Red Rocks Improv Festival Combines Improv and The Great Outdoors!

547231_611653305522623_1019168721_nI just got back from Cedar City, Utah and I have to say I’m impressed! Off The Cuff Improvisation, which will be celebrating its 10th year in the small city, put on the 4th Annual Red Rocks Improv Festival. The festival was filled with improv performances from all over the country, workshops and wonderful trips to Cedar Breaks and Zion National Park where improvisors had the chance to hike and bond!

Tj and Wendy Penrod are the force behind the festival and OTC Comedy and have been since its inception. This year Red Rocks decided to partner with NIN and use our submission service to help gain some more exposure for the festival and it worked! Gaining improvisors from California all the way to New York! Tj and Wendy have created an amazing improv community in Cedar City and are actively involved in the arts culture there.

Being such a small town with one main street…named Main Street, I had worried that it might be hard to get a crowd. Not here! Wendy, TJ and their OTC gang have done such great work out there building a community that both nights were filled to the brim with audience. This audience was hungry for improv too!

This years festival added and extra bonus. OTC Comedy rented a 15 seater van, we dubbed the party van, to pick us up and take us hiking to places like Cedar Breaks and Zion National Park. I went on the Zion National Park hike through The Narrows which is not just any trail, it’s a 90 percent water trail where you wade through water in narrow slot canyons! AMAZING! It was a great experience and a great way to meet and hang out with people from other improv communities. When we reached the end of our journey one of the OTC gang started to jump off a rock into a pool of water…everyone followed suit in support, some conquering their fears! It was such an amazing experience filled with community, friendship and fun!

So should you attend this festival? Yes! This is the perfect example of what a festival should be. They took the idea of bringing great shows to their community exposing their small town to big named groups while also taking care of their out-of-town guests and treating them to their beautiful surroundings! Someone asked recently “Why do you go to festivals?” This is why I go to festivals!

Nick Armstrong

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

Listen Like a Fourteen Year Old

Good scenes are sometimes like school

Good scenes are sometimes like school

As improvisors, and as teachers of improv, we get asked some of the same questions over and over again. We’ve found our quick little standard responses to those questions that at one point were pretty clever, but maybe it’s time to actually think about those answers rather than giving them lips service. Here are two answers I hear and find myself giving often.

Muggle: I could never do that on stage, I can’t think that fast
Improvisor: You’re doing it right now. We’re improvising all the time.

Student: How do I know what to ‘Yes and’?
Teacher: Just listen harder.

There’s a lot of truth in both of those answers, but they’re incomplete. The first is true. We’re all acting without scripts all day long. But we’re acting on years or decades of our own personal back-story that informs how we react; what we say. We don’t have that when we step into a character. We’re still learning who we are to ourselves and our scene partners. The second is also absolutely true. Listening is the key to building relationships. But how? Most students who ask this questions thought they already were listening. They heard all the words. They speak English (or whatever language the scene is in) well enough to parse sentences. So how can they listen better. We offer very little specifics in improv instruction, so here’s one. I propose the answer to both of those questions is not simply to listen, but listen like a fourteen year old.

I’ll explain.

Try to remember back to eighth grade. It was a weird time. In many ways, every character we inhabit is similar to a teenager; trying to discover who we are and how we fit into the world around us. What are our passions? What kind of person are we going to become? How do other people view us? How do we relate to those around us? What are these new emotions we aren’t accustomed to? Sound familiar? Of course it is. We may not consciously give time to those notions when we enter scenes, but they’re there. And this isn’t a bad thing. This is a wonderful thing. This uncertainty helps us seek out who we are. Somehow miraculously, teenagers survive. They turn into young men and women ready to change the world. Of course, if you’ve ever had to raise a teen (God Bless You) or spend any quality time with them, you know that it can be a trying process.

That’s because as adults, we sometimes use words recklessly. We don’t think through every sentence before we say it; think of all the ways it could be interpreted. But to a teen, they are desperate for clues as to how they are perceived and treated. They are paranoid about every word choice, gesture and fashion choice you make. They dig for meaning where none is present. Even if there’s nothing “between the lines”, they’ll find something there.

Take example from their paranoia. As performers, we are also often even more lax in our choices (in word and deed) onstage because we often act before understanding our own motivations. Don’t let your scene partners or yourselves get away with that. Every word, every movement, every facial expression means something to you. Don’t treat anything as throwaway. Ask these questions;

“Why did you just say that?”
“Why did you say it to me? You could have shared that information with anyone. Why me? What is different about me that I am told this and not someone else?”
“If you’re telling me, you want to have an effect on me? What do you want me to do? How are you trying to make me feel? How will this change who we are to each other?”

Don’t be satisfied with the first answer to this question. Keep asking. Assume that there’s more.

It’s not just for your scene partners either. Ask questions of everything you say. You’ll be delighted that words that come out of your mouth inform so much more than you might imagine.

Have something to add? We finally have a comments section. Let us know what you think!

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

16 Tips and Advice for Students of Improv

brain

“My mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier you’ll be a general; if you become a monk you’ll end up as the Pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.” – Pablo Picasso

Students of Improv! You’re going to be okay! Art is hard! Long form is an art that requires patience. You will not get it overnight nor will you get it the next day. A typical 8 week class usually goes like this from a students POV, “I get it, Oh shit, I’m in my head, I get it! I’m lost, I get it, I hate improv I’m never going to get it, WOW I get it!” and so on. Oh this can happen to vets too, nobody is safe from the ups and downs of improv.

Below is a list of things to maybe help ease your fears and give you some friendly tips and advice to help you get through it all. Think of it as free improv therapy.

  1. You can’t be perfect at improv, so don’t worry about it.
  2. You’re not going to get it.
  3. You’re your own worst enemy.
  4. You’re going to live in your head for a while. It’s class you’re learning.
  5. There is no right or wrong so just try everything.
  6. Take direction. They are teachers for a reason.
  7. You’re not the best improvisor ever, you’re not the worst improvisor ever…there is no such thing.
  8. Don’t be someone else in class or do another improvisor, be you!
  9. Sure that guy/gal gets more laughs then you…who cares they do their improv you do yours.
  10. You’re never done being a student.
  11. There will always be a bad show, class or rehearsal no matter how many years you’ve been doing this. Grab a beer and walk it off.
  12. It takes at least 1000 shows and maybe you’ll start getting it.
  13. Play with people better than you.
  14. Watch shows, watch more shows and then when you’re done watching those shows, watch even more shows!
  15. Read, observe and live life. Don’t just be an improvisor.
  16. If you don’t get cast out of an audition it’s okay, do it again and again and again! Don’t give up.

I hope this helps you in your quest. Improv is a wonderful art filled with wonderful people. Probably the best people on Earth in my opinion. Remember, class is about trying to figure out who you are and what you can do. Performance is about trying to figure out who you are and what you can do too. So like Picasso, become the improvisor that winds up being you.

_______________________

Nick Armstrong

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

 

Opening a Venue the Smart Way: Part I

Make this dream a reality

Make this dream a reality

There are many great improv companies across the country (and the world). Many of you are lucky enough to be part of those families. There is however, so much room for new theatres and growth. Many of us dream of one day opening a theatre space of our very own where people from our own cities can come and see improv, not in a bar, not in the library, but in a venue of its own. It’s a fantastic dream, but a long road.

There are many long hard questions and discussions that will have to happen before opening a space of your own; choices about performances, class, delegation of responsibility, etc. These are all important processes, but one thing that often gets overlooks or drastically underestimated is the process of actually getting your venue approved by the city to legally open your doors. I’ve seen a great deal of heartache when people get six months or a year into the process only to run into a roadblock that absolutely prevents them from opening. So much time, money and love poured into a space that had to be abandoned.

I don’t want that to happen to your theatre. Every situation and every venue is different and will require some different things, but this is the first of several posts covering as much common ground as possible to make you familiar with the process so that you’ll enter the process informed and are on a quicker track to opening those door.

A couple of warnings.

  • As mentioned, each venue and city is different. I’ll cover the most common issues, but do your own due diligence. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what you need to do. Seek that information out. Not only will it keep you prepared, it will help getting your final permits. Many small businesses try to cut corners. If you are willing to work with the city, they’ll be much more willing to work with you and help you find solutions when things look bleak.
  • Doing it right takes time and money. Lots of both. No matter how much time and money you think opening a venue properly is, it’s more. There will be a temptation right from the start to just throw caution to the wind and just open your doors – fly under the radar. You’ll be open much faster, and you’ll be closed much faster too. Opening illegally means you’re going to be constantly working with paranoia. If you’re successful, you’ll get on the radar soon enough and you can be shut down and lose everything. And who wants to live under that kind of stress? It will be a frustrating road to opening, but it’s worth it. I promise.

Step 0 – Find a Place

I’m not going to spend too much time discussing this as much of it is outside of the context of this post. You know well enough what you’re looking for, but the interior looking “perfect” for your stage sometimes leads to overlooking some other environmental situations that should be considered. Does it have access for bikes and public transportation? What’s the crime rate for the area? Is there a local small business council to communicate with city/state government? What’s the Zillow score for homes in your area? (aka how much foot traffic can you expect)? Which businesses in your immediate area will be open the same time you are? Which ones won’t? Which ones will be sharing your parking? Which ones have windows to display advertisements for your shows? What local bars and restaurants can your patrons visit before/after shows? Is there a church within a few hundred feet (this leads to different permits, including alcohol licenses)? How well lit is it a night? Think about these and other factors before even beginning to go down the path. If you’ve done this and you found a place you love. It’s time to start down the road of making it a theatre.

Step 1 – Adaptive Reuse

You’ve found a place you love. It seems perfect. It may be. But don’t sign a lease quite yet. Just because the space had previous owners who could legally operate out of that space, it doesn’t mean you can. A theatre is what’s generally referred to as a Class-A Assembly type business (different areas may have slightly different names). Class-A businesses have much tougher requirements to be granted a license than some other business types. You will most likely have to apply for a Change of Use for your building. This is essentially requesting to have that address recognized as a different business type with different codes and requirements. If you can’t get a change of use, you can’t open as a theatre. If you can get a change of use, but you can’t meet the new requirements, you can’t open a theatre. So it’s tremendously important to do a little research on the new requirements of a space.

How do I know if I need a Change of Use filing? 

I mentioned that theatres are Class-A. The A in the name stands for assembly. This is because it’s a business that, by its nature will have many people being served at once. By contrast, most small businesses serve only a small number of clients ate a time. Examples of non-assembly businesses would be flower shops, bakerys, barber shops, ice cream parlors, repair shops, etc. They are businesses with probably a front counter and a small service area for one or two customers at a time. Assembly businesses would include restaurants, dance clubs or art galleries, places that would have many people inside at once. Ask what kind of business used to be in here to get a better idea of whether a change of use would be required.

What are the differences for Class-A businesses?

There are many small differences, but three that could make or break you.

Occupancy

You know what this is. You’ve seen the signs on businesses that say “Maximum Occupancy 62”. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on exactly what this is and how it works. The common belief is that for each business, someone comes in, does some math, and comes up with a maximum number of people that can safely be inside. This isn’t entirely inaccurate. That does happen. But there’s another piece of information that’s also calculated. If these two numbers can’t agree with each other. You can’t open. Period.

The first number is based on how many people can safely be in a building. This is calculated primarily on how many exits you have, and how readily people can get access to these exits. If you have a front and a back exit and a clear path to both of them you’re in pretty good shape provided you have sprinklers.

 

This will make or break you.

This will make or break you.

Sprinklers. Possibly the number one cause of theatres not opening is sprinklers. If you don’t have sprinklers in your building there is a hard limit on the number of people that can be in your space. In most areas, this number is 49. So no matter how many exits or other safety conditions you have, without sprinklers your max occupancy cannot go above 49. Period. Ever.

That doesn’t sound so terrible. A lot of small theatres seat less that 49, but we still have to calculate the second number. This is important. If you want to open a theatre, this is the part you absolutely must understand.

The total square footage of your building is broken up into categories. Each category has a number attached to it that represents a number of persons per square feet that would likely be in that category. All of these numbers are added up to give the number of people that can be in the square footage of your space. Not how many people can be safely in there. Not how many people you anticipate being in there. Not how many people should be in there, but the number of people that can be in that space. If this number is higher than the first number. You cannot open.

This is confusing, so I’ll give a simplified example. Let’s imagine a space with a lobby, a theatre space, a box office, a restroom, a hallway and a closet.

Each state has slightly different numbers. But these numbers are common for many states.
Hallways and offices: 1 person per 100 square feet
Restrooms: 1 person per 70 square feet
Closet: Free Space
Lobby and Theatre Space: 1 person per 3 square feet

Our closet is free space. No occupancy needed
Let’s start with our hypothetical restroom. Let’s say it’s 35 square feet. That works out to 0.5 people, which gets rounded up to 1 person
Our hallways and box office are next. Let’s say they total out to 200 square feet. At one person per 100 square feet, we’re at 2 people.

So far we’re doing great! We’ve covered our hallways, box office, closet and restroom and we’ve only tallied up to 3 people. But now we have our lobby and our theatre space.
Let’s say our lobby is 13ft x 13ft (a reasonable lobby size). Our seating area is 20ft x 40 ft. We’re at 969 square feet. At one person per 3 square feet, we’ve just added 321 people to our occupancy! Now there’s no way you’re ever going to have 321 people in your lobby and seating area, but that’s what the calculations add up to.

The one person per 3 square feet is the rule for assembly areas in most states. It’s 30 times the number of persons added to your total of other zones. If you don’t have sprinklers and your cap is 49 people, the total square footage for lobby and seating are will be limited to 147 square feet. That’s about the size of a typical walk-in freezer.

This is what kill so many theatres before they even start. If you have a large space, and you want to use a large portion of it for the theatre space, your possible occupancy will be incredibly high. If the fire marshal doesn’t approve a number higher than that calculated number. You’re finished. The larger your performance area, the more difficult it will be to get approved for occupancy. Since the business that was in your space before you didn’t need assemble space, they might not be equipped to handle your needs.

Parking

This is pretty similar to the occupancy issue, but much easier to deal with. With a higher internal occupancy, you will have much higher parking requirements. You need to make sure your building will have enough parking to handle that 321 people. Parking has it’s own calculations, but a simple rule of thumb is about 1 required parking space per four people.  There are tough restrictions here as well, but unlike the occupancy, there are some things you can do proactively to reduce this issue.

  • Check for overlay regions. Public transportation and other issues can result in certain blocks of town which qualify as overlay regions. These areas can have reduced parking restructions.
  • Bike rack. Not all cities accept this, but some do as a way to reduce parking requirements. You can install a bike rack pretty cheaply
  • Shared parking. You’re lucky in that your neighboring businesses are probably open in the day and you’re open in the night. You can obtain the proper paperwork to agree to share these parking spots if your hours are different.
  • Variances. If the above don’t work, you can apply for a parking variance that will allow you to open without the minimum parking. This will cost money. There will also be a long waiting period for this variance because they need to make the request for a variance publically known for a period of time so that anyone who wishes to oppose the variance will have an opportunity to present their case.

Electical Load Balance

This isn’t strictly a Class-A problem, but it’s something that theatres will have to be aware of. Before a Certificate of Occupancy can be granted, you will have to have an electrical audit to limit the maximum amount of electricity that your unit can pull at any given time. the electrical load allowed for most buildings is more than adequate, but you’re going to be likely running stage lights and a mixer board. These draw a larger amount of electricity than the average business. Most modern buildings are approved for the electrical load you’ll be pulling, but look into getting some basic info on this before pulling the trigger on a space.

Why is this section called Adaptive Reuse?

The three issues I listed above are the biggest obstacles to getting a change of use to go through, but there are many smaller ones that are inconvenient. If you decide to go forward, you should check with your city to see if they have an adaptive reuse program. Many cities do. These are programs that will work with small businesses to help with the process. There are often local laws that will allow you to skip or reduce certain requirements for change of use in certain parts of town. It’s worth asking.

Change of use. It’s a simple enough concept, but you need to know for sure that you’ll be able to do this before signing a lease. Do your homework on the issues above. Make sure your electrical load, occupancy and parking for the space can meet the requirements of a theatre space. If they can’t, say goodbye to this space. It’s a hard thing to do, but you can’t proceed. Find another space.

Step 2 – Make a Friend at City Hall

Say hello to your new home.

Say hello to your new home.

Congratulations. If you made it to this step, you’re already ahead of almost every theatre company looking to open a space. You’ve made sure that legally opening a space is at least possible. But the steps from here get murky quickly. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a single checklist of things that need to be done. Your city hall may have a very simplified sheet of steps, but each of those steps is going to require different things for every business. It can feel overwhelming to know that there’s a lot of work to be done and no one to tell you what the first step is. The good news is that I can tell you the last step. You’ll need a Certificate of Occupancy. That’s the final golden ticket. Every city has slightly different versions of these, and some cities additionally require a few other documents. But the CoO is your goal.

Here’s the downfall of living in 2013. We’ve collectively been through some rough years fincancially and the number of government employees has been down. There are a lot of positive results to this, but the downside to you, in this moment, is that there are fewer people working at City Hall who truly know what the path to a Certificate of Occupancy. If you walk in, take a number, and ask the person at the desk, they likely won’t help you. You’ve wasted an hour. Instead of going down to City Hall that first time. Make a phone call. Make several phone calls. Start with City Hall and explain that you’re looking to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy for a theatre. Be prepared to offer the following information.

  • It’s a theatre and will be an assembly business.
  • The address, landlord and the most recent business type to be in there
  • The area of town its in
  • Whether or not there is signage in front
  • Very basic parking information.
  • Square Footage of the space.

They will refer you to someone else. That will happen many times. You’ll talk to many people on the phone. Be persistent, but not rude. It may take several days, but you’ll find the person who can help you build a site plan, secure parcel information, file for ADA compliance, all those other things you’ll need to do. Tell them you’re creating a theatre.  They’re used to Auto-loan places and paper supply stores. It’s been my experience from talking to other theatre owners, that you’re something just interesting and exciting enough that they’ll take an interest. If ever you or someone you know that wants to apply for loans online, let them have a peek at this web-site.

Set up a meeting. Come down. Bring all the information you have. Don’t be embarrassed if it’s incomplete. That’s their job. They’ll help you get organized and put together a plan of action. Call them any time you have a question. Make sure to stop by and say hello every time you’re in city hall. Make friends now, you’ll be seeing a lot of this person for the next several months.

Fun tip:
If you’re a Foursquare user, start checking in with each visit. You may become Mayor of City Hall.

You’re on the way. There will be more things to do, but if you do your homework at the beginning. You’ll reduce the chances of heartache down the road.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America. During 2011, he spent more time in City Hall than his own home.

Improv Etiquette 101: You Don’t Have to Wear a 3 Piece Suit!

imagesIn this series of Blogs I will take you through why I believe Improv Etiquette is important and what it should be. I’ll try not to sound too much like an old man on a porch yelling at kids. I’m a reasonable guy, but do have some pet peeves that performers do. After all if you don’t care why should the audience. I think it’s important to take our art form seriously so hopefully this helps guide you. You can agree with me or not that’s okay these are just some guidelines that are pretty agreed upon by major improv theatres and veteran improvisers alike.

Are You Kidding?

Recently in an improv audition and more recently onstage I’ve seen more than one person wear shorts onstage…CARGO SHORTS TOO! Who needs that many pockets? We are doing theatre and people are paying to come see our shows, and even if they aren’t paying to see them, we still should have some respect for what we are doing. We need to take it seriously. Don’t wear shorts onstage. I’m not saying wear a 3 piece suit with a pocket watch, but I am saying at least wear nice pants and a button up shirt with no logos or your favorite band on them. Sure, I’m only covering guys on this but men are the biggest offenders of this rule in my experience.

Nick is an Actor, Improvisor and Writer living in Los Angeles, CA. On TV Nick is currently on AMC’s Story Notes and has been on the Emmy-Award winning shows The Office and Grey’s Anatomy. He has also made appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Parks and Recreation. Recently, Nick received a development deal for a TV Show he created for A&E.

Onstage Nick has trained at The Groundlings and iO West. You can catch him performing regularly at the world-famous iO West in Hollywood, CA on the famed genre-based group Kind Strangers and LA’s Longest and Critically Acclaimed Harold Team King Ten. Nick is also the Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia. And if that wasn’t enough, he is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. 

7 Delegation Tips for Festivals

 

This takes organization + trust

This takes organization + trust

I’ve been to quite a few festivals this summer guys – Chicago, Detroit, Phoenix….there are some amazing things happening in the improv world!  I’m struck by how big these events are, and the successes and challenges they have in executing a great festival.  It takes a village guys.  Even if it’s a small village, it takes a village, to get things done on a large scale.

Most festivals have a team of volunteers (and if you don’t have a team of volunteers – tweet @xoticdonkeymeat to talk) and the most effective tool in your belt to get massive amounts of things done is the D word – yup – Delegation – to these volunteers.  Lots of folks struggle with delegation, but practice makes perfect!  Here are 7 steps to effective delegation to your volunteers.

 

1.  Ask for volunteers before you’re ready, when you first meet to discuss your next festival/event

People who volunteer before you’ve even got things written down truly want to help and are happy to be directed to do work.  When you ask (in an email blast, or a sign up sheet), also include a space for them to note what they can help with – they may bring something up you didn’t even think of.  Keep this list.

2. Know what you have to get done – specifically – in writing 

Of course you know everything that has to get done!  But it’s all in your head.  Write it down in Google Apps/Evernote/Whatever Mac users use to share things.  You can’t effectively delegate if you don’t know the specific tasks that you need to share.  Write down all the things you need help with, the type of work you need and when it’s due.  For example:

  • Ticket sales – good attitude & chatty, best in 4 hour increments – Days of Festival
  • Clean up – doesn’t mind working late – 2 hours/day – days of festival
  • Hosting – should have prior host experience – days of festival
  • Marketing – Printing, tweeting, facebooking – 4 months before festival
  • PR – sponsorship packets, business solicitation

Writing them down will help you a) organize your thoughts and b) realize how much help you actually need.  Which brings me to…

3.  Pick people that are gonna help

I have a saying when it comes to project teams – you play cards with the hand you’re dealt.  Every person is very valuable when you pair them with the right task.  Look at your list of volunteers (which you totally have shared with the other people who are making your things happen, yes?) and your list of tasks.  Tap the people on the shoulder who are best suited for certain tasks and ask them personally – it will make them feel more excited and involved than if they enter their name in a slot on a spreadsheet.

4. Now that you know what you need to get done, ask for volunteers again

This time, be specific in the requests that you have for your volunteers.  Note the days and times of volunteer requirements, if applicable (like ticket and clean up) or the goals of what you’re trying to accomplish for larger tasks (looking for 2 businesses to sponsor festival).

5.  Set yourselves up for success – the do’s & dont’s

  • Don’t leave open-ended task assignments
  • Do make everything ‘accomplishable’ – ‘I’d like to have 400 copies of this delivered to HQ by Tuesday night’ or ‘Can we review the sponsor copy by noon on Wednesday?’ – set clear expectations and a deadline
  • Don’t assign a task and assume it’s taken care of
  • Do assign tasks to your team of volunteers and check in on them at least weekly, and as you move closer to your festival date, check on them bi-daily
  • Don’t assume people ‘don’t want to help’
  • Do assume everyone wants to help but might need more direction – sometimes, you just need to ask an un-assuming “was I not clear enough in my instructions?  Were they confusing?”  Everyone is learning, and the opportunity to be a better leader will make delegation even easier in the future

6.  Keep it fun and thank your volunteers

Keep the entire experience engaging and fun and full of honest thank yous for your volunteers.  They are there for free, and they’re happy to see your event successful, so thank them, with the full ‘Thank you’ as they help you out during the event.  And if they have a great time, they’ll ask others to join them in the future and you can grow your team of volunteers.

7. Be open to feedback

Your volunteers are helping because they want to see the festival successful.  Volunteers leave if they are overworked or if they are frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard.  Send feedback surveys specific to the volunteer work, and ask if there was anything that frustrating about the job they were assigned.  Everyone just wants the festival successful, and a fired up volunteer might be able to help with that.

BONUS TIP:

Don’t wait until big events to recruit volunteers.  Always be looking for ways to include new people and follow tip 4 to assure that your volunteers feel valuable, so they’ll be ready for bigger tasks like….volunteer coordination!

Pyramid // mrwynd

Kate is a contributing member of National Improv Network and works in product, customer and business development.   She blogs about getting things done at unicornwrangler.com and tweets @xoticdonkeymeat.  

Spotlight On: Denver Improv Festival

DIF_LogoThere are plenty of festivals going on this year. Sometimes it can be tough to decide on which festivals to submit to without knowing much about the city or its festival. This is the first of hopefully many interviews with festival producers around the country to provide a little peek into what visiting their festival might be like.

David Schultz is one of the many members of The GroupMind Foundation, the non-profit organization which produces the festival. I was fortunate to get in a little time with him between producing shows and planning the festival along with the other members of GroupMind.

The Denver Improv Festival kind of disappeared a few years ago and then re-emerged. What motivated the re-launch of the festival? What were the hopes for what the new festival would become?

Well, I guess there are two answers to that first question. First, the improv scene in Denver really began to mature 3-4 years ago, which brought a renewed interest in doing a festival. It seemed like a great time to bring it back. There were new theaters opening, new training centers picking up steam, and the scene was really taking off. Secondly, the Denver Improv Festival is organized by the GroupMind Foundation, which is a non-profit organization. Because of the lapse in doing a festival, we needed to bring it back to maintain our non-profit status. That may have been the last nudge we needed, but it was a nudge precisely when the scene was ready for it. Our hopes were pretty simple – bring the festival back and try to get better every year.

What are your goals for the 2013 festival?

Above all else, our goal is to bring the whole Denver improv community together to celebrate how far we’ve come, and enjoy each others company. Of course, there are some goals that we have every year – put on great shows, show the best of Denver improv, bring in talent from other cities to expose locals to other styles, and have as much fun as possible. GroupMind also has some boring goals this year like better utilizing corporate sponsorship, keeping our headliners as happy as possible, and filling all of our workshops. Everyone seemed to have such a blast last year – so my general goal this year is to not screw things up too much.

There are a lot of great theatres in Denver with very different philosophies. How does that variety shape the Denver Improv Scene?

A lot of the theaters and training centers are relatively new and their viewpoints are so different. Because of that, a lot of improvisers have gone through the curriculum of two or three different theaters. That exposes them to different points of view and let’s them find a style/technique/form that they really connect with, and they can take ideas from all of the programs. As a result, we’re seeing a lot of good teams that aren’t house teams tied to one theater. I’d like to see more of that. A new venture called “Red Rover” was organized by Justin Franzen at the Voodoo, and quarterly they put on a show where several of the training centers bring on a current class to perform and represent their style, and the night wraps up with instructors from all centers performing together. It’s neat to see, and shows the diversity between training centers.

Outside of a performance, what else can performers expect? Will you have any master workshops? Or unique workshops? Will there be any other organized activities?

We are finalizing our workshop lineup over the next couple weeks, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself in terms of content. One thing I will say is that we are doing fewer workshops this year, and limiting them to the headliners. In years past, we also included local workshops. In retrospect, that diluted the training pool a bit and made it hard to fill up classes. This year headliners get better numbers, and we can teach local workshops at a time when they aren’t competing with headliners. In terms of organized activities, we’ll be doing after parties – these were a TON of fun last year. Look for karaoke too. One of my favorite memories last year was walking into an 80 seat theater at 1am and seeing every seat full as karaoke was going on.

For those who haven’t been to Denver, what are some of the things people can check out in the city during the day? Where’s the best place to get breakfast near the festival?

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Pineapple pancakes

All the venues under consideration are located downtown, and downtown Denver is very walkable. If you are a fan of craft beer, you couldn’t be in a better spot. Also, one of the favorite destinations was a bar called the 1-Up. It’s great because it is jam packed with old school video games and pinball machines. It’s a blast, and for .25 it can be pretty cheap. I think Nick Armstrong got severe forearm cramps playing Track & Field last year. If you have transportation, Denver is only a quick drive to amazing outdoorsy stuff like Red Rocks, the turning of the Aspen, and Casa Bonita. As far as breakfast, the big hits last year were Hi Rise Bakery and Snooze – home of the delicious Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes. I pride myself on recommending places to go, so anyone who makes it out this year can hit me up and I’ll point them in the right direction.

You’ve been to many festivals and experience the good and bad. What are you bringing to DIF that you’ve discovered at other festivals? What are you hoping to provide at DIF that people haven’t experienced before?

I actually haven’t been to too many myself, but I did just return from the Detroit Improv Festival and boy do those folks know how to organize. I was taking lots of notes, although I don’t even dream to match their scale this year. What I would like to provide is a real sense of community, and allow troupes from other scenes to mingle and share ideas. We aren’t a huge festival, and I see that as a good thing and allows for more intimacy. Last year people really mingled at the after parties and it was an absolute blast. I want to bring everybody together, display great improv, and leave everyone with a smile on the face. Hopefully that word of mouth spreads, and more people want to come next year.

Submissions for The Denver Improv Festival are open now, but they’re closing soon. You can submit your troupe right now on the submission page. If you’d like more information on The Festival or The GroupMind Foundation, you can visit the festival website or drop a message to David directly here on the site.

The GroupMind Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3)organization whose purpose is to enrich, educate and entertain our community in the art of improv. It will work toward this mission through educational outreach programs for local schools, the Denver Improv Festival, and various performance and skill workshops.

Detroit Rising

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This sticker speaks truth

Of the dozens of festivals I’ve visited in the last few years, The Detroit Improv Festival was a special treat this year. Partially, because it was a return to my own native soil (Auburn Hills, MI represent). Partially because it was amazing to talk to the people of Detroit who – popular to what the news might tell you – are incredibly hopeful and united in very rough times. But mostly, it was special because DIF was the first festival to build their lineup from submissions here on the NIN page. As a result I not only got to check in with old friends, but was able to meet so many new friends in person who I’d first met here. I got to talk to many new faces I recognized from avatars here and see new shows from groups who hadn’t really made the festival circuit before.

Of course none of that would have been possible without the incredible work of all the people behind the festival. Chris, Keith, PJ and Michelle were hustling non-stop. James was keeping the fort down at Go and the volunteers were always around to help the visiting performers. DIF has undergone a huge growth in the last year, bringing in more troupes and more venues and certainly more headliners. Susan Messing, Jill Bernard, Craig Cackowski, Rich Talarico, TJ Jagadowski, Dave Pasquesi, Rob Belushi & Dave Razowsky at the same festival certainly exposed the people of Ferndale to some of the best improv in the country. A free family friendly show on Saturday afternoon also delighted crowds. I’m sure a lot of newcomers to improv this weekend had some preconceived notions shattered and hopefully they’ll continue to visit shows at Go Comedy and Planet Ant in the year to come.

 

The Rust Belt on Nine Mile

The Rust Belt on Nine Mile

The festival did a great job of showcasing improv to the people of Detroit, but it also did a great job of showcasing the city of Detroit to improvisors. They designed many parts of their festival with the performer in mind. Not all of the venues were traditional theatre spaces, but all were within walking distance of Nine Mile and Woodward Avenue. It was easy to get from venue to venue to see the shows and friends you wanted to see. A tour of Detroit and a weekend barbecue were also available in addition to donated food throughout the week from local restaurants.

A fairly unique addition to this year’s festival was Pam Victor’s Geeking Out Interview. Many festivals have featured live podcasts, but Pam offered a very in depth interview with experienced improvisors for an audience. This year she interviewed Razowsky and Clifford about their long and successful history and memories of their training. As a special treat, the show also featured our own Nick Armstrong talking about NIN and also a special announcement of Improv Utopia East coming to Pennsylvania. Pam is one of the most dedicated people out there on preserving some sort of heritage for our craft.

It was in many ways one of the first large opportunities we’ve had to sit and meet people from the network and learn what kind of things you’d like to see in the future. Some great ideas came from discussions – some that may show up down the road – and some that are great and simple ideas that might start showing up on the site in the next few weeks.

High applause for The 2013 Detroit Improv Festival. It’s in a beautiful city and the people do their best to showcase improv to the people there as a beautiful art form from people across the continent (big hello to all our Toronto friends). I look forward to seeing the festival grow for years to come.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America. He ate more coney dogs in Detroit that what would typically be considered “healthy”

 

Good Press Takes Work

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Don’t let this go to print

You’ve been working hard on your troupe, your theatre, your festival. You’ve been waiting for that chance to get some good coverage in the local press. The moment finally comes. You go down to your nearest 7-11 to pick up a copy and it’s… terrible. It’s a tiny article that takes several minutes to find. It has all the wrong info. It totally misrepresents what you’re all about. How can this be? The simple truth is this. You talk to your friends about improv. You surround yourself with people who get it. But the press in many cities simply doesn’t have the context for what you’re doing (Microsot Word still doesn’t even recognize the word), and to expect a Pulitzer winning article on your show isn’t going to happen without some effort on your part.

Here are seven tips to prepare and enable good press coverage. I’ll speak in terms of newspapers, but the same things apply for radio, television and web coverage. And I’m sorry to say it, but doing everything in this post will still lead to a crummy article or two. But keep at it. Continue to educate your press and the public in your town about what improv is and the quality of your coverage will blossom.

Politely Decline

Sooner or later you’re going to get a phone call or an email out of the blue from the local news. You didn’t send out a press release. You don’t have any big shows coming up. The call kind of catches you off guard. It can be a great opportunity, but you need to be prepared to politely say no thank you. This sounds almost blasphemous and its very difficult to do. But it sometimes will lead to much larger long term results.

It’s easy to get an ego boost from the contact, but step back for context for a moment. Unless you have a pretty good reputation in your city already, this reporter knows nothing about you and probably has some not quite accurate ideas on what improvisation is. There’s no news story to be had. You’ve been assigned as (cue dramatic music) a filler piece. Improv has been prime filler piece material for years. Improv articles appear in regular rotation right between “Biff! Pow! Comic Books Not Just For Kids Anymore” and “Grandma’s on Facebook Now. ‘Like’ It Or Not”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a filler piece. They can potentially bring people to your show. Keep in mind that the filler piece doesn’t go to the star reporter, it goes to the cub reporter out on their first or second article. They’re looking to get something in by their deadline. They likely have a set of preconceived notions and they are basically looking to put a couple of dates and a soundbite into the Mad Libs they inherited from the last cub reporter before they even call you.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play newspaper Bingo with the last improv article you saw. How many of these can you spot?

 If you didn’t think Sarah Palin, a dinosaur and Gangnum Style were funny, you clearly haven’t been down to see the folks at ComedyHut.

If you’ve only seen Whose Line, you only seen the half of it.

You’re on a quest for buried treasure. Suddenly a robot pops up. Or a zombie. Think Fast! That’s exactly what the quick-witted folks down at Bucket-O-Yuks do every week.

We’re always ‘folks’ by the way. When you get asked. Thank the reporter very much for their interest and invite them to come see a show. Seeing a show and being in your space can illuminate what you’re about far better than two minutes on the phone can. Suggest that you don’t feel answering a few quick questions will accurately portray what you are.

If they agree. Great! Comp them. Come down and say hello.  Let them see what your all about. If they aren’t willing to come down to the theatre, respectfully decline the article and wish them good luck.

But… Isn’t all publicity good publicity? Who cares if the article’s a little stale if it gets people in the door right? Sadly no. No ill intent is in those lazy articles, but they paint a picture of improv that further builds up the stereotypes and misconceptions about the craft and reinforces the reasons people use as excuses “not” to see improv. Of course you will get a few people to come to your show. Those people are expecting to see what the article made you out to be, and they’re going to be disappointed and disillusioned. They won’t come back. They’ll leave bad Yelp reviews. They’ll encourage their friends not to return.

When you get the offer for an article. It’s tempting to jump at anything, but be prepared to say no.

Press Releases

Send them. Send them in a timely manner and send them properly.

In the age of the internet, press outlets received hundreds of press releases every day. Many of them get thrown out because they aren’t speaking the same language that people are prepared to read them. A press release is a specific type of document with its own formatting rules. They aren’t complicated, but they should be followed if you want traction. There are many guides out there on the simple formatting layout of a press release. Learn it.

Be specific. You have shows every week. Why should you get coverage today? Post specific stories, show openings, special guests, theatre milestones. Something to actually write about.

Give lead time. Don’t send a press release on Thursday for a Friday show. Three weeks notice is good for daily journals. Three months is good lead time for quarterly or monthly journals.

Be regular. Your first press releases will get overlooked, but if they’re formatted well and respectful, your name will start becoming familiar. There’s a difference between regular and annoying. Don’t send something every day. But post regularly. If you’re a festival, this is especially true. Post schedule announcements, venue, show times, all that jazz.

Reviews

Articles are great. Reviews are amazing. Press will always push back on this idea. “How can I review a show that won;’t be the same next week?” Well that’s poppycock. Do you know what you’re in for if you go see T.J & Dave or Baby Wants Candy? Of course you do. You know the level of quality you’re going to get. If you have ongoing shows or troupes, invite a review. More people are going to respond to a positive review than the vague promise of something good that may happen.

Quality Press Kit

If a quality article is underway, you’ll be asked for media. Typically photos and logos. Have these available rather than having to scrounge for them. Have them high resolution. If it’s a logo have it in vector format if possible (.AI or .EPS files are more press friendly). Just as importantly have a press kit that’s up to date and has what you want to say in it. Spend time writing out a short bio (one paragraph) and a longer bio (three to five paragraphs) that says exactly what you want it to say. Quotes might be pulled from this, so it’s wise to have it reflect what you actually believe.

An archetypal journalist

You’ll be surprised what I choose to quote.

Interviews

A common thing in many bad articles is bad quotes. Not inaccurate quotes, just bad ones. Remember that you think you’ve said something golden on the phone, but you said  a lot of other things as well. All of them are fair game. It’s completely fine to pause before answering a question.

Talk about what you are, not what you aren’t.  Sometimes you’re specifically asked about comparisons to other things. Whose Line is an especially common go-to. It’s fine to answer these questions and pointing out the differences, but don’t put your own ideas out in that way. It’s the same thing you learn on stage. Talk about the here and now, not what isn’t happening. Talk about who you are and what you believe. Talking about TV shows that aren’t you only spend valuable time talking about what you aren’t. And.. well.. people like Whose Line because it’s fun. People like stand up because it’s fun. Drawing distinctions paints you as not fun.

Talk about who you are.

Share the Love

Do some quick algebra with me. How many people live in your city? Let’s call that a. Now what is the total number of seats in every improv venue in town? Let’s call that b. Is a greater than b? If so, then why are you worried about “competition”. There are thousands of people out there who don’t know about improv yet. If they can’t make your show, but might be able to see the show down the street. GREAT! More people who can appreciate improv. Different theatres have different philosophies, but if the other venues in town are fighting the good fight, share the love. They aren’t the enemy. The enemy is ignorance. So don’t be afraid to raise awareness for all good improv in your town.

Be Part of Your Community

All of the above might lead to a single great article. But they won’t lead to anything beyond that. One thing I muttered at improv spaces across the country is that no one comes out and supports the arts in their local community. If you’ve ever said that, then I’m putting you on the spot right now. When was the last time you went out to a jazz show, or a stand up set, or an art exhibit? Be part of the solution. Does your city have First Fridays? TEDx? Ignite? Does your University have public lectures? Does your neighborhood have a small business council? Does your local government meet with local business? Go to these things. Support your local community. Tweet about them. Use your theatre to support them in any way you can.  “But I have shows every weekend” is not an excuse. There are ways to get out there.

Your theatre is not an island. You’re part of the fabric of your city and your culture. If you close off to that, it will close off to you. If you embrace that and participating then people will know about you and the press will know about you and be happy to celebrate your milestones with you because you are part of the city’s pride.


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

 

I’m an Improvisor Offstage Too!

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I guess it’s not new news. I guess I’ve always known it, but I started thinking about it today and I realized that my offstage life and my onstage life have collided like the Higgs Boson. Here’s how:

Damn! I’m Not Perfect?

As much as I want to be perfect, I know that this is unattainable. Such is improv. You can get great at it but you’ll never be perfect. Otherwise, why would you keep doing it? Wouldn’t it get boring? If we say we are perfect, then we have nothing to reach for anymore and we could end up becoming stale and actually worse. I’ve seen people become content with their improv, hell sometimes I find myself doing it, but when that happens I force myself to change and find a new challenge. I guess when I’m 104 and on my deathbed I could lie there and say, ”I did it, I’m perfect.” It won’t be right, but I still might say it anyway. I will also probably not know where the hell I am, what I’m doing or who I am at that point. Strive for greatness, but don’t worry about being perfect.

I’m Human I Make Mistakes:

Sometimes I make big ones, sometimes ones I regret. But just like in improv a mistake can turn into a golden opportunity. I’ve found that the mistakes I’ve made have turned into opportunities for me to learn and become a better person. So I say bring on the mistakes! They can only make you stronger.

Support:

The world does revolve, but not around you. Yeah sorry everyone. I’ve always lived by the motto “Give back more then you get” Okay, so I ripped this off from my time as a Boy Scout. But I live by it. In improv it’s never about you, it’s always about connecting and supporting the group and achieving that group mind. I believe this is a great attribute to take with you offstage, whether it’s at your work, helping someone across the street or supporting a cause, you will find that support only makes the world a better place and makes you a better human being.

So, be an improvisor offstage too! Don’t stop being one once you step off that stage. Be one everyday, every hour and every minute. Commit to life just like you commit onstage, you’ll find when you don’t commit life and improv are much harder. If you do, I can guarantee you that the reward will be amazing.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if Improvisors ran it?

Nick Armstrong

Nick is an Actor, Improvisor and Writer living in Los Angeles, CA. On TV Nick is currently on AMC’s Story Notes and has been on the Emmy-Award winning shows The Office and Grey’s Anatomy. He has also made appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Parks and Recreation. Recently, Nick received a development deal for a TV Show he created for A&E. 

Onstage Nick has trained at The Groundlings and iO West. You can catch him performing regularly at the world-famous iO West in Hollywood, CA on the famed genre-based group Kind Strangers and LA’s Longest and Critically Acclaimed Harold Team King Ten. Nick is also the Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia. And if that wasn’t enough, he is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network.

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