Countdown to a Unique Fundraiser

If innovation and adaptability are the soul of improv. There are possibly no better personifications of it than Kelly Buttermore and Justin Peters. The creators of From Justin to Kelly, The Very Normal Festival and The Countdown Improv Festival have spent years re-imagining what it is to be performers and teachers, creating conferences and festivals that weren’t carbon copies of the events that already existed around the world. That didn’t stop when our stages had to close their doors last year. Justin and Kelly created new online experiences that went beyond putting their shows on Zoom.

This weekend, they’re putting on a very special and unusual show and fundraiser for the Countdown Festival. I was able to check in with them about the one of a kind festival and fundraiser.

What’s the origin of the name and the festival?

Countdown is unique in many ways, but chief among them is that it’s the only festival in the world devoted exclusively to trio, duo, and solo improv. We’ve been a duo now for 11+ years, and we’re big fans and partisans of small group improv. We like it, in part, because it’s hard. When there’s just a few of you on stage, there’s nowhere to hide, and you’re have to learn pretty quickly how to make your choices work, rather than abandoning them in a panic and retreating to the sidelines to hide out for a few scenes while ruing the day you ever signed up for improv class. Anyway, we were inspired back in 2017 to found a festival that put small groups front and center. In Tampa, where we do not live. (We like to make things difficult for ourselves, we guess.) We’re now in our fifth year, which is unbelievably exciting to us.

The two of us have spent a lot of time performing, teaching, and headlining at festivals all over the country; we took from those experiences and vowed to create the sort of festival that we ourselves would be excited to attend. Our orienting principle is that the festival is first and foremost a truly performer-focused festival, where we welcome, value, and celebrate every single performer on the bill. We don’t have headliners and we don’t stratify our participants; we extend the same courtesy and hospitality to everyone, and we work really hard to situate all of our performers to do their best work and have a great time. We’ve all been to festivals where you board the plane home and think “did anyone even know that I was there?” We pledged never to have anyone ask themselves that question after attending Countdown. (We also pledged that no performer would ever have to pay for a bottle of water while at the festival; this is a really big thing to Justin, for some reason.)

The name itself has a couple different origins. One is the notion of a “3…2…1” countdown, which aligns the trio, duo, and solo angle. We also run a roaming pop-up comedy space in Brooklyn called Countdown Theater; the idea there being that this space (just like improv) won’t be there forever, and if you weren’t there, then you missed it. Ephemerality is the name of the game!

The idea of a “festival” has had to be re-thought this last year as we went online. How did you approach re-inventing yourself?

Reinvention was the name of the game for us in 2020, as it was for improvisers and improv producers everywhere. When we decided to produce Countdown online in 2020, rather than just shelving it for the year and coming back in 2021, we realized that we had to proceed as if we were programming five nights of television, rather than five nights of live performance. Since people would be watching the festival on their screens, we had to adopt the vocabulary of television and make the festival something that would be worth “binge watching.” So we created ongoing narratives, running bits, and through lines to help cohere things. We also held Zoom calls with every single act preceding the festival to help them brainstorm ways to adapt their show to the needs of the camera. It was all a huge learning experience — and an incredibly rewarding one at that. We expanded Countdown in every conceivable way — more performers, more workshops, and two additional nights of shows, and ended up running our biggest and most successful festival yet.

countdown at very normal fest

The Very Normal Festival

The virtual version of Countdown was in August 2020, and we were so galvanized by that experience that we decided to turn around and run another one right on its heels in December 2020 called the Very Normal Festival, in honor of the very normal year that was 2020. We encouraged acts to submit the sort of weird, uncategorizable shows and bits that they always wanted to try but could never fit into a traditional festival lineup. We took what we’d learned in August and leaned even harder into the thematicism, and we came up with an overarching narrative that the two of us had been conscripted by a mysterious unseen figure known as the Commodore to produce the most normal comedy festival ever made. Anytime the festival deviated from that norm (which happened constantly), the Commodore would communicate his displeasure via a series of messages in bottles. (There was also a vaguely nautical theme to all of this.) The narrative built over the course of the four nights until the big reveal that the Commodore was really the two of us the entire time. It all ended with a singalong of the Looking Glass song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” It was absurd and ridiculous and made us want to build more weirdness into our in-person events moving forward.

We need to mention here that neither the virtual version of Countdown nor Very Normal would have been possible without the help of our friends and production partners Anthony Francis and Marisa Cutaia from Improv U in Delray Beach, Florida, and our Atlanta-based designer, Dan Deming-Henes. They are superstars!

There’s lots of traditional fundraising routes. Why a telethon?

While we’re also pursuing traditional fundraising routes this year — sponsorships, grants, and so on — our costs for 2021 are projected to be higher than ever before, so we need to find ways to open new revenue streams. The telethon — in which we’re going to be performing a 12.5-hour monoscene with no breaks — seemed like a fun stunt that at best would galvanize community support and consolidate individual donations around a central thesis, and at worst would make us both really exhausted and sort of depressed that no one else cares about this thing as much as we do. It’s worth a shot! We wanted to do something fun and unique where just hearing about the concept would theoretically grab the audience’s attention and make them not only think “wow, I gotta see that!” but also “wow, that’s ambitious and I want to support that!” We also wanted to do something that was, frankly, fun and creatively fulfilling/challenging for the two of us — and, voila, the idea to do a twelve and a half hour-long monoscene was born.

We’ll be honest here, we have literally no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Then again, we also never could have foreseen producing an improv festival in Tampa, a city nearly 1200 miles away from where we actually live in NYC, but here we are. Life comes at you fast!

A dramatically long show could take many forms. What drew you to the monoscene?

The monoscene was a natural choice for us, as it’s the basis for our duo’s own signature format, the Walter, which emphasizes eye contact, physical proximity, and a total commitment to the moment. A 12.5-hour monoscene, however, is a whole other ballgame, so we’ve gotten over 50 improvisers (and counting) from all over to join the scene over Zoom as character walk-ons over the course of the day. (Those characters can also recur — just as long as they return as the same character later on, otherwise total chaos will ensue.) It’s going to be one hell of a show.

As the founders, producers, and faces of a festival centered around small group improv, we wanted to show just how hard we were willing to commit to the most extreme version of duo improv we could dream up. It’s going to force us to really sit in the characters that we create, and be patient with our scenework. We think the length of the show is actually going to be a little bit freeing, insofar as we can just *live* in these characters and this world for an extended period, and not have to work so hard to impose a 30-minute story arc on the whole thing. There’ll still be story and character arcs, don’t get us wrong, it’s just that we can let them develop over time, which is sort of cool.

Why Twitch? Will you be using the chat?

We had really positive experiences with Twitch with our two festivals last year; the platform is really user-friendly and allows for instantaneous audience engagement via the chat, which is a lot of fun to watch in real time. We will definitely be using the chat for the telethon, both to stoke donations and as a recap feature for those viewers who will be joining the scene in progress and will want some context for what they’re seeing. Think of it as a “Previously on this telethon…” Should be fun! But we’ll also be streaming simultaneously on our Facebook pages in case that’s easier for people.

What is Twitch? How do I use it?

Twitch is an online video service, similar to YouTube or Facebook. The major difference is that it is primarily designed for watching live video instead of per-recoded shows. This has made it a natural place for many improv companies. You can watch shows without an account, or you can create a free account and gain the ability to chat with other audience members, and sometimes performers in a chat area.

The Fundraiser can be found here on Twitch. Be sure to search for some of your other favorite improv shows there too.

Learn more about Twitch here.

How can people support the festival?

The biggest way you can support the festival is to donate to our fundraising campaign. Literally every dollar helps as we return our festival to an in-person event this year, and it’s especially helpful in the wake of the pandemic, which has had the effect of increasing production costs and lowering revenues for performing arts venues and events everywhere. Producing an event of this magnitude is hard, doing it in this environment is even harder.

By donating, you’ll not just be helping us to put on a top notch improv festival in September — one founded on egalitarian, mindful, performer-friendly principles — you will be helping to revitalize improv comedy in Tampa. Tampa’s Box Theater closed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, leaving Hillsborough County without a dedicated improv venue. Our festival has always been a vital part of the improv ecosystem in Tampa, now it plays an even bigger role as the only extant improv event in town. Despite the fact that we don’t live here, we love it here and have come to know and truly love the improv community in Tampa Bay, and we want to be a part of rebuilding it here.

Non-Profit vs. for Profit Festivals

“Oh!  An article about the tax implications of various business entities, this is the type of article that improvisers are dying to read,” he said to himself, unaware of his self-delusion.  I nerd out about this stuff and I have helped lots of actors, writers, and other creative professionals decide how to properly structure their businesses from a tax perspective.

Image result for non-profit

What is A Non-Profit?

When it comes to theaters and festivals, the big question is always “Should I be a non-profit company?”  There are different types of 501(c) organizations, but the 501(c)3 is the type we’re talking about – we don’t really have time to get into the rest of them  Let’s first clarify what a non-profit 501(c)3 company is not:

  1. It is not a company that cannot make a profit. There are many profitable non-profit companies (I’ll explain this weird oxymoron in a bit).
  2. Nor is it a company that has to give any profits that it makes to charity or distribute it to its members at the end of the year.
  3. It also is not a type of organization that guarantees that you’re going to be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants your first year in operation. It just makes you eligible to apply for them. Big difference.

So, what is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization?  It is a corporation that is formed within a US state whose sole purpose is some public benefit and whose profits will not benefit any specific individual or individuals.  In a regular company, if you own the company the profits of the company are yours to keep and you’re taxed on those profits.  In a nonprofit company, you can’t just take out the money from the company whenever you feel like it.  That’s super illegal and that’s when you’ll get a call from the Attorney General (or Attorneys General if you’re operating in multiple states).  You can pay yourself a fair salary though!

Why Would I Want to Be A Non-Profit?

The big draw?  You don’t have to pay income taxes.  That’s hella cool.  If you make $20,000 in profit, not one cent of that goes to the IRS.  Screw you, Uncle Sam!  You still pay some taxes (payroll, property, sales, etc…), but you are exempt from taxes at the Federal and State level.  Cool!

Also, it makes you eligible for grants!  Now, grant writing is a whole art in-and-of itself, so we won’t go into details, but there are groups looking to support organizations like yours!

Also, donations!  Anyone can donate to any company they want; you can technically just send Jeff Bezos a check for $1,000 and call it a donation. But, only 501(c)3 organizations can receive tax-deductible donations, so come tax-time your patrons can try to itemize their donations on their taxes and get those sweet, sweet tax refunds.

Why Wouldn’t I Choose to Be A Non-Profit?

Do you like paperwork / can you hire a lawyer or accountant to handle the paperwork for you?  In order to become a 501(c)3, you must file a Form 1023 with the IRS and pay a $600 (or $275, depending on the size of your organization) application fee.  You will also have to form the company at the State level, request exemption at the State level, and sometimes register with an additional governing body (for example, CA requires charities to register with the Office of the Attorney General in order to solicit donations), so you can very easily find yourself spending $1,000 or more just to form the organization.

Also, what happens if you want to pay yourself?  As a board member of the non-profit (non-profit organizations don’t issue stock, so they don’t have owners), if you are managing the day-to-day matters of the company you are an employee. This means you can’t just write yourself a check and call it a day.  You have to run payroll and do all those fun withholdings (you know all those random taxes and such that get taken out whenever your employer pays you), which might mean hiring an accountant or just getting familiar with QuickBooks.  It’s not something that people are often ready to deal with.

So, I Should Be a For-Profit Festival?

I mean, maybe?  If you’re doing it by yourself and will be investing your own money, you get to write off the money you spent as a business expense come tax time.  And any profits are yours to keep because you can use your bank account as your business account.

If you have multiple partners (business partners, not romantic ones), then you’ll have to form a partnership, LLC or corporation. This means more paperwork to make sure everything is divided and accounted for properly.  There will also be additional tax considerations as a result.

Just Tell Me What I Should Do, Jeff!

Nah, I’m a man of mystery.  But also, it really depends on what YOU want to do with the festival.

  • Are you and your business-minded friends planning on producing a festival for profit? And are you wanting to grow into a large business where you produce several festivals nationwide? In that case,  your best bet is the LLC or C-Corp.
  • Are you by yourself just wanting to have a reason to invite amazing performers to your town? And perhaps maybe make a little money on the side? Then you’d probably just want to be a sole proprietorship. This is the default business structure if you haven’t registered your business as an LLC or corporation.
  • Does your festival have a charitable purpose? Or one that benefits a specific population? And are you looking for support from larger organizations (for grants) or corporations (donations or sponsorships) to support you? Then the nonprofit might be best for you.

It’s important to have a vision for how your festival will grow and ultimately what you want from it.  This will help you decide on the best format to start with.  And if things change as the festival grows,  know that change your structure later.

Good luck and happy producing!

How to Make Your Improv Theater More Trans Friendly

In improv, we aim to create an all-inclusive community of diverse people who come together to create something that disappears as quickly as it was created. It’s beautiful and by its very nature, those diverse voices are essential to creating unique and dynamic work. I want to talk about ways we can make our community safer for transgender and gender non-conforming people.

I’m a trans and non-binary person, but I’ve been improvising since before I had the language to describe my experience of gender. My understanding of myself has shifted, but in the years I’ve been improvising, few changes have been made in the community to make our theaters easier to navigate for trans people. Most of the changes I’m suggesting are cheap and easy to adopt, but could significantly improve the climate of our theaters. Check cosmetic surgeon specializing in ear surgery in Minneapolis when you want cheap and quality surgery.

Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

One way to make your theater safer for transgender people is to do away with “men’s” and “women’s” restrooms and opt for gender-neutral ones instead. A survey conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that 59% of transgender people had avoided using a public restroom in the past year, and that 24% had been verbally harassed or had their gender challenged. That study doesn’t even begin to touch on the experiences of restroom related violence that is all too familiar to trans people. Public restrooms are one of the most unsafe places for transgender people, largely because they are broken down into men’s and women’s – a binary system that best protects those who adhere most strongly to gender roles.

You can instead opt for gender-neutral signs on your restrooms. Some cities already require a single-occupant, gender-neutral restroom in all businesses, but it’s not widely mandated. Instead of men’s and women’s signs, you can replace both with a sign that says “Unisex” or “Both” or “We don’t care. Just wash your hands.” This option works especially well for theaters that have single occupancy restrooms.

For restrooms with multiple stalls, it’s slightly trickier. In some states, it’s required that theaters have both a men’s and a women’s restroom. Heck, some buildings are just built that way. In this case, you could use a small sign near your restrooms to indicate that your patrons should use whichever space makes them most comfortable. Something like: “Presently, our restrooms are labeled men’s and women’s, but we encourage you to use whichever restroom makes you feel most comfortable. If you experience any problems, please talk to our staff. Thank you.” It’s short, sweet, and lets trans and gender non-conforming people know the theater’s management is there to support them, despite unfavorable laws. Avoid language like, “use whichever restroom fits your gender identity” because it ignores gender non-conforming and non-binary identities who don’t identify with either the men’s or women’s option.

Share Pronouns

When you’re all learning each other’s names at the beginning of a new improv class, ask for pronouns as well! Pronouns are just words we use in place of names, so it only makes sense that we would share them with each other as part of introductions. If you’re feeling extra fancy, you could add a place to give your pronouns in your online class sign-up forms – that way they show up on rosters automatically. Just be sure that if someone gives you a different pronoun from the one they listed in their signup sheet, you honor the ones they shared with the class.

Names and pronouns should be relearned at the beginning of every new class or level. This allows people the opportunity to share new pronouns they might be using. Identities change and the words we use to describe ourselves change along with them! All of this advice goes for the formation of new house teams, new staff members, etc. – names and pronouns once again! It’s a good habit to get into.

In my experience, when you ask a class to share their pronouns, at least one person won’t know what that means. That’s ok! I like to say, “Pronouns are the words we could use instead of your name. Like, she, or he, or they.” There are more pronouns than just those three, but that usually gets the point across quickly. If not, you can give an example in a sentence. It’s ok if someone doesn’t understand pronouns or why it’s important. We’re all adjusting to a new culture surrounding gender! It’s rewarding to lend a hand to improvisers who are feeling a little left behind.

Lastly, people will make pronoun mistakes. Teachers, students, staff, audience members. It happens. In my experience, the best way to fix it is to correct them in the moment and move on immediately. No one should be shamed for making a mistake, but it’s also important not to make trans people feel guilty for insisting that everyone honor their pronouns. I once had an improv teacher who stopped referring to me or giving me feedback in class because she was too caught up in trying to get my pronouns correct. I’d rather that she mess up than have my identity impact my experience of the class.

Pronouns Should Be Listed on Staff Name Badges

If your staff and teachers wear name badges, their pronouns should be listed below their name. This prevents people from being misgendered while working and shows your theater’s commitment to gender inclusivity.

Ditch Gendered Terms

Replace “guys” with “folks” or “friends.” Replace “ladies and gentlemen” with “everybody.” A lot of times, especially with English, we’re forced to use gendered language that excludes some groups. This isn’t just for transgender and gender non-conforming people; I’d bet cis* women have felt alienated by these words, too!

Sounds nitpicky? I get it! I grew up in southern California, where it’s routine to call everyone dude, so this one was a little hard for me. Language is inherently gendered. If this switch feels tough to do, it’s because you’ve spent your entire life using language that alienates certain genders. The only way to change it is to start with the words we opt for on a daily basis. It’s tough, but at the end of the day, making your community feel included should matter more to you than cool slang you picked up as a kid.

Sell Gender-Neutral Merchandise

This one’s small, but if your theater sells shirts you don’t need to label them men’s and women’s. Instead, opt for “crew neck” and “scoop neck” or “t-shirt” and “fitted shirt.” Small, but everything counts.

Have a Clearcut Discrimination Policy

When a student signs up for a class or a new staff member is brought on board, they should be asked to sign a discrimination policy and a sexual harassment policy. These policies should be zero tolerance, and should detail the consequences for harassment and discrimination of any kind. You can have a lawyer draft this policy, but if you’re looking for some inspiration, I like HUGE Theater’s. You can find it on their website, and I especially like theirs because they’ve made a clear protocol that allows students and staff to report harassment and transphobia to a third party for investigation.

These are just a handful of ways improv theaters can be better toward their transgender students, patrons, and staff. I haven’t even touched on the world of inclusion initiatives and scholarships. There are a million things to be done, but it’s a start. Thank you for reading and valuing the safety and diversity of our community.

Thanks,

Laurel Posakony

they/them

(See? It’s that easy!)

*Cis is short for cisgender, which refers to anyone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Femprovisor Fest Offers Woman a Voice!

We  had a chance to interview Jill Eickmann who runs the Femprovisor fest now in its 5th year. Take a look and consider submitting for this fest. It takes place in San Francisco, CA.

What are you looking forward to most this year for the fest?

This is our fifth year! We are looking to showcase a diverse women collective.  We are crossing our fingers that a trio of femprovisors from Improv Mumbai will be joining us this year, making this our first year as an international festival.

How important is this festival for women in improv, especially in light to what is happening in our industry?

What I find so important right now- is creating a safe space for womxn to connect and play together.  We need a space to truly be ourselves without any pressure to conform to any female stereotype or role.  Those of us in all lady teams often agree- this pressure to be a certain type of woman starts to fade once you are not the “only” or “one of the only” womxn on a team.

We need a space to be unapologetic with our voice, truly be ourselves- in all its multiplicities, and take big risks. Most importantly, we need a space where our sisters can support our choices.  When in a male majority or patriarchal industry, a feeling of scarcity can ensue for female artists.  In addition to healing our male/female relationships, we also need a great deal of healing from our sisters.  Femprovisor Fest gives women the opportunity to support and lift one another up.  This festival is about supporting cooperation over competition.  I also see this festival as a space to recharge and get support from other bad-ass Femprovisors to then go home and keep your voice alive.

What kind of shows are you looking for?

We want to see womxn play together with delight and love for one another.  We want to see unique and under-represented voices, experimental forms, and performers who share their voices unapologetically. Off the stage, we are seeking artists who support building community and are excited about engaging in the many festival offerings: workshops, seeing shows, participating in panels, and of course- PARTIES!

Tell us about the venue

This will be our second year at The EXIT Theater- MainStage in downtown SF.  The EXIT is home of the SF Fringe and a wonderful, risk-taking venue that has been a haven for SF Bay Area artists of all walks of life since 1983.  From magicians to burlesque dancers to Shakespeare to new works to the rowdy sketchy show- The EXIT is home to ALL.  The MainStage theater is an 80 seat house with an intimate and fun cabaret feel- perfect for improvisational theatre of all kinds.

Why choose the Femprovisor Fest?

You are an improvisor who not only wants to play boldly and take big risks but you also are extremely passionate about social change.  You want to be a part of the conversation, you want to inspire others, and you want to lift up and support your sisters on and off the improv stage.

You can instantly submit to the Femprovisor fest right HERE.

What I’ve Learned, So Far, as an Artistic Director

October was my official one year anniversary as Artistic Director for M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, CA. It’s been an amazing learning experience. You see, there are tons of books on how to do improv, maybe too many now, but there’s not a book about how to be an Artistic Director. It’s like only other AD’s can pass their stories down from generations past, much like the Native Americans did passing on their stories on and on to preserve their history. I know this blog might not interest a lot of you, I’m sure there are only a handful of AD’s in the world that specifically run comedy theaters. But I want improvisers to see the insides a little bit and show you what’s up in the business end of things. Here are some observations, advice I’ve learned over my year as AD:

  1. It’s rewarding! You get to see the growth of many of your performers. It’s an honor to help artists reach their full potential and seeing it is an amazing experience. You see novices turn into masters at playing the piano and actors shine brighter than the first first day they stepped onto the stage. I never get tired of it and it’s what keeps me going.
  2. It is a hard job. You have to cut troupes, players, your friends. This is a very hard thing to do, to e-mail or call a friend or performer to tell them you can not longer perform for now. This sometimes causes strains in friendships and with your performers.
  3. Professionalism – You find out, who is a professional and who is not, really fast. People who don’t show up for a show, are unorganized, flaky. You name it you’ll find them fast and have to deal with it.
  4. You’re the middle man! Yes, you’re the balance of the force. You are the liaison between the business itself and the artists that perform with you. You have to find compromise on a daily basis.
  5. You can’t please everyone – You’re dealing with a ton of personalities. Imagine you can’t even get your team of 8 to decide on a Monday rehearsal, imagine that with hundreds of people and having to get decisions made.
  6. Compromise – I’m not always right and some decisions I’ve made are not the best. But you have to make those mistakes so you can learn from them.
  7. You Should do this – You’ll hear this a lot. So what do you do? Listen, their could be a good idea in there. But know that most of the time the person saying “you should do this.” will not help you carry out that idea. Try to get them involved in helping with  the idea instead of just suggesting. I’ve actually found out when I was more forward about that and gave them tasks it worked.
  8. You hear more complaints then praise. Not that I’m looking for praise at all, but your job is to have a vision and direct a theater into that vision. Sometimes people have issues with that, again see 5 and 6 above. HA!
  9. Have a vision and communicate your vision – You can’t just be an admin. You have to have a vision on what you want done and how it fits with the theater. Communicate all your ideas and why you’re doing them with your community. To make sure the community is involved so they have a say.
  10. The Community – That’s what it’s all about. My community has surprised me on many levels and I’ve been doing this for years. At the end of the day you do it for them. They are awesome, deserving and most of the time do this for free. That’s one thing I will always remember when I go into the theater. My philosophy I’ve made with them, if you’re doing this for free you should be A. Be having fun and B. Learning something. If you’re not let’s talk and make sure you can accomplish those.
  11. Be Available – Don’t hide in an office, be available to talk to your community. I have an open door policy. I can be available for anyone in my community to give them notes, listen to what they have to say etc.
  12. Lead by example – Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do.

I’m sure their are a ton more little things I’ve learned along the way, but these are the pretty major ones I’ve learned and hopefully a little advice and an open door to see what your theaters owners or Artistic Directors go through. I’m pretty lucky to have a wonderful comedy community at The Westside Comedy Theater. They make my job worth it and they are a great group of people.

Your Submissions Can Excel

Excel CSVOne feature requested for a long time from festival producers has been the ability to download the list of festival submissions into an Excel spreadsheet. It was actually in the original outline for the site way back in 2011. Between usability and security settings, it actually turned out to be harder than anticipated, but it’s finally here.

Festival producers* can now download all submission lists (troupes, instructors and/or ensemble submissions) into a .CSV file. For those not super tech literate. This file can be downloaded to your computer and opened by Microsoft Excel. The .CSV format was chosen over the actual Microsoft Excel file format as it is more universal. Users with any spreadsheet program (Open Office, Google Docs etc) can use these file. In addition anyone who is all fancy pants and uses database software instead of regular spreadsheets can import the data as well.

What’s in the sheet? Well, between your festivals information, the troupe’s information, the submission information and the contact person’s information, there could potentially be hundreds of columns and that wouldn’t be useful for anyone. The current spreadsheets contain basic info on each troupe including where they’re from, how to contact them, when they’re available, they’re acceptance status and whether they’ve been contacted (And hey, don’t forget to contact everyone who submits if they’re accepted or not.)

To download the CSV file. Simply go to the submission review page. There will be a button at the top that says “Download CSV”. That’s it. That’s the whole instruction set.

Can this information be changed in the future if needs change? Sure. Might we offer other formats for more tech heavy users (SQL, JSON)? Maybe. We’ll see how it goes and how users needs change. But for now, please check it out and best of luck going through those submissions.

*For now, only the producer (or whoever they assign to be admin for the festival) can download this. It didn’t seem like something all reviewers would need access to. Disagree? My ears are open to any feedback. Drop me a line or leave a comment.

7 Ways Improv Festivals Need to Step Up Their Game to Get Submissions

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to a ton of festivals over the past several years. They have all, for the most part, been great. Also, helping run this site with Bill Binder I also get to see how many festivals there are in the world now and interact with them on a daily basis. Currently listed on our site is 118 improv festivals. Some major cities have two or more festivals now. Holy crap right? What does this mean? It means that more then ever you will be competing for submissions. It may be easier to get local teams, but getting teams from out of town is becoming harder and harder. Here are 7 ways you can step up your game to keep the submissions rolling in and attracting troupes to your festival.

  1. Make it even more inexpensive for Improvisors – They are mostly coming for free, paying for transportation, hotel, food. A good example is The Detroit Improv Festival and The Phoenix Improv Festival. Both festivals help ease the pocket pain of improvisors. DIF offers food for performers during the entire fest with free BBQ’s and food in their greenroom for performers to eat between workshops and shows. PIF gives each team a free night for hotel the night they are performing. This is incredible and very generous, but the reasons these two festivals are hugely popular when it comes to submissions. Word of mouth in the improv world is king!
  2. Try to schedule your festivals better – Look at your region. When are other festivals running? Maybe spread it out so you’re not crossing over each other or running submissions at the same time. This could bring your submissions down as you’ll be competing for them.
  3. Do something new and different – Is your festival getting tired? Are you just doing the same thing every year? Giving out the same gift bags? Shirts? Buttons? Maybe look to spice it up with something new or even in the way you format your festival. You don’t want to just attract new teams all the time, but maybe bring back teams that are amazing and do well at your fest. You don’t have to do much to adjust things just a bit every year. Look if it’s not broken don’t fix it. But enhance it. Don’t let it become stale water.
  4. Listen to your troupes – If you’re not sending out a post festival survey you’re doing yourself the biggest disservice. It hurts to read these sometimes because of how much work you put in to this and for the most part you aren’t getting paid probably. But you still are running a festival and you have a responsibility to the people who come to it because they’re paying to come. Sometimes your troupes may be pointing out a big flaw or even a minor one that can cause big problems. You can’t please everyone, but if you get the same note three times, it needs to be addressed. You should have a post festival pow-wow where you go over the positives and negatives of your festival with your board, fest commission or whatever you call it.
  5. What else do you have to offer? Sell your town or city. What can you offer them to do? The Alaska State Improv Festival offers Whale watching, The Red Rocks Improv Festival offers hikes in Zion National Park. These are huge things that bring tons of improvisors from around the country to come to these remote festivals. For how remote these festivals are they get good submissions. Even if you’re not a remote festival you have a big city to show off, find deals, get discounts, do what you can to attract troupes. Make your festival a vacation destination. Also, don’t just offer workshops. Have parties, conference style meetings add value to your festival in an inexpensive way. Some festival even split the door with their troupes. Paying your troupes is a great way to get more submissions.
  6. Make a more specific festival – If you are in a town or city that has multiple festivals or are in a region where you have a bunch, consider doing a more specific festival. A genre improv festival, musical improv festival, trio festival etc. This may pull you away from the pack a bit.
  7. Travel to festivals yourself – If you’re a festival producer you have to go to other festivals and theaters. See what they’re doing, how they’re run, network. You can also see acts perform and invite them to come to your festival. You get a live view of what’s going on. Sometimes better then watching little videos on your computer. 😉

That’s it for now gang! I hope this helps. If a small festival in Cedar City, Utah or one in the Last Frontier of Alaska can attract troupes so can you. I can say the festivals listed in this blog follow these 7 steps for sure and I know that’s why they do well. If you feel like you can add to this please do so in the comments.

Ensemble Performer Submissions are Here

There’s a new feature launching on the site today. And to many people around the world, it might seem long overdue. To people in the U.S., it might seem a bit confusing since it’s a concept we’re only just beginning to explore.

When Nick and I spend time in Europe and Canada trying to learn more about how festivals and theatres operate, one question we were asked many times was “How do individual performers submit to be part of festival ensembles?” We didn’t have an answer. It’s something I personally had only recently been exposed, but it’s such a wonderful idea, and one so in the spirit of improv festivals, I’m amazed it’s only now popping up in the U.S.

In the model that’s been going on for years, a troupe submits to a festival and – if accepted – comes and performs their show. This is great, but it doesn’t typically give performers a chance to play with anyone new. Sometimes, there is a jam, a Maestro or an All-Star Show, but that’s about it.

The new model doesn’t replace troupes visiting, but it offers an additional option. One, or sometimes a few shows will be scheduled during a festival with a cast of performers who may have never played together, or even met before. Sometimes this show is as simple as a jam. Sometimes the performers come into town well before the festival to meet and work to create a show together.

Alice, Bob and Carla are all great players from around the world. Each of them may want to visit a festival, but doesn’t have a troupe to submit. All three of them are invited to be part of the festival ensemble. They come from their respective home towns and build a show unique to that festival bringing the styles and loves from their home and learning about the way other people play.

Why this is cool?

There are a few reasons bringing a festival ensemble to your festival can bring something really cool that you haven’t had before.

1. Visitors who don’t have traveling troupes can visit your festival. Sometimes a performer is part of a troupe with people who cannot travel. Sometimes a performer finds themselves without a troupe at all. Traveling to festivals is a very difficult proposition for these players. It’s hard to justify the cost of traveling if there are no performance opportunities. This allows them to visit and hopefully bring some of the festival greatness back to their city.

2. Playing with new people. I can speak to this personally. Having done a couple ensembles now, I’ve gained amazing new insights into performing, both from my coaches and from my fellow players. I’ve had the opportunity to play with people from other parts of the country and the world that I never would have had the opportunity to play with otherwise.

3. It’s ephemeral. It’s the very spirit of what we do in some ways. An festival ensemble is a show that exists only for one weekend. Only for one festival. It is a shared experience, and then it is gone.

What are ensemble shows like?

There’s no one answer to that. Some festivals have an existing structure that they work visitors into. Some have the group find a format that compliments the players. Some ensembles only meet a few hours before the show. Some ensembles spend a week together. It’s really up to the festival how they want to format this.

How do I submit on The Improv Network

Go to the festival submission page like you would if you were submitting a troupe.
Look for a button that looks like this
submit
The submission page will ask you for a brief introduction explaining why you’d like to be invited as a featured performer and asks you to include a video link to a show you were in.
That’s it.

How do I accept performer submissions at my festival?

During your setup process for your festival, you will check a box on the first page indicating if you want to run performer submissions. You will then be asked to give a brief description of how your ensemble will work.
That’s it.

You can submit to be in an ensemble today

I really hope more festivals around the world keep doing it, and I hope festivals in the U.S. start adopting it. Improvaganza in Hawai’i just had their first ensemble and I hear it went great. Phoenix and San Diego will both be announcing their ensembles later today. (Thanks to both for your patience while we got this tool off the ground). Please visit their respective pages on the site when they go live. I know it’s kind of a new concept to understand it’s potential for some, but it can be a great way to build our community even more.

A few special shout-outs. Thanks to Improvaganza in Edmonton and The Vancouver International Improv Festival for letting me be a part of their festival ensembles. Also, click that link in the last sentence to learn more about VIIF’s ensemble which is coincidentally starting today and will be performing this weekend. Thanks to Marisol Chavez and Lauren Morris who helped me beta test this new feature and gave some really great feedback.

The Rubric

Looking Into a Festival Producer’s Mind, or How Do They Decide Who to Choose?

THE RUBRIC: Looking Into a Festival Producer’s Mind, or How Do They Decide Who to Choose?

In the years I’ve produced the Alaska State Improv Festival (AS IF), I’ve heard performers ask “What can I do to improve my submission?” I’ve also heard my fellow producers bemoan that their 1 to 5 judging scale leads to a massive swath of “3” scores from their reviewers, making it impossible to figure out whether an ensemble is in the 25th percentile or the 75th percentile of the submission pool. More rarely, I hear of a rubric that takes a background in advanced statistics to comprehend where even the person creating it can only hope that it reflects more than a mathematical curiosity.

We do things a little differently in Alaska. The way we review submissions has made it much easier for our production team to determine where in the pool each ensemble fits. By describing the AS IF way, I hope that it helps performers understand what goes on in the mind of a producer. I also hope it helps other producers create a meaningful rubric for their own submission review processes.

Our Rubric:

The AS IF production team has always valued variety as well as skill. This became central to our scoring rubric which is divided into four parts, each scored on a 1 to 5 scale (minimum score of 4; maximum score of 20).

Originality – Does the show contain original elements? If we read the description of your show and say, “We’ve never seen that before. This sounds great!” then you’ve done well on originality.

Execution of Concept – Does the show deliver on its intended premise? If the show is described as an improvised detective show in the style of Columbo but the video contains a montage of disconnected scenes, then you probably lost almost all of these points.

Marketability – Can we describe your show to a lay person in one or two sentences and get them excited to see it? Think of a show like Jill Bernard’s Drum Machine – It’s a one-woman improvised musical based on a historical event. Her accompanist is the Zoomtronic 123 drum machine. Two sentences, you know the gist of the show, and you want to buy a ticket.

Skill – Regardless of whether the show was original or delivered on its promise, was it skillfully performed?

What’s The Reasoning Behind the Rubric?

We decided early that we wanted to provide not only quality shows, but to a broad spectrum of shows to introduce our audience to what improv can be.

Instead of asking “On a scale of 1 to 5, how were they?” the four parts of the rubric force the reviewers to consider more deeply what the show’s strengths and weaknesses, and whether the show is a fit for AS IF.

How Does It Work in the Real World?

Our results have been remarkably consistent. Groups that have received scores above 15 have proven to be exceptional additions to the festival. Groups in the 13 to 15 range have mostly been either placed on the waitlist or accepted as “last group in.” A couple of these groups have underwhelmed, but several have flashed brilliance that was not seen on the submission video. Groups who score under 13 are generally not considered for inclusion

Most importantly, we have been able to retain a consistently high bar for the festival. The sets at the festival are of high quality, yet are quite varied in style, composition, geography, etc., and the whole package reflects the overall vision of AS IF.

Anything Else?

The numbers don’t tell the whole tale. There are times when a producer makes a choice that goes against the numbers. This can happen based on personal knowledge of the performers, a reference from a trusted insider, a desire to not have too many of a particular type of show, or just a gut instinct regarding whether the submission video reflects the ensemble’s ceiling or their floor. If you are a producer, you have a right and a responsibility to look beyond the numbers to include the acts that best represent the festival’s vision.

If you are a performer who is caught on the wrong end of a producer’s decision, please understand that the number of submissions often greatly exceeds the number of available slots and that in a different pool of submissions you may have made the cut. If there is a festival you have targeted and you have not been accepted, don’t presume that’s the end of the story. Submit with another video, submit with a different ensemble, ask the producer where the submission fell short – and be ready to take the hard note.

So that’s a look inside the head of a producer heading into the submission period. Alaska State Improv Festival is in its open submission period through the end of September, and we hope to see many of you join us in Alaska next April!


Eric Caldwell is the Producer of the Alaska State Improv Festival, entering its fifth year in 2017.

Consider Teacher Workshops at Your Theater or Festivals

NIN’s year of the teacher was amazing. We created the Teacher Tool which will allow you to submit yourself, for free, as a teacher to a festival and let theaters know when you’re in town so they can hire you if you in the neighborhood…NEATO!  With that said, I’d like to chat with our readers about hiring veteran teachers to come to your festival and/or theater to do teaching or coaching workshops. There is huge value in this. I think we have a responsibility as theaters and festivals to start training the next generation of improvisors to become great teachers and have the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.

A lot of theaters, festivals and communities are still young. I’d say about 80 percent of the theaters and festivals I go to  fit in this category. For theaters, a lot of communities are growing pretty fast and we are basically making teachers out of students or recent alums. I get it, the demand is there from incoming students and you want your business to push forward, but what about the teachers? Teaching is a different art all together. Especially teaching something like improv. Just like improvisors who need training, so do teachers. Sure, you may have to shell out a few dollars to get a master teacher to come out, but your return on investment is going to be huge. The better the teacher, the better the business, and the more chance to have returning students. The better the student, the better the performer, the better your audiences will get because of the quality of work – Trickle-down Improv-nomics. You may not see the money right away, but invest in your theater it will be worth it in the long run. I know some theaters are doing this already and to you guys! YAY! You’re ahead of the game and I’d be interested to hear about the experience. You have to think big picture. I know it’s hard to think that as we try to figure out how to pay our rent for next month or buy more paper towels for the bathroom, but the long game is where it is at and it’s worth it.

For festivals, what a great opportunity to offer this course to your community and improvisors coming into town. We are so focused on the teaching of improv skills and forms, we are forgetting that a lot of these improvisors are going to become coaches or teachers eventually. If you’re inviting a master teacher to come to your festival, have them do an improv workshop, but also have them add an instructor workshop. Why not? You have them there. Again, may cost more, but I feel this is something that would do really well. After all these people are the best in the business and have years of experience in teaching. They know what works with students and what doesn’t.

I want to take a second to thank all the teachers and coaches out there for doing the work and committing to our art form. You’re paving the way for the future of improv. Right now we may not get paid as much as we deserve but I do see a day where that will change and it’s all because of the blood, sweat and tears coming from your passion. So, thank you!

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California, Yosemite and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West and The Groundlings. He has also taught many workshops at theaters and festivals around the world.

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