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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.

Festival Review: The Phoenix Improv Festival Rises For the 13th Time!

I had the great opportunity to attend the Phoenix Improv Festival last weekend and this festival has no signs of slowing down. The theme of the Festival seemed to be a throwback to early High School. Which would make sense since the festival just hit puberty at 13 years. But PIF has always been a mature festival from the get go. You know like a kid that has an old spirit? That’s PIF in a nutshell.

The venue is unbeatable to this day. Held at the Herberger Theater which holds a little more than 300 people you are in a theater that would make William Shakespeare jealous. Also, the teams that played were solid, coming from all over the country, New York, Los Angeles, Cedar City, Chicago and of course their local improv scene which has grown tremendously over the past 13 years.

It was great to see the Arizona community come together for this festival. The Torch Theater, JesterZ, NCT Phoenix and Not Burned Out Just Unscrewed were all on hand to hang out with each other, perform and celebrate improv in their state.

One of the many great things about PIF, is they know how to take care of their improvisors. They take cover one night of hotel for your team, den mothers who drive your drunk team everywhere and get you safely to and from parties and workshops. Our Den Mother for King Ten was awesome and made us all sack lunches ala the theme of the festival. Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich, kool-aid and an apple! Thanks Stacey Gordon! The thing I really lov e about PIF is it’s not just a festival, for one weekend out of the year you are a Phoenix Improvisor. They treat you as if you are a part of their family.

For the last two years PIF has tried to do an unconference. How this works is improvisors attend, make up what topics they want to talk about during the morning session and then come back later to chat about those topics. I thought this was great idea, but wasn’t well attended unfortunately. Improvisors really missed out.  I will say that I attended and got a lot of great information from it and the people that were in there did as well. It was a great way to share and exchange information. Topics included everything from diversity in improv to team management. I hope to see it grow.

Bottom line. Look for this festival next year. It’s by far one of the great festivals in the country and has consistently been for the last 13 years. One of the first festivals out West, and I see many more years to come!

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings.  He has also taught many workshops around the country. 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 For more information visit: or

Spotlight On: The 13th Annual Phoenix Improv Festival

I met Bill Binder in an iO West Class over 10 years ago. He would drive from Arizona to LA to take his class each week and then drive back home the same night. He finished classes at iO and went back to Phoenix to help created the Phoenix Improv Festival and The Torch Theater.

My first ever improv festival was PIF in 2004. Among the improvisors there were such improv vets as Craig Cackowski and Jack McBrayer. I had no idea what an improv festival was or what it was even all about. But I have to say I was the luckiest improvisor alive to experience PIF. It really was a game changer for me as an improvisor and improv in general. It paved the way for a lot of things including NIN. Celebrating their 13th year as a festival I interviewed Executive Producer of PIF and Co-Founder of NIN Bill Binder about the upcoming festival:

You’re celebrating 13 years of the Phoenix Improv Festival. How does that feel and what are your goals this year?

Reflective. We have such a huge wonderful community, but some of us have been here since PIF 1. It’s interesting to see how the community and we, as people, have grown and changed in the past decade. We’ve learned so much and we’re always excited to have new people and ideas help it grow even more.

Logistically we have many internal goals that are related to growth. The last two years we played it a little safer than we had in the past because there were so many things going on in Phoenix. Dearing Studio and The Torch opened, NCT and Theater 168 both expanded. Weddings, babies. So much. But this year we can put a lot of our focus back on the festival growing again. We want to push our comfort levels a little. We’re right on the cusp of becoming a much bigger cultural event here.

Our other big goal is becoming another hub for communications between improvisors. Our first festival was designed solely to get the theatres in our town together to learn from each other. We’re really at a point where we can be doing that on a national level. If we’re all in one place, why not use that time to share ideas as theatre owners and festival organizers outside of just having shows?

What can improvisors expect at your festival outside of performances? Workshops? Conferences?

We’ll have a few workshops for sure this year. We haven’t nailed down exactly who yet. We will be bringing back the unconference this year after it’s success last year. Every festival has great discussions during after parties, but we’ve moved them into the daytime as well. Saturday afternoon will be set aside for organized discussions in the hotel on coaching, marketing, improv theory, you name it. Last year, the breakout panel was a discussion on gender issues in improv across the country. We’re really excited to be host to these conversations so that we can all grow.

We’ll also be having a photo shoot and probably a few other things to announce. Oh, and the after parties will be pretty great this year.

Talk about your venue? Where does PIF take place?

We love playing in The Herberger Theater Center. I honestly believe it’s the most beautiful venue in our state. We all love our respective theatres in town, but it’s nice once a year to dress up nicer and present our art to an audience that might not think to see improv otherwise.

What’s there to do in Phoenix?

It depends what you’re looking to do. Our venue is about 1/4 of a mile from Chase Field where the AZ Diamondbacks play. We’re also just south of The Phoenix Art Museum, Opera House and The Deck Park. There are plenty of good places to eat around Phoenix too. Visitors almost always love Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles and some folks want to go visit Pizzeria Bianco ever since Oprah named it The Best Pizza in America. (If you want to avoid the four hour wait, ask a local for the secret to get in fast). We are also in old-west territory, so we have plenty of mountains and deserts nearby for hiking and views. Of course, past festivals have shown that plenty of people just love hanging out at the pool or playing basketball at the hotel. (Did I mention we put all of our performers and instructors up in a hotel a block from the venue?)

What makes PIF different then any other festival?

Wow. That’s a great question. I think the big difference I see between PIF and other festivals which I love is that most festivals are really connected with the passionate people at a particular theatre in town. Phoenix takes more of a Green Bay Packers approach. I don’t think the people of Phoenix associate the festival with any particular group or theatre. It’s part of the cultural landscape of the city. People get excited talking about it eight months before it happens because they know it will be a celebration for everybody. As much as we use the festival to promote improv all over the city year round, people know the festival as part of this city’s traditions and they come out to see great art. We take that responsibility to heart to show them great art and that means treating our visitors like the artists they are. I know – as a traveling performer – that sometimes you feel a bit like a vagabond, but here you’re an artist. And I think that respect leads to great shows and great times. We still use one venue because if we invite you to come play, we want to see you. and we want other troupes to see you too. I was honored by the quote from Dave Hill in our local paper last year.

There are a couple of festivals that have been around for a while that have become a little more corporate, a little long in the tooth. And that’s why the PIF is so unique. It’s grown, but it feels like both a grass-roots and a big-time experience.

Submissions for The Phoenix Improv Festival are now open and you can instantly submit on NIN today! Submit HERE.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is also the Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want!

Improv is Spreading Like a Wildfire

boise-wildfire_91_600x450Gone are the days of major cities owning all of improv. Those days are gone just like rotary telephones and one dollar gas. The improv community in the United States reaches far and wide now. Last year alone, I was able to visit improv communities in Phoenix, AZ (The Torch Theatre/NCT Phoenix), San Francisco (SF Improv Festival), Roseville, CA (Blacktop Comedy Theatre), Detroit, MI (Detroit Improv Festival/Go Theatre, Denver, CO (Voodoo Comedy Lounge, Group Mind Foundation, Bovine Metropolis Theatre), Cedar City, UT (Off The Cuff Improvisation) Los Angeles, CA (iO/LA Improv Festival) and last but not least Camp Improv Utopia in California. These are just some of the ones that are out there now there are a ton more.


It was mind blowing to see the great work being done in other cities that aren’t Chicago, LA or NYC. I was almost envious at some of the stuff that these groups were doing. Taking it to the next level, experimenting and taking huge risks. Sure sometimes it fell flat on its face but other times it was brilliant. Such is improv. We are wrong to think that the best improv can only be done in the bigger improv cities. That’s just naïve. There is great work being done outside the walls of those great cities and I’ve seen it and am continually impressed by it.


I think there is a lot we can learn from these thirsty improv communities too. Passion, commitment to the art form and taking risks. It seems that improv in Chicago, LA and NYC are more focused on industry vetting then experimenting and growing. And it’s not their fault. Improv has become and industry standard in the casting and TV world. They come and take players and writers from these institutions all the time so it’s going to attract that kind of student, writer and performer. And they should because there is some amazing talent there. But it also makes it extra hard to have time to rehearse, experiment and do something new because the focus is elsewhere.


I leave you with this, Del Close said to treat your audience like poets and scholars. Shouldn’t we still honor that no matter what? Improv means it’s all about taking risks and making bold choices, so shouldn’t we live that way too? If people didn’t grow their art we would have only been introduced to Picasso’s Blue Period, The Beatles cover songs and the Harold. We would have never had the chance to see Picasso’s Cubism Period, The Beatles own material or forms like the JTS Brown and the Deconstruction.


Be bold, follow your fear and see improv everywhere!

Written by: Nick Armstrong

Nick is an Actor, Writer, Improviser and Director living in Los Angeles, CA. On TV Nick has been on the Emmy-Award winning shows The Office, Parks and Recreation and Grey’s Anatomy. He has also made regular appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Onstage you can catch Nick performing and teaching regularly at the world-famous iO West in Hollywood, CA with LA’s Best Harold Team King Ten and The touring Genre-Improvised Show Kind Strangers. Nick has also trained at the famed Groundlings Theater. He is the Founder and Camp Director of Improv Utopia an annual camp for improvisers. For more information visit