One of my great regrets from last year’s festival circuit was that I was unable to make the trip up to The Alaska State Improv Festival. The prospect of visiting a beautiful new place was enticing enough, but I’d spent enough festivals talking with Eric Caldwell from the Alaska scene to know that it was a city where people cared about improv in a big way.
I had the chance to talk with Eric about ASIF as it enters its second year and talk about what performers can expect.
Alaska is a pretty big trip for many performers and the airfare is going to be higher than many other festivals. Lots of groups will do fundraisers to fund their trip. Outside of airfare, what kind of budget do you think performers will need to prepare for?
Airfare is a consideration, but we time our submissions to coincide with Alaska Airlines‘ annual sale. There are also some really good perks with the Alaska Airlines card that can get people to Juneau for less than they think. The festival is during “shoulder season” so hotels are relatively cheap. Festival staff and volunteers did a great job last year taking the performers around for personal tours and we’ve even provided for some of the meals, so there aren’t really many other expenses beyond discretionary spending.
Juneau is a very beautiful city. When not performing what things can people do and see near the festival? Aside from some extra layers, are there any other things that people should pack for a day out in the city?
Juneau’s generally not all that cold in late April, more like Seattle on a cool day than “Nanook of the North.” The area near the venue has some great cafes and restaurants, museums, and art galleries. Outside of the main downtown area, some of the sites that were popular with our guests included the Alaskan Brewing Company, the Mendenhall Glacier, the Treadwell Mine ruins, and a Catholic shrine where we saw whales, sea lions, and eagles from a scenic lookout.
What’s the improv scene in Juneau like? What kind of shows define the Alaskan improv style.
The improv scene in Juneau has developed its own attitude. As people come in and out, we look at where their strengths and interests lie and aren’t afraid to create shows that cater to those areas. Mike and I tour with a show that is Dada-influenced. One of our shows features a couple of local slam poets doing improvised poetry and scenes. At one point, we had a couple of playwrights in the group and started performing improvised one-acts based on locally-written works. It’s led to more people taking chances in both their shortform and longform work, and to people combining their personal interests into their improv formats.
Outside of performances, what other treats will be in store for visitors? Do you have any activities planned for visitors? Will there be any workshops or panels? After parties?
Alaskan Brewing Company was one of our sponsors last year, and our after parties were a highlight. Susan Messing will be coming in from iO – Chicago to lead a couple workshops. Amber Nash, of Archer fame, is coming up from Dad’s Garage in Atlanta. So, yeah, we’ll put the quality of our workshops against any festival in the country. In addition to that, we took our guests to not only the tourist spots but to some of our local favorites. We wanted people to feel like they’d experienced Alaska, and the performers let us know that we’d succeeded.
I know you have traveled to many festivals and been involved with many other festival organizers over the years. What are some other festivals that have inspired the shape of ASIF? What are some things that you feel are lacking in the festival community and ASIF is trying to make better?
The Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater has had a huge influence on what we do. They’ve done a great job of offering great shows and workshops, providing a real sense of community, and keeping it all within a realistic budget. I’ve focused on what I see as “best practices” and look at how we can use our local resources to produce the kind of festival I would like to attend as a guest.
One thing that traveling performers look forward to at festivals is seeing other shows and having time afterwards to share with each other. How much opportunity will visitors have to just hang out with each other and learn from each other?
That’s a primary focus. Performers were provided with festival passes and encouraged to attend each others’ shows, mostly stayed in the same lodgings, toured around the community together, had joint radio interviews, and after parties with free food. Our venue, McPhetres Hall has a commercial kitchen available, and we’ll be continuing our tradition of stocking the kitchen for group breakfasts. The main regret the performers expressed last year was that there weren’t opportunities to perform with the performers from other communities. We’ve fixed that this year by adding a fourth day and the opportunity for mash-up shows.
What’ the venue like?
The venue’s gorgeous. The original McPhetres Hall was a multi-purpose room inside a church. The church was destroyed by arson in 2006, and the church made a point to rebuild McPhetres Hall as a theater-first venue with flexible seating. The facility re-opened in 2011, built with local cedar, a solid light grid, and a nice stage. You could see the performers light up when they walked into the building.
You’re still early in planning your 2014 festival. What’s the one thing that you’re most focused on? What are your hopes for this year’s festival?
We focused on our master artists first. Susan Messing and Amber Nash. Check! Now we’re working on getting the word out to the performers. We had a solid roster last year, and we’re hoping to build on that. Andy Eninger gave us a great compliment, saying that he was amazed that a first year festival was so well organized. If we can maintain what we established in year one while presenting more high quality ensembles and continuing to expand our audience, we’ll be on the right path.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
The 2013 festival featured performers from all around the country. If you’re considering coming to AS IF, you probably either know someone who performed at the festival or know someone who knows one of the performers. They’ll be glad to tell you about their experiences at AS IF.
Submissions for The Alaska State Improv Festival are open now, but they’re closing soon. You can submit your troupe right now on the submission page. If you’d like more information on The Festival, you can visit the festival website or drop a message to Eric directly here on the site.