed. When I started, improv was pretty much a Chicago thing, and today it’s global. This past summer I taught my Art of Slow Comedy intensives for two separate weekends in Chicago, and I would say the majority of the people were from other countries. And here is the best part: the students all worked well together. The other thing that has changed is improv is now being used to teach people in corporate America. That never existed before. There are so many uses for improv training besides getting on a Harold team. Since I started I have seen women take on a much bigger role. When I started, there was usually only one woman to seven guys on a Harold team. There is also more diversity today, although we could always use more, and there are a lot more people taking up improv later in life.

A lot of improvisers have a scene that they remember well. That was pure magic. What was that scene for you and what made it magic?

Two come to mind. One was the first time I was in Del Close’s class. It was a Monday night, and I was scared. I got paired up with a young Dave Koechner, and we did a scene where we were looking at the moon. It was slow and deliberate, and every line seemed to get a huge laugh. When we were done, Del praised us, which was not an easy thing to get, and I remember thinking I was on my way. There were also so many great scenes I remember from Jazz Freddy, but one in particular that I loved was one I did with Rachel Dratch. It may have been on the closing night of the first run of Jazz Freddy, I’m not sure. We played a couple, and I remember there was something in the scene about our house burning down. It was one of those rare moments that you live for in improv, because besides it being a super funny scene, it was also like an out-of-body experience, like I was channeling the dialogue. Everything that she said surprised me and everything I said surprised me. It’s something I keep chasing. I tell my students that if you can surprise yourself and your scene partner, that is nirvana in improv.

How many Improv Nerd episodes are you at? I’m sure it’s hard to pinpoint, but what was your most interesting interview and why?

We are now at like 205 episodes or something crazy like that. There are so many I really like, but one of my favorites is the Bob Odenkirk episode. It started with him on his computer because he was closing on a house in California, and by the end we were talking about his relationship with his father. At the end, he said that it was the most revealing interview he had ever done. I also really liked my interview with Dan Bakkedahl. Dan and I are friends, and sometimes it can be a little harder to interview your friends because you are not sure what is ok to bring up and what is not, and of course, you don’t want to piss anyone off. The episode was perfect though because he was so honest and I love improvising with him. I also love the TJ Jagodowski interview from the first year. It was everything I imagined the podcast could be. TJ was an open book, and I love playing with him as well. I sound pretty impressive, don’t I?

As an improvisor who listens to Improv Nerd, it sounds like a lot of prep goes into it. Can you tell us about your process before the interview starts?

Thanks for noticing. That is my background in public radio. Depending on the guest, I will typically do a pre-interview either by phone or e-mail. Before that, I will do research. And here is my favorite part: I will sit down with my wife, Lauren, and we will write up eight to ten questions. I will go into the interview knowing the arc of their life and career, and if I’m really cooking in the interview, I will only look at the questions now and then, and when I’m not, I will rely on them like a crutch. It’s a lot of work to get a good interview.

What I love about your podcasts and blogs is that they dig deep and they are very honest and you have talked about your life, fatherhood, your father and many moments in your life. Can you tell us about your experience being a father so far and the lead up to being a father?

I love my daughter, but a lot of my experience of being a father so far really sucks. What was I thinking having a baby at 52 years old? Nobody tells you how hard it’s going to be — no one. Not in the four weeks of baby school you take at the hospital, not your friends who have kids, nobody. Do you know when they tell you? After you have the kid, and even then they continue to lie. They tell you, “Oh the first two months are the hardest. Once you get through those you will be fine.” And guess what? When you get to two months, which we just did two weeks ago, they say, “Did I say that? I meant the first six months.” They keep moving the first-down marker on you. Do I sound angry? Well, I am. People advertise babies as these bundles of joy. That has not been my experience. So far, all we’re doing is keeping this thing alive and you get nothing back from the baby: no smile, no laughter, they cannot even respond to their own name.

Your life changes dramatically, you don’t get any sleep, you’re cranky all the time and you’re depressed. Yeah, I am depressed. Some moms that I run into will be honest and say, “I hear you. It’s awful,” but most people are like, “Isn’t it great?! I bet you are so excited!” These are same people who when they’d ask me how I felt about having a baby, and I would say I was scared, they would say something stupid like, “You’ll make a great father.” I know I would make a great father, that’s not the point. Please just let me have my feelings and don’t try to fix me.

But there is another side of it, too. Lauren said to me the other day, “You really love Betsy, don’t you? You always want to hold her and spend time with her. All this curmudgeonly stuff is an act.” She is right. I am certainly amping up my frustrations for the comedy aspect, but I have to admit that having a baby has been such a wide range of really intense emotions that I have never felt at this level in my life. I also have a hard time with any kind of change in my life, even if it’s positive.

Before we had the Besty, my Dad died. He had been sick for some time, and he was 81. We had a very complicated relationship (that’s another thing people don’t want to admit — we all have complicated relationships with our parents). So, when my Dad died, I felt scared, angry, relieved and yes, sad. When Lauren was pregnant with Betsy, I was terrified (I still am), I was a little excited and I was angry. Lauren and I felt really ambivalent about having a kid and we talked about that. We both felt our crazy therapist forced us into it and we blame him a lot when things aren’t going well and when things are going great. The poor guy can’t win. But that’s for another time.

Who are some of your improv heroes and why?

When my friends and I were studying at the Improv Olympic, we always looked up to Dave Pasquesi. I’ve always admired his patience and the fact that he always plays at the top of his intelligence, and there’s a coolness to him, too. Another guy we all looked up to was Joe Liss. He is a great improviser who does these incredible characters and when you watch him you can tell he just loves to perform. He is one guy I hope to get to interview for Improv Nerd. He always having joy up there when is performing.

What is some advice you would give a newbie entering improv? What about a veteran still doing improv?

My biggest piece of advice for new improvisers is to not make decisions about your career by yourself. I blew so many golden opportunities over the years, from turning down paying jobs to not going to an SNL audition, that were stupid decisions because I didn’t ask for anyone else’s advice. Your head will tell you dumb things, and if you bounce decisions off trusted people and take their advice, you’ll probably make better choices. I have gotten some huge guests for Improv Nerd because Lauren said, “Ask this person,” or “Follow up with that person.” I would never have followed through with many of those guests on my own. They only happened because I wasn’t doing it alone and I was listening to somebody I trust.

Another thing I would tell veteran improvisers is that they should find opportunities outside of improv. Lately I’ve been feeling stuck in improv, like I have wasted my life in this art form, especially when I see people who I started out with get things that I would like to have. I think veteran improvisers can feel like improv is supposed to complete them, but you can’t live on a diet of improv alone. Write short stories or a script, do stand-up, do theater, audition for TV and film — something you can make money at. I really need to take my own advice.

What are your favorite improv forms?

I am not much for forms. When I teach, I focus on the scene work. I think today, people are always looking for the newest form, while their scene work sucks. Forms will never save your screen work, ever. I like to use a loose form and just go.

You’ve traveled far and wide teaching improv and doing your podcast. Is there any festival or location that stands out to you? And why?

So many of these festivals, even the ones in smaller markets, are becoming much more sophisticated and are bringing in multiple big name performers and instructors. This is always great for me, because I get do several live episode of Improv Nerd. That happened at Out of Bounds, the Omaha Improv Festival and when I went to the New York Improv Festival at the PIT. It’s a lot of work in a short period of time, but it’s always a lot of fun.

One of my favorite memories was doing the Detroit Improv Festival. My guest for Improv Nerd was supposed to Mary Beth Monroe, and I was really looking forward to doing it, and then she had to cancel at the last minute and guess who they got to replace her? Keegan Michael Key. Can you believe it? This was after the first season of Key and Peele and they had just meet Obama. Keegan stepped right in and did the show. The guy is a class act. Two years later at the Chicago Improv Festival, I interviewed Mary Beth, so the lesson is it always works out.

______

We are hugely thankful to Jimmy for the interview. We are also thankful for all he has done for the improv community whether it be his teaching or his podcast. Giving improvisors of now and the future the chance to learn and be inspired.


Nick Armstrong is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the The Improv Network and is currently the Artistic Director of Mi’s Westside Comedy theater and a former teacher and member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He also performs at iO West on the longest running and critically acclaimed Harold team King Ten. He has also taught many workshops around the world.

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.

Spotlight on Grand Rapids

It’s been a little while since we were able to do Festival Spotights during the International changeover. But I had the chance to talk to the folks from The Grand Rapids Improv Festival. It sounds like it’s going to be a great time.

GRIF is coming back for another year. What’s new this year?

We are going to have a lot of new local troupes, many who have formed in just the last year. We are fortunate to have so much talent right in Grand Rapids. We will also be bringing back some favorites like the Downtown Improv Crawl ( a combination bar crawl and improv show) but will be tweaking it to make it even better than last year!

Submissions are open for a few more weeks. What kind of shows are you hoping to attract to Grand Rapids?

We love all kinds of improv! Short Form, long form, one man shows – you name it, we want it. We would also love to see some great workshops to help people sharpen their skills and learn some some techniques.

What’s the local scene like. What kind of improv is coming out of Western Michigan now?

The improv scene in Grand Rapids has exploded in the last year. We have new troupes forming all the time, and established troupes getting better and trying new things. The improv scene is West Michigan is a mix of everything, from polished to experimental!

You’re going to have some commedia dell’arte this year. It’s one of the oldest forms of improv in the world. For those that don’t know about it, what can they expect?

This kind of comedy is the grandparent of modern sitcoms and uses half-masks, farce and satire to create relatable comedy. It’s a very fun, different way to watch improv.

What’s the venue like?

Most of the performances will be at Dog Story Theater in downtown GR. It’s an intimate setting to see all of the great improv we have lined up!

What can visiting performers expect to see in Grand Rapids when the festival isn’t going on?

Well we are Beer City USA so you can expect a lot of great breweries and bars! There are also plenty of museums, coffee shops, book shops and historical areas for after you visit a brewery or two.

What would you like visitors who come this year to say about the festival when all is said and done?

This will be the third year of the GRIF and we hope that people say it was the best year yet! If everyone leaves having laughed then our job will be complete


There’s still plenty of time to submit here.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival.

Spotlight on Improv Fest Oklahoma

The Improv Festival Oklahoma is celebrating its 8th year. I was able to interview them about what their festival is all about.

You’re celebrating your 8th Improv Festival Oklahoma this year. Tell us a little about the history of your festival.

Red Dirt Improv created Improv Festival Oklahoma in the summer of 2009. A handful of improv troupes were active in the Oklahoma City area, and we all decided to put on a coordinated weekend of shows with great improvisors visiting from out of town. We really wanted to raise awareness of improv in Oklahoma as well as meet other cool improvisers.

Over the course of eight years, Improv Festival Oklahoma has grown. Last year, OKC Improv began co-producing the festival with Red Dirt Improv. This partnership has infused a lot of passion and momentum into Improv Festival Oklahoma.

What do you look for in submissions?

Quality improv is number one. Everything about an improv act doesn’t translate perfectly into submission forms and videos, but that may be all we have to review! Ideally, troupe submission forms and videos will give us a good idea of what would be performed at IFO. Usually, a complete submission will give us what we need to decide.

We are also looking to showcase improv that is new to OKC audiences. Short form, long form, musical, duos, solos, ensemble groups, we like to see it all!

What will a team get if accepted?

Each accepted group will get 25 minutes of stage time and a week of early access to sign up for workshops. If seats are available, performers will be able to watch performances for free.

Improv Festival Oklahoma will host an after party each night of the festival. These after parties will be very close to the venue. These will be a great opportunity to eat, drink, and socialize. We love to show visiting improvisors a great time.

Tell us about what it’s like to visit Oklahoma City. What are some great highlights from the city?

Oklahoma City has a lot of great restaurants in Bricktown (very close to the venue), a nice zoo, casinos, and a variety of museums. We’d love to set up some early arrival / late departure group outings to some cool spots.

Will you be doing workshops at this festival and if so who can improvisors look forward to taking?

This year we have a number of great improv instructors including Rob Belushi and Jon Barinholtz.

Tell us about the venue that IFO has

IFO workshops and performances and will be held at the Paramount Theatre in Oklahoma City. This is a nice 50-seat theater near downtown OKC, so there is plenty to do before and after shows. OKC Improv has had great success hosting its recent shows in the venue and has been developing regular improv crowds.

For someone who has never heard or seen the OK improv scene. Tell us what you’re all about

The improv scene around Oklahoma City is full of fun, friendly, and passionate improvisors. On IFO weekend, that is amplified. It’s always fun seeing IFO’s regular return visitors and new faces. With IFO’s single venue and workshop space, we are certain participants will make lifelong improv friends over the course of the weekend.

Submissions are open until July 31st. Instantly submit HERE today!


Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West as well as a teacher an alum of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He has also taught many workshops around the country.

“Don’t Think Twice” Puts Improv in the Spotlight

dont_think_twice

Improvisation has definitely hit the zeitgeist in the last few years. An entire episode of “The Simpsons” was dedicated to it just this year. One one hand that’s great. It’s a lot of fun to see what we love being mentioned more frequently. But on the other hand, that’s all that’s being done, mentions. A stray mention of Del or The Groundlings might work its way into the text to show that the media behind the reference “gets it”. But those jokes are only for us. Awareness of this thing called improv is rising all the time, but the perceptions of what it is and can be haven’t changed for the general public in 20 years. Improv continues to grow and mature, and the references on our television screens – while fun – tend to reflect the same world of improv that existed in 1994.

Don’t Think Twice is a film which doesn’t treat improv as a joke, or even as a lampshade to hang a story on. The film plays with the ideas and realities of improv theatre, both on and offstage from a place that is not only informed, but inviting. It welcomes audiences into the artform with a love and respect that never gets in the way of new audiences discovering it. They even got Liz Allen to coach the fictional improv troupe in the film, which goes a long way towards bringing their performances an authenticity.

Because of all of these things, Don’t Think Twice stands among a very small number of peers. But this is not a movie review. This is an invitation to all of us to use this film’s release as a chance to start dialogues in our communities; dialogues between the members of your theatres, between the different organizations in your city and between performers and the general public. This film offers, for perhaps the first time in a while, a new starting point to engage in conversations on what the artform is, and where it is going.

The film has been touring lately with advance screenings. Many of you have likely seen it already. I was very fortunate to be able to speak with stars Chris Gethard and Mike Birbiglia (who also directed) about the film and it’s potential effect on improvisation.

You definitely have two audiences for this film, improvisors and the general public, and you’re also going around doing workshops. This has the potential to enhance, for smaller cities especially, the improv scene. How are you hoping it will help them develop or enhance their own voice?

Chris: Well, I really feel like smaller cities are really and truly important right now, as far as the history of improv, because improv in the last ten years has become more and more of a pipeline to success. You look at Saturday Night Live and it’s full of improvisors. You look at sitcoms. You look at Parks & Rec, The Office, I mean everywhere. Everywhere you look it’s people coming up from the improv world. And I think the theatre I came up at, The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, had a lot to do with that, really lead the charge on that. And it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really cool. I take a step back, I look at it and it’s like, “Oh right. This art form is a valid thing. Talented people can really shine in this thing.”

But I do think it’s really hard for innovation to happen under the microscope that that brings with it. The potential success is a thing that people now show up for at places like UCB, at iO, Second City, Groundlings. People are showing up because they want to be successful and they see it as a platform to springboard, not universally, but more and more. And I think smaller cities, it’s really important and I really love that such an effort being made in this movie to show encouragement and fan the flames and invite specifically improvisors to test screenings and previews, because I think that smaller cities that aren’t under this magnifying glass, that don’t have this expectation or this potential for megastardom. I think that’s where the art form itself can still grow. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the best improvisors and some of the best improv shows in the next five to ten years aren’t happening in New York, Chicago and L.A. Because I bet that the freedom to fail doesn’t exist there as much anymore. You know I’ve been to great theatres in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Bellingham, Washington; Phoenix, Arizona; St. Louis. Cities that aren’t necessarily the places where you go to chase the Broadway dream or the Hollywood dream, and I think those are the places where the artistic dream can really shine and build.

Mike: There’s this great quote in the book that’s in the movie called “Something Wonderful Right Away.” It’s an oral history written by Jeffrey Sweet. There’s a quote in that book – I think it was Paul Sills who said – “On any given night, an improv show can be the greatest play, the most inspired, most topical, best performed play in the world on that night.” That can be in this room in front of 30 people, and that’s a profound possibility. So, it’s exciting to relish that opportunity.


So the art form’s only been around for about sixty years. There’s still not a huge public awareness of it. The entry points for a lot of people are pretty limited. When you add one new entry point, that’s significant. Certainly this is one of the few entry points for the public that addresses longform. For a lot of people this is going to be their first exposure to it, having not gone to shows. How do you think that’s going to influence general awareness of the artform as a whole and longform specifically?

Mike: There’s two things right now. There’s a great documentary called “Thank You Del.” Todd Bieber directed it. It was at South by Southwest, and there’s our film and both of them deal with the history of longform improv and I think that we have a real shot at helping explain the art form to people a little bit and what’s special about it. I feel like when you say ‘improv’, most people just think “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, improv games, freeze tag, that kind of thing. But actually, in a lot of ways, I like to think of it as these are improvised plays, happening in the moment and there’s something really special about that. As Sam (Gillian Jacobs) says in the movie, “Improv is an artform unto itself.”

Chris: I remember when I started in 2000, I signed up for classes at UCB and I’d never seen longform, and I lived in Northern New Jersey. I was as close as you could get. And it’s really spread. Now I feel like most colleges have one, if not more, longform improv troupes and it still feels like a relatively underground thing. So I do think it will be an entry point where a lot of people can find it, and a lot of people, I think, will kind of know what it looks and feels like for the first time. I also think there’s probably a lot of kids who will show their parents this movie.

Mike: This is what we do.

Chis: Yeah, this is what we’re doing.

Mike: I’ve had a lot of people say that to me at screenings. “Finally, I can explain this to my parents.”

Chris: It’s a really impactful thing. I remember my parents had what can only be described as real concern when I was like, “I want to go and do improv in New York City,” while I was living in their basement in New Jersey. It didn’t necessarily seem like a path towards anything stable. I think this movie will prove that it’s not, but also prove that, like any other type of art, it has some validity that’s worth taking a risk on.


These are great and wonderful words from very smart people. We owe great respect and love to San Francisco and Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s and to New York and L.A. in the ’80s and ’90s. But we also owe love and respect to the cities and times we live in now. We learn from the past so we can continue to build this in the future. Thank you to Mike and Chris and to all the people who made this film.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival.

Special thanks to Arturo Ruiz who helped with the editing of this piece.

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