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.

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

Why not IIN?

Where We Came From, Where We're Going

hIn 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.

POMP from Canada

POMP from Canada

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.

  1. Always remember that out of town performers need to be informed of things you take for granted
  2. 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”.

Paris Tales from France

Paris Tales from France

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.

We all need a little PANDAMONIUM

There are days where I miss college and wish I could go back. Luckily, I got that chance about a week ago. I recently got the wonderful opportunity to teach and perform with my independent team Switch Committee at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. We were there for the Pandamonium Improv Festival, which is a student-run festival created by the on-campus team K.A.R.L. Improv. It consists of a full-day workshop with professional teams (Switch Committee and Octavarius) and on-campus teams as well as college teams traveling from around the country. Following the workshop and a brief break, all the teams perform together in shows later that night.  That’s my synopsis, but feel free to check the write-up from one of WashU’s independent newspapers here for a little more background on the festival.

The workshop, which was held in different classrooms on campus, went from 9am until 4:30pm. If you came to the festival as a team with your friends, you’d be split up individually to create a new team with other students you’ve never performed with before. At first I was confused, but then I realized these students were much smarter than I am and this whole process was one of the most organized things I’ve ever been a part of. It’s also great for students who attend the festival solo because you’ll be placed on a team anyway. The members of Switch Committee were split up to coach the student teams. Throughout the day, I got the chance to connect with the students and find out exactly why they were there that day. Their responses were motivating and inspiring.

This whole festival reopened my eyes to the supportive environment that collegiate improvisation encourages. They may not know it, but these students inspired me. They inspired me because they weren’t there to ‘catch a break’ or become famous. They weren’t doing this as a means to an end. They were there because they all loved and enjoyed performing. They loved the art of improvisation and the endless possibilities that exist in the world of make believe. Too many times I hear people in the community say, “This is how I’m going to catch my big break.” When you find yourself saying that, please stop. You need to stop and realize why you started doing this in the first place. It shouldn’t be about catching a break, but instead about enjoying what you’re doing and living in the moment. It’s about the journey, not the destination. They all had one purpose; being happy because they were doing something they love. I could see that joy in each and every one of their eyes. They wanted nothing more than to learn, get better, and most importantly, to just have fun. The shows the teams put on that night were spectacular. It was such a warm and inviting environment with people who were there to support one another. The teams put on hilarious shows and implemented moves or ‘tools from their toolbox’ as I like to say, that they learned throughout the day. It was a mix of short-form and long-form groups that together created a fantastic night of improv for everyone in the room. It was an honor to be a part of this festival.

As for my suggestions to give to K.A.R.L. or anyone who helped to create the festival (queue dramatic Inception music)…I would simply say keep doing exactly what you’re doing. You are doing it right. This whole festival should be used as an example of how a college festival should be run. If you’re a college improviser and you want to perform with like-mind individuals like yourself, you should be attending festivals like Pandamonium. If you have the money you should try to travel and submit to as many festivals as possible because you’ll be able to meet people who share the same interests that you do. If you don’t have money to travel than create a festival for yourself. There is nothing stopping you from making your improv team a registered student organization and asking your college for help in creating a festival to celebrate performing arts and theater. If you go to your student organization office and tell them you want to create a festival or event on-campus that will bring students together for a common purpose, they will jump at the idea. They will love it because it promotes student collaboration, school recognition, and the performing arts. This also is a great way to get started in learning how to develop and run a sustainable festival, which has been done by many of the festivals here on this site.

So if you’re a college improviser and you’re reading this, what are you waiting for? Build something that brings people together just like yourself. Go make something happen….after you get out of class of course.

Ryan Nallen is a graduate of the iO Training Center, the Second City Conservatory, and the Annoyance Theater in Chicago. Aside from Switch Committee, Ryan is an Associate Producer for Big Little Comedy as well as a member of the Playground Incubator team DesperadoIn January 2013, he completed an entire month of comedy by performing 31 days in a row. He’s a frequent blogger ( and iO Water Cooler), PinteresterInstagramer and Tweeter. Based on that previous sentence, it can be assumed that he has no life.

***Ryan Nallen is a blog contributor to NIN. If you want to contribute please send us and e-mail at to be considered.

Treating Submissions With Respect

Running a festival is a balancing act; press, venue booking, promotions, communicating with traveling troupes, hotels, airlines, social media, printing programs. I have have the highest regard for anyone who takes on this challenge. There’s a lot going on and a lot of people you see every week with different needs.  With all of this going on, especially if you haven’t been doing it for years, it’s very easy to forget that there are people you don’t see every week who are part of making your festival happen too; the people from around the country and sometimes from around the world who have submitted to perform and are willing to travel to your city, usually on their own dime to help you make a great festival. They’re excited about your festival and often willing to make some big sacrifices to come perform in your space.

It’s important as the festival planning process goes on to remember those people and keep their needs in mind when making decisions. Showing respect to them during the process will not only make this year’s festival better, but next year’s as well. Many of these performers travel to many places throughout the year and can be ambassadors of your festival if they had a good time and felt respected.

So if you’re planning a festival, especially if you’ve never been in the shoes of a traveling performer, here are a few things that can make the process a lot easier for them and will lead to more and more great submissions coming year after year.

Schedule wisely

Schedule wisely

Before submissions open

I promise you that many performers would love to travel every weekend, but realistically that’s not always possible. A trip for them can take a lot of planning, so you’ll want to start the process of giving them as much information as early as possible. Start with your festival date and work backwards. If a troupe is going to fly to see you, they’ll want to have their airline tickets at least six weeks before their flight. Any later than that and their prices will start climbing quickly. That six weeks is also enough time to let them plan accordingly by getting time off of work, not scheduling other shows at their own theatre that weekend. So you’ll want to confirm your troupes at least six weeks prior to festival – and keep in mind that’s a minimum.

Keep in mind there’s a difference between confirming your schedule and contacting the troupes. Even though many troupes submitted with the best intentions, there are occasions when they have to decline an invite. You’ll want to give them at least a few days after you invite them to confirm so you can announce your schedule. Let’s keep working backwards. Reviewing submissions can be a very time consuming processes. The time spent deciding who will come can only happen after you’ve reviewed all the submissions. If you have 50 submissions at 25 minutes each… that time gets used up fast. So give your self at least two weeks to review submissions (and I’m being very conservative here. More time is better). Sure you can start viewing submissions before they close, but you will always get a flood of last minute submissions.

You’ll want a decent submission window for troupes to decide whether to submit to your festival. Keeping submissions open for less than a month is going to really limit your submissions.

Adding all of these up, if you want to give troupes the best chance of performing at your festival, you’re going to want to open submissions at least three and a half months prior to your festival and close no later than two and a half months prior to festival if you want out of state performers to be involved.

Now that you have those dates, you can start promoting your submissions to the world through social media and other means so that they have suitable head’s up to start thinking about a trip to your festival.

During Submissions

When your submissions are open, groups will likely have many questions about your festival. Be sure to make yourself available for questions. If you have a board of directors with different responsibilities, you can make their contact info available too.

Fun Fact: You can add any member of Improv Network to your festival listings as a contact person. You can even give them a special title. Just click Add/Remove Organizers from the event listing.

Making yourself available is great, but there are a few things that almost everyone will want to know and it’s a good idea to make this information available right up front.

  • How many shows will they be performing
  • Is there anything else that the festival will be providing for them (a t-shirt? a hotel room? three beers?)
  • What other non-show events will be at the festival (workshops? parties? conferences? special trips?)
  • What nights will out of town troupes be expected to perform? (Most people can get a Friday or Saturday off, but not a  Wednesday)
  • Any other expenses that might be involved for them

Those bits of information are pretty straightforward and factual, but there are more esoteric pieces of info that would be helpful to provide. Courting troupes to want to come to your festival is kind of like filling out an online dating profile. You won’t get many responses if your profile says “I’m a dude. Date me.” Let them know who you are. What is the improv like in your city? What is your city like? Why are you doing a festival? What drives your passion for the art? What kind of audiences do you have? Where can they get breakfast? And also, What kind of show are you looking for? Improvaganza from Honolulu is great at this every year. This year they are specifically looking for shows with large ensembles to focus on that kind of group work. Your needs may be less specific, but you’ve got a good idea of the kind of show you’re looking for. Write about it. It will help troupes know if this is the right festival for them. The second is simply Who are you?. You’re going to get a lot more interest if people know more about your festival than just a name. Now is also the time to let people know about those timelines you set for yourself. Let people know when they can expect to hear if they’re in or not.

They’ll be sending info to you as well in the form of their submission. Don’t wait until submissions are closed before taking a quick look. Sometimes they’ll forget an important piece of information. If you reach out to them, they can usually get it to you before submissions close and you can give them a fair review.

And finally, acknowledge them. They took the first step. They worked hard on a submission packet and they sent it in for review. They even paid a little money. Be sure to acknowledge that. Thank them for their submission and open the lines of dialog.

When Submissions Close

The first thing to do when submissions close, and one of the most overlooked things is to actually remove the submission link from your webpage. If your event is in the Festival listings on the page here, they’ll automatically drop off, but any other place you have submission info, you’ll want to take down or replace with a “Thank you. Submissions are now closed” page.

Once that’s taken care of, start or continue reviewing them right away. The methods of reviewing submissions is a whole blog post unto itself, but just make sure that you actually watch all the submissions. It sounds obvious. But there are cases of festivals only watching a handful of submissions and ignoring the rest. Those festivals did not survive well. Give every troupe your attention and take as many notes as you can.

Take the time to write back

Take the time to write back

Letting People Know

When you’re ready to reach out to troupes. You’ll of course want to let them know. Please don’t forget to let the people you couldn’t invite know as well. It can be very frustrating for a troupe to be wondering if they’re going to a festival and then have to hear second-hand that the festival line-up has been announced and they’re not on it. Reach out and thank them again for their submission even if you can’t invite them. If at all possible, don’t send a form letter. You have a lot to do, and emailing each group individually can take over an hour, but it is a huge act of good faith in return for the good faith they’ve placed in you.

With both your acceptance and rejection letters, be sincere and honest. “There were so many great submissions this year, it was almost impossible to judge them all.” is probably a sentence they’ve seen before. Only say something like that if it’s really true. Because otherwise it comes off as a blow-off and no one likes to feel blown off.

Be open to responses. Many groups that don’t make it will write back to say “Thanks for letting us know. Good luck with the festival.” They understand that you made the best decision for your festival, but sometimes a younger troupe may ask for advice on their submissions. Write back. Be honest (not mean) about their submissions. Offer advice on what might be a stronger choice for them and it may help them get into other festivals and grow as performers. You have a lot more experience with them and you have the opportunity to share some of that experience with them.

And of course, all of this applies for the groups you will be inviting.

Getting Ready for Festival

It’s several weeks or month until festival. You’ve booked the groups. Your attention turns back to things in your own city. But don’t forget about those people. Keep them in the loop with new information. At this point, it’s fine to send out blasts without personally writing everyone. You’re just sending them basic info about workshop registration opening, a special new event, etc. You don’t want to deluge them with emails, but one update every week or two helps them feel comfortable that you’re keeping them involved. Try to keep messages from the festival coming from as few sources as possible. If you are the contact person for info. They will know your name. They don’t necessarily know everyone on your board. The big exception to this is that sometimes your tech person will have to check in with individual troupes on tech needs. That’s cool. If your tech person needs to check in, that’s not information overload.

Now it’s time to get prepared to take care of them. Find out who is coming. Find out when their flights are coming in. If you have the volunteer staff capable of handling it, pick them up at the airport. Don’t make them take a cab 25 miles. Find out if they have any other special needs when they get into town.

Performers are the heart of your festival

Performers are the heart of your festival

Festival Time

Have a packet ready for them when they arrive. Many festivals have a swag bag filled with snacks and a plethora of trinkets from their sponsors. (The single best piece of swag I ever received was a DVD copy of “The Long Kiss Goodnight” with Geena Davis). These are cool and fun. But not a requirement. Don’t stress if you can’t have these, but at least have a packet for troupes with pages for contact info, schedules, a program, any other details on events and lanyards or IDs. People are just adjusting to a new place. It’s nice to have a set of info ready for them.

Den Mothers
Different cities have different names for these, but the important thing is having them. These troupes are your guests. They don’t know your city. They don’t know your venue. They likely don’t have a car. Before they step foot in your city find a liaison for them while they’re in town. You’ll have student, performers and fans in your community who are champing to help out. Give them a troupe to take care of during their visit. Make sure that this person is reliable and truly available for the whole weekend. It’s their job to be the first person to call when the visitors have questions. A den mother should be around to pick them up at the hotel. Tell them where to get breakfast. Take them to see that one thing in your city that all the tourists want to see, show them the place behind your venue that’s good for warm-ups. Just making them feel like rock stars.

Because they are. These people visiting you? They are rock stars. Never forget that. They’re making your festival amazing. And they’re doing it usually only because they love doing it for you. Never forget that. They are rock stars. Not just your headliner. Everyone.

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

5 Things I’ve Learned in the Improv Festival Circuit

We want to welcome Ryan Nallen to the NIN blog team! You’ll be hearing from him more. Check out his first blog which we love about what you learn on the improv fest circuit. As someone who travels to a ton of these a year. I totally agree with the below thoughts! – Nick Armstrong

From Ryan:

Performing in improv festivals can be fun and exciting and it can also be terrifying. In the past year, my improv group Switch Committee has had the amazing opportunity of being able to perform in numerous festivals around the country. In this post, I discuss some of the things I’ve learned as a newbie to the improv festival circuit. So, let’s get started…

  1. Everyone is supportive. This seems like an obvious one, but it still needs to be said just in case people are worrying about traveling to another state to do improv or sketch or standup among people you’ve never met before. Since we all have common interests (comedy) people are quick to be friendly and actually have a general interest in meeting you. We all are there for the same reason, but we all have a different past or story of how we got here. There’s a metaphor for life somewhere in that last sentence. It’s interesting to hear people’s stories and hear how their group has developed, where they’re from and what their plans for the future are. Obviously, you’ll encounter some ‘too cool for school kids’ or people who think they are better than everyone, but those people quickly stand out as being everything but cool. Don’t worry, you probably won’t be running into them after that experience. The most important thing for everyone is support. Being supportive of one another is the glue that keeps this community together.
  2. 2.     Traveling helps to create a stronger team bond. Doing trust-falls, having team bonding nights, and hanging out (different from just rehearsing regularly) with one another on a regular basis is great (and definitely recommended) but sharing a four hour car ride while singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a hotel room that has a shower in the middle of the room is a whole other thing. Switch Committee actually had a hotel room in Cleveland when we were at the Big Little Comedy Fest that had a walk-in shower where you could walk into it from the living room. If you’ve got 5 people in your group you’ll probably try to cram everyone into a hotel room with one bed to cut costs. That means people will be on the floor, on chairs, and sleeping together in the bed. That means you’ll have mornings reminiscent of that “Those Aren’t Pillows” scene from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Fun right?!
  3. This is a great way to network yourself and your group. Traveling to different states to perform means meeting other people and groups who have traveled from other states and so on and so forth. That also means meeting people (new friends) who run other festivals in other states. You see where I’m going with this? Getting your group out there to perform with other groups from around the country will open the door for more festival opportunities. For example, when Switch Committee traveled to Detroit to play we ran into some people who help run the Denver festival. They saw us perform and asked us if we’d be interested in doing that festival. Then when we were in Denver, we got asked to play at the Eau Claire Improv Festival because the guys who help run that festival were also performing at the time. Performing in Detroit and Denver also opened the door for us to travel to the Phoenix Improv Festival which we’ll be performing and teaching a workshop at in April. The point being that one thing had led to another in terms of festival opportunities and it’s all because of meeting new people who share the same joy that you do. Everything happens for a reason. Obviously, you’ll still have to go through the festival submission process like everyone does, but it can’t hurt your chances of being accepted if they’ve already seen you at another festival. Even better, if you had a good show at the festival that they saw.
  4. It’s a good way to test yourself to see where you are in your comedic career. If you’re ready (mentally and financially) to travel to another state to try and make an audience of people you don’t know laugh than you should be doing it. It also depends on why you are doing this in general. If you just like making your friends laugh than sticking to doing shows in your hometown or friend’s studio apartment might be your best bet. For example, me, I love making people I don’t know laugh. For me, I rarely invite people I know to shows because I don’t want them laughing because they know me. I don’t want courtesy laughs. If you want to make a career out of doing comedy, courtesy laughs aren’t the route you want to be going. No one is doing you any favors. There is no better way of seeing whether or not you can ‘cut it’ than by traveling to do comedy in a place outside of your normal stomping grounds. Personally, I want to legitimately make a room full of people who I’ve never met before laugh because my group and I have created something wonderful, artistic, imaginative and most importantly…funny. Funny is funny. Traveling to different states and making people laugh has helped to boost my confidence as a performer. The key word being confidence. Not cockiness, which you’ll see in some of the ‘too cool for school kids’ that I had mentioned earlier.
  5. You get to TRAVEL! We all love going on vacation. That’s a fact. Imagine though that you get to go on vacation with your best friends for a weekend every few months to a new place to do something that you love. It sounds like a dream doesn’t it? Well that’s cause it is. You get to meet new people, eat at new places, and perform in front of a new audience that has never met you before. It’s fun and terrifying at the same time.

In the end, if you’re currently a performer or group that’s on the fence about traveling to a festival, stop worrying about it and take a risk. Grab a camera, film your show, gather up some change for a submission fee from all the cheapskates in your group and then submit to a festival. There’s nothing to lose, but there is so much to gain. If you have a good show, great. If you have a bad show, great. Good show or bad, you’ll have gotten the chance to travel to a new place, strengthen your bond as a team, network and make new friends, test your comedic abilities on a national scale, and support others with the same artistic visions as yourself. I don’t want to sound like a Nike slogan, but….just do it.

Ryan Nallen is a graduate of the iO Training Center as well as the Annoyance and is currently about to graduate from the Second City Conservatory in Chicago.  Aside from Switch Committee, Ryan is an Associate Producer for Big Little Comedy as well as a member of the Playground Incubator team Desperado. In January 2013, he completed an entire month of comedy by performing 31 days in a row. He’s a frequent blogger ( and iO Water Cooler), PinteresterInstagramer and Tweeter. Based on that previous sentence, it can be assumed that he has no life.

***Ryan Nallen is a blog contributor to NIN. If you want to contribute please send us and e-mail at to be considered.

The Orange County Improv Festival Soars into its 2nd Year

This last weekend I had the opportunity to perform and attend the 2nd Annual Orange County Improv Festival in Fullerton, CA put on by Spectacles Improv Engine. Their headliners this year where Ranger Danger and the Danger Ranger, King Ten, Dr. God out of iO West and Mister Town City out of UCBLA.

The festival was great, the Orange County improv scene is building a community still, but it’s even more than it was last year. Thanks to the hard work of the Spectacles Improv Engine led my Josh Nicols and Matthew Thomas. The venue is a small 99 seat theatre but most of the shows had a great crowd and an enthusiastic audience. The fest offered improvisors hotel deals and great workshops from some top instructors out in the West like Jason Pardo (King Ten/iO/Annoyance), Brian O’ Connell (iO/Dr. God) and Luis Cortez and Drew Coolidge (Ranger Danger and the Danger Ranger).

Something that was really fun this year was in the gift bags, the OC organizers made each team their own Wine label which was pretty cool (See below). It’s the small things people. And you could of course count on the parties every night for improvisors. After the show they had a second space right behind the theater with a keg of Negro Modelo. Yum!

I really enjoyed the camaraderie and welcoming nature of the Orange County improv scene. Everyone was excellent and took care of the improvisors. The highlight of the evening came as the OC Improv Festival offered Camp Improv Utopia campers (Former and Future) the chance to do an improv jam. With about 20 people we did a big group montage that was fun, but the big moment came at the end when we were taking a group picture and the post show music started playing “Proud to be an American” in true improv fashion everyone, including the audience, started singing it. It was a fun moment and a great way to close the fest.

This year only brought out teams mostly from the West. I’d hope by year three we see more teams coming from all over the country as the festival grows.

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. He has also taught 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

Interview with Rick Andrews – Joining the NIN Team!

As you’ve probably heard by last weeks announcement Rick Andrews from The Magnet Theater in New York will be joining the NIN team. He joins Bill and I to help us develop the site and reach out to even more improvisors. We are extremely happy to have Rick on board. Here is an interview I did with Rick so you can get to know him a little better:

N: Rick, tell us about yourself. What theater do you call home and why?

R: Hey earth people!  I’m an instructor and performer at The Magnet Theater in New York City, NY.  I started doing improv at Improv Boston, then continued in Saint Louis.  I moved to NY about 4 years ago and quickly fell in love with the Magnet.  I love the attention and care put into the training program and all of the students.  I believe that improv is something that anyone can do and do well, and The Magnet really creates an environment that allows all to succeed and grow.  I also believe that good improvisation can take all kinds of shapes, speeds, and sizes, and I love that I get to explore that at Magnet, to see great work of different styles and approaches.

N: You’re a teacher of improv. What is it you like about teaching improv?

R: Teaching Improv is the my favorite thing to do in the entire world.  Improv gives people genuine confidence; it puts them in situations where they follow their gut and the ensemble supports that choice and they see their choices born into wonderful scenes.  People learn to really trust themselves and others and the change I’ve seen in students who dove into improv in just the short time I’ve been in New York is very staggering and humbling.  People very rarely get to play, and improv lets us play while also fostering excellent listening, teamwork, etc. It makes people better people, which sounds culty and insane, but it’s true.

On a personal level, Improv is the thing I love most, and getting to share that love with others and see them fall in love with it is very fulfilling.

N: Who are your improv heroes?

R: Oh man!  Armando, Tj and Dave, Cackowski, Jill Bernard, Will Luera, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, …these days the people who inspire me are the people I’m insanely lucky to work with on a daily basis at Magnet.  Too many to name…

N: Do you have an improv philosophy? If so, what is it?

R: There are a lot of ways to do an excellent improv scene.  A compelling relationship will feel different than an odd or interesting character, which will feel different than a well heightened game, etc.  I view these styles as techniques to achieve different but compatible goals.  I’d never coach a group to play an Armando, for example, without talking and thinking about game.  But I’d also never coach a group to do Monoscene without thinking about character.  Improv is improv, but different styles and methods allow us to play shows and scenes that manipulate reality and comedy to varying affects.

Uniting all of these, though, is what I call the dynamic in the scene.  It is the sub-atomic level of all improvisation.  The core of any improv scene, regardless of style, is the two people being affected, most often by each other.  Everything else in the improv scene is super invisible and make believe, except for how the people are being affected.  The people will always feel more palpable and real, the audience will always inherently invest in their active behavior above all else, and it is where the moment-to-moment truth in comedy comes from in a scene.  Every reaction is another chance for an honest response.

A relationship is not compelling if the people are not actually affecting each other; a character is no fun if he/she doesn’t affect anyone.  A game and pattern is meaningless without anyone being affected by it, etc.  Good improvisation in any style follows these ideas and usually leads you back to being affected; The audience doesn’t want a sketch you wrote in your head 2 seconds ago.  They are compelled and moved to laughter and other emotions by the shared journey and the truths and humor discovered on the way.

N: You’re joining the National Improv Network as a team member. What are you most excited about joining the team?

R: The growth of improv over the last decade or two has been amazing, and the capabilities of the National Improv Network to help further connect the community are really fascinating to me.  Our art form is a transient one.  If someone in New York makes some interested musical innovation, someone in LA can hear it on a record, online, etc.  They can experience those ideas.  But for improvisation, we need to connect to each other, we need to travel and see what else is going on to get that outside inspiration.  The freer the exchange of ideas, the better, and I think NIN is a wonderful tool for that.

N: What drew you to join the team at NIN?< R: I'm a user of the site and a big fan of the goals and aims.  I have faith in improv not only as a useful tool to develop comedy but also as a wonderful artform and pursuit itself, and I also believe in collaboration over competition as a way to achieve those means.  I think NIN embodies all of that, and so it's a no brainer to help be a part of it! N: You travel to a bunch of festivals, where do you see improv in five years from now?

R: The change and growth I’ve seen in New York and beyond in the last few years has been amazing.  You still get the same commitment and love in improv by folks who are pursuing and interested in comedy as an art and career.  But I’ve been seeing so many more “regular people” who want to try improv for other reasons, to work on public speaking, feel more confident, meet people, or simply to be playful and have fun.  Improv is becoming a thing that adults just do as a part of being an adult.  In my head, I liken it maybe to where yoga has gone?  From a more niche thing to something that a large part of the population participates in.  I think improv is immensely rewarding to do and enhances people’s lives in so many ways; I see that continuing to spread.
-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. He has also taught 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