NIN Update From Co-Founders Nick and Bill

Hey gang,

Bill and I just wanted to give you an update on where we are and where we are going. I like to do this every once in a while to let you know what’s happening NIN style. We want to thank all of our members and festival partners for joining forces with us. We have 935 members, 500 troupes, 65 theaters and 70 festivals on the site. Together we are connecting the improv world like never before. Our biggest addition, so far this year, has been our chat feature. We are still working out some small kinks but you should be able to chat with improvisors online. I’ve had some great conversations with a lot of you! I hope to have more. If you see Bill and I online please chat with us. We are lonely. 🙂

We have a lot of ideas, but since it’s just the two of us we are trying hard to balance our own lives and bring you more resources, but we promise you we will. Things we want to give you in 2014:

1. Rick Andrews joining the NIN team: Rick is a performer and teacher at The Magnet Theater in NYC and is an organizer for DuoFest in Philadelphia. Rick has shared our vision from the start and has been a huge supporter of the site. We are happy to have Rick and you’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more from him in the near future. We are happy to have his brain!

2. MP3’s on your Troupe sites. We are beta testing this now, but soon festival organizers and troupes will be able to add their opening music. Why? It makes it easier on everyone. Again, it’s a one stop shop for information on your troupe. No longer will you have to worry about back and forth e-mails and information not getting there. Remember to complete your troupe profile as much as you can for a better chance to get into festivals.

3. Instructor Pages – We are working on it. Soon, if you are a teacher, you will be able to list your workshops on your profile page. We know there are a lot of instructors out there but we only know a handful. Let’s try to blow this puppy out and see what we have in the entire country! Our hope is that festivals can also use this tool to search out new and interesting workshops and teachers.

4. Video conferences and site chat conferences – This year we have the goal of having video and chat conferences that range in topics of coaching improv to marketing your theater. Look out for this later in the year.

If you’re reading this and haven’t joined the site, NIN is free to join so check it out and sign up today. If you’re a festival or theater people are looking for you and want to find you to submit so add your festival today it is also free to list your festival and theater.

As always, we get a lot of ideas from the community some we can do and some we just can’t right now, but regardless we keep all of them. So if you have any ideas or recourses you’d like to see on the site we are open for business just shoot us a PM or e-mail us at nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com or bill@nationalimprovnetwork.com.

Yours,

Nick Armstrong and Bill Binder

Co-Founders

National Improv Network

Chat Features Added

One of the things that we’ve been wanting to add to the site for a while is a way for improvisors to talk to each other more quickly. Earlier this year we added Communities to allow smaller, more focused conversations. Today we add chat functions to the site.

If you look to the bottom of the page, you’ll see the new Chat Toolbar. Use it to talk with your friends while you’re on the site. We’ll be adding more functionality to the chat plugin in the coming weeks, but check it out now and let us know how it’s going.

Also, less dramatically, we’ve updated the notifications options on the site. Several folks told us that it was hard to know when notifications came in or how to find them. We’ve added a new sidebar that will show any incoming messages.

Chat away and let us know how you’re using the new tools.

Does Your Troupe Have a Bible?

I always recommend to troupes getting started to put together a bible for their team. This is a great way to see what commonalities you and your fellow ensemble members have in regards to what you like in improv. This also helps a director because they can start to see what kind of team the improvisors want to be and what they really want to focus on.

These are the two questions I usually ask an improvisor when a team is just starting:

1. What do you like in improv? (Meaning the support, the listening, the ensemble, community etc.)

2. What do you like that troupes do in improv shows? (Meaning seamless transitions, no edits, team that just has fun etc.)

Once it is put all together you all have a shared language and it will start giving you hints on what kind of form you want to create or do. Basically giving you the building blocks to your troupe.

Once I get all these answers from the improvisors, I start to put it together highlighting the most common things they share, for instance a team I coach now their common things are:

Creative Transitions

Character work

Patience

Callbacks

Space/object work

Make each other laugh

This helps the improvisors and the coach. It helps the improvisors because they are now sharing a language on what they want to focus on in their shows and the form that they will eventually make. As a coach it helps because you can now hold them responsible for all of this and guide them to their goals and form. So go out and give it a try, if anything it will help you organize your thoughts as an ensemble. If you end up working with this let me know I’d love to hear if it helped.

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 and performer and teacher at iO West. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

Book Highlight: Improv Wins

by Chris Trew and Tami Nelson

by Chris Trew and Tami Nelson

I met Chris Trew and Tami Nelson at the 2004 Southern Improv Festival. I immediately liked them. Their passion for improv wasn’t unique, but their drive to see improv continue to grow and change rather than rest on its successes was something very dear to me.

It was more than talk. In the ten years that followed, Chris and Tami have reshaped improv, not in one town, but in the entire Southeastern part of the country. They’re personal style can be seen in much of the improv in that region, but each city also grows in its own way making its own unique form of those ideas. That’s what’s great about Chris and Tami and everyone at The New Movement. I was excited to receive a copy of their book in the mail and more than pleased to share some thoughts on the book here.

Recently, a review of the UCB Manual of Improv appeared in these pages. In many ways this book is similar to that one. Both are structured more like textbooks than improv books of days past (although Improv Wins is presented in a slightly less linear fashion). Ideas are broken down with exercises for the reader to do at home. Both provide real world examples with discussions of the answers. Likewise, both can very clearly be seen as guides on performing in the style of their respective theatres. This book, in fact, has a very wonderful introduction that is very honest about this; that there are many ways to approach improv and this is but one of them. In these respects, both books are both similar.

But in what I believe to be a very important way, they are also quite different. The UCB Manual could be viewed as a definitive guide. I’m certain it will be sold at the UCB Theaters for years to come. Students reading that book may go on to eventually teach from the same book. Improv Wins is far more aware of the constant changing and growing nature of the craft. There is still great wisdom to be gleaned from Impro for Storytellers, but much of the content of that book is less applicable in a modern improv environment. Improv Wins is self-aware that it likewise is a snapshot of it’s time – a book for 2014, not 2036. Whereas the UCB Manual teaches how to solidify a current form of improv, Improv Wins encourages the reader to use this book as a starting point to reinvent and reshape improv in new ways going into the future. In fact, I would argue that while many of the exercises in this book may be considered quaint in fifteen years, the value of this book will still be in the ideas of continued reinvention.

Tami and Chris

Tami and Chris

For the many students of established improv theatres across the world, is this book a good resource? Sure. It’s a nice supplement to your existing teaching and perhaps offers a different take on ideas that may be easier to understand for the reader. It will be a very useful supplement to their learning, if not necessarily a revelation. But to the hundreds of performers in small towns across the country without access to professional teachers, this can be a huge benefit. This book not only presents exercises that might be presented in a classroom setting, but offers the insight and explanation a teacher might provide. This book shouldn’t be considered a replacement for formal training, but it’s an excellent substitute when that training is not available.

And that works on the flipside as well. I know many many performers who have been playing for a while and are now looking to begin teaching. Read this book. This book can be an example to follow on how to effectively communicate ideas and organize thoughts. Even if your specific focus is different than the teachings of The New Movement, this book can be a useful template for how to present information in a way students can understand.

Although not formally separated into two sections, the book does change focus about halfway through. The second half of this book is why I’m recommending this book to my personal students. After several chapters of how to work well onstage. The second portion of the book offers advice which has rarely seen written form on how to behave offstage; working with your ensemble in healthy ways, building relationships with other ensembles and theatres, good advice on traveling to festivals. (And a special thank you to the authors for the kind words spoken of the festival in my home town.) These ideas are not wholly new, but have existed for far too long as only oral traditions. Thanks to Chris and Tami for putting these thoughts together on paper for those performers looking to grow and sustain their troupes.

Overall this book is cleverly and very personally written. It’s a useful guide to performance as well as a genuinely entertaining read for any performer. But for the beginning troupes, this will be a tremendously useful book in growing. Not growing into The New Movement or The Reckoning or Baby Wants Candy, but growing into something new, something beyond those. This book will help the next generation of performers discover more and leave us in the dusty past. Highly, highly recommended.

You can get the book here.

Hooray books!


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

Start a Budget Now

I’ve had the fortune to be able to meet performers from troupes, theatres and festivals across North America; big and small. Of course, we all know the big established places like iO, Coldtowne and HUGE, but there are great theatre companies in pretty much every city. One thing that’s surprising is that almost every one of these smaller theatres tells me they don’t keep any kind of budget. The reason is almost universally the same; “Oh we don’t make enough money to justify a budget.” I think there’s a big misconception that the purpose of a budget is to keep track of your vast wealth. Well, I suppose that is one purpose of a budget, but it’s so many other things. Even if you only make $40 a year from that one high school gig, a budget is a way not just to keep track of your money, but to help understand the trends and patterns of your organization and help better plan for the future.

Creating a simple budget for your organization, even your troupe is a great way to help you better plan ahead. It can help you plan so you can have the right number of workshops throughout the year without having to cancel them. It can help you know what time of the year is best for your troupe to travel or for your theatre to put on a festival. And if you ever apply for a grant, boy howdy will having good records help you. Perhaps even more important it will give you the habits you need for when you do grow. Because you want to continue doing improv for a long time right? That doesn’t necessarily mean getting rich, but it means planning on how to sustain yourself.

If you don’t have a budget. Start one. Start one this week. Keep in mind, this post is not intended to be the end all, be all of your budgeting system. As you grow, you will need to invest in far more versatile budgeting tools and software or getting an accountant. But I know to many readers that’s an incredibly intimidating thought. These tools are an extreme baseline. These are tools to help you form good basic budgeting habits and learn how to eventually customize them or expand them for your own use. But if you really need to set a budget on your money, then store your money where you can invest it and eventually generate money, you´re starting to consider that then read the US Gold Bureau review to see how they can help you.

There are many kinds of documents and reports and listings that come with any store bought budget. They can be confusing. I suggest starting with these four. Two of them will probably make sense. Two of them will probably seem like a (small) waste of time. I promise you that those ten minutes a month will come back to be of great help in the future. These documents shouldn’t be open ended. Choose a period of time for this budget and then rebuild it for the next period. Usually, that period is a year. Usually they start in January. But find a cycle that suits your organization. For festivals, it may be wise to start your annual budget two months after your festival. Why two months? Because that gives you time to take care of all the remaining payments and income and can start fresh for the next year’s festival. For theatres, January is usually a good idea because if you do incorporate into a business, your taxes, annual reports and 99s (if you’re a non-profit) will be based on that cycle.

Ledger

C’mon. You knew this would be in the list. Keep a basic ledger of every expense and income. This lets you know where your money is coming from and going to and what your available funds are at any time. It’s not complicated. You can even keep just a Google Doc or Excel Spreadsheet with the following columns

Date, Description, Debit, Credit, Balance

For those who aren’t good with spreadsheet software like Excel, here’s a quick set of instructions that will do the very basic math for you. On the very first entry for balance enter the following keystrokes ‘=’, ‘left arrow’, ‘-‘, ‘left arrow’, ‘left arrow’, ENTER. This will give you the balance of your first transaction. On the line below (your second transaction) enter ‘=’, ‘up arrow’, ‘+’, ‘left arrow’,’-‘,’left arrow’,’left arrow’,ENTER Then copy and paste that to each cell beneath it. This will do the math of your ledger for you.

As you grow, you may have several places where your money is being stored; a bank account, Square, PayPal, Brown Paper Tickets (or some other Ticketing Software). Keep a ledger for each.

Balance Sheet

A balance sheet is one of the the things you hear in movies when people are in board rooms talking about boring things. But it’s probably the simplest financial document you can imagine. At the beginning of each month, write down how much money you have right now. That’s it. One number. A balance sheet is simply a snapshot of “where’ we’re at right now”. (If you want to get “fancy”, you can also put down any receivable funds or debts as well.) After one month, or two months, that info won’t be much use to you, but as the year goes on you’ll have quick access to your history. And more importantly, it will help you make educated decisions on your future. (More on that under projections).

Financial Earnings Sheet

Structurally, a financial earnings sheet is similar to balance sheet. While a balance sheet keeps track of how much you have right now, a financial earnings sheet lists how much you’ve spent and earned in the last month. It can be as simple as those two numbers each month, but this one you’ll probably want to break down into categories that will be useful to you. Monthly income is a useful number, but breaking it down into “Tickets”, “Classes”, “Corporate Workshops” will give you a better idea of where your efforts are being focused, and possibly where they should be diverted. If you rent a space for classes and pay instructors, but don’t make back that amount of money in registration, that doesn’t mean stop classes. But it’s good to know that there is a drain there and you probably need to make some changes.

Quick Tip: Obviously, if you break down the income and spending by category at the beginning of each month, that will involve going through all your transactions and deciding which category they go into. Although this won’t completely do all the work for you, a time saver is to list items in your ledger in a consistent way with the category first. For example, ledger entries like “Friday Night Tickets” and “Jerry’s Show” aren’t quite as organized as “Tickets: 1/10/14”, “Tickets: Jerry’s Show”. At the end of the month, you can copy and paste your monthly transactions to another sheet and alphabetize them. It will still take a couple of minutes to add things up, but will be considerably quicker. If there’s something in a slightly gray area. Don’t stress about it too much now. In the years to come you’ll find your own way to organize that data more and more effectively.

Projections

I’ve talked only briefly and vaguely on the benefits of Balance Sheets and Financial Earnings Sheets. Their use will long term become apparent, but short term, they’ll help you build your projections sheet and that’s the one that will really help you more than anything else.

A Projections Sheet should be built at the beginning of each year. It will take more time than the other documents, but outside of little additions throughout the year, the bulk of the work will be done once a year.

The basic structure of a Projections Sheet is quite simple, and to be honest. Your first year’s projections won’t be terribly useful. Make a breakdown of each month how much you “think” you’ll make and how much you “think” you’ll spend. Really do your best to make educated guesses. Are your ticket sales generally lower around Christmas time? Do you know you’ll be having fundraisers during the summer? Don’t forget that you probably have those little expenses throughout the year (printing flyers, etc). Try to include everything and write down a rationale list of all your projected ideas for the year. Do the math and write down how much you think you’ll have at the beginning of each month in the coming year.

Create three columns.

  • The first column is the projections you just made. Never change them. Write protect that column if you need to. Even if mid-year you realize you were drastically off. Keep that original projection.
  • The second column is going to be filled in with the actual amount you have (essentially, the same info you put on your balance sheet).
  • The third column is your adjusted projections. At the beginning of the each month, take what you’ve learned to make any adjustments to your projections to hopefully be more accurate.
  • Now you have a roadmap for the rest of the year. Sit back and look at it. You may find some surprising things. Maybe the months you’re planning on traveling to a festival out of state is the same month that you’re paying your instructors and also the same month your ticket sales are going to a local charity. You knew about all those things separately, but didn’t notice that all of your big expenses were happening at the same time. Maybe a couple extra shows can be added the month before. Maybe that printer you were planning on buying should wait until later in the year.

    Each month, check your actual finances against your projections. If you’re falling behind, look for a way to bring yourself back up to those levels. If you’re ahead. Well, remember that printer? Now’s the time where you can afford it without going below your projections.

    At the end of your first year, you’ll have made some mistakes. It will happen. You’re just feeling your way out. And here’s the beautiful thing. When you go to build your projections next year, you have a record of everything you did last year. Did you buy 200 t-shirts last year and sell 14? It’s there in your balance sheet and your financial earnings sheet. This year. Order 20 shirts because you can have a much more education guess on how many t-shirts you’ll sell this year. Did you offer one Level 1 Class every two months, but realize that during the summer, you had a demand from the college students who were out of school and had to turn them away? Offer two summer classes this year. One year from now you’ll be building projections for 2015 and you’re going to have solid information on what your year might look like. Of course 2015 won’t be exactly the same as 2014, but it’s going to be similar and you’re going to be armed with the knowledge.

    Many people think that thinking about money in improv is somehow… dirty. That you sacrifice your art when you start thinking about money. But that old saying isn’t “Money is the root of all evil.” It’s “The Love of Money”. When you start sacrificing your integrity to make a buck, your in bad territory. But that doesn’t mean that the money you do have is a bad thing. It’s what allows you to continue to perform and travel and share your love. It’s what allows you to bring master teachers to your theatre to raise your game. It’s what allows you to reach out to your community and expose them to the thing you love if you handle it responsibly. Something as simple as keeping these four documents will help you get to that point without turning into a bunch of boring business people or losing your art.

    I really believe if we all start doing this, improv will explode in the next few years and the public awareness and appreciation of improv will blossom. Here’s what I’m willing to do. If this sounds like something you’d like to do but still feel in a bit over your head. Email me directly at bill@nationalimprovnetwork.com. I’ll send you some template files and I’ll get on the phone with you and help you set up an appropriate budget for your own troupe, theatre or festival.

    And don’t stop with these very basic steps, learn to grow and find the right tools for your organization to grow into the next decade.


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

    Advice on Public Relations for Improv

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

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

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

    The Unfortunate Real Deal in Press:

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

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

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

    Social Media: Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy

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

    You Better Have a Good Product!

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

    Writing a Press Release:

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

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

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

    In The End:

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

    Nick Armstrong

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

    Spotlight On: San Diego Improv Festival


    San Diego is growing fast as an improv city. Different theatres, different styles, but plenty of people who are working towards making improv accessible to the people of San Diego.

    Part of that growth means a new improv festival and a new chance for improvisors to visit a new place and share the love (on Valentine’s Day no less).

    I’ve had the pleasure to know Chris George for a while now and I was excited to get to talk to him about the upcoming first San Diego Improv Festival and the growth of the city’s active improv scene.

    Finest City just opened in December. And you’re putting up a festival in February; that’s a lot going on. Why did you decide to have a festival so close to the launch of the theatre? What kind of shared energy do you think will go into launching this first festival?

    San Diego is in a real boom-time as far as improv goes. In the last three years, there has been a huge explosion in the number of theaters, groups, venues, showcases, classes, workshops, and people. In addition to Finest City opening, groups like Sidestage have seen enormous crowds and popular workshop series, and Lifeplay (which focues on using improv skills to help children and teens with bullying, but also does a lot of great traditional programming) has seen a large increase in demand and activity. Basically – San Diego is at a critical point for improv and we feel that it is time to both tie us in to the larger national community, and also celebrate just how wonderful improv is in San Diego right now. We hope to really capture the unbridled enthusiasm our community has right now, and also expand some horizons of some of our players that may have been a little isolated up to this point.

    San Diego has a rich collection of improv, both longform and shortform. What are you hoping for visitors to learn and take away from being exposed to San Diego’s improv scene?

    The improv community here is very vibrant and growing, but we’re still largely unknown to the greater San Diego community. We’re hoping that our festival can a celebration of just how much we’ve been able to accomplish in the last few years, and introduce the best of San Diego and beyond to our largely untapped audience. We do have some very talented and motivated local players, and getting the word out is still a high priority.

    Outside of performances, what other events will be available for performers? Workshops? Parties?

    We will have workshops; we have already confirmed iO’s Bill Arnett (3033, People of Earth) as a teacher at the festival and we plan on having on even more great teachers from our local and visiting teams. We are fortunate to have the venue at the same location as our host hotel, which means that we should have a large concentration of improvisers on site, and no one has to drive anywhere. The hotel has a pool and two bars, which I suspect may mean that the party may never stop. We are also planning some afternoon excursions to some of the local flavor.

    San Diego is an amazing city. When the festival isn’t happening, what sights would you recommend for visitors? Where are some of the best places to eat around the festival?

    The San Diego Zoo is probably the most well known landmark, and is a terrific exhibit, but the surrounding park (Balboa) has science and history museums, walking trails, and shops. The USS Midway exhibit is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that is a popular tourist destination, and is surrounded by the Embarcadero, which is a wonderful waterfront shopping area. The Gaslamp area downtown is a well known party area, packed with bars and restaurants, and the intersection of 30th & University was rated by several national publications as one of the best places to drink beer in the country, due to its high concentration of bars, nearly all of which have dozens of varieties of beer. Speaking of that, San Diego county is home to 40+ microbreweries, most of which have samplings and tours, making us one of the best places for a beer connoisseur. Our theater is located in the middle of the North Park neighborhood, home to hundreds of bars and restaurants, all within an easy walk or cab ride. There are amusement parks just an hour north in Carlsbad, CA, sunny beaches, surfing, sailing, and of course, improv.

    What’s the venue like?

    A nice place to chill before shows

    A nice place to chill before shows

    We’re very fortunate to be partnered with the Lafayette Hotel, which is a kitschy, newly remodeled hotel that used to be a favorite haunt of celebrities and actors in the 30’s-50’s. Our theater is brand new, with full lighting and sound equipment, projectors, and has a hand built stage, which is probably one of the best stages that could be built for improv.

    To the best of my knowledge, this will be one of the first times San Diego audiences will be exposed to a large number of out-of-town performances. What are your hopes in exposing them to new kinds of improv?

    We have had a few out of town guests in the past – Two Beer Queer, King Ten, The 313, Ice Tits to name a few, but this will be the first largest gathering of visiting teams. I think for a long time, San Diegans have only seen shortform improv, and audiences probably only associate improv with silly, gimmicky, or relatively unprofessional groups. We really want to show the wide variety of high quality teams we have available both in town and out. We would love our audiences to walk away that weekend with an appreciate of traditional longform, deconstructive forms (e.g. Armando), musical, narrative, genre, shortform, and maybe even some new, challenging, and unique improv. We hope that the audiences that come see our stuff will continue to check out new and different improv groups, and hopefully join us in exploring and performing.

    What kind of shows are you looking for in your submissions this year?

    We want about a 50/50 split between home and visiting teams, and we really want to showcase a large variety of shows. We want great teams, of course, but we also would love to get some shows that no one has really ever seen before.

    California has seen an explosion of improv festivals in the last two years. What are some things you’ve learned from them and other festivals around the country? What are some things you’re hoping to emulate or change?

    Finest City has been very lucky to have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of festival organizers and get some ideas for how to make the festival the kind of one you would want to come back to next year. We want to focus on making our guests feel welcome – we’re hoping to organize some airport and train station pickups to make the trip easier, and giving each team a local contact they can call if they have questions, or even just want to know a good place to get noodles at 2am (for the record, Jimmy Wong’s Golden Dragon Asian Bistro over in Hillcrest). We are aware that a trip to San Diego is a bit of trip for almost everyone, and we want to make that trip worthwhile.


    Submissions are open right now. It’s a great chance to come out and be among the first to share improv from your home with the people of San Diego and to meet people like Chris.

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

    When A Stoppable Force Meets A Movable Object

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

    Here’s Mike’s Intro Blog:

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

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

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

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

    Mike Brown

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

    Our Improv Family

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

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

    From Susan:

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

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

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    Blue Velveeta

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Nick Armstrong

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

    The Improvisors Project – A Discussion with Sam Willard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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