Back in the olden days (circa 2002), submitting to festivals was a bit more of a chore; mailing addresses, VHS tapes, CD-Rs with pictures. It was a messy business. On the other hand, one part of festival submissions was easier back then, knowing who to submit. Before improv theatres started growing in many cities, most improv troupes were islands and – unless you lived in Chicago – most performers were in one, or maybe two shows.
It’s a different world now. Performers have more freedom to explore their craft and play with many new players. That’s a great thing. The only tiny downside is that when an exciting festival is on the horizon, we have to ask “Who should I submit to go?” It’s not the hardest question in the world, but here’s a few things to think about to have the most fun year round.
1. Have an honest conversation with your group
We’re improvisors, so we say “yes” to everything. When you ask your friends if they want to go to a festival, they will instantly and excitedly say yes. Then later – maybe – they’ll ask when it is and what it might cost them to go. There is nothing more disheartening than getting accepted to a festival and then having to decline because your troupe can’t get the time off from work. And as a festival producer I can tell you, you won’t get blacklisted if that happens. We understand things come up. But it will lower your chances a bit of further invites.
Have a realistic conversation with your troupe before submitting. Find out who can go, who can’t. If one member can’t make it, will your show still be solid? Will it hurt your group mind to go without a member? Often times the answer to both will be yes and it’s not a big problem, but it’s best to ask.
Pro Tip: Try to bring what you promised to a festival. IF you submitted an eight person show and only seven people can make it, that’s understandable. If you submit a four person show and one person and two different people not in the submission come, you weren’t accurately representing yourself and it will hurt your chances of being invited back.
2. Talk to the festival
Get in touch with the festival producers. They’re always happy to talk to you about your show and offer advices on their own festival. Each festival has their own vision of what they’d like the weekend to be like. They also know how many slots they’ll have available. Tell them about your shows and what each one can bring. They may offer specific suggestions of what is more in tune with their festival. They may offer only some general advice on what they’re looking for that you can consider. Please keep in mind that a festival producer does want to help, but offering advice on which show would be a best fit for their festival doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Most of the time, festivals wish they could invite everyone, but it’s just not possible.
3. Don’t oversubmit
If you feel there are a couple of troupes that might be a good fit for a festival, there’s nothing wrong with submitting both. Smaller festivals will likely not accept both because they want variety, but larger festivals often accept two troupes with some overlapping members. But don’t submit every show you’ve ever done. You know which shows are the ones you’re proud of and which ones are filler. The reviewers don’t. Your good shows will get lost in your own shuffle.
That said, don’t be afraid to mix it up sometimes. You might be on a couple of house teams that travel frequently. But there’s nothing wrong with once in a while taking a gamble and submitting a show that doesn’t travel often. You might not have the name recognition, but sometimes it’s the little offbeat shows that fill a gap in a festival schedule.
Bonus Note: Theatre owners
Most of the advice here was for autonomous troupes that submit for themselves. Many theatres have a slightly different setup where the theatre’s artistic director wants to send some representation of their theatre and needs to choose which shows to submit. A lot of the same ideas can be easily modified to your use, but keep in mind that – especially if your a younger theatre – many of your shows will be pretty similar in style. You love those shows and know the subtle differences between them, but the submission reviewers don’s share that context. Try to view those troupes from an objective point of view and see which troupe best represent your theatre. Keep in mind that you’ll probably be submitting to a few festivals throughout the year and you can always rotate the troupes you submit.
Have a good luck
Make good choices when submitting to festivals and you’re likely to have a more well rounded festival season. Don’t forget, submissions for Eau Claire and Phoenix both close tonight.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.