Creating Good Submissions, Part II: Choosing a Show

You must Choose. Choose wisely.

When submitting to a festival, it’s often hard to decide which is your “best show.” It may be a relief to know that most people reviewing these submissions don’t want to see your best show; that show has already happened. Festival producers want to see a show that best represents what they can expect to see at the festival.

Of all the factors that contribute to choosing a show, two stick out far more often than any other as bad choices — and often lead to shows getting looked over. Avoiding these two pitfalls will greatly help your chances.

  • Showing your best show ever … from 2008. Many submissions come in with really tight, funny shows. This is the same submission video that a group has been using for years. The players have grown since then. The cast might not even be the same. It’s not representative of the work they are doing now. More to the point, it begs the question, “If you haven’t done a show this good in five years, why would I believe you can deliver this at my festival?” Don’t show your favorite show from the past if it doesn’t showcase who you are now.
  • Showing your most recent show ever. Many groups don’t record their shows and rush to make a submission video days — or even hours — before the submission deadline. That’s putting all of your eggs in one basket. Also, it puts an undue amount of pressure on the performers to play beyond their normal game and for a camera they aren’t used to. Most submission shows filmed the day before deadlines are not the best work and it also sends the message that this show was recorded only to satisfy a requirement and that shows a lack of self-respect.

Just like Goldilocks, you need to find a solution that’s somewhere between the two; something that’s just right. Get in the habit of recording shows often, not just when a festival is approaching. This will give you more options to choose from and less pressure on any specific show. For some groups it is unrealistic to record all shows or to archive them all, but keep at least a handful of recent shows whenever possible.

Now that you have a few shows to choose from, selecting them can still be difficult. Here are a few things that will be noticed:

  • This looks like they're having fun

    This looks like they’re having fun

    Start out strong — A show with a strong opening will always work better than a show with a strong ending. Your show is being viewed by people reviewing many tapes. Your potential festival gig will be for an audience that has seen several shows that evening. Both of these are different audiences than the audiences you have in your regular shows who may see only one or two shows a night. A weak opening will let the show blend into the many other shows being seen, and a strong ending might not be met with an active audience.

  • Have fun — So many submission videos look like the performers are nervous about being on video or just plain not having fun onstage. Just enjoy the chance to play with people you love. If you enjoy being on stage, we’ll enjoy watching you.
  • Choose the show that has your voice — The people in your town enjoy your show, there’s something special and unique about it — showcase that. Even if that show is a little rough around the edges, showcase what makes your show different than the other shows out there. That’s what people come to festivals to see.
  • Watch before you submit — Sometimes shows feel different onstage than they do watching from an audience point of view.
  • Don’t send a highlight reel — Unless specifically asked for, no one wants to see a highlight reel. That’s not what the festival audience will see. Submit a complete, unedited work.

Don’t make this decision on your own. Talk with your ensemble. Watch a couple with them. Discuss which show you best want to represent your group. Upload it and link it to your NIN page and it’s ready for submission. The video portion of your submission is complete. Now what about the rest of the package.

More to come dear readers in the final part of “Creating Good Submissions.” Read part 1

Vision and Soul Before Paperwork

It’s exciting to be an improvisor right now. With more information on how to start a business available to us than ever before — and pioneers we can learn from in front of us — it’s like the future of improv is in our hands!

Often, the first question folks ask when they want to start a business is, “Should we be for-profit or not-for-profit?” Let me lay some serious truth down right now:

The FIRST thing any budding theatre company, festival or theatre venue needs to figure out is not what piece of paper to file. The first thing you need to do is agree with your leadership team on your theatre’s vision and soul.

Your vision and soul are the reason why you are in business. They are your ‘This is why we are here.” Are you here because you want to make the best improv? The most supportive ensembles ever created? The best place to get shitfaced and laugh? The place for families to spend time with their children in a safe environment for them?

Answering these questions, and even just bringing up the discussion, will give you and your team of amazing improvisors-slash-theatre owners an opportunity to get on the same page for what you are creating. Once you are on the same page, it is easier to make business decisions, determine what shows to put on, and create a great experience for your students, performers AND customers.

Here is a proposed way to get there:

Develop your company vision and soul: Why are you doing this and what do you want to do?

A way to answer this question is to go around the room at your next leadership meeting and ask everyone:

If money and time and resources were no object, what would our theatre/festival look like to you?

Allow everyone to speak fully, and do not criticize anyone’s dreams. After everyone has spoken, pull out the common threads and look for agreement. Perhaps you would get something like this:

Team member A: “I believe improv is a team sport. It’s important to me that our theatre is very supportive.”

Team member B: “I would build ‘nights out’ with our neighboring businesses so that everyone is benefiting in our small business community.”

Team member C: “I would pay everyone in our theatre enough money to live from doing improv full time.”

From these different threads, you could draw that your vision and soul might be:

“We are a community and student focused theatre that is committed to bettering our community’s ‘night out’ experience and creating an environment that supports art as life. Experimentation is encouraged.”

If your leadership team agrees on your goal, you’ve created a guidepost everyone can check in with and maintain true to your vision. Now that you know where you want to go, survey the business options in front of you to see which best fits your needs. For-profit companies can put money back into their communities, and be just as benevolent as non-for-profit companies — the important thing is that the legal/financial structure supports YOUR goals, not the other way around.

Take action! If you are developing your company and haven’t filed paperwork yet, do this exercise with your leadership team and let us know what your “why” and “how” is! If you’re a theatre who’s been doing this for a while, when was the last time you checked in on your vision and made sure you were tracking to it?

Kate is an innovator working in business, product and customer development by day and an improvisor by night living in Chicago, IL. She blogs at on creating companies that value innovation, employees and their customers. Having recently moved from Phoenix, she is looking forward to getting back to the improv stage in Chicago with a group of new friends. When she is back in Phoenix, she plays in Purple Monkey Dishwasher at the Torch Theatre. Tweet at her! She likes that. @xoticdonkeymeat


Welcome to the National Improv Network!

62116_451764218228461_1211590182_nHi there! Thanks for being a part of National Improv Network. If this is your first introduction, welcome! If it’s your tenth, thank you for stopping by again. The site was created by improvisers for improvisers with the idea that we want you to succeed in every aspect of your theatre from performances to the business end.

We recognize that the improv community is growing. There is now a troupe or theatre in every major city in the United States. Several wonderful, new improv festivals have popped up across the country in the past few years.

We want to connect you to them. We want the improv community not to be defined by state lines, but by one community linked together, expanding the art form and growing it into a national scene.

For those already in the improv community, whether as a performer or as an avid audience member, we know that improv is great and a true art. We at National Improv Network want the general public to see it the same way. Right now, improv is not widely recognized as competing with stand-up, sketch or theatre. We want to help raise the visibility of improv to the general public. We feel that if we can get a national effort and raise the awareness of improv that in turn provide more opportunities to perform, bring more customers to our venues and help your local improv theatre grow.

Please consider us a resource for you. To help you grow, to connect you to the greater improv community. Everything we roll out is designed to help you grow internally and externally. We believe that together we are better, just like an improv ensemble but on a national level.

Nick Armstrong, Bill Binder and Kate Anderson

Creating Good Submissions, Part I: Technology

HawkinStroth in action

pictured: HawkinStroth

Submitting to a festival can be daunting sometimes. Even with the tools on this site that help expedite the process, you’re submitting information alongside dozens or hundreds of other groups. You want to be recognized. You want the festival producers to see what it is you love about your troupe. This is your resume and you want it to stand out.

Ultimately, each festival will be looking for different specifics, but they’ll all be looking for two things; good content and easy access to it. A little work on your end can elevate both of these and make your submissions much more likely to be considered for festivals.

Almost every festival requires a video of your show. This requires some tools of technology. Some groups have access to theatres or friends with fancy technology. Others don’t. And that’s OK. Even with very crude technology, it’s possible to make a quality submission. No one cares if your submission is in HD as long as they can see and hear you.

Camera specs

That said, better cameras will take some of the work off of you. If you’re considering buying a video camera, the salespeople will try to sell you features that may be useful to many customers, but not to you. Here are some features that will help you make more useful submissions (and a few features that won’t).

  • CMOS: This can be an expensive option, although it’s getting cheaper all the time. Most improv shows are done in lighting conditions that most cameras weren’t designed for; low light and high contrast. Cameras that can’t handle these conditions well will “blow out” the difference between performers with lights on them and their background. This means glowing faces and bodies. Part of the joy of seeing an improv show is the intimacy, and seeing the expressions on players’ faces. This can be lost if your faces look like a million burning suns. CMOS is the best low light option in a reasonable price range, but CCD or any “low light” option is better than none.

What is going on here?

  • External microphone jack: Depending on your venue, the camera might be quite a distance from your show, and almost always on the other side of the audience. If it’s a struggle to hear you, you’ll get tuned out. That said, you do not need 5.1 surround. Believe me, I know it sounds cool. But this means capturing sound from behind the camera, which is likely your tech booth. With great respect to your tech booth, I don’t need to hear it.
  • Flash Media: There are still amazing cameras on the market that use tape based media. They are for making movies. Tape can be expensive and time consuming for recording theatre shows. Unless you are planning on archiving shows on tape, which would become insanely expensive, you’d be re-using tapes. Tapes are mechanical devices and wear out quickly. You’ll find shows are garbled on tape after a few recordings. Capturing your shows to a computer for submission purposes is also in real-time, which means 30 minutes to capture a 30 minute show and you need to be near the computer to process. This doesn’t sound so bad, until you remember that usually you get home after shows pretty late at night and you don’t want to babysit the computer week after week. Hard drives are also not the best storage solution for recording shows as it requires moving the camera to the editing station often. HDDs also still have limited storage space. A single SD card can typically store a week’s worth of shows at most theatres while a HDD can store only one night’s worth.
  • Simple Workflow: This is not going to be on the “specs list” for any camera — you’ll have to do a little research. No cameras (that I’m familiar with) on the market today support NTFS storage. I won’t bore you with the technical explanation of what this is, but here’s what it means to you. Cameras can only record a small handful of minutes at a time. This is fine for most people who don’t need long continuous shots. But a typical improv show is recorded live for 20-45 minutes. In cases like this, each camera manufacturer has their own methods of combining several small clips together to make one continuous file on your computer. For some cameras this is a quick simple process that you don’t even realize is happening. For other cameras, it is cumbersome. Also, some cameras apply unique codecs and wrappers (which is a fancy word for file types) which can’t be read by certain computer programs. At the time of this writing, Sony has the most simple and useful tool for importing longer files to computers, but in 2014 and beyond other cameras may be more useful.
  • Appropriate lens: Most festivals want as much of the stage visible at all times rather than a camera person moving the camera. A single shot covering the whole stage is preferable. Each staqe is uniquely shaped and you’ll want to find a lens that can capture the stage without diminishing the performers. If your stage is particularly wide, consider a wide angle lens — or at the very least a camera which supports 16×9 mode. If your stage is particularly small, this won’t be as large of a concern.

What you don’t need

  • 120hz: Also called Motionflow or Cinemotion or some other catchy name depending on the company. It can be very useful for recording NASCAR races. For an improv show, it doesn’t affect how the festival producers see your show.
  • Steadycam: As we are about to discuss, your camera should always be in a fixed location, not handheld if at all possible.

Making the best with what you have

All the features listed above will help, but it’s ultimately up to you to make sure your technology suits your environment. Here is how to record a show that will be easier to watch

  • Use a tripod: If you don’t have a tripod, use a shelf or a tabletop. Set up a shot that will capture the whole stage and lock down the position. The people viewing your show aren’t looking for creative camera work, they’re looking for a consistent view of everything going on. A handheld camera will miss parts of the show; it will be making choices for the festival producers and eliminating their scope. Boring single shots win every time.
  • Exposure: You can play with all the other settings you want, but the one that really matters is exposure. Get into the space ahead of time and simulate the lighting conditions of the performance with performers onstage. Too much exposure leads to a blur of white, too little exposure leads to a blur of black. Turn the exposure to a point where you can see the players faces at the front of the stage as this is the area where they are closest to the lights.
  • Separate the camera from the audience: I have watched hundreds of videos where the camera is in the middle of a laughing audience. Laughter is great, but not if I can’t hear the show. Put the camera, or the microphone if external, away from the laughing audience.

Creating a video

Once your show is done and you’ve dumped it to a computer, it’s time to get it online to be seen. At this point, you’ve done all you can do for the video quality, all that’s left is to make the show viewing as effortless as possible for festival producers.

  • Don’t include a long intro: It is often appreciated to have the name of the group and the date of performance at the top of the video. This shouldn’t take more than five seconds. Certainly, no one wants to see your promotional “hilarious” video for three minutes before watching your show. The same applies for the actual onstage intro to your show. Some videos include an MC introducing the show, some don’t. Either is fine as long as it’s very brief. If your actual show doesn’t begin by the sixty second mark, you’ve already lost the attention of the viewer.
  • Don’t break up your show: Many video sites have time limits which means breaking up your show across three video links. Nobody wants to load three links to watch one show. Vimeo allows files up to 500Mb on their free account, which should suffice for most shows.
  • Make it embeddable and accessible: Many festival organizers embed your submission video into whatever submission review tool they use. They don’t want to go to another page. More importantly, they need to be able to access it. Facebook is a big offender on both counts. Many videos can’t be embedded, and some cannot even be viewed unless the festival organizer is your “friend.”
  • FOLLOW DIRECTIONS: Many festivals have specific requests for shows. Read them. Make sure your show meets them.

Taking care here will make sure that your video can easily be viewed and more accurately represent your group. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of which show to submit. For the answers to that see Part II.

Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America. Bill is also a founder and website administrator for the National Improv Network. He’s always looking for feedback on how to make the website and the community stronger. Say ‘live long and prosper’ to @whbinder

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