In just a couple weeks, we’ll be celebrating our first birthday. It’s an exciting time to look back at the growth we’ve had and the growth we’ll continue to see. I talk to many people all the time about what they’d like to see on the site. There are some fantastic technological ideas people have suggested. Hopefully many of them will be programmed into the site. There’s one question I hear often from folks that has less to do with technology and more to do with our scope.
“Why National Improv Network? Why not include the whole world?” It’s a very valid question. And one that deserves a real honest thorough answer.
The very short answer is, this site and the people on it aren’t trying to isolate The U.S.A. from the rest of the improv community, or only help improvisors here. Quite the opposite. The very idea of a global improv community, sharing ideas and traveling across oceans to play together is possibly the most exciting thing I can possibly imagine. I can’t wait to see the improv community of the very near future that shares a love of “yes, and” across international borders; a community that has honed it’s craft to incredible new places we can’t imagine through a global collaboration. I want to be part of that world.
But if we’re going to accurately look into the future, we should start by looking into the past. Including – if you’ll forgive me – a bit of my personal history coming to NIN.
10-12 years ago, the improv community was very different than it is today. There weren’t dozens of improv festivals around the country; certainly not major ones that brought in national acts. I would spend many nights in the bars I had performed in that night – a chalkboard behind the small makeshift stage that said “IMPROVE COMEDY TONITE!”. I had conversations with my friends about our joys and frustrations with the growing improv scene in Arizona. How could we make that next big step towards increasing our quality without access to new teachers? How could we increase our visibility in this town hungry for entertainment?
Of course, that same conversation was happening in bars across the country. Probably around the world. People in Atlanta, and Boston and Detroit and Austin were asking those same questions. We didn’t know about each other. And even if we did, we didn’t have many answers to share. But little by little, we found small answers to those questions. We experimented and learned. Many of us learning the same answers in different ways. But it was frustratingly slow. And many great performers made the choice to move to Illinois, New York or California. A choice no one can blame them for, but it was another blow to anyone trying to build improv in their towns. They were fun, but hard times.
Then sometime around 2004, things started to change. We had grown to the point where we were able to leave the nest a little and set out like explorers looking for new lands. A trip to another city was a very big deal back then, and probably only happened once or maybe twice a year. We started meeting each other for the first time and exposing each other to not only how improv had evolved in our respective cities, but how we’d started learning how to move towards making improv our livings. We were thrilled to hear new answers and perspectives on problems we’d faced individually, and also unpleasantly surprised when we found out other places hadn’t found those answers.One of those important moments for me was at a festival in 2004. I won’t name them because they’re lovely humans who have put on amazing festivals in the years that followed. But in 2004, they hadn’t really figured out how to handle out of town guests. I had only a small number of festivals under my belt at that time, but I had started noticing that each festival was run very differently and their oversight was different. In this festival’s case, the thing they forgot was to realize that out of towners don’t know anything about their city and as a result, many performers ended up at a very nice hotel two miles away… on the other side of the river. It took close to an hour to get from the hotel to the venue because they never thought to let us know that there are no roads that connect those parts of town easily.
Being a producer of a very nascent festival myself that year, I learned two very important lessons on those very long, very expensive cab rides.
- Always remember that out of town performers need to be informed of things you take for granted
- Festival organizers need a means to share the things they’ve learned so we don’t all make the same mistakes.
That second thought ignited something in me. I saw how important it was for my festival, but also for all festivals and ensembles and theatres to start sharing their successes and their failures. If we wanted our art form to be taken seriously by the public, we’d have to start taking ourselves seriously and that meant investing the time into learning how to do it right.
I tried many ideas in the next two years, ideas using emerging technology to start raising the bar for everyone. I created HTML festival lists and calendars. I invited the festival producers I knew to a Yahoo Group (yeah, a Yahoo group). I was excited. The things I tried could at best be called “ambitious” and at worst be called “hopelessly naive”. As hard as I – and others – tried, it didn’t take hold. The simple truths of the matter were. A) The technology we needed simply didn’t exist. These were the dark days of MySpace. B) Technology alone wouldn’t solve these problems for us and we would be foolish to assume they would. At best, some of those early attempts got improvisors “talking” to each other. And with those conversations came the understanding that if we truly wanted to grow together, a Yahoo Group wouldn’t do it for us. We’d need to call each other for help. Visit each other. Ask for help, and embrace our disagreements.
We grew. We became friends rather than just names we’ heard. The improv in our cities started to grow. The students of those theatres started their own theatres. Communities started exploding. Festivals popped up everywhere with stronger starts than those of years past. The technology grew as well, and we had more and more access to each other.
In 2011, or thereabouts, the tone of the conversations at after-parties started to change. Just like those bar conversations of half a decade ago, the conversations started sounding the same. A tipping point had been reached. The ideas that many people tried to create in years past failed because we didn’t have the knowledge of each other to make them work, but that knowledge had come. It was time to reinvest in the idea of building more formal tools to help us develop as professional improvisors.
I was very excited to hang out in a hotel conference room in 2012. A festival was happening with the producers of many festivals and theaters in attendance. Why waste that opportunity? Instead of talking at the bar that night, we spent all day talking about What’s next? Where do we go from here? It was the first time I personally had been involved with a dedicated conversation of that scope. Ideas came fast and free. We talked about a platform to share ideas on grant writing and building codes and building curriculum. We talked about a central location for festival listings that allowed each festival producer to maintain their own information. We talked about these ideas on a global scale.
At best, those ideas could be called “ambitious”.We realized we were about to make the same mistake we had made many years before. Without naming it, we had built a national network. We knew a lot about things that would work across the country. But as soon as we started talking about giving advice to people in Europe we realized; none of us has ever spent any real time performing in Europe. None of us has ever dealt with building codes in Japan. None of us had ever tried to market a show in Australia. For us to claim we could offer any kind of resources to the world would be arrogant and laughably uninformed. There were simply too many things we just didn’t know. From the simple things (how does PayPal work for international submissions?) to the complex (what is the artistic culture of other countries?) we realized that we were not yet ready to pretend we were in a position to know what the needs of an international improv community would be.
I am proud to be a part of this organization. I can speak with confidence about the ideas I share with people in many states. And we’re entering a new and very exciting place. Ten years ago, I was just beginning to meet amazing performers from New Orleans and Philadelphia. Now they are friends. And because of that growth I’m just starting to meet and learn from amazing performers from Ireland, Australia, Italy, Israel, France and Lebanon. Their stories are phenomenal and humbling. Their ideas are exciting and they remind me that there is a literal whole world of improv beyond my immediate line of sight.
There are many people from all over the Earth on our website. I’m excited that they’re here. I hope “some” of the tools and blog posts have something helpful for them. But I know there is so much out there. Their being here is a constant motivator that where we are is not far enough. We’ll continue to grow. We’ll continue to expand into each other. Just as those conversations in different cities were beginning to intermingle ten years ago, our national conversations are starting to be aware of the larger global community in an amazing new way. I’m starting to hear that there are versions of NIN starting to form in other countries and that is exhilarating. I want to learn more about them. I want to meet them. I want to start moving towards that day when I can travel to other continents and invite performers to come play here. I don’t know what form or what technology we’ll be using in that time. But I know without doubt that there will be an itnernational network we can all be a part of, an international community of improvisors. And everyone here working on this site will be there to help build it in any way we can.
Ten years from now, the world is going to be amazing. I feel that same excitement I felt ten years ago as I see that future. It’s a future that will take a lot of work. But it will be worth it. And I for one can’t wait to be a part of it.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.