Healthy Festival Selection for your Troupe

Festival Selection in an Age of Abundance

Festival selection can seem daunting. Selecting which festivals to submit to used to be a ludicrous hypothetical. 20 years ago, depending on the part of the world you lived in, there were maybe three or four festivals that were feasible to visit. Everyone put their VHS tapes in the mail and hoped for the best. It was an exciting time to be invited to one of them.

Now there is an abundance of amazing festivals. That doesn’t reduce the prestige of a festival invite; quite the opposite in many cases. Festivals have grown together, shared ideas, and made an amazing circuit of festivals. It does however mean that the options can be a little staggering. Many troupes, especially younger ones, don’t have the time or money to go to more than one or two festivals a year. And those same troupes don’t always have the experience or the friend network to know what to expect from different festivals. So how does a team pick a festival?

What is the festival looking for?

The first question is if your show fits the festival. Think about your show and your audiences. Is that the same thing that’s being asked for by the festival? That’s not always an easy question to answer. Here are a few ways to make it clearer.

What kinds of shows is the festival hosting? Is it improv exclusive or a mix of stand-up, sketch, and improv? Is it looking for more comedy-eccentric shows or more theatrical shows? Are they looking for short-form and/or long-form? Is it a Johnstone festival or a ComedySportz event? Will it be a musical festival, a festival for seniors, or a youth festival? All of these things are usually pretty easy to figure out if you read the festival description and check out their website. Many festivals also have great FAQ page about what they’re looking for and what to expect if you visit. Don’t ignore these FAQs. They’re there to help you understand what you’re submitting to.

Also, read the descriptions and FAQs carefully. Sometimes, there are very specific things that might not fit your description. A festival a few years ago specifically said “We love Harold, but we chose not to feature any this year.” OK, great. If you’re a Harold team, bookmark that festival for next year.

There are some things that are not going to be in the FAQ or the description that are specific to your troupe. If your show is spectacularly technically advanced, reach out to the festival producers and see if that’s going to work with their logistics. If your show tends to favor lots of inside jokes about your home town, that might not translate in another continent.

What is the audience looking for?

There’s one question to ask yourself that gets asked far too infrequently. Is this audience appropriate for our show? Think about your own show. It probably is something similar to this: you play every Friday night for the same regular audience members who have found you and enjoy your style. The show is in a set with one or maybe two other groups in a 60 minute block. That’s fantastic. That’s not what your festival experience might be. You’ll be performing for potentially a much bigger audience that doesn’t know you, and you’re maybe the seventh show they saw that evening. If it’s a marathon show, you might be going on at 2:45AM in the morning. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No, not at all! It can be an amazing new experience, but it is different.

Let’s go back to that “maybe the seventh show” idea. A weekly show has a lot of freedom to slowly build intricate relationships. A festival show doesn’t always have that. You might only have 20 minutes, one-time, to do your show. Will the show still translate for the audience? Also, putting your improvised Herman Melville show after a show called “Monkey Fart Danger Hour” is going to be like eating a bunch of Cheez-Its right after eating a bunch of Flaming Hot Cheetos. I absolutely, non-ironically, would love to see both of those shows, but maybe not back to back. So how do you fit into all of this?

When all of that is exhausted, you still have a tremendous resource. Email. The producers of these festivals deal with troupes all of the time. They know you have questions, and 9 times out of 10, they’re super-cool and happy to talk to you. They want great shows for their fest, but they also want your show to be as awesome as it can be. Producers are cool that way.

Is this practical?

Nothing is the same kind of heartbreaking as getting invited to a cool festival and then having to decline the invitation. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our day planners. Some festivals in far away parts of the world are enticing, but healthy festival selection is about testing the feasibility of a trip. Your expenses for a trip aren’t just travel. It’s also lodging, food, and many other small considerations. For many of your troupe members, this is in addition to not getting paid for their day to day job if you have to travel or perform on weekdays. Many festivals try to put out of town visitors on weekends, but not all.

Hotel costs can get up there and putting a troupe of eight in one room sounds manageable, but it’s a pain. Do you know why? Everyone has different after-party schedules and no one gets any sleep. Then, your show is off and you’ve put a lot of time and money into representing yourself in a way that you didn’t want.

Will you do a good show?

Everything mentioned in this post so far has a fair amount of wiggle room. It’s possible to justify and blur lines a little bit when you really have your heart set on a festival. The result of that though is that every compromise ends up being a compromise to your show. Can you fit seven people in a hotel room? You sure can. I’ve done it. But you will have sleep deprived team members trying to perform. Can you do your show with three members staying at home? You can, but that’s not what you presented to the festival and it’s a disservice to you, the festival, and to the people at home. Can you modify your show to be a better fit for the festival? Probably, but then you’re not really doing the show you love. You’re just being Sandy at the end of “Greece,” and that’s nobody’s favorite part of the movie.

You can always justify reasons to submit to a festival. But the more you do, the more you should think about if a little more thought needs to go into your festival selection.

Online Festival Selection

Online Festivals have been born of necessity over the last year. But don’t assume they’ll disappear when physical doors open. Have a conversation with your troupe about your virtual shows and what your goals are. One of the joys of online shows is that a lot of the logistics from this post become much more manageable, but they do add a few new topics. For example, you may be doing a show in a time zone that’s very strange for you. Make sure your troupe is up for that.

A quick note on tech. You may use OBS or some other software beyond Zoom to make your show work. That often means a set-up connected to your Twitch account or your computer. You are set up to broadcast from and to a specific place. When you’re in a festival environment, you’re a guest in their software. With a little planning between you and the festival’s tech team, you can make sure your show works for both parties. (Huge shout out to all the tech people who have made our transition this year possible. We’d be nowhere without you)  That conversation needs to happen, and probably before you even decide to submit. Otherwise, it won’t be fun for anyone.

Is this going to be fun?

Really, it all comes down to this. If you’re new to the festival circuit, this blog may sound discouraging. But being thoughtful in your festival selection doesn’t mean to stop reaching out for cool opportunities, it just means being smarter about it. You’re going to have years of amazing trips and friendships ahead of you. You are going to have so much fun. I hope to personally meet you at some festival out there in the future. The longer you attend festivals, the more your network of friends will grow and make this process easier. Some thoughtful festival selection now means we’ll have a greater chance of playing together down the road.

Marketing Your Improv Show

If you are like many other comedians, you probably haven’t put much thought into the marketing of your improv show.  You made a Facebook invite, invited your friends, and made a post or two on Instagram… but is that enough?

Imagine this- you’re in line at your local coffee shop.  The line advances and you’re next.  You see a stack of brightly colored postcards that seem to be advertising an upcoming show.

The postcards are glossy on the front and matte on the back. There are a bunch of smiling faces attached to posed and costumed bodies.  Also, there are words on the postcard. You consider moving to see what the words say, but you decide against it.

Then, you pull out your phone and check your text messages.  You advance in the line.  Finally, you order your coffee.  The postcards sit there and gather dust.  Fade to black.

This story unfortunately doesn’t have a happy ending, because you could have been an audience member for your city’s hottest improv show. But, you missed out because their marketing is ineffective.

People often think, “If my show is good enough, I shouldn’t need to worry about marketing.”  This is patently false.  I’m not just saying that because I have an MBA with a marketing emphasis and I want to feel better about my mountains of student loan debt (even though that is a consideration).  If your show is good, then marketing should be your main concern.  Because why waste your time being good if no one knows it?

Here are some things to consider when putting together a show:

  1. What makes your show unique?

This is honestly the hardest question for teams to answer. However, putting work into understanding the answer to this question will make it easier to promote your show.

Is your team a bunch of dudes who do a Harold?  I’m sorry to say that there are one or two other teams that do the exact same thing.  But just one or two, so that’s okay.

Are you a team of former Navy Veterans who dress as members of the band KISS and do improvised Shakespeare?  Yeah, that’s pretty unique!  And I’d bet my improv diploma (from a very prestigious improv school) that that show would sell.

Understand what makes you unique, and you’re going to have a much easier time marketing your improv show.  The alternative is that you blend in with all the other noise. Remember, you’re also competing with Netflix, TikTok, and Disney+ for people’s time, money, and attention (this sentence will be incredibly dated in about two years).

  1. Who is going to watch this show?

No show appeals to everyone.  And, if you try to sell your show to everyone, you’re wasting your time and energy.  Big advertising firms have this figured out.  You’re not going to see a Mary Kay ad right after a wrestling match. Nor are you going to see a Life Alert add in the middle of a block of Cartoon Network shows.

Put some thought into who your audience might be.  If you’re doing improvised Star Wars, then are there ways to market just to Star Wars fans?  For a team composed of septuagenarians, perhaps advertising at the local college isn’t wise.

If you know your brand, then you can know your audience.  Think about what they’re probably doing before they come see your show, and you’ll have a better idea of how to find them.

  1. How would they prefer to find out about this show?

As mentioned before, you want to be careful about wasting your marketing energy on things that won’t be productive for your show.  For example, if I know that I’m putting together an improv show for kids, then I probably won’t post about it on Facebook. UNLESS I’m trying to sell it to the parents of those kids.

Also, think about how you would rather find out about a show.  What would a show have to do to make you interested in watching it?  Are email blasts helpful or a waste of time?  There are tools like MailChimp that allow you to actually see how many people open and engage with your emails. Try out the free versions and see what kind of responses you get.

Additionally, don’t go crazy with social media accounts.  Instead of having a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Parler (this joke will be dated at the time of publishing this article), TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest for your team…. maybe just pick one and get REALLY good at it.

Marketing and building a brand and a relationship with your audience takes time. So, wasting energy on things that aren’t productive just means that you’ll burn out quickly.

  1. What is the relevant information that people need to know about your show?

Again, people have limited time and attention.  Be quick, direct, and informative.  Watch commercials, look at social media advertising, and pay attention to the emails that you receive.  What catches your attention, what bores you, and what annoys you?  Learn from others!

Is the messaging you use around your show confusing?  Can people figure out what you are “selling” at a quick glance?  If your show is called “BLAST PARTY: AN EXTRAVAGANZA OF EXTRAVAGANCE,” then I might just ignore it because I’m confused (or I might check it out because of curiosity – who knows?).

If you’re advertising to improvisers, then you don’t need to explain a lot of things. You can use our shorthand: longform, Harold, Deconstruction, etc.  If you’re advertising to the uninitiated, you might have to spell things out. “Blast Party is an improvised show about five, goofy friends who have to save America from a new terrorist plot every week.  Each Saturday, they will take a few suggestions from the audience and create a new show on the spot.”

Include the information that will help people decide whether or not they want to see the show. Also, include how to see the show when they decide they want to see it.

  1. What is the best way to package all of the above information?

Finally, you have to decide how to package everything.  A postcard might have attention grabbing visuals on the front, with key information detailed on the back.  While an email invite might be filled with GIFs or links to performances, and information about the next show.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will work for all teams. But if you take the time to think about your show’s uniqueness, your ideal audience, their preferences, and how best to communicate to them, you’ll have a dedicated and adoring audience in no time.

Lindsey Barrow: Intersectional Feminism and Improv

Lindsey Barrow Smiling

Just Lindsey being Lindsey.

I recently sat down with Lindsey Barrow (just kidding, I emailed her– it’s still a pandemic). She is the Artistic Director of The Ruby LA, an intersectional, feminist comedy theater in Los Angeles.   Full disclosure, Lindsey and I are friends (although she prefers that I not say that in public or private).  I think she is one of the unsung heroes of the improv community.

Lindsey Barrow has performed at various theatres including The Ruby, Nerdist, UCB, iO, and Second City doing stand-up, sketch comedy, and improv. She’s performed sketch and improv for over ten years and you can see her on shows like Speechless and Casual, and way too many commercials.

So The Ruby is an intersectional, feminist comedy theater. Can you tell us what that means and how you’ve implemented that philosophy?

The members of the improv team "Karen"

Lindsey with her improv team, Karen.

Lindsey Barrow: Sure! Intersectional Feminism in comedy means we understand that a person’s comedy style will not only be influenced by their perspective of being a woman, or a black man, or a non-binary person. But, there are many areas of inequality that will determine a performer’s point of view, what they think is funny, or how they can function in society. We take all of that into consideration when we plan out our curriculum. We want you to be able to grow into the funniest person you think you can be, not the funniest person Randy thinks you should be.  I mean, Randy’s funny and all… but like, he might not get a joke about tampons or pronoun mistakes.

In all seriousness, Equality, Inclusivity, and Diversity (or EDI) have always been a number one priority for us. We make sure our board and instructors match the community we want to serve. This is called a top-down approach. Therefore, EDI has always been first on our minds. It is not a patch that was thrown in after we created a comedy school.

What issues have you seen in the comedy community? What is The Ruby doing to help fix them?

Lindsey Barrow: I’m excited performers are feeling empowered to speak up and correct theaters that they call home when it comes to EDI. A lot of these comedy institutions rely on a “one way to be funny” mentality. This has trickled down to “white dude in his late 40’s thing is funny.” And that sucks. There are so many ways to be funny – see previous statement about Randy. Plus, just an entire system that works against anyone who is a marginalized voice, doesn’t have the ability to easily take a class and network, or isn’t related to a Coppola.
Sketch Team, Rosa, performs

Sketch Team “Rosa” performing at the Ruby

Please tell me more.

I worry that the necessary changes that need to be made will be forgotten because of the pandemic. Also, I’m worried about the onus for change being placed on BIPOC shoulders. Running a theater is hard work. It pays no money and maybe gets you a “thanks for your work” email like once every few months. Expecting BIPOC folks to open and run an expensive theater for themselves because white spaces aren’t doing better isn’t a great answer. Unless folks want to open up said theater, then they obviously should. I must warn you, it pays no money and the thank you emails are sparse, but they are nice.

Additionally, there are a lot of great spaces that are ALREADY run by these folks. So support them and help them grow instead of just telling black people to open their own space. Which was just a weird thing that happened last summer. Giving a shout out on Twitter is rad, buying a class is radder, volunteering and connecting folks (outside of people who look like you) is even radder-est.
When all the theaters were being held accountable for racist, sexist, homophobic problems, we were being recognized for not having those issues. This is because we have made these problems a priority since the beginning. AND because we know that we will make mistakes and the best way to fix those mistakes is to listen. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. But we will always listen to our performers, our audience, and our interns. And we will make their safety and growth a top priority.

Am I doing a good job?  Feel free to tell me if I’m blowing this interview right now.

Lindsey Barrow: Who are you again? Have we met?

Jeff stares at Lindsey

Lindsey, it’s me? Jeff?! We’ve been in several photos together.

I’m not sure if you heard about this, but a lot of theaters have been closed for months.  How has your theater been weathering these crazy times?

Lindsey Barrow: We’ve been lucky to have a grant here and there to help us out, but it’s been very hard. As far as performance – we’ve transitioned into some interesting, new, digital sketch teams. Because people can take classes online, our teams are now made up of folks who are all over the US. This is very cool. They are creating content together and figuring out how to fake being in the same location. We’re also testing out a new live show format that combines pre-recorded content with live content. The show is called “Overly Complicated.” It will be streaming live on our Youtube channel Thursdays at 8 pst. This was a plug. You are welcome.

What advice do you have to all of the actors and creatives who might be reading this?

Lindsey Barrow: Shit is very hard right now. If you are able to put any energy into writing, acting, and/or creating anything – you should be proud of yourself. And if you can’t, then you should go easy on yourself. Additionally, support institutions that are looking out for you! It’s hard for these places to enact change in the industry if everyone lets the status quo at these bigger theaters continue on. And just because you think there is one way to get your own hit TV show?!?! There are so many ways to get a hit TV show! Just ask Randy!

 

Anything else you want to share?

Lindsey Barrow: I give Randy a hard time, but he’s actually very funny and great. I’m still not sure who Jeff is.

Improv FAQ Brings Their Knowledge

New Educational Content from The Improv Network

Improv FAQ

Improv FAQ

Here at The Improv Network, we commit ourselves to connecting improvisers. We strive to help performers create outstanding improv and run positive, safe, and diverse theaters and festivals. Part of this includes producing free educational content. With this in mind, we are happy to announce a new branch to our educational offerings! The Improv Network is bringing Improv FAQ into our family. We are so excited to be working with this great team.

What Is Improv FAQ?

Improv FAQ is an educational resource dedicated to helping create stronger connections throughout the improv community. It includes instructional mini-lectures, a Q&A series, and the “At Length” conversation series. These will unpack common questions and topics in improv and frequently feature wonderful guests. Moreover, these are great resources for improvisers looking to soak up as much improv shoptalk as possible. James Quesada and Bob Wieck created and host Improv FAQ.

James Quesada

James Quesada

What will you see?

Our staff has grown! We are thrilled to have James and Bob join us at The Improv Network. They will be our new Education Team. On behalf of The Improv Network, they will be creating podcasts and videos, continuing their different series, and creating some new offerings. Now, you can find previously created Improv FAQ content online. Soon, Improv FAQ will be releasing new content on a weekly basis. This will all be on our website and free for you to access.

Bob Wieck

Bob Wieck

How can you keep up-to-date on released content?

Make sure to create an account on The Improv Network to have access to the entire educational library! Also, join The Improv Network Group Page on Facebook so you can ask questions to the community. We’ll notify you there when new content is released. Additionally, that will be the place to have discussions with our Education Team. There are so many ways to stay connected and active!

To submit your questions and topics to be explored in our educational content, please email james@theimprovnetwork.org.

Check out their bios here

We are always looking for new ways to support and provide resources. We cannot thank James and Bob enough for helping us with this mission. Please join us in giving them a very warm welcome!

Steps Towards Inclusion or “How to Run A Comedy School or Theater and Not Be an Asshole”

Wow, 2020 has not been kind to theaters.  First, many have had to close because of a pandemic (but good job on putting human lives before profit).  And now, another ugly underside of the comedy and theater community is being revealed.

Yeah, there’s something worse than me out there right now. It’s racism.

Being inclusive is not a destination. It is something that a community must continue to work on.

Now, this article is about the current situation regarding race and a response to the history of racism in America, so some of the language will be race specific.  Laurel James has already done a great job tackling gender-equality and trans-inclusivity in this article: “How to Make Your Improv Theater More Trans Friendly”, so please also check out that article as well.  Also, they spoke recently with Aaron Mosby (Washingon Improv Theater) about inclusion.

So here are some things to consider:

(1) Can you and the other members of the team acknowledge that you contribute to systemic racism?

I’m a cishet, Black man and I know that my actions (even despite the best of intentions), contribute to the systemic oppression of other people.  Now, I’m definitely not a racist, but in order to create a safe space, I have to be anti-racist.

Don’t let this guy charm you, he’s got male privilege.

If your team cannot acknowledge their potential biases towards others based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability, or religion… then you’re going to have a very hard time making your theater a more inclusive space.  Just because you’re not screaming the n-word at every Black student who decides to sign up for a class, doesn’t mean that you’ve created a safe space for students.  You are both defined by what you do and what you don’t do.

And when a person from a disadvantaged group brings up a problem that they have, are you really listening to their complaint?  Or are you sweeping it under the rug?  More on that in a bit.

(2) Do you have performers from a variety of backgrounds, and do you avoid tokenism?

I have heard of improv troupe auditions where directors and coaches have pre-determined slots of minorities.  The conversation might sound a little bit like this, “Okay, this guy is really good at characters so let’s put them on the team.  And this guy is a bit of a wild card, so we can also put him on the team because he brings the energy.  And now we need to choose someone to bring a little color to the team.”  Hmm, can you tell what’s wrong with this situation?

Tokens. Great for Chuck E. Cheese, not great for your improv team.

This is the difference between not being racist and being anti-racist.  Weirdly enough, the most interesting thing about a minority is NOT the color of their skin.  If the only thing that you value about a person is their race, this is a problem.  Anti-racism involves actively fighting against tokenism and making sure that you are holding everyone to equal benchmarks.

(3) Does your staff (teaching, artistic, and managerial) represent your ideal student body?

There is a subconscious message that is sent to students and performers when your managerial staff is not diverse.  Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of a young Black man starting in the mail room of a company.  He sees other Black men in the mail room.  He even sometimes sees other Black men working the night janitorial shifts.  However, he doesn’t see any Black men (or women) who are C-level executives, or Vice Presidents, or… middle-management… and maybe just one who’s making $55k a year in a cubicle on the second floor.

No witty comment needed.

If I walk into your theater and I don’t see anyone that looks like me, I will immediately feel like I don’t belong.  This is a natural thing that our brains do, where we identify with people who we feel are similar to us.  If I can’t imagine myself on your stage or teaching a class, then I might be slightly less inclined to sign up for a class.

(4) How willing are you to accept feedback and admit that you are wrong or have been wrong in the past?

It’s hard to admit that you’re wrong.  Take it from me, I’m right almost all of the time, and so when I’m wrong, it really hurts!  Especially if something that I did hurt someone else.  But in those moments, it is important to listen to how you’ve hurt people and make the changes needed to be better in the future.  Digging your heels in and saying “Well, I can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic because _________” is a bad look.  Don’t do it.

Alcoholics Anonymous has got it right.  The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

(5) Do you tolerate intolerance?  If so, stop it!

This is easy (but it’s so hard for some people).  If I’m a male student, I shouldn’t make jokes that put down women.  If the teacher doesn’t say anything, then it tells the female students that sexism is okay!  If White students are making Black jokes, and the teacher doesn’t say anything, then the teacher is saying that racism is okay.

Comedy is not dead.  You can be funny without insulting people based on their genetics or heritage.  Imagine this:

A gorilla in a bespoke suit making copies.  The Xerox machine beeps an error message and the gorilla slams his hand on the Xerox machine, crushing it.  A giraffe in a tweed suit calls the gorilla into his office.  They sit awkwardly for a moment.  The giraffe says “This is the second Xerox machine this week, Mr. Macgregor, do you have anything to say for yourself?”  The gorilla stutters out an apology under his breath.  The giraffe says, “I know you’re hurting after the divorce.  But we’re all here.  Okay?  Everyone in this office cares about you.”  The giraffe gets up and hugs the gorilla, his neck wrapping around the gorilla’s body.  The gorilla returns the embrace, but the back of his suit tears.  They share a glance and start trashing the office together.  COMEDY

I’m… actually impressed that I was able to find a picture of a giraffe and gorilla on Google. And like… there were a few to choose from.

If you can’t be funny without being offensive, then just get better at comedy.

(6) Do you encourage your community to embrace diversity?

If only there were an artform based on multiple people meeting in the middle and building something together.  Like, where instead of saying no and pushing their own ideas, they were encouraged to say “Yes…” and then maybe something else.  I dunno.

Honestly, if you’ve been doing improv for years and you haven’t learned to be a more tolerant person and to embrace people’s differences and uniqueness, you’re not good at improv.  Come at me. 

I know what you’re thinking: “Jeff, but by not accepting people who are intolerant, aren’t you also being intolerant?”  Haha, okay… someone got a BA in philosophy.  The only thing that should never be embraced is hate.  So if your version of “diversity” is putting down other people instead of raising them up, then you’re not a good person.

Create a community where people are supported and raised up.  And don’t be afraid to get rid of toxic people.  Honestly, you’ll be so much happier.

(7) How educated are you on issues of race, sex and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability?

Read a book.  Read an article.  Never stop reading.  I’m a professor of psychology, so I teach people about all of the -isms and -phobias for a living.  I still read articles, watch informative videos, engage in discussions, and understand that I still can be very wrong about things.  And also, the things that are okay now, might not be okay years from now!  Society changes!  Keep on learning!

(8) How aware are you of microaggressions?  And how can you be a better ally?

Have you ever had a stranger ask you to smile?  Have you ever had a stranger try and touch your hair or ask you how you “get it like that”?  Has a stranger ever asked you about what your genitals look like?  Have you ever been on a date and had someone tell you that you should be ashamed of yourselves for being in public?  Has someone ever told you that you’re one of the good ones (in reference to other people of you race)?  Or has someone told you that you’re not really a member of your race because you don’t act like a specific stereotype?  Has someone assumed that you could or could not do something because of a stereotype?  Have you ever been told that you speak English well?

It’s not fun.

The great philosopher Wikipedia defines a microaggresion as a “term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.”  People from marginalized groups deal with these little indignities and microinsults all of the time. If you don’t know many people from those groups, you might not be aware that they deal with them constantly.  Listen, learn, educate yourself.  If you know what these are you can: (1) stop yourself from saying them and (2) catch others and call them out on saying them.

(9) How will you measure success?

Honestly, how will you?  What does a diverse team look like to you?  What does a diverse student body look like to you?  Have a specific goal and work towards it, and then once you’ve gotten there, make another goal.  This is not a destination; this is a journey of many parts.

(10) What can you do to address income inequality?

Individuals from marginalized groups often come from households with limited financial resources.  Payment plans, sliding-scale enrollment (where you offer individuals cheaper tuition), and full scholarships are all options for helping marginalized groups be a part of your theater.  Actors spend hundreds (often thousands) of dollars every year developing their craft, and unfortunately, not everyone has that luxury.  So we should all be thinking about how we can make art more accessible to everyone.

Also, maybe don’t have your free improv jams at 2am on a Tuesday night.  Some people have work in the morning.

(11) Are you leaving the fox in charge of the hen house?  And are you the fox?

Often the leadership of theaters and comedy schools is one individual who built the theater from the ground up (with a little bit of unpaid labor here and there) or a bunch of friends who got together and built something together.  As a result, the power of the institution is in the hands of a few people who are very unlikely to want to give it up or are unlikely to want to have the difficult conversation with their good friend of 8 years who keeps on asking out his students in the middle of class.

“Well, when the artistic director does it, that means that it is not illegal.” — Richard Foxin, Artistic Director of the Hen House Comedy Club

We can’t do it anymore.  Turning a blind eye to abuses of power is not okay.  Honestly, it never was, but it was just so much simpler to pretend like it wasn’t happening.

I’m not saying that it’s easy.  I’m not saying that any of this is easy.  But you know who has it harder?  The students and performers who had to deal with years of bullying and microaggressions, who worked hard to rise up the ranks of a school only to be told that they’re “difficult to work with,” which is often code for “not willing to tolerate abuse.”  It’s harder for the students who might skip a meal because comedy is their dream only to realize that the lessons that they learned in Improv 101 about supporting each other and having each other’s back is just an empty mantra that we slap on t-shirts.

Let’s be better.

Aaron Mosby on Building Anti-Racist Theaters

LAUREL: Welcome, Aaron! I’ve known you for a few years through the San Diego Improv Festival and I really admire you as a performer. Tell us a little bit about yourself!

AARON: My name is Aaron Mosby. I’m the Director of Consulting & Delivery at an IT services company called Avtex. The oldest of five, and I grew up in Atlanta, GA and Minneapolis, MN. I live with my girlfriend in New York, NY. 

I spent 10 years volunteering, teaching, and performing at Washington Improv Theater (WIT) in Washington, DC. During that time, I served as a member of the board for 5 years, 2 of which were spent as the board chair. 

LAUREL: Tell us about how you got started at Washington Improv Theater. 

AARON: I saw my first show at WIT in 2006 and got seriously involved in the theater in summer 2009. I had just been laid off from a job which gave me the opportunity to take 2 week-long intensives. Shortly after, I started volunteering at the box office and working as a TA. After finishing the classes program in 2010, I began a program of becoming a teacher. In 2012, I began teaching and joined Nox, which would go on to become a house ensemble at WIT. In 2014, I joined the board of directors. After two terms, I stepped down, in part, because I moved to New York. 

LAUREL: How does WIT’s structure foster diversity? 

AARON: The core structural element that facilitates diversity at WIT is its non-profit status. WIT is a mission-driven organization that exists: “To unleash the creative power of improv in DC. To engage audiences with performances that exhilarate and inspire. To ignite the spirit of play in Washington with a revolutionary training program. To create a home for improv, connected to the life of the city.”

To meet this mission, WIT has to rely on diverse voices that make up Washington, DC. This drives WIT to have a city-wide strategy to get improv into as many hands as possible. This is woven into the classes program, which hosts classes in diverse locations around the city. It’s woven into the artistic programming that is proactively interested in making sure that audience members see themselves represented on stage. It’s woven into the board of directors that is as diverse as the city itself. 

LAUREL: How has WIT’s structure and mission statement helped them navigate issues in the past? 

AARON: WIT is accountable to the community it has helped to create throughout the city. In 2017, the improv community in the DC metro area called for accountability on diversity in the improv community. WIT released a detailed report of the people who worked for the organization, including the board of directors, full-time staff and teachers, and the people who made up performance ensembles, including players and directors. In addition, they created a public tracker of these data points that can be assessed and reviewed by the community at any time. WIT also opened up the theater space for a town hall discussion that gave everyone in the community a chance to share ideas on ways WIT could create more inclusive opportunities. 

LAUREL: Do you think large, for-profit theaters can uplift diverse voices as well as smaller nonprofits can? 

AARON: I believe there is a way for for-profit theaters to uplift diversity, but it has to be baked into every aspect of how the theater is run. Building a diverse space is an on-going effort that must be continually attended to to drive desired outcomes. This will also likely include additional investment in unique marketing campaigns that communicate to diverse audiences who may not otherwise be engaged in traditional marketing channels. 

LAUREL: What advice would you give to someone opening up a new theater?

AARON: Be intentional about the people you partner with to bring your theater into being. Partner with people who are truly passionate about what improv can do to improve a person’s life and the community. 

Have a mission worthy of the art from. Improv is built on spontaneous and fervent agreement. Improv encourages us to trust more and fear less. These foundations uproot engrained human behaviors and open up a space for connecting to other people that is rarely experienced. Improv should be spread as far and as wide as we can spread it. 

Finally, remember that great improv is about relationships, not transactions. For improv to thrive, you have to build a community.

COVID-19: How to Yes, And in 2020

COVID-19 has had a huge blow across the world. For performers, theatres, and festivals, social distancing can be both emotionally exhausting and financially worrying. It’s been amazing seeing the improv community sharing ideas and love with each other. The following isn’t intended as a definitive resource, but a gathering of some of the best ideas being shared out there. I’ll do my best to credit ideas wherever possible.

Hopefully, these things will help us all get through this safe and sound.

Communications about COVID closures

As theatres, there are a lot of people you need to communicate with to make sure that your message is clear. Some ways of communicating might slip through the cracks with all the other changes. Here are some quick things to remember.

  • Update your webpage to remove any cancelled shows or classes. Put a message on your front page.
  • Update your voicemail (thanks to Jessica Brown for reminding me about this one).
  • Update any automated email lists. Also, send an email to your mailing list.
  • Contact the local press about your closure. Take down any listings.
  • Take your tickets down from any place they’re available online.
  • Contact any business partners.
  • Contact any sponsors. Some sponsorships are based on advertising in your slideshows/programs. Be transparent with them. Most will understand and it will help maintain your relationships down the road.

Pirates of Tokyo Bay added a dedicated page for updates so patrons can gather all this info in one place.

Festivals have some additional concerns:

  • Contact hotels
  • Contact your venue if it’s not your regular venue
  • Obviously contact performers, but also be available to help them to get in touch with their airlines
  • Contact your designers / merchandise providers

Financial Resources During COVID Closures

Covid finances

Image by mohamed mahmoud hassan

For many theatres, after covering rent and utilities each month, they will just break even. Even with a nest egg, savings will deplete quickly.

Local art guilds exist in most places. They’re overwhelmed right now.

Local, state/province, and national governments all have their own programs. It couldn’t hurt to look at their specific relief offerings.

The Improv Stimulus Package is a fundraiser for improv spaces.

Improv Theatre Relief Fund is another fundraiser for improv spaces.

Performing, Watching, and Connecting During COVID Closures

covid performances

Image by mohamed mahmoud hassan

E-MPROV is still going strong.

Oozebear is a place to do online shows with very little technical knowledge needed.

For those with a little more know-how, there are many conferencing tools out there. Zoom seems to be the most commonly used by theatres right now to both improvise with their teams and teach, but experiment with others and see what works best for you and your needs.

P-Graph has always been one of the leading voices out there in playing with technology. They’ve already started streaming. Look to them for ideas (and buy their great book while you’re at it).

The Nursery/Maydays Online Drop-in Class is a great model on moving your classes online.

Tiny Improv Fest – ONLINE Edition is a great online place to share and watch videos set up by John Windmueller and other awesome folks.

Virtual Theatre Education Resources is a huge slew of other resources shared by Stefan Gearhart.

Teaching Theatre Online: COVID-19 A great resource for testing online teaching.

Elana Fishbein is teaching a course online on Sunday March 29th.

Quarantine Improv Facebook Group is not exactly a performance opportunity, but a place for us to share bits and keep each other sane.

Ways to still bring in income with these

Keep gift cards available on your site for future shows.

Leave donation tabs on your website and social media offerings

Sell tickets to your online shows. Be aware that these shows are still in development and people are also underemployed right now, so be more accommodating on ticket prices or sliding scales.

Alternatively, open a Patreon giving donors access to online shows

Don’t be aggressive. Remember, many of your patrons are worried about their own income. Put the ball in their court to make donation and ticket payment options in their hands.


Stay safe out there (and in there). We’re all learning how to cope with this, but improv has always been about adapting. Spolin, The Committee, The Compass, Neutrino – they all learned to reach audiences and celebrate the art in new ways. If we truly believe that a lack of a script is a gift, not an obstacle, then let’s treat COVID the same way. Let’s not view it as an obstacle that hinders our old ways of performing, but as a way to free us to find new ways to celebrate and share improv with people in these days. We hope you will keep supporting each other and sharing what is working for you. Maybe some of these methods will even stick around after theatres open up again, and they will continue to enhance our improv community so we may reach even more people.

Much love to all. Keep washing your hands.


The Hambook is Coming

The HambookOver the past four years, The Hambook has published essays on improvisation for free online. Now, it is releasing all of its works in one hardbound compendium, The Complete Hambook.

The Hambook was conceived in 2015 after I had a whispered conversation with a friend about improv theory. We were at an improv venue’s bar, surrounded by improvisers who had just performed, and felt we couldn’t talk openly about our love for the art form. I felt embarrassed to admit that I loved improvisation and wanted to try new things. Things may have changed now, but around that time, I felt a sincere fear to express an earnest interest in the art. I felt that taking it any more seriously than my peers did might label me as uncool. But the truth was that I had moved across the country to Chicago for improv alone. Not to study comedy, not to find my voice, and not to make it big. Just to improvise.

I went home and looked at my bookshelf and saw books about all sorts of different arts. They discussed new ways of approaching the arts and made new arguments. Then I looked at my improv books, and I only saw a few. All of them said mostly the same stuff, the contents of which had grown stale and hadn’t been updated since their authors first started teaching it back in the 90’s.

I created The Hambook to inspire discussion in a community that desperately needed it. Improv has mostly an oral history, passed from teacher to student, but that knowledge often gets lost in the mix and we barely know who to credit for specific ideas, forms, and moves. I thought that if we could publish a magazine every few months, years from now we would be able to point to the smart individuals who created those ideas. We could also watch as opinions are discussed in real time, as one author reads an essay they disagree with and writes a rebuttal a few months later.

We could also watch how the society surrounding improvisation grows and changes. We could discuss how to live a balanced life as an improviser, how to keep relationships while teams fall apart, how to use improv terminology properly, and how to invest in our audiences. So many positive changes could be made to the culture if we just came at this art formally, proudly, and carefully.

That’s why it had to be a magazine, not a “zine.” It had to be a PDF, not a blog. It had to be a book, not a podcast. I tried to take this project as seriously as possible so that the contributors and readers would feel proud to care about improvisation. As I hold the book in my hands now, I couldn’t be more proud.

The Complete Hambook is over 650 pages, contains over 60 essays, and is being sold at cost, so no one is making money from this project. You can buy it at thehambook.com. Thank you for your support!

Non-Profit vs. for Profit Festivals

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

Image result for non-profit

What is A Non-Profit?

When it comes to theaters and festivals, the big question is always “Should I be a non-profit company?”  There are different types of 501(c) organizations, but the 501(c)3 is the type we’re talking about – we don’t really have time to get into the rest of them  Let’s first clarify what a non-profit 501(c)3 company is not:

  1. It is not a company that cannot make a profit. There are many profitable non-profit companies (I’ll explain this weird oxymoron in a bit).
  2. Nor is it a company that has to give any profits that it makes to charity or distribute it to its members at the end of the year.
  3. It also is not a type of organization that guarantees that you’re going to be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants your first year in operation. It just makes you eligible to apply for them. Big difference.

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

Why Would I Want to Be A Non-Profit?

The big draw?  You don’t have to pay income taxes.  That’s hella cool.  If you make $20,000 in profit, not one cent of that goes to the IRS.  Screw you, Uncle Sam!  You still pay some taxes (payroll, property, sales, etc…), but you are exempt from taxes at the Federal and State level.  Cool!

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

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

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

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

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

So, I Should Be a For-Profit Festival?

I mean, maybe?  If you’re doing it by yourself and will be investing your own money, you get to write off the money you spent as a business expense come tax time.  And any profits are yours to keep because you can use your bank account as your business account.

If you have multiple partners (business partners, not romantic ones), then you’ll have to form a partnership, LLC or corporation. This means more paperwork to make sure everything is divided and accounted for properly.  There will also be additional tax considerations as a result.

Just Tell Me What I Should Do, Jeff!

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

  • Are you and your business-minded friends planning on producing a festival for profit? And are you wanting to grow into a large business where you produce several festivals nationwide? In that case,  your best bet is the LLC or C-Corp.
  • Are you by yourself just wanting to have a reason to invite amazing performers to your town? And perhaps maybe make a little money on the side? Then you’d probably just want to be a sole proprietorship. This is the default business structure if you haven’t registered your business as an LLC or corporation.
  • Does your festival have a charitable purpose? Or one that benefits a specific population? And are you looking for support from larger organizations (for grants) or corporations (donations or sponsorships) to support you? Then the nonprofit might be best for you.

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

Good luck and happy producing!

A Tribute to Amy Louise Sebelius

Amy Lou

Amy Lou

There is no euphemism suitable for the end of Amy Louise Sebelius’ life. Early in the morning on November 24th, our Amy Lou died. While filled with love, her death was the only somber part of her life. The rest was technicolor.

Amy Louise Sebelius, Amy Lou, was a goddamned firefly wrapped in a rainbow riding a unicorn while reciting Henry the 4th. She was moonbeams and fireworks screaming across a perfectly blue-black star studded sky. And standing next to her, on-stage and off, I always felt like I could fly.

At its very best, improv is about vulnerability. We stand up in front of people and invite them to watch us swan dive into a trust fall again and again and again and again. And because of the incredible faith in each other it takes to do that in tandem, the people we stand up on that stage with often become closer than the closest of friends. Amy Louise Sebelius was that for so many of us, and for me.

I met her at the inaugural Camp Improv Utopia Yosemite. But before I met her, I heard her voice. Raspy and yet lilting, laughing and yet poignant. Her energy was like a red carpet unrolled into Oz. “Heyyyy, come in!” she said excitedly. “Oh my god, do you believe in ghosts? You have to hear this story.” I was immediately wrapped up and carried away by her energy.

We spent that weekend in Yosemite learning a new improv form, which itself is a gift. But the greatest gift for me, was that I got to learn about her. I watched her initiate with rapturous excitement. When I perform, I often feel uncomfortable with situations or initiations that skew toward the absurd. And then there’s Amy Lou. She was so beautifully comfortable with the fanciful. She would initiate something that on face value seemed so unattainably absurd, but then would instantaneously become grounded and filled with delight. I learned from her joy. I gravitated to her passion. I basked in her shine.

I remember a day, toward the end of her life, where I was sitting at the foot of her hospital bed working on my laptop as she slept. It was late in the afternoon. I heard that raspy voice say, “Would you look at how beautiful this is. We are so lucky.” I looked at her and saw a blissful smile across her face. I followed the light in her eyes to the window where the sky was filled with the most beautiful early sunset. We sat there for a moment taking it in. The moment was ended by her hedgehog finger puppet telling me that he wanted some chocolate. The perfect mixture of tenderness and hilarity, that was Amy Lou. Beauty and bits, always and forever.

To say that I will miss her doesn’t feel like it even comes close to describing the grief left in her absence. I just know that I want to be the kind of performer that lifts others up and carries them along on a skyrocket of delight. And I know that I want to live a life filled with the love and joy and technicolor that she carried and flung into the atmosphere everywhere Amy Lou went.

If you want to honor her there are lots of tangible things you could do. You could put on some red horn-rimmed glasses, you could do a Harold, you could eat pizza, you could pet your favorite kitty. But the best way to honor her is simply to stop now and then, take a deep breath and honor the beauty in front of you, because that’s what she did every day of her life. And after you take that deep breath and acknowledge the moment, take off your shoe, make a puppet out of your sock, and do some bits for the person standing next to you. And laugh. Beyond it all, laugh. She’ll hear you and if you listen close enough, you will be able to hear that inimitable raspy voice laugh back and say, “Oh my god! I love you!”

How lucky I was, we all were, to love and be loved by our Amy Lou.

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