ASIF – Review of The Alaska State Improv Festival

The Del Close Marathon. The Chicago Improv Festival. The Los Angeles Improv Comedy Festival. The New York Improv Festival. The Boston Comedy Arts Festival.
Chances are very likely that you’ve heard of these festivals, and probably attended at least two of them. I’m sure that you were exposed to an insane amount of improv troupes from around North America, and possibly Europe, and were blown away by the level of talent and variety featured at each of these festivals. I mean, how could you not be? There’s so much to see and experience. But here’s the thing about some of these mega-festivals: they’re so big and so intense that it becomes difficult to establish any sense of community amongst the improvisers that the typical performer’s e
xperience is to simply show up, get your performer’s pass, see a few shows, perform in your assigned time slot, and maybe see/do something in that city before it’s time to go home the next day.
Plus, one of the evils perpetuated in these types of mega-festivals is the illusion of status. Sure, some people/teams have achieved various levels of recognition be it through television, film, writing, talk shows, magazines, YouTube, or what-have-you, but there’s no opportunity to humanize them in any real way that matters because of the sheer amount of people attending these festivals. Sure, you might be able to go back to North Carolina and tell all of your friends that you got to tal13187866_10157629804150206_1747861823_nk with Jack McBrayer for five minutes, or that Amy Pohler accidentally spilled a drink on you in the Green Room. But where’s the humanity in that? Where’s the real life connection with another human being that matters? The answer is a simple one: The Alaska State Improv Festival!
Here’s one of the things that I love most about ASIF: Eric Caldwell, the festival producer, has been to so many festivals over the years that he knows exactly what to offer in terms of organization, variety, and community. Let me break it down for you.
Once accepted to perform in the festival, Eric automatically adds you to the ASIF Facebook group where you receive updates and alerts in real time. I can’t stress enough how fantastic this is because it accomplishes a few things right off the bat: the ability to connect with other performers (both past and present), immediate and direct contact with the festival producer (what other festival can you say that about???), and pertinent information regarding the festival itself as questions arise.
Before the festival has even started, accommodations, rides to and from the airport, workshops, sight seeing tours, after parties, discounted performer “eats and drinks” hotspots, and other individual points of interest have all been worked out well in advance that you genuinely feel taken care of. This isn’t one of those festivals where you hope you are able to find a place to stay within budget that is within an Über ride of the venue. Nope. It’s all been taken care of for you!
13187872_10157629804100206_776965086_nAND on the back of your performer’s pass there is a schedule of all of the shows for the weekend so you can plan accordingly. Quite thoughtful.
And AND…for anyone performing in the festival, Eric has provided a webpage on the ASIF site specifically for improvisers providing information about all sorts of local grocery stores, restaurants, points of interest, workshop schedules, performance schedules, directions, phone numbers, maps, etc. It’s an amazing resource!
There is so much about ASIF that I find outstanding that it becomes challenging where to start first. Let’s begin with the fact that you’re in Alaska’s capital performing improvised comedy! The landscapes are breathtaking, and are some of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen (and I literally travel the world for a living)!
Then there’s the incredible talent that Eric is able to bring in from all over: Susan Messing, Amber Nash, Parallelogramophonograph, Pinque Pony, Scared Scriptless, Ranger Danger and the Danger Ranger, Nick Armstrong & Bill Binder, Pawn Takes Queen, and 1 Deep just to name a few off the top of my head. (There’s so many more that are going unmentioned that have absolutely blown me away! Seriously, everyone is just so, so talented!)
And that’s what is so great about this festival: A) the range of performances that you’d rarely get the opportunity to see again, and B) that you actually get to know the people behind the ensemble. What a rare blessing it is to actually have time to sit down to lunch with Susan Messing and talk about life! Which leads me into my last point about ASIF…
We, as improvisers, know the importance of community. It’s what strengthens us and brings us together both on stage and off. It’s what allows us to brainstorm new ideas and collaborate on projects. If it weren’t for these basic ideals there wouldn’t even be improvised comedy as we know it. We’d be fighting against each other constantly in the latest version of “The ME Show.” So why do we naturally gravitate towards perpetuating this idea that “my way is better”, or “I was taught the real way of improvising”? It’s silly and its destructive. But thankfully ASIF breaks those barriers down by creating a lot of community-building activities in which we get to really spend time together and appreciate other’s way of operation.
Exhibit A: The Whale Watching Boat Tour
When are you ever going to get this opportunity again in your life?! It’s incredible, it’s amazing, and it’s 100% worth it! I mean, come on?! It’s a boat full of rowdy improvisers! How could you not?! So much fun!
Exhibit B: The Mixer Jams
You know what’s even more fun than performing with your team? Performing with a group of extremely talented improvisers from all over everywhere in a completely bonkers show where literally anything can happen! So much fun!
Exhibit C: The Afterparties
Each night after the last run of shows, Eric has made arrangements for everyone to gather together at some of the local bars, restaurants, and local Juneau hotspots just for the sake of hanging out and getting to know each other better. Seriously, what mega-festival does that? Ok, ok…the Del Close Marathon does that. But it’s not open to all performers, AND it’s not an environment conducive to connecting with performers that you’ve never met before. ASIF is the very definition of bringing people together to celebrate this most amazing art form that we all love more than life. So much fun!
Exhibit D: Workshops
I’ve had the pleasure of learning from some of the improv “greats” in my time, and the workshops offered during ASIF are no exception. These master artists (and I refer to them as such) have taught me more about improv, the love of the art form, the creative nature of performing, and small technical approaches that I can apply in my own way than any other workshop I’ve ever taken in the past.
Plus, you’re learning/honing your craft amongst a mixed group of your peers, of whom you may never get the opportunity to perform with ever again. I’ve made so many special bonds with many of Juneau’s local improvisers that will stay with me forever! And I’m genuine in saying that I love these people. I love the connection that we created together. I love the pure joy of discovering things together while being directed and steered towards positivity, emotion, story, and humanity. These are some of my most cherished memories only available to me through ASIF’s magical ability to bring people together.
Special shout outs to Susan Messing, Parallelogramophonograph, and Rich Baker. So much fun!
The long and the short of it is that attending ASIF is like summer camp for adults. You make new friends, you experience new highs, you get to see some of the best performers in the world at the height of their game, and you get to experience Juneau, Alaska in a way that you truly will never be able to experience outside of the festival. It’s magical. It’s personal. It’s beautiful.
The Alaska State Improv Festival – the best festival I’ve ever attended! There, I said it.
Mike Brown

Spotlight On Alaska

The Alaska State Improv Festival is back and you have one more day to submit. A lot of you know about the great festival, but if you’re on the fence. Here’s a little sneak peek as I interview Eric Caldwell, the festival’s producer.

ASIF continues to get some of the best word of mouth out there. Why do you think that is? What can first time performers expect if they come on up?

The production created the festival that we would want to attend. Every performer is offered a ride from the airport, and we always divert to the Mendenhall Glacier before going to the hotel. Once everyone has a chance to recover from the scenery, they experience McPhetres Hall – our performance venue. McPhetres Hall is a modern facility designed for theater with quality sound and lighting capacity in a beautiful natural cedar facility. It is clear to any performer walking into the facility that we are taking their presence seriously and giving them a gorgeous space in which to do their work.

Juneau has a very supportive audience that is open to all kinds of improv. What kinds of new shows are you hoping to bring up this year that might not have been in past festivals?

The production team always looks for quality and diversity. Any time we review a submission and say, “We’ve never seen that before!” we get excited. AS IF has enough of a history of binging in acts that expand our audience’s definition of what improv can be that our audiences expect they’ll see something different. This year, we invited Parallellogramophonograph from Austin, Texas because they have a chameleon-like ability to stage many forms of narrative improv. There are some groups in the pool right now that approach improv from interesting directions, and we hope there will be a few more troupes that sneak in at the deadline that blow us away.

Lots of whale pictures up on Facebook. Can you talk a little about the whale watching tours?

The past two years, we have contracted with Dolphin Jet Boat Tours to provide a whale watching charter at a discount rate. So many people who submit to AS IF are looking for The Alaskan Adventure and this is one way we can make that happen. Because AS IF happens a week before the tourist season, we have the jet boat all to ourselves and we get extra crew to help spot for whales,seals, and other creatures. This past year, they even sent out a scout boat for us so that we’d get to the whales that much quicker. The operators are huge fans of the festival as well and can be seen near the front wearing their vendor passes throughout much of the festival.

You travel to festivals pretty frequently, but many Alaska performers don’t get that chance. What are you hoping to expose local performers to at the festival this year. And what part of the local scene are you looking forward to showing the rest of the world?

More Alaskan performers are going to festivals now. Urban Yeti (from Anchorage) performed at both the Del Close Marathon and at Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin. I was in the audience for the Out of Bounds set, and had a lot of joy watching them absolutely kill it in front of a full house at one of the largest festivals in the country. With our group, we have three self-described “dirty old ladies” who are performing as Seriously Obnoxious. Once they have their feet under them, they fully expect to be going to Outside festivals. Morally Improv-erished has some new cast members and are exploring different styles. We’ll see which one wins out by the time April rolls around.

ASIF is definitely a special festival in many ways. What makes this year’s special for those who have been there before?

Well, they probably learned that I make seafood dinners for the performers who come early or stay late. Maybe they stay an extra day or two this time. For those interested in Northwest coast art and culture, the Walter Sobeloff Center has opened and is available for tours. The building features a Tlingit longhouse and some exceptional art and history displays. Beyond that, they can expect more of our Alaskan hospitality, maybe seeing some sights they missed last time, and a festival that continues to improve every year.

Submissions are still open, but only for a few more hours. Be sure to submit today.

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

Spotlight On ASIF


The Alaska State Improv Festival had been on my “to do” list for quite some time. Partially, of course, because of the opportunity to visit the beautiful state of Alaska. But also because I had come to know the producers at festivals around North America and I’d always appreciated their take on the art. I was very fortunate to be invited last year and it was one of the highlights of 2014. Now submissions are open again and I had a chance to talk with Eric Caldwell about the 2015 fest and the things to come.

One of the first things many performers do when thinking about festivals is to Google the venue, but photos don’t really to your space justice. It’s a very conducive place to play. Can you talk a little bit about the venue folks will be playing in and the audience?

One of the most fun moments for me is when performers walk into McPhetres Hall for the first time. It’s a beautiful space with cedar walls, intricate accents, modern technical specs, and a full proscenium stage. The venue has flexible seating and, depending on the arrangement, will handle between 70 and 110 in the audience.

As to the audience itself, it is a theater-going crowd – smart and attentive. You can go to some really neat places with our audiences, and they will let you know at the end that you’ve done a great job.

It might surprise people that Juneau is a very walkable town. Aside from the big planned events, there are plenty of great little places to visit during the day. Any recommendations for people to check out in their free time?

I definitely recommend going to the galleries. The ones in the Senate Building are cooperatively owned, including a native cooperative where you can walk in and watch the artists at work. The Juneau City Museum is within walking distance and, for those with endurance (or a car), the Last Chance Mining Museum offers an authentic look into what was once the largest, most sophisticated gold mining operation in the world.

There are several good restaurants around town that cater to a variety of budgets. The Rookery is my favorite – any time of day. Silverbow Bakery is known for its authentic bagels. Rainbow Foods has a weekday health food buffet. The Sandpiper does a great breakfast and has exotic burgers on their lunch menu. Sandovar has authentic Russian cuisine. The view from the Hangar on the Wharf is world-class.

Some performers rent cars, many also like to rent elektroroller unu scooters and that opens up some other options. Visits to the Alaskan Brewing Company, the Shrine of St. Therese, Sandy Beach, and some of the sea-level trails are very rewarding. Even if you don’t rent a car, there are often opportunities to catch rides with us locals or with other improvisors.

NilsLast year, visitors got to see a glacier and whales. That’s pretty unique to your festival. Will there be some exciting trips planned this year?

A drive to the Mendenhall Glacier is our longstanding tradition, and we try to make that happen right after you grab your bags at the airport. If you don’t see the glacier, in our minds you haven’t visited Juneau.

We were thrilled to be able to offer the whale watching trip at cost last year, since the area looks completely different from the water. We were the first tour out and saw six whales, several seals, and a ridiculous number of sea lions. We’d love to do that again if the interest is there,

Any other tours would be based on what kind of interest the performers have and what their cost might be. A few performers independently went on a flightseeing excursion and said it was the highlight of their trip. There are zip line operations that are happy to do a charter. When enough people ask me “Can we do this?” I tend to start researching.

Festivals are typically a chance for the host city to see performers from other places, but with a few exceptions the groups from Juneau and other parts of Alaska aren’t seen by people in the lower 48. What kind of local performances will people get exposed to?

It’s a mix. Our first festival show was an improvised one-act play, based on the first page of a regionally written script. Rorschach Pattern 9, which we’ve toured for the last couple years, is a wild mixture of montage, Dada, clown, slam poetry, and Jungian psychology. We have nobody to tell us “You can’t do that!” so there tends to be a lot of variety of styles, especially given the size of the improv community.

The past two years, Scared Scriptless has come down from Anchorage. They are the “granddaddies” of Alaskan improv, having started in 2000. Their forte is in shortform, and they are damned good at it. This year, Urban Yeti, a group out of Anchorage in its third season, is going to be coming to the festival for the first time. Urban Yeti performs longform improv, focusing on a specific in-house format each season. They’ve had very good reviews so far, and we’re excited to see them in person.

[Update: After posting this article, the Juneau Empire posted an entire article dedicated to The Juneau improv scene. You can read it here. ED]

Last year’s festival was tight and had great acts. What are you hoping to bring this year that will go even further?

Each festival experience spreads word of mouth for the next festival. Being in a world-class destination does no good unless people are glad they came. Our job, as producers, is to make the performers glad that they not only experienced Alaska but also experienced AS IF. Developing and maintaining those relationships and friendships means that even people who can’t go to Alaska every year have been excited about encouraging others to go.

As to specifics of AS IF 2015, all I can say right now is that the wheels are in motion and there are going to be very inspiring shows and workshops at this year’s festival. Some incredible performers have reached out to say that they’re working out whether they can submit to this year’s AS IF, and we have a diversity of acts who have already submitted. Depending on what ensembles submit, we are also entertaining the idea of an “After Dark” stage open to blue content and 21+ audiences. This would allow for even more performance slots and a broader range of shows.

Is there anything you want to add about the festival?

If you’re on the fence, please submit. This festival prides itself on its diversity. Past acts have come from major theaters and independent companies, from urban meccas to towns smaller than ours, and from coast to coast. We’re inspired by shows that are inspiring. Show us improv that inspires, whatever it is and wherever you come from. We want to see and showcase that kind of art.

Submissions are still open, but only for a few more days. Be sure to submit today.

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

Admit to Everything

A Look Back at the Alaska State Improv Festival

A Festival Happened Here

A Festival Happened Here

When I’ve been telling people I went to an improv festival in Alaska, the first thing they want to know about is… Alaska. And it’s understandable why. Alaska is still a far away frontier filled with danger and beauty. So let’s talk about it for a moment. Juneau, Alaska is surrounded on every angle by beautiful mountains and snow-caps. Lakes and rivers. Oh, and humpback whales. But as foreign an experience as the small little town in the north was, one thing was very familiar; a love of improv.

Juneau has a small downtown, a very small downtown. I walked it’s circumference a few times while I was there. But almost every book store or coffee shop I stopped in at knew I was “one of the improvisors”. In a town that size, people care about their community and are excited to see art grow there. And in a town that size, you’re going to run into other performers at just about every meal or excursion and get a chance to sit down with new folks over a meal and talk improv. Even without a festival going on in the evening, it was a lovely improv experience.

But there was nothing “small” about the improv. Eric Caldwell and Michael Christenson are known for shows around the country that are the farthest thing from “playing it easy”. In a community that may very well let them get away without challenging themselves, they play on the edge of absurdism and dadaism in wonderful ways. The result is a small and educated community prepared to enjoy the many kinds of improv out there.

Glacier Runoff

Glacier Runoff

And that’s what they brought into town; puppetry, apocalyptic cabaret, shows exploring the themes of Lovecraft and 1930’s pulp and more. I personally was very happy to showcase invocation to an audience like that at the beginning of my Sunday show.

Oh yeah, and we all got on a boat and watched humpback whales.

This is about as far an experience from Del Close Marathon as one can get. It’s like getting welcomed, ever so briefly into a little secret art community and have the chance to share your art and learn from theirs and then go home. I’m actually torn now because I would desperately love to submit a show to visit again next year, but I’d almost feel guilty of robbing some other performer a chance to experience such a thing.

Huge thanks to Eric and Mike and all of the volunteers who were there every day. This isn’t going to be an “every year” festival for most performers. It’s a big journey. But I hope every troupe tries to visit this place and recharge their improv.

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