One of the biggest pieces of advice we can give about starting an improv theatre in a small town is you have to love your city. That may sound pretty simple or naïve, but stick with us here. What we mean is, you need to embrace everything about your town for good or bad. We live in a small rural town in Southern Utah called Cedar City. At first glance it might not seem like the kind of place an improv theatre would do well in. It’s the kind of town where nothing is open on Sunday or after 10pm on the weekdays. However, it’s home to a University and has a small but thriving arts community. We used all this to our advantage. We took all the negatives and turned them into positives. For example, one of the biggest negatives about our small town is the fact that choices are limited. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard people say, “there’s nothing to do in Cedar City.” The advantage this gave us is we created something to do that quickly became a staple of entertainment, especially for the University students. Now when we hear someone say there’s nothing to do, we say, “have you ever seen Off the Cuff?” Another negative of our small town is they tend to fear change. This is where patience paid off big time for us. While the University students were quick to welcome us the town itself was a little reluctant. We realized that this feeling all came from a fierce loyalty to Cedar and we needed to prove ourselves. We accomplished this in two ways. We stuck around and continued to grow and we got involved in our community. Getting involved was huge. We do workshops with the local high schools, we volunteer at city events, we participate in the parades, and we get our name out there. It took a while, but we’ve been able to form connections and friendships that have helped us out more than we say. The more involved in your community you can be and the more you support local businesses the more they will, in turn, support you.
Go outside your town and network.
The great advantage to living when we do is how easily we can access information. It’s so easy to see amazing improv and find a lot of great information on the web that can help you stay current and fresh with your improv and always keep you moving forward. Off the Cuff has benefited so much from taking opportunities like the National Improv Network and Camp Improv Utopia. As a small community these types of things allow us to get connected and make our community better. Nick’s post about a rising tide raises all ships is very true for us. The more the word about improv gets out and the success of improvisors gets more mainstream smaller communities will grow and larger communities will prosper. This is a huge. It’s really easy for your troupe to fall into patterns that limit growth, especially when the only improv you see is each other. OTC makes it a point to go outside our community as much as we can. We love to travel to festivals and theatres to see other shows so we can broaden our horizon. This is crucial, it’s so easy to get stuck in a rut and become complacent when you’re the only gig in town. In order for you to remain current you need to see what else is out there, take every opportunity to go to a festival, watch shows in person, meet other improvisers, take workshops so you can bring back to your theatre the best information out there. Through this you’ll also meet the most incredibly talented and giving people in the world who are so eager to help you in anyway they can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take advantage of the knowledge of those who have been through professional training and love improv as much as you do, they are so happy and willing to help. Off the Cuff would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for some amazing people that have helped us in so many ways and those people accepting us with open arms into their communities thus making our community bigger and better.
Strive to be better and be proud of who you are.
As a small community, NEVER become complacent. You have to drive yourself to want to improve and practice. Just because you might be the only improv group and the area doesn’t mean you are the best. Keep your ego in check, which sometimes in a smaller community might be harder because the audience only sees you perform and doesn’t have all the options a larger community might have. At the same time, don’t let your ego tell you the opposite that your group doesn’t know what they are doing and improv in larger communities is better just because it’s from a bigger city. Be proud of your work. There is a term called “farm-prov” thrown around in larger communities that refers to improv groups from smaller communities. “Oh great, here’s another farm-prov group from nowhere.” Embrace that term! WE ARE FARM-PROV! Watch us take that suggestion, help it grow into characters, relationships, themes and scenework and harvest the laughter! (By the way does anyone want to go to festivals as a group called farm-prov and dress up like hillbillies and totally kill a show with us?) Small communities rock! That being said, we are all part of a larger community and the more we as improvisors, theatres, festivals, friend’s, and foes embrace this it’ll do nothing but grow.
Make goals that are realistic and be ready to go beyond them.
We always have a clear vision of what we want to accomplish and what we think we can accomplish. We budget our money wisely and think business decisions through thoroughly. When we set goals for OTC we make two lists: what we want to accomplish and what we know we can accomplish. Both remain on the table at all times. We first try to accomplish the goals we know we can. We make it a point to not put the cart before the horse. That being said, in a small town you have to create opportunity for yourself and this requires doing some things before you’re ready. If we tried to accomplish only what we thought we could, we would never be as far as we are now. For example, when we decided we wanted to host a festival, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t live in a big town where there are already improv festivals or even festivals close by. We had never run a festival before and had only participated in one. We asked for advice from people we knew who went to festivals often and we went for it. We had no clue how to accomplish that goal but had we waited until we were ready, there wouldn’t be a Red Rocks Improv Festival at all. We always think ahead to next year, we never close ourselves off to the option of changing the festival, and this mentality has helped us improve. Each year our festival gets bigger and we learn more about what we can do to make it the best it can be. We remain flexible and ready to change but always have a vision and a concrete idea. Remember that there are amazing opportunities out there. You might have to look a little harder for them and work a little harder to make them happen but it’ll pay off. In a small town where improv is not established, you’re going to be the first to do a lot of the things. Being the first at anything requires a huge leap that takes quite a bit of courage and faith. You have to take the leap and learn how to fall as you’re falling. Creating an amazing strong improv community in a small town is a lot like doing improv, first you say yes then you figure it out as you go.
Guest Bloggers: TJ and Wendy Penrod
Tj and Wendy are the Founders and Artistic Directors of Off The Cuff Improvisation in Cedar City, Utah. In January of 2014 they will be celebrating 10 years as a company and this year marked their 4th Annual Red Rocks Improv Festival which has attracted troupes from all over the country to their small town.