We are thrilled to announce that Marcus Sams is our newest Board Member here at The Improv Network! He brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be invaluable to our team. We cannot thank Marcus enough for volunteering his time and energy. You can meet Marcus on our Improv FAQ conversation series on 8/8/2021 from 1pm-2pm EST, live on our Facebook page!
Marcus and Improv
Marcus Sams is the founder of Moment Improv Theatre as well as the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Improv Festival. He has performed improv since 2001 and has been in 70+ national improv festival shows. This includes the “Secret Show ” at the Chicago Improv Festival. Here, he opened for BassProv with his duo Liss n’ Sams, featuring Joe Liss of Second City. Additionally, he was a “Master Teacher” at the Alaska State Improv Festival in 2017. He has been a headlining act and instructor at the KC Improv Festival, Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, Seattle Festival of Improv Theatre, and others.
With agility built into his bloodstream, Marcus transitioned from in-person improv training to online improv training in 5 days. He taught over 345 hours of online improv instruction in 2020 alone. Moreover, he pioneered the online improvisational style known as the F.L.I. Technique and Teleprov. He has also been producing cutting edge online improv shows since September of 2020. Marcus has taught improv to companies such as Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Airbnb, and Ebay. Also, Marcus has written over 240 hours of curriculum for Moment Improv Theatre and currently teaches 3-5 classes per week. Additionally, Marcus is the founder of one of the first African American owned improv theatres and training centers in the United States, established in 2014.
Marcus’s Approach to Improv
Marcus believes that improv skills are life skills and that anyone can participate in this magical and transformative art form. He has a systematic and heart-centric approach to improv that breaks down improv concepts to their core units. This delivers usable tools to the working player. Marcus was originally trained as a stage actor and brings this respect for stagecraft and training to the improv world. He believes that improv is not a crap-shoot and that once one learns the craft of improv, it frees them up to experience a deeper level of play.
We cannot wait to work with Marcus Sams. Exciting changes are on the horizon and we look forward to having his input. With the celebration of this addition, we also must say a bittersweet goodbye to having Nick Armstrong on our Board. Nick has been here since day one, founding The Improv Network. He has been an incredible team member and mentor every single day. Nick is truly a representation of The Improv Network and its work, and is one of the most supportive people. We hope to make him proud as we continue on with our mission. Nick is moving on to other amazing projects as he continues to be a guiding light in the improv world, and we wish him our best.
Hey you. Congrats on producing your own improv or sketch show! Welcome to the wonderful and thankless world of production. Everything is almost solely on your shoulders! Nope, don’t run… you’re in it now. And there’s no escaping.
When producing your own improv or sketch show, you’ll want to focus on five main areas. These will ensure that your show runs smoothly from the initial planning stages to counting all your money as your limo drives you to the bank.
You’ve heard the saying “Location, location, location!” right? Well they were talking about producing shows! I can’t actually guarantee that they were. But let’s just pretend that they were because the economy is rough right now and I can’t afford a fact-checker.
Where you hold your show is going to affect a lot of your future decisions. For example, if you hold your show at a theater that has its own programming, they might offer you tech personnel, help with ticketing, and might even have a dedicated parking space that you can use!
The location is going to affect the number of seats. Location is often the most expensive cost in producing a show. Your first show probably doesn’t need a 500 seat theater. Definitely don’t spend money on seats that you can’t fill. You can always book a bigger theater later when the show is a massive success (which it will be).
Also, shows can be held online. This makes your show more accessible. This means that your audience can just shift themselves upright on the couch and tune into your show. This will also be the cheapest option. So don’t forget this as a possibility.
The more complicated your show is, the more tech you’ll need. Additionally, the more likely it is you’ll have technical issues during a show. We’ll talk about rehearsal in a bit. But, you definitely want to set your tech person up for success.
First of all, make sure your tech has the experience of having run previous improv or sketch shows before. Unless you have a stage manager, coach, or director helping them call the cues, they will have to use their best judgment if something goes awry. For example, if someone changes the out-line of a scene, your tech has to determine the best moment to black out.
Someone with good comedic sensibilities will make you look great, even if a mistake happens.
Secondly, make sure your directions to the tech person are clear. I’ve teched for shows where they don’t give me a full copy of their script. Then they’ll tell me that I’m supposed to blackout the scene when someone says “Watch Out!” Would you believe me if I told you that the phrase “Watch Out!” is said three different times in the sketch?
Just like you would (or at least should) proofread your script for formatting and spelling errors before sending it to your actors, check for issues in your tech sheet.
Obviously, this is less complicated with improv. But you still want to be clear about how you expect the show to end and how transitions during the show should be handled.
A few months ago, I wrote an article about “Marketing Your Improv Show.” I won’t go in-depth into anything that was discussed at-length in the article. However, marketing, as you might assume, is an important part of production. Think about how you’re going to get people to the show. Remember, most people don’t buy their tickets until a day or two before the show (sometimes even the day of). So it always feels a little stressful.
Make sure your audience knows all of the key details: how much the show is going to cost, who will be a part of the show, the location of the show, and any important details on parking and buying tickets. For example, if you don’t have a credit card reader, you should very clearly state that the door only accepts cash.
Post as early as possible to gather some awareness of the show. Then, really do a stronger push a week or two before the show. this is where people will start making a committed decision about whether they want to attend.
Setting Up Ticketing and Finances
You’ll want to figure out how you’ll keep track of people who are ticketed and who are not. Some theaters have this system in place, and it makes your life so much easier. But others might not.
How are you going to keep track of people who’s tickets you’ve taken, but left to go to the bathroom or to smoke a cigarette? Will there be a stamp or a ticket stub? Who will be keeping track and checking your list of pre-purchased tickets?
Also, once the show is over, where does the money go? Does one member of your team hold on to it? If there were credit card transactions (or Venmo, or CashApp, or PayPal transactions), does it go into one team member’s bank account?
Being clear about how you handle money at the beginning will save you a lot of headache at the end.
Last but not least, rehearsal! Never assume that you can use the space before the show unless you have it in writing from your location. Some theaters might program shows back-to-back. This means during the 30 minutes before your show, the theater might not be available because the previous show needs to end (and they always end late). Then, the staff needs to clean and start getting the audience into their seats so that your show starts on time (which it probably won’t).
Rehearsal gives you time to work out the logistical and technical kinks that you might not have realized were a problem. What happens if the entrance you were going to bring a big prop through has a curtain over it? Or what if the stage is smaller or wider than you realized it was in the pictures, and now your blocking is thrown off?
Getting into the space before you perform is key to having a great show because you’ll catch and fix any mishaps before they have the chance to affect the actual performance. You might also want to check out my article on rehearsals. I’ll be posting it soon!
Final Thoughts on Producing
While this article is not exhaustive, it will provide you with the basic understanding that you’ll need to produce your own improv or sketch show. However, nothing beats actual experience, so make sure that you get out there and try it for yourself! It’s a lot of work, but it’s fulfilling in the end.
If innovation and adaptability are the soul of improv. There are possibly no better personifications of it than Kelly Buttermore and Justin Peters. The creators of From Justin to Kelly, The Very Normal Festival and The Countdown Improv Festival have spent years re-imagining what it is to be performers and teachers, creating conferences and festivals that weren’t carbon copies of the events that already existed around the world. That didn’t stop when our stages had to close their doors last year. Justin and Kelly created new online experiences that went beyond putting their shows on Zoom.
This weekend, they’re putting on a very special and unusual show and fundraiser for the Countdown Festival. I was able to check in with them about the one of a kind festival and fundraiser.
What’s the origin of the name and the festival?
Countdown is unique in many ways, but chief among them is that it’s the only festival in the world devoted exclusively to trio, duo, and solo improv. We’ve been a duo now for 11+ years, and we’re big fans and partisans of small group improv. We like it, in part, because it’s hard. When there’s just a few of you on stage, there’s nowhere to hide, and you’re have to learn pretty quickly how to make your choices work, rather than abandoning them in a panic and retreating to the sidelines to hide out for a few scenes while ruing the day you ever signed up for improv class. Anyway, we were inspired back in 2017 to found a festival that put small groups front and center. In Tampa, where we do not live. (We like to make things difficult for ourselves, we guess.) We’re now in our fifth year, which is unbelievably exciting to us.
The two of us have spent a lot of time performing, teaching, and headlining at festivals all over the country; we took from those experiences and vowed to create the sort of festival that we ourselves would be excited to attend. Our orienting principle is that the festival is first and foremost a truly performer-focused festival, where we welcome, value, and celebrate every single performer on the bill. We don’t have headliners and we don’t stratify our participants; we extend the same courtesy and hospitality to everyone, and we work really hard to situate all of our performers to do their best work and have a great time. We’ve all been to festivals where you board the plane home and think “did anyone even know that I was there?” We pledged never to have anyone ask themselves that question after attending Countdown. (We also pledged that no performer would ever have to pay for a bottle of water while at the festival; this is a really big thing to Justin, for some reason.)
The name itself has a couple different origins. One is the notion of a “3…2…1” countdown, which aligns the trio, duo, and solo angle. We also run a roaming pop-up comedy space in Brooklyn called Countdown Theater; the idea there being that this space (just like improv) won’t be there forever, and if you weren’t there, then you missed it. Ephemerality is the name of the game!
The idea of a “festival” has had to be re-thought this last year as we went online. How did you approach re-inventing yourself?
Reinvention was the name of the game for us in 2020, as it was for improvisers and improv producers everywhere. When we decided to produce Countdown online in 2020, rather than just shelving it for the year and coming back in 2021, we realized that we had to proceed as if we were programming five nights of television, rather than five nights of live performance. Since people would be watching the festival on their screens, we had to adopt the vocabulary of television and make the festival something that would be worth “binge watching.” So we created ongoing narratives, running bits, and through lines to help cohere things. We also held Zoom calls with every single act preceding the festival to help them brainstorm ways to adapt their show to the needs of the camera. It was all a huge learning experience — and an incredibly rewarding one at that. We expanded Countdown in every conceivable way — more performers, more workshops, and two additional nights of shows, and ended up running our biggest and most successful festival yet.
The Very Normal Festival
The virtual version of Countdown was in August 2020, and we were so galvanized by that experience that we decided to turn around and run another one right on its heels in December 2020 called the Very Normal Festival, in honor of the very normal year that was 2020. We encouraged acts to submit the sort of weird, uncategorizable shows and bits that they always wanted to try but could never fit into a traditional festival lineup. We took what we’d learned in August and leaned even harder into the thematicism, and we came up with an overarching narrative that the two of us had been conscripted by a mysterious unseen figure known as the Commodore to produce the most normal comedy festival ever made. Anytime the festival deviated from that norm (which happened constantly), the Commodore would communicate his displeasure via a series of messages in bottles. (There was also a vaguely nautical theme to all of this.) The narrative built over the course of the four nights until the big reveal that the Commodore was really the two of us the entire time. It all ended with a singalong of the Looking Glass song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” It was absurd and ridiculous and made us want to build more weirdness into our in-person events moving forward.
We need to mention here that neither the virtual version of Countdown nor Very Normal would have been possible without the help of our friends and production partners Anthony Francis and Marisa Cutaia from Improv U in Delray Beach, Florida, and our Atlanta-based designer, Dan Deming-Henes. They are superstars!
There’s lots of traditional fundraising routes. Why a telethon?
While we’re also pursuing traditional fundraising routes this year — sponsorships, grants, and so on — our costs for 2021 are projected to be higher than ever before, so we need to find ways to open new revenue streams. The telethon — in which we’re going to be performing a 12.5-hour monoscene with no breaks — seemed like a fun stunt that at best would galvanize community support and consolidate individual donations around a central thesis, and at worst would make us both really exhausted and sort of depressed that no one else cares about this thing as much as we do. It’s worth a shot! We wanted to do something fun and unique where just hearing about the concept would theoretically grab the audience’s attention and make them not only think “wow, I gotta see that!” but also “wow, that’s ambitious and I want to support that!” We also wanted to do something that was, frankly, fun and creatively fulfilling/challenging for the two of us — and, voila, the idea to do a twelve and a half hour-long monoscene was born.
We’ll be honest here, we have literally no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Then again, we also never could have foreseen producing an improv festival in Tampa, a city nearly 1200 miles away from where we actually live in NYC, but here we are. Life comes at you fast!
A dramatically long show could take many forms. What drew you to the monoscene?
The monoscene was a natural choice for us, as it’s the basis for our duo’s own signature format, the Walter, which emphasizes eye contact, physical proximity, and a total commitment to the moment. A 12.5-hour monoscene, however, is a whole other ballgame, so we’ve gotten over 50 improvisers (and counting) from all over to join the scene over Zoom as character walk-ons over the course of the day. (Those characters can also recur — just as long as they return as the same character later on, otherwise total chaos will ensue.) It’s going to be one hell of a show.
As the founders, producers, and faces of a festival centered around small group improv, we wanted to show just how hard we were willing to commit to the most extreme version of duo improv we could dream up. It’s going to force us to really sit in the characters that we create, and be patient with our scenework. We think the length of the show is actually going to be a little bit freeing, insofar as we can just *live* in these characters and this world for an extended period, and not have to work so hard to impose a 30-minute story arc on the whole thing. There’ll still be story and character arcs, don’t get us wrong, it’s just that we can let them develop over time, which is sort of cool.
Why Twitch? Will you be using the chat?
We had really positive experiences with Twitch with our two festivals last year; the platform is really user-friendly and allows for instantaneous audience engagement via the chat, which is a lot of fun to watch in real time. We will definitely be using the chat for the telethon, both to stoke donations and as a recap feature for those viewers who will be joining the scene in progress and will want some context for what they’re seeing. Think of it as a “Previously on this telethon…” Should be fun! But we’ll also be streaming simultaneously on our Facebook pages in case that’s easier for people.
What is Twitch? How do I use it?
Twitch is an online video service, similar to YouTube or Facebook. The major difference is that it is primarily designed for watching live video instead of per-recoded shows. This has made it a natural place for many improv companies. You can watch shows without an account, or you can create a free account and gain the ability to chat with other audience members, and sometimes performers in a chat area.
The Fundraiser can be found here on Twitch. Be sure to search for some of your other favorite improv shows there too.
The biggest way you can support the festival is to donate to our fundraising campaign. Literally every dollar helps as we return our festival to an in-person event this year, and it’s especially helpful in the wake of the pandemic, which has had the effect of increasing production costs and lowering revenues for performing arts venues and events everywhere. Producing an event of this magnitude is hard, doing it in this environment is even harder.
By donating, you’ll not just be helping us to put on a top notch improv festival in September — one founded on egalitarian, mindful, performer-friendly principles — you will be helping to revitalize improv comedy in Tampa. Tampa’s Box Theater closed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, leaving Hillsborough County without a dedicated improv venue. Our festival has always been a vital part of the improv ecosystem in Tampa, now it plays an even bigger role as the only extant improv event in town. Despite the fact that we don’t live here, we love it here and have come to know and truly love the improv community in Tampa Bay, and we want to be a part of rebuilding it here.
If you’ve been doing long-form improv for a while, it’s easy to forget how daunting it is as a student to make the leap from short-form. And if you have been doing long-form, it’s also easy to have plot-heavy sets where everyone is struggling to connect to one another. To strengthen the skills and confidence in long-form playing, I like to use a game called Soap Opera. This has helped groups at any and every level. It adds some training wheels for beginning students and helps existing long-form groups work on making relationships while allowing stories to emerge unforced in a set.
How to Use Soap Opera as an Exercise
I start this by having the class or troupe assign each other a character with the format, adjective-occupation (or role). If they’re stuck, I’ll suggest they start with classic soap opera archetypes, like ‘Lusty Gardener’ or ‘Scheming Mayor,’ but really anything works. Getting the suggestions from two different people helps create less obvious juxtapositions. Note that these labels serve as the character’s names as well.
An important thing to point out to the group (which hopefully they’ll come to see on their own) is that the helpful word in the character’s names isn’t the noun, but the adjective. They’re not going to get much mileage concentrating on the gardener part of their character. It’s that adjective that colors the lens through which they do things. ‘Lusty,’ ‘Vengeful,’ ‘Depressed’…..these are the traits that give the players a way to make decisions. How would I respond to this situation if my emotion were X?
You might think focusing on this would result in one-dimensional characters, limited to one emotion in their palette. Turns out that just making any decision like this helps students find a range of human responses. And no matter the adjective or emotion that they’re assigned, when they’re forced to dig a little deeper to play with it, they’ll find there’s a wide range of available responses.
One of the great things about the soap opera conceit is that it’s an excuse to go big and exaggerated. This can result in pretty broad characters, but that’s okay. Anything that encourages playing with big characteristics and choices is good. My experience is that it helps give players an ‘excuse’ to play a character far removed from themselves.
We get a title for this imaginary soap opera and then I tell them it’s something like episode 47 of season 12. That helps get us away from introduction scenes and work with characters that have known each other a while. Any two players come out and start a scene.
At this point – before any improv has happened – these characters have:
An emotion that gives at least a hint to their point of view
An understanding that they have a history with their scene partner
A backline of similarly armed characters
That’s a lot of the who-what-where taken care of for us, but in a lightweight way so they can just play as their character. All they really have to hold onto is that adjective in their name.
Players tag each other out in whatever manner makes sense for the group (clapping, calling ‘freeze’, etc). I encourage them to try it both ways: always leaving one player out there with an edit and always swapping out both characters.
Most importantly, this game is built entirely on the network of two-person relationships. Every scene is defined by two characters being together and doing something. I have them stick to that two-person rule with the understanding that a situation might eventually come up needing more than that. This encourages only adding more people when it’s absolutely necessary. They kind of have to ‘earn’ it.
The hardest thing I’ve seen players deal with in the Soap Opera is remembering everyone’s names. To help, I have everyone review several times before we start, then say one line of dialog as that character. I tell them to overuse character’s names when they can, to an absolutely ridiculous degree (ridiculousness is an ideal spot to get to in the exercise). There’s a wonderful group support system that happens with this. While one character’s name might come easily to mind, someone else might have a different character’s name easily at hand. As a result, the whole group reinforces each other’s memory.
But the best thing they can do to reinforce who is who is to play the hell out of those names. If you’re the Lusty Gardener, you need to be as soap opera passionate as you can be. It needs to be clear to everyone you’re playing with that: Oh yeah. That’s that character.
When the set is done (I’m the one to call it), we’ll talk through where the story went. Often, I’ll try to map out the various connections between the different people and how they feel about each other. The fun discovery is that even when they couldn’t feel it while playing, a story automatically develops just from being these characters. They don’t have time to shape an overall plot. Everyone is too busy robbing the bank, having an affair, poisoning the mayor, or what have you. Plot is what characters do. Play with your characters and you’ll create a plot – a story – just by having them do something.
Festival selection can seem daunting. Selecting which festivals to submit to used to be a ludicrous hypothetical. 20 years ago, depending on the part of the world you lived in, there were maybe three or four festivals that were feasible to visit. Everyone put their VHS tapes in the mail and hoped for the best. It was an exciting time to be invited to one of them.
Now there is an abundance of amazing festivals. That doesn’t reduce the prestige of a festival invite; quite the opposite in many cases. Festivals have grown together, shared ideas, and made an amazing circuit of festivals. It does however mean that the options can be a little staggering. Many troupes, especially younger ones, don’t have the time or money to go to more than one or two festivals a year. And those same troupes don’t always have the experience or the friend network to know what to expect from different festivals. So how does a team pick a festival?
What is the festival looking for?
The first question is if your show fits the festival. Think about your show and your audiences. Is that the same thing that’s being asked for by the festival? That’s not always an easy question to answer. Here are a few ways to make it clearer.
What kinds of shows is the festival hosting? Is it improv exclusive or a mix of stand-up, sketch, and improv? Is it looking for more comedy-eccentric shows or more theatrical shows? Are they looking for short-form and/or long-form? Is it a Johnstone festival or a ComedySportz event? Will it be a musical festival, a festival for seniors, or a youth festival? All of these things are usually pretty easy to figure out if you read the festival description and check out their website. Many festivals also have great FAQ page about what they’re looking for and what to expect if you visit. Don’t ignore these FAQs. They’re there to help you understand what you’re submitting to.
Also, read the descriptions and FAQs carefully. Sometimes, there are very specific things that might not fit your description. A festival a few years ago specifically said “We love Harold, but we chose not to feature any this year.” OK, great. If you’re a Harold team, bookmark that festival for next year.
There are some things that are not going to be in the FAQ or the description that are specific to your troupe. If your show is spectacularly technically advanced, reach out to the festival producers and see if that’s going to work with their logistics. If your show tends to favor lots of inside jokes about your home town, that might not translate in another continent.
What is the audience looking for?
There’s one question to ask yourself that gets asked far too infrequently. Is this audience appropriate for our show? Think about your own show. It probably is something similar to this: you play every Friday night for the same regular audience members who have found you and enjoy your style. The show is in a set with one or maybe two other groups in a 60 minute block. That’s fantastic. That’s not what your festival experience might be. You’ll be performing for potentially a much bigger audience that doesn’t know you, and you’re maybe the seventh show they saw that evening. If it’s a marathon show, you might be going on at 2:45AM in the morning. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No, not at all! It can be an amazing new experience, but it is different.
Let’s go back to that “maybe the seventh show” idea. A weekly show has a lot of freedom to slowly build intricate relationships. A festival show doesn’t always have that. You might only have 20 minutes, one-time, to do your show. Will the show still translate for the audience? Also, putting your improvised Herman Melville show after a show called “Monkey Fart Danger Hour” is going to be like eating a bunch of Cheez-Its right after eating a bunch of Flaming Hot Cheetos. I absolutely, non-ironically, would love to see both of those shows, but maybe not back to back. So how do you fit into all of this?
When all of that is exhausted, you still have a tremendous resource. Email. The producers of these festivals deal with troupes all of the time. They know you have questions, and 9 times out of 10, they’re super-cool and happy to talk to you. They want great shows for their fest, but they also want your show to be as awesome as it can be. Producers are cool that way.
Is this practical?
Nothing is the same kind of heartbreaking as getting invited to a cool festival and then having to decline the invitation. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our day planners. Some festivals in far away parts of the world are enticing, but healthy festival selection is about testing the feasibility of a trip. Your expenses for a trip aren’t just travel. It’s also lodging, food, and many other small considerations. For many of your troupe members, this is in addition to not getting paid for their day to day job if you have to travel or perform on weekdays. Many festivals try to put out of town visitors on weekends, but not all.
Hotel costs can get up there and putting a troupe of eight in one room sounds manageable, but it’s a pain. Do you know why? Everyone has different after-party schedules and no one gets any sleep. Then, your show is off and you’ve put a lot of time and money into representing yourself in a way that you didn’t want.
Will you do a good show?
Everything mentioned in this post so far has a fair amount of wiggle room. It’s possible to justify and blur lines a little bit when you really have your heart set on a festival. The result of that though is that every compromise ends up being a compromise to your show. Can you fit seven people in a hotel room? You sure can. I’ve done it. But you will have sleep deprived team members trying to perform. Can you do your show with three members staying at home? You can, but that’s not what you presented to the festival and it’s a disservice to you, the festival, and to the people at home. Can you modify your show to be a better fit for the festival? Probably, but then you’re not really doing the show you love. You’re just being Sandy at the end of “Greece,” and that’s nobody’s favorite part of the movie.
You can always justify reasons to submit to a festival. But the more you do, the more you should think about if a little more thought needs to go into your festival selection.
Online Festival Selection
Online Festivals have been born of necessity over the last year. But don’t assume they’ll disappear when physical doors open. Have a conversation with your troupe about your virtual shows and what your goals are. One of the joys of online shows is that a lot of the logistics from this post become much more manageable, but they do add a few new topics. For example, you may be doing a show in a time zone that’s very strange for you. Make sure your troupe is up for that.
A quick note on tech. You may use OBS or some other software beyond Zoom to make your show work. That often means a set-up connected to your Twitch account or your computer. You are set up to broadcast from and to a specific place. When you’re in a festival environment, you’re a guest in their software. With a little planning between you and the festival’s tech team, you can make sure your show works for both parties. (Huge shout out to all the tech people who have made our transition this year possible. We’d be nowhere without you) That conversation needs to happen, and probably before you even decide to submit. Otherwise, it won’t be fun for anyone.
Is this going to be fun?
Really, it all comes down to this. If you’re new to the festival circuit, this blog may sound discouraging. But being thoughtful in your festival selection doesn’t mean to stop reaching out for cool opportunities, it just means being smarter about it. You’re going to have years of amazing trips and friendships ahead of you. You are going to have so much fun. I hope to personally meet you at some festival out there in the future. The longer you attend festivals, the more your network of friends will grow and make this process easier. Some thoughtful festival selection now means we’ll have a greater chance of playing together down the road.
If you are like many other comedians, you probably haven’t put much thought into the marketing of your improv show. You made a Facebook invite, invited your friends, and made a post or two on Instagram… but is that enough?
Imagine this- you’re in line at your local coffee shop. The line advances and you’re next. You see a stack of brightly colored postcards that seem to be advertising an upcoming show.
The postcards are glossy on the front and matte on the back. There are a bunch of smiling faces attached to posed and costumed bodies. Also, there are words on the postcard. You consider moving to see what the words say, but you decide against it.
Then, you pull out your phone and check your text messages. You advance in the line. Finally, you order your coffee. The postcards sit there and gather dust. Fade to black.
This story unfortunately doesn’t have a happy ending, because you could have been an audience member for your city’s hottest improv show. But, you missed out because their marketing is ineffective.
People often think, “If my show is good enough, I shouldn’t need to worry about marketing.” This is patently false. I’m not just saying that because I have an MBA with a marketing emphasis and I want to feel better about my mountains of student loan debt (even though that is a consideration). If your show is good, then marketing should be your main concern. Because why waste your time being good if no one knows it?
Here are some things to consider when putting together a show:
What makes your show unique?
This is honestly the hardest question for teams to answer. However, putting work into understanding the answer to this question will make it easier to promote your show.
Is your team a bunch of dudes who do a Harold? I’m sorry to say that there are one or two other teams that do the exact same thing. But just one or two, so that’s okay.
Are you a team of former Navy Veterans who dress as members of the band KISS and do improvised Shakespeare? Yeah, that’s pretty unique! And I’d bet my improv diploma (from a very prestigious improv school) that that show would sell.
Understand what makes you unique, and you’re going to have a much easier time marketing your improv show. The alternative is that you blend in with all the other noise. Remember, you’re also competing with Netflix, TikTok, and Disney+ for people’s time, money, and attention (this sentence will be incredibly dated in about two years).
Who is going to watch this show?
No show appeals to everyone. And, if you try to sell your show to everyone, you’re wasting your time and energy. Big advertising firms have this figured out. You’re not going to see a Mary Kay ad right after a wrestling match. Nor are you going to see a Life Alert add in the middle of a block of Cartoon Network shows.
Put some thought into who your audience might be. If you’re doing improvised Star Wars, then are there ways to market just to Star Wars fans? For a team composed of septuagenarians, perhaps advertising at the local college isn’t wise.
If you know your brand, then you can know your audience. Think about what they’re probably doing before they come see your show, and you’ll have a better idea of how to find them.
How would they prefer to find out about this show?
As mentioned before, you want to be careful about wasting your marketing energy on things that won’t be productive for your show. For example, if I know that I’m putting together an improv show for kids, then I probably won’t post about it on Facebook. UNLESS I’m trying to sell it to the parents of those kids.
Also, think about how you would rather find out about a show. What would a show have to do to make you interested in watching it? Are email blasts helpful or a waste of time? There are tools like MailChimp that allow you to actually see how many people open and engage with your emails. Try out the free versions and see what kind of responses you get.
Additionally, don’t go crazy with social media accounts. Instead of having a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Parler (this joke will be dated at the time of publishing this article), TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest for your team…. maybe just pick one and get REALLY good at it.
Marketing and building a brand and a relationship with your audience takes time. So, wasting energy on things that aren’t productive just means that you’ll burn out quickly.
What is the relevant information that people need to know about your show?
Again, people have limited time and attention. Be quick, direct, and informative. Watch commercials, look at social media advertising, and pay attention to the emails that you receive. What catches your attention, what bores you, and what annoys you? Learn from others!
Is the messaging you use around your show confusing? Can people figure out what you are “selling” at a quick glance? If your show is called “BLAST PARTY: AN EXTRAVAGANZA OF EXTRAVAGANCE,” then I might just ignore it because I’m confused (or I might check it out because of curiosity – who knows?).
If you’re advertising to improvisers, then you don’t need to explain a lot of things. You can use our shorthand: longform, Harold, Deconstruction, etc. If you’re advertising to the uninitiated, you might have to spell things out. “Blast Party is an improvised show about five, goofy friends who have to save America from a new terrorist plot every week. Each Saturday, they will take a few suggestions from the audience and create a new show on the spot.”
Include the information that will help people decide whether or not they want to see the show. Also, include how to see the show when they decide they want to see it.
What is the best way to package all of the above information?
Finally, you have to decide how to package everything. A postcard might have attention grabbing visuals on the front, with key information detailed on the back. While an email invite might be filled with GIFs or links to performances, and information about the next show.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will work for all teams. But if you take the time to think about your show’s uniqueness, your ideal audience, their preferences, and how best to communicate to them, you’ll have a dedicated and adoring audience in no time.
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.