I recently sat down with Lindsey Barrow (just kidding, I emailed her– it’s still a pandemic). She is the Artistic Director of The Ruby LA, an intersectional, feminist comedy theater in Los Angeles. Full disclosure, Lindsey and I are friends (although she prefers that I not say that in public or private). I think she is one of the unsung heroes of the improv community.
Lindsey Barrow has performed at various theatres including The Ruby, Nerdist, UCB, iO, and Second City doing stand-up, sketch comedy, and improv. She’s performed sketch and improv for over ten years and you can see her on shows like Speechless and Casual, and way too many commercials.
So The Ruby is an intersectional, feminist comedy theater. Can you tell us what that means and how you’ve implemented that philosophy?
Lindsey with her improv team, Karen.
Lindsey Barrow: Sure! Intersectional Feminism in comedy means we understand that a person’s comedy style will not only be influenced by their perspective of being a woman, or a black man, or a non-binary person. But, there are many areas of inequality that will determine a performer’s point of view, what they think is funny, or how they can function in society. We take all of that into consideration when we plan out our curriculum. We want you to be able to grow into the funniest person you think you can be, not the funniest person Randy thinks you should be. I mean, Randy’s funny and all… but like, he might not get a joke about tampons or pronoun mistakes.
In all seriousness, Equality, Inclusivity, and Diversity (or EDI) have always been a number one priority for us. We make sure our board and instructors match the community we want to serve. This is called a top-down approach. Therefore, EDI has always been first on our minds. It is not a patch that was thrown in after we created a comedy school.
What issues have you seen in the comedy community? What is The Ruby doing to help fix them?
Lindsey Barrow: I’m excited performers are feeling empowered to speak up and correct theaters that they call home when it comes to EDI. A lot of these comedy institutions rely on a “one way to be funny” mentality. This has trickled down to “white dude in his late 40’s thing is funny.” And that sucks. There are so many ways to be funny – see previous statement about Randy. Plus, just an entire system that works against anyone who is a marginalized voice, doesn’t have the ability to easily take a class and network, or isn’t related to a Coppola.
Sketch Team “Rosa” performing at the Ruby
Please tell me more.
I worry that the necessary changes that need to be made will be forgotten because of the pandemic. Also, I’m worried about the onus for change being placed on BIPOC shoulders. Running a theater is hard work. It pays no money and maybe gets you a “thanks for your work” email like once every few months. Expecting BIPOC folks to open and run an expensive theater for themselves because white spaces aren’t doing better isn’t a great answer. Unless folks want to open up said theater, then they obviously should. I must warn you, it pays no money and the thank you emails are sparse, but they are nice.
Additionally, there are a lot of great spaces that are ALREADY run by these folks. So support them and help them grow instead of just telling black people to open their own space. Which was just a weird thing that happened last summer. Giving a shout out on Twitter is rad, buying a class is radder, volunteering and connecting folks (outside of people who look like you) is even radder-est.
When all the theaters were being held accountable for racist, sexist, homophobic problems, we were being recognized for not having those issues. This is because we have made these problems a priority since the beginning. AND because we know that we will make mistakes and the best way to fix those mistakes is to listen. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. But we will always listen to our performers, our audience, and our interns. And we will make their safety and growth a top priority.
Am I doing a good job? Feel free to tell me if I’m blowing this interview right now.
Lindsey Barrow: Who are you again? Have we met?
Lindsey, it’s me? Jeff?! We’ve been in several photos together.
I’m not sure if you heard about this, but a lot of theaters have been closed for months. How has your theater been weathering these crazy times?
Lindsey Barrow: We’ve been lucky to have a grant here and there to help us out, but it’s been very hard. As far as performance – we’ve transitioned into some interesting, new, digital sketch teams. Because people can take classes online, our teams are now made up of folks who are all over the US. This is very cool. They are creating content together and figuring out how to fake being in the same location. We’re also testing out a new live show format that combines pre-recorded content with live content. The show is called “Overly Complicated.” It will be streaming live on our Youtube channel Thursdays at 8 pst. This was a plug. You are welcome.
What advice do you have to all of the actors and creatives who might be reading this?
Lindsey Barrow: Shit is very hard right now. If you are able to put any energy into writing, acting, and/or creating anything – you should be proud of yourself. And if you can’t, then you should go easy on yourself. Additionally, support institutions that are looking out for you! It’s hard for these places to enact change in the industry if everyone lets the status quo at these bigger theaters continue on. And just because you think there is one way to get your own hit TV show?!?! There are so many ways to get a hit TV show! Just ask Randy!
Anything else you want to share?
Lindsey Barrow: I give Randy a hard time, but he’s actually very funny and great. I’m still not sure who Jeff is.
Here at The Improv Network, we commit ourselves to connecting improvisers. We strive to help performers create outstanding improv and run positive, safe, and diverse theaters and festivals. Part of this includes producing free educational content. With this in mind, we are happy to announce a new branch to our educational offerings! The Improv Network is bringing Improv FAQ into our family. We are so excited to be working with this great team.
What Is Improv FAQ?
Improv FAQ is an educational resource dedicated to helping create stronger connections throughout the improv community. It includes instructional mini-lectures, a Q&A series, and the “At Length” conversation series. These will unpack common questions and topics in improv and frequently feature wonderful guests. Moreover, these are great resources for improvisers looking to soak up as much improv shoptalk as possible. James Quesada and Bob Wieck created and host Improv FAQ.
What will you see?
Our staff has grown! We are thrilled to have James and Bob join us at The Improv Network. They will be our new Education Team. On behalf of The Improv Network, they will be creating podcasts and videos, continuing their different series, and creating some new offerings. Now, you can find previously created Improv FAQ content online. Soon, Improv FAQ will be releasing new content on a weekly basis. This will all be on our website and free for you to access.
How can you keep up-to-date on released content?
Make sure to create an account on The Improv Network to have access to the entire educational library! Also, join The Improv Network Group Page on Facebook so you can ask questions to the community. We’ll notify you there when new content is released. Additionally, that will be the place to have discussions with our Education Team. There are so many ways to stay connected and active!
Wow, 2020 has not been kind to theaters. First, many have had to close because of a pandemic (but good job on putting human lives before profit). And now, another ugly underside of the comedy and theater community is being revealed.
Being inclusive is not a destination. It is something that a community must continue to work on.
(1) Can you and the other members of the team acknowledge
that you contribute to systemic racism?
I’m a cishet, Black man and I know that my actions (even despite the best of intentions), contribute to the systemic oppression of other people. Now, I’m definitely not a racist, but in order to create a safe space, I have to be anti-racist.
If your team cannot acknowledge their potential biases towards
others based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability, or
religion… then you’re going to have a very hard time making your theater a more
inclusive space. Just because you’re not
screaming the n-word at every Black student who decides to sign up for a class,
doesn’t mean that you’ve created a safe space for students. You are both defined by what you do and what
you don’t do.
And when a person from a disadvantaged group brings up a
problem that they have, are you really listening to their complaint? Or are you sweeping it under the rug? More on that in a bit.
(2) Do you have performers from a variety of backgrounds,
and do you avoid tokenism?
I have heard of improv troupe auditions where directors and coaches have pre-determined slots of minorities. The conversation might sound a little bit like this, “Okay, this guy is really good at characters so let’s put them on the team. And this guy is a bit of a wild card, so we can also put him on the team because he brings the energy. And now we need to choose someone to bring a little color to the team.” Hmm, can you tell what’s wrong with this situation?
This is the difference between not being racist and being
anti-racist. Weirdly enough, the most
interesting thing about a minority is NOT the color of their skin. If the only thing that you value about a
person is their race, this is a problem.
Anti-racism involves actively fighting against tokenism and making sure
that you are holding everyone to equal benchmarks.
(3) Does your staff (teaching, artistic, and managerial)
represent your ideal student body?
There is a subconscious message that is sent to students and performers when your managerial staff is not diverse. Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of a young Black man starting in the mail room of a company. He sees other Black men in the mail room. He even sometimes sees other Black men working the night janitorial shifts. However, he doesn’t see any Black men (or women) who are C-level executives, or Vice Presidents, or… middle-management… and maybe just one who’s making $55k a year in a cubicle on the second floor.
If I walk into your theater and I don’t see anyone that
looks like me, I will immediately feel like I don’t belong. This is a natural thing that our brains do,
where we identify with people who we feel are similar to us. If I can’t imagine myself on your stage or
teaching a class, then I might be slightly less inclined to sign up for a
(4) How willing are you to accept feedback and admit that
you are wrong or have been wrong in the past?
It’s hard to admit that you’re wrong. Take it from me, I’m right almost all of the time, and so when I’m wrong, it really hurts! Especially if something that I did hurt someone else. But in those moments, it is important to listen to how you’ve hurt people and make the changes needed to be better in the future. Digging your heels in and saying “Well, I can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic because _________” is a bad look. Don’t do it.
Alcoholics Anonymous has got it right. The first step is admitting that you have a
(5) Do you tolerate intolerance? If so, stop it!
This is easy (but it’s so hard for some people). If I’m a male student, I shouldn’t make jokes
that put down women. If the teacher
doesn’t say anything, then it tells the female students that sexism is
okay! If White students are making Black
jokes, and the teacher doesn’t say anything, then the teacher is saying that
racism is okay.
Comedy is not dead. You can be funny without insulting people based on their genetics or heritage. Imagine this:
A gorilla in a bespoke suit making copies. The Xerox machine beeps an error message and the gorilla slams his hand on the Xerox machine, crushing it. A giraffe in a tweed suit calls the gorilla into his office. They sit awkwardly for a moment. The giraffe says “This is the second Xerox machine this week, Mr. Macgregor, do you have anything to say for yourself?” The gorilla stutters out an apology under his breath. The giraffe says, “I know you’re hurting after the divorce. But we’re all here. Okay? Everyone in this office cares about you.” The giraffe gets up and hugs the gorilla, his neck wrapping around the gorilla’s body. The gorilla returns the embrace, but the back of his suit tears. They share a glance and start trashing the office together. COMEDY
If you can’t be funny without being offensive, then just get
better at comedy.
(6) Do you encourage your community to embrace diversity?
If only there were an artform based on multiple people meeting
in the middle and building something together.
Like, where instead of saying no and pushing their own ideas, they were
encouraged to say “Yes…” and then maybe something else. I dunno.
Honestly, if you’ve been doing improv for years and you haven’t learned to be a more tolerant person and to embrace people’s differences and uniqueness, you’re not good at improv. Come at me.
I know what you’re thinking: “Jeff, but by not accepting
people who are intolerant, aren’t you also being intolerant?” Haha, okay… someone got a BA in philosophy. The only thing that should never be embraced
is hate. So if your version of “diversity”
is putting down other people instead of raising them up, then you’re not a good
Create a community where people are supported and raised
up. And don’t be afraid to get rid of
toxic people. Honestly, you’ll be so
(7) How educated are you on issues of race, sex and gender
identity, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability?
Read a book. Read an
article. Never stop reading. I’m a professor of psychology, so I teach
people about all of the -isms and -phobias for a living. I still read articles, watch informative
videos, engage in discussions, and understand that I still can be very wrong
about things. And also, the things that
are okay now, might not be okay years from now!
Society changes! Keep on
(8) How aware are you of microaggressions? And how can you be a better ally?
Have you ever had a stranger ask you to smile? Have you ever had a stranger try and touch your hair or ask you how you “get it like that”? Has a stranger ever asked you about what your genitals look like? Have you ever been on a date and had someone tell you that you should be ashamed of yourselves for being in public? Has someone ever told you that you’re one of the good ones (in reference to other people of you race)? Or has someone told you that you’re not really a member of your race because you don’t act like a specific stereotype? Has someone assumed that you could or could not do something because of a stereotype? Have you ever been told that you speak English well?
The great philosopher Wikipedia defines a microaggresion as a “term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.” People from marginalized groups deal with these little indignities and microinsults all of the time. If you don’t know many people from those groups, you might not be aware that they deal with them constantly. Listen, learn, educate yourself. If you know what these are you can: (1) stop yourself from saying them and (2) catch others and call them out on saying them.
(9) How will you measure success?
Honestly, how will you?
What does a diverse team look like to you? What does a diverse student body look like to
you? Have a specific goal and work
towards it, and then once you’ve gotten there, make another goal. This is not a destination; this is a journey
of many parts.
(10) What can you do to address income inequality?
Individuals from marginalized groups often come from households with limited financial resources. Payment plans, sliding-scale enrollment (where you offer individuals cheaper tuition), and full scholarships are all options for helping marginalized groups be a part of your theater. Actors spend hundreds (often thousands) of dollars every year developing their craft, and unfortunately, not everyone has that luxury. So we should all be thinking about how we can make art more accessible to everyone.
Also, maybe don’t have your free improv jams at 2am on a
Tuesday night. Some people have work in
(11) Are you leaving the fox in charge of the hen house? And are you the fox?
Often the leadership of theaters and comedy schools is one
individual who built the theater from the ground up (with a little bit of
unpaid labor here and there) or a bunch of friends who got together and built
something together. As a result, the
power of the institution is in the hands of a few people who are very unlikely
to want to give it up or are unlikely to want to have the difficult
conversation with their good friend of 8 years who keeps on asking out his
students in the middle of class.
We can’t do it anymore. Turning a blind eye to abuses of power is not okay. Honestly, it never was, but it was just so much simpler to pretend like it wasn’t happening.
I’m not saying that it’s easy. I’m not saying that any of this is easy. But you know who has it harder? The students and performers who had to deal with years of bullying and microaggressions, who worked hard to rise up the ranks of a school only to be told that they’re “difficult to work with,” which is often code for “not willing to tolerate abuse.” It’s harder for the students who might skip a meal because comedy is their dream only to realize that the lessons that they learned in Improv 101 about supporting each other and having each other’s back is just an empty mantra that we slap on t-shirts.
LAUREL: Welcome, Aaron! I’ve known you for a few years through the San Diego Improv Festival and I really admire you as a performer. Tell us a little bit about yourself!
AARON: My name is Aaron Mosby. I’m the Director of Consulting & Delivery at an IT services company called Avtex. The oldest of five, and I grew up in Atlanta, GA and Minneapolis, MN. I live with my girlfriend in New York, NY.
I spent 10 years volunteering, teaching, and performing at Washington Improv Theater (WIT) in Washington, DC. During that time, I served as a member of the board for 5 years, 2 of which were spent as the board chair.
LAUREL: Tell us about how you got started at Washington Improv Theater.
AARON: I saw my first show at WIT in 2006 and got seriously involved in the theater in summer 2009. I had just been laid off from a job which gave me the opportunity to take 2 week-long intensives. Shortly after, I started volunteering at the box office and working as a TA. After finishing the classes program in 2010, I began a program of becoming a teacher. In 2012, I began teaching and joined Nox, which would go on to become a house ensemble at WIT. In 2014, I joined the board of directors. After two terms, I stepped down, in part, because I moved to New York.
LAUREL: How does WIT’s structure foster diversity?
AARON: The core structural element that facilitates diversity at WIT is its non-profit status. WIT is a mission-driven organization that exists: “To unleash the creative power of improv in DC. To engage audiences with performances that exhilarate and inspire. To ignite the spirit of play in Washington with a revolutionary training program. To create a home for improv, connected to the life of the city.”
To meet this mission, WIT has to rely on diverse voices that make up Washington, DC. This drives WIT to have a city-wide strategy to get improv into as many hands as possible. This is woven into the classes program, which hosts classes in diverse locations around the city. It’s woven into the artistic programming that is proactively interested in making sure that audience members see themselves represented on stage. It’s woven into the board of directors that is as diverse as the city itself.
LAUREL: How has WIT’s structure and mission statement helped them navigate issues in the past?
AARON: WIT is accountable to the community it has helped to create throughout the city. In 2017, the improv community in the DC metro area called for accountability on diversity in the improv community. WIT released a detailed report of the people who worked for the organization, including the board of directors, full-time staff and teachers, and the people who made up performance ensembles, including players and directors. In addition, they created a public tracker of these data points that can be assessed and reviewed by the community at any time. WIT also opened up the theater space for a town hall discussion that gave everyone in the community a chance to share ideas on ways WIT could create more inclusive opportunities.
LAUREL: Do you think large, for-profit theaters can uplift diverse voices as well as smaller nonprofits can?
AARON: I believe there is a way for for-profit theaters to uplift diversity, but it has to be baked into every aspect of how the theater is run. Building a diverse space is an on-going effort that must be continually attended to to drive desired outcomes. This will also likely include additional investment in unique marketing campaigns that communicate to diverse audiences who may not otherwise be engaged in traditional marketing channels.
LAUREL: What advice would you give to someone opening up a new theater?
AARON: Be intentional about the people you partner with to bring your theater into being. Partner with people who are truly passionate about what improv can do to improve a person’s life and the community.
Have a mission worthy of the art from. Improv is built on spontaneous and fervent agreement. Improv encourages us to trust more and fear less. These foundations uproot engrained human behaviors and open up a space for connecting to other people that is rarely experienced. Improv should be spread as far and as wide as we can spread it.
Finally, remember that great improv is about relationships, not transactions. For improv to thrive, you have to build a community.
COVID-19 has had a huge blow across the world. For performers, theatres, and festivals, social distancing can be both emotionally exhausting and financially worrying. It’s been amazing seeing the improv community sharing ideas and love with each other. The following isn’t intended as a definitive resource, but a gathering of some of the best ideas being shared out there. I’ll do my best to credit ideas wherever possible.
Hopefully, these things will help us all get through this safe and sound.
Communications about COVID closures
As theatres, there are a lot of people you need to communicate with to make sure that your message is clear. Some ways of communicating might slip through the cracks with all the other changes. Here are some quick things to remember.
Update your webpage to remove any cancelled shows or classes. Put a message on your front page.
Update your voicemail (thanks to Jessica Brown for reminding me about this one).
Update any automated email lists. Also, send an email to your mailing list.
Contact the local press about your closure. Take down any listings.
Take your tickets down from any place they’re available online.
Contact any business partners.
Contact any sponsors. Some sponsorships are based on advertising in your slideshows/programs. Be transparent with them. Most will understand and it will help maintain your relationships down the road.
Pirates of Tokyo Bay added a dedicated page for updates so patrons can gather all this info in one place.
Festivals have some additional concerns:
Contact your venue if it’s not your regular venue
Obviously contact performers, but also be available to help them to get in touch with their airlines
Contact your designers / merchandise providers
Financial Resources During COVID Closures
For many theatres, after covering rent and utilities each month, they will just break even. Even with a nest egg, savings will deplete quickly.
Local art guilds exist in most places. They’re overwhelmed right now.
Local, state/province, and national governments all have their own programs. It couldn’t hurt to look at their specific relief offerings.
Oozebear is a place to do online shows with very little technical knowledge needed.
For those with a little more know-how, there are many conferencing tools out there. Zoom seems to be the most commonly used by theatres right now to both improvise with their teams and teach, but experiment with others and see what works best for you and your needs.
P-Graph has always been one of the leading voices out there in playing with technology. They’ve already started streaming. Look to them for ideas (and buy their great book while you’re at it).
Keep gift cards available on your site for future shows.
Leave donation tabs on your website and social media offerings
Sell tickets to your online shows. Be aware that these shows are still in development and people are also underemployed right now, so be more accommodating on ticket prices or sliding scales.
Alternatively, open a Patreon giving donors access to online shows
Don’t be aggressive. Remember, many of your patrons are worried about their own income. Put the ball in their court to make donation and ticket payment options in their hands.
Stay safe out there (and in there). We’re all learning how to cope with this, but improv has always been about adapting. Spolin, The Committee, The Compass, Neutrino – they all learned to reach audiences and celebrate the art in new ways. If we truly believe that a lack of a script is a gift, not an obstacle, then let’s treat COVID the same way. Let’s not view it as an obstacle that hinders our old ways of performing, but as a way to free us to find new ways to celebrate and share improv with people in these days. We hope you will keep supporting each other and sharing what is working for you. Maybe some of these methods will even stick around after theatres open up again, and they will continue to enhance our improv community so we may reach even more people.
Over the past four years, The Hambook has published essays on improvisation for free online. Now, it is releasing all of its works in one hardbound compendium, The Complete Hambook.
The Hambook was conceived in 2015 after I had a whispered conversation with a friend about improv theory. We were at an improv venue’s bar, surrounded by improvisers who had just performed, and felt we couldn’t talk openly about our love for the art form. I felt embarrassed to admit that I loved improvisation and wanted to try new things. Things may have changed now, but around that time, I felt a sincere fear to express an earnest interest in the art. I felt that taking it any more seriously than my peers did might label me as uncool. But the truth was that I had moved across the country to Chicago for improv alone. Not to study comedy, not to find my voice, and not to make it big. Just to improvise.
I went home and looked at my bookshelf and saw books about all sorts of different arts. They discussed new ways of approaching the arts and made new arguments. Then I looked at my improv books, and I only saw a few. All of them said mostly the same stuff, the contents of which had grown stale and hadn’t been updated since their authors first started teaching it back in the 90’s.
I created The Hambook to inspire discussion in a community that desperately needed it. Improv has mostly an oral history, passed from teacher to student, but that knowledge often gets lost in the mix and we barely know who to credit for specific ideas, forms, and moves. I thought that if we could publish a magazine every few months, years from now we would be able to point to the smart individuals who created those ideas. We could also watch as opinions are discussed in real time, as one author reads an essay they disagree with and writes a rebuttal a few months later.
We could also watch how the society surrounding improvisation grows and changes. We could discuss how to live a balanced life as an improviser, how to keep relationships while teams fall apart, how to use improv terminology properly, and how to invest in our audiences. So many positive changes could be made to the culture if we just came at this art formally, proudly, and carefully.
That’s why it had to be a magazine, not a “zine.” It had to be a PDF, not a blog. It had to be a book, not a podcast. I tried to take this project as seriously as possible so that the contributors and readers would feel proud to care about improvisation. As I hold the book in my hands now, I couldn’t be more proud.
The Complete Hambook is over 650 pages, contains over 60 essays, and is being sold at cost, so no one is making money from this project. You can buy it at thehambook.com. Thank you for your support!
“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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
There is no euphemism suitable for the end of Amy Louise Sebelius’ life. Early in the morning on November 24th, our Amy Lou died. While filled with love, her death was the only somber part of her life. The rest was technicolor.
Amy Louise Sebelius, Amy Lou, was a goddamned firefly wrapped in a rainbow riding a unicorn while reciting Henry the 4th. She was moonbeams and fireworks screaming across a perfectly blue-black star studded sky. And standing next to her, on-stage and off, I always felt like I could fly.
At its very best, improv is about vulnerability. We stand up in front of people and invite them to watch us swan dive into a trust fall again and again and again and again. And because of the incredible faith in each other it takes to do that in tandem, the people we stand up on that stage with often become closer than the closest of friends. Amy Louise Sebelius was that for so many of us, and for me.
I met her at the inaugural Camp Improv Utopia Yosemite. But before I met her, I heard her voice. Raspy and yet lilting, laughing and yet poignant. Her energy was like a red carpet unrolled into Oz. “Heyyyy, come in!” she said excitedly. “Oh my god, do you believe in ghosts? You have to hear this story.” I was immediately wrapped up and carried away by her energy.
We spent that weekend in Yosemite learning a new improv form, which itself is a gift. But the greatest gift for me, was that I got to learn about her. I watched her initiate with rapturous excitement. When I perform, I often feel uncomfortable with situations or initiations that skew toward the absurd. And then there’s Amy Lou. She was so beautifully comfortable with the fanciful. She would initiate something that on face value seemed so unattainably absurd, but then would instantaneously become grounded and filled with delight. I learned from her joy. I gravitated to her passion. I basked in her shine.
I remember a day, toward the end of her life, where I was sitting at the foot of her hospital bed working on my laptop as she slept. It was late in the afternoon. I heard that raspy voice say, “Would you look at how beautiful this is. We are so lucky.” I looked at her and saw a blissful smile across her face. I followed the light in her eyes to the window where the sky was filled with the most beautiful early sunset. We sat there for a moment taking it in. The moment was ended by her hedgehog finger puppet telling me that he wanted some chocolate. The perfect mixture of tenderness and hilarity, that was Amy Lou. Beauty and bits, always and forever.
To say that I will miss her doesn’t feel like it even comes close to describing the grief left in her absence. I just know that I want to be the kind of performer that lifts others up and carries them along on a skyrocket of delight. And I know that I want to live a life filled with the love and joy and technicolor that she carried and flung into the atmosphere everywhere Amy Lou went.
If you want to honor her there are lots of tangible things you could do. You could put on some red horn-rimmed glasses, you could do a Harold, you could eat pizza, you could pet your favorite kitty. But the best way to honor her is simply to stop now and then, take a deep breath and honor the beauty in front of you, because that’s what she did every day of her life. And after you take that deep breath and acknowledge the moment, take off your shoe, make a puppet out of your sock, and do some bits for the person standing next to you. And laugh. Beyond it all, laugh. She’ll hear you and if you listen close enough, you will be able to hear that inimitable raspy voice laugh back and say, “Oh my god! I love you!”
How lucky I was, we all were, to love and be loved by our Amy Lou.
I’m dusting off the old festival spotlight. For those new to the site, this used to be a regular feature of the blog as a way for people looking to travel to learn more about the festivals they might consider visiting. As the festival FAQs on the page started filling this role, the posts were phased out, but a festival in Cape Town, South Africa is a much bigger trip and consideration for most of us looking to travel.
I was incredibly lucky to personally be able to attend last year. It was an experience I’ll always remember. I’m sure many visitors here are curious about a festival so far away so I reached out to Eva Gilliam, the producer of the festival to talk a little more about it.
I was very lucky to be able to meet the people in the Cape Town improv community last year. It’s such a passionate group. How did it evolve into the community it is today?
Improv in Cape Town has been a relatively small scene, but present for over twenty years. Theatre Sports, with troupe Improguise has been performing and teaching for ages! About 7-8 years ago, The Long Shots, started by Jason DelPlanque (now of The Maydays, UK) came on the scene, and also began teaching and performing. But being so far away from so much of the global scene, we stayed pretty insular, building our skills through self-teaching and occasionally getting off the island to learn from Chigagoans, New Yorkers, and Brits. This made us all very close and passionate about what little we could learn (before there were SOOO many books!) and share share share with each other. When we started the festival, the excited busted forth! We could now learn even more and share with other improvisers! A passionate community grew! If you’ve visited us for fest these last years, you probably experienced feeling like a rock star – cause to us, you all are!
What was behind the decision to start an international festival?
Ashley Comeau, from The Lusty Mannequins based in Toronto, found The Long Shots (of which I am a member) to see about coming to teach a workshop with her then boyfriend, now hubby, Connor Thompson. When I called her back, in our first conversation, we hit it off! Considering how far it is to get here, and the costs, we thought, a workshop with us wouldn’t be enough – we want to share this in a much bigger way, and use it as a springboard to boost and inspire our community. A festival was born!
Cape Town is pretty far removed geographically from other improv communities. Who have been some of your inspirations? What are some of the things that being a little more isolated has brought to the community?
Being so far away means we really rely on each other to bring bits and bobs that we learn to the table. We do a lot of reading, and when one of us gets out and about in the world of improv, we try and bring back everything we’ve learned to our people back home.
This isn’t your first year bringing international guests out to the festival? How was that experience in previous years?
We’ve had AMAZING performers from Canada, USA, Norway, Denmark, and SA – and it’s been a total blast. Each troupe has brought something unique, and we’ve learned so much from them. But also, our local audiences see the possibilities beyond what we’ve been offering. And that makes them more excited about supporting us here at home! That’s one of our goals! We want that!
What kinds of new shows are you hoping to attract this year? What would you love to show off in town that hasn’t been there before?
We are happy with experimental and traditional improv – because our scene has been so isolated, we’re just so excited to show South Africans all that is possible out there, and what we are doing here.
Every festival with an international ensemble treats it a little differently. For those looking to submit as an individual, how does the ensemble work?
As an individual, we’ll match you with other individual international performers to play on a mixer team. You will get a performance slot, and rehearsal times (with or without a coach, your call!) You’ll also get all the perks of a troupe – discounted tickets, workshops and perks.
Many performers visiting for the festival might never have had an opportunity to visit Cape Town outside of the festival. What would you love their memories of the city and the festival to be?
Cape Town is a stunning city with nature to blow your socks off, amazing food, adventure, good times and good people. The fest embodies that with a down home, grassroots feeling. We’re small, cozy, and fun-as-hell.
The festival is taking submissions right now. Click here to submit before time runs out.
Come play in AFRICA!
Troupe and individual performer application deadline extended for the Mama City Improv Festival in Cape Town, South Africa!
31 Oct to 4 Nov – be a part of Africa’s first and only international improv comedy festival, now in it’s 3rd year. Small, sweet, fun-as-hell! With classes all day by some of the best, and shows all night with some of the most hilarious troupes from Africa and abroad.
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.
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.
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.
(See? It’s that easy!)
*Cis is short for cisgender, which refers to anyone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.