The Improvisors Project – A Discussion with Sam Willard

If you’ve been lucky at an improv festival or camp in the last year, you may have been lucky enough to have had your picture taken by Sam Willard. Sam is a photographer who has been capturing improvisors offstage expressing emotions and feelings through his photographs. It’s a fascinating project and Sam was kind enough to share some thoughts on the project.

Sam WIllard photographing David Razowsky back stage at the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2012.

Sam Willard photographing David Razowsky back stage at the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2012.

It’s clear from just the avatars on this page that many people on the National Improv Network have been involved with the Improvisors Project, but for everyone else. What’s the project about?

The Improvisors Project documents and celebrates the diverse pool of talent in the improv community, through portraits of its many members. As soon as I started getting involved with improv a few years ago, I saw the amazingly expressive people and knew that they had the potential to be great portrait subjects. That realization planted the seed for the project.  My first photo shoot was in 2012. Since then, I have had shoots all over the country and photographed over 200 improvisors.

Everyone here loves improv. You love photography with equal zeal. But we’re all artists who appreciate the process. What brought you to photography?

I was always an artistic kid. From early childhood, I had a passion for drawing. I spent hours drawing every day after school. In my teens, I got more into making portraits, instead of just ideas from my imagination. But creating realistic drawings of faces was difficult for me. I suppose that the camera’s ability to realistically render faces is part of the reason I shifted toward photography, as my interest in portraiture deepened.

I spent years taking pictures as an amateur, starting in college and on into my twenties. I discovered that photography was a way to engage with people, and to draw out and capture something essential about them. During the time I was learning photography, I got a business degree and worked in business and tech for several years. When that started to lose its appeal—and at the same time my photography skills were maturing—I decided to make a career switch. That was ten years ago. I have been a professional photographer ever since.

Improv and photography are two very interesting art forms to bring together. One celebrates the immediacy and intimacy of a shared moment that will never be recreated. The other is about finding the beauty of a moment and preserving it. Being part of both worlds, how do those ideas play off of each other? How do you feel the marriage of the two helps you grow as an artist.

As I mentioned, photography was a way for me to engage with people and make authentic connections. I guess improv appeals to me for the same reasons. As you say, improv is ephemeral, and photography is more permanent. But that difference is in the product. I like both art forms because of the process. And in terms of process, portraiture and improv are remarkably similar.

When I meet with a portrait client, they have hired me because they need to project an authentic image of themselves, capturing those qualities that best communicate to their intended audience. But they have never met me before. I have never met them. And usually (unless they are a celebrity) I don’t know much about them. It can be awkward. And the photo studio is an intimidating place, with bright lights and this stranger pointing a camera at you. On top of all that, the only tools I have to tell my client’s story within the rectangle of the image, is their face and body, and my simple background.

If you think about it, this scenario is almost exactly like a basic improv scene: Two people. Simple stage. Bright lights. No props. Just your body and your voice to connect with each other and tell a story. Both performers have to engage and discover some essential truth, and go from there.

Without a doubt, my experience as a portraitist informs my improv, and vice versa. And they both strip away all the bullshit. Just two human beings, creating an authentic human connection. One is ephemeral and one leaves a record, but both are awesome. Life is full of so much noise. Authentic connections are precious, even thrilling. It is why I love portraiture. It is why I love improv.

Looking at your photos, it’s clear that this isn’t The Improv Project, it’s the Improvisors Project. Most improv photography in years past has focused on performance and the ensemble, but this project captures the individual performers outside of that environment. As a photographer this probably gives you a more individual connection. What was the motivation for the focus on the performer rather than the show?

What amazes me about improv is that so much can be created with just vocal and physical expression. For me, the best way to capture expression is by isolating the individual. This strips away context and narrative, and leaves pure expression. Also, these portraits are meant to be viewed in groups. The identical composition, lighting, and backdrop, framing the individual subject, makes it easier for the viewer to see the amazing variety of expression from person to person and shot to shot.

These aren’t mug shots. The photographs in your collection are filled with incredible variations in expression and ideas. What are you hoping to get out of an individual photo shoot? What goes into the decisions you make on a performer by performer basis?

My goal with every photo shoot is to capture a wide range of improvisors, and to make photographs that capture big, authentic emotion. I usually schedule photo shoots at times and places when I am going to get a lot of people in a short period (festivals, workshops, camp, etc).  I photograph each improvisor for only about five minutes, but I schedule many people over a period of several hours on one or more days, so I end up with a lot of portraits at a single event.

When an improvisor steps in front of my camera, I don’t have any set ideas of what I want before I begin. I start with a clean slate and an open mind, like at the beginning of an improv scene. I usually let their physicality cue me toward an emotional state of mind, then I prompt them to heighten. For example, if they look uncomfortable (as people often do when first in front of a camera), I might say—as if I am their inner voice—“Timmy Jenkins, don’t you dare wet your pants, no matter how bad you have to pee! Everyone on this school bus is going to call you pissy-pants, and you will be the laughing stock of Third Grade!” Then, once he or she starts to squirm, and get into the state of mind, I might engage with them as a scene partner. “Hey guys, look! Timmy looks like he’s gonna piss himself! Pissy-pants! Pissy-pants! Hah, hah!” This heightening can go on for a few rounds. When the emotion gets dialed up as high as it can go, that’s when I start making pictures. The whole process from start to peak to done lasts just a few minutes, then it’s over and the slate is wiped clean again with each new person.

I should say that much of my work goes on after the fact, during the editing process. The photo shoot is a frenzy of activity where I try to create as much raw material as possible. Sorting through everything afterwards is where I do the precision work of finding those peak moments of authentic emotion. And, as you said, the end result from a series of portraits is incredible variation.

You’ve had the opportunity to meet many incredible performers, but specifically, you’ve had the opportunity to work with The Committee. That’s a pretty rare and special thing. What are your memories with working with that group of incredibly talented performers?

Hands down, the best part of doing this project has been the access it has provided me to people I otherwise would probably never have met. Photographing members of the Committee did indeed feel rare and special.

The 50th anniversary reunion event earlier this year had almost every living Committee member in attendance, and I jumped at the chance to participate. Many guests were in their 80s, and hadn’t performed in decades. But every individual brought incredible presence when they stepped in front of my camera. And to my pleasant surprise, many of them twinkled with incredible mischief and glee, as if they were still young actors creating live improvised theater every night.

Some of my favorite portraits from The Improvisors Project were created that night. But I have to say the highlight of the evening happened off-camera. As the event started, and the room filled up with people, arriving one by one, old friends lit up seeing each other for the first time in ages. Many of the original Committee members in attendance had lived 40+ years living elsewhere and doing other things after the Committee. But being together with dear old friends brought everyone back to 1963, and all the youthful camaraderie that time held for them. I wasn’t even alive in the 1960s, yet I was overcome by the emotion in the room. Like seeing old soldiers being reunited long after the war had ended. I was reminded of the great fraternity that improv creates, and the close bonds I have in my own group of improvisors.

I notice one important omission from the project so far. No pictures of Sam Willard. At least none that I’ve seen publicly. Do you consider yourself – as an improvisor – to be part of this collective, or do you feel yourself more the observer in this project?

Hah. I definitely consider myself to be part of the improv community. It’s just technically a bit hard to do a self-portrait, with the way these images are made. I actually did get in front of the camera on my very first Improvisors photo shoot. I wasn’t thrilled with the results. Maybe there will be a Sam Willard portrait at some point.

Just like any great improv set, this project started from a simple idea. Where it went from there was not based on invention, but discovery. What have been the discoveries you’ve made along the way? How has the project shaped you and those around you?

As an artist, this project has shown me that the old axiom is true—follow your passion. The elements of this project are things that I am passionate about, things that excite me. That got me energized, and in turn energized others whose support have been essential to the project’s success.

I also discovered that—like in an improv scene—being open to serendipity is more fruitful than having a rigid plan. At each step of the way, I was uncertain what was next for the project. The more open I have been to possibilities, the better things have worked out.

Finally, by meeting so many improvisors, I have discovered that the improv community is even more awesome than I had thought. I have been fortunate to meet a ton of people who are fantastic on and off the stage, and it motivates me to continue the project, so I can meet and photograph many more.

Along those lines, what’s next? Do you think this is a project that will ever be complete or will it keep on growing? Have your ideas on what to do with these photographs changed over time? What’s the next step for The Improvisor Project?

This year I got married and had a lot of other big events in my personal life. Time to work on The Improvisors Project was limited. Now that my schedule is opening up a bit, I am planning to dedicate more energy to the project in 2014. I hope to travel to several cities and festivals, and photograph many more awesome improvisors. I have a “bucket list” of people who I particularly admire, and hope to photograph starting next year. All the while, I hope to continue sharing the project with the improv community that it represents.

I recently set up Facebook and Twitter pages to announce photo shoots and show off new work. I share an “Improvisor of the Week” every Friday. I plan to roll out a dedicated website in early 2014 (and in the meantime, you can see portraits from the series on A year from now, I will probably be thinking about putting together a book and exhibition.

The project is ongoing. As long as there are improvisors expressing themselves so creatively, I don’t see why I would stop.

Improvisors_01a Improvisors_01b
Improvisors_02a Improvisors_02b
Improvisors_03a Improvisors_03b

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

Spotlight On: The Milky Way Improv Festival

482773_523852694324029_8972322_nThe Milky Way Improv Festival, held in Roseville, CA (Near Sacramento) will be celebrating it’s second year March 21-23 and we couldn’t be happier. I had the privilege of attending last year and they treated us right. Great venue, great people and a great town! I had a chance to interview the Festival Producers and owners of Blacktop Comedy Paul Burke and Betsaida LeBron:

This is your second year throwing the Milky Way Improv Festival. How did the idea of doing this festival start?

We had attended a lot of improv festivals (Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angelas). An improv festival is this perfect blend of talent, passion, and openness. It’s all about the art form at a festival, and everyone wants to share, and listen to ideas. Simply attending the festivals inspired us. We wanted to bring the Roseville/Sacramento community a festival that could showcase incredibly talented improv productions from all over. We want this area to be inspired, and realize, “We can do that with improv?!”

Why Milky Way Improv Festival as a title?

Maybe there’s life on other planets! We’d hate to limit our festival to Earth and possibly miss out on some improv troupe submission from Gliese 581. We wanted to suggest this festival is big and welcoming.  We want to include as many teams as possible. There’s so much amazing improv being produced and performed, and we welcome all of it to the Milky Way Improv Festival.

What’s the improv scene like in the Roseville/Sacramento area?

I’d say ‘growing’ and ‘learning,’ describes the scene. New faces drop into an improv class every week and keep coming back! Seeing new performers, people who have NEVER stepped onstage before, realize, “I can do this!” is pretty inspiring. As performances go, you can find both long and short form improv in Roseville/Sacramento. Everything from a classic harold, to an all female acappella improv group perform in Sacramento/Roseville.

What are your goals for the second year?

The first year was so fun and we got a lot of positive feedback. We did learn a number of things and are excited for the 2014 festival.

Our goal this year is threefold.

First, let the improv community know about our festival. We’ve met a number of improvisers who have told us, “we didn’t know about the Milky Way Improv Festival.” That’s on us, and we’re working to fix that.

Secondly, we’re looking for lineup of shows that extends beyond California. California troupes and beyond, we welcome your submissions!

Thirdly, we’re looking to offer more improv courses. As the local improv community grows, we would love to bring them, and all festival goers, a variety of classes. Interested in teaching a class? We’re accepting submissions!

What can improvisers expect if they attend your festival?

We want you to enjoy yourself. Think of this as a weekend long party for improv. One of the biggest perks of the festival is our theater venue. We’re lucky enough to partner with a Tower theatre in Downtown Roseville. The Tower Theater is a gorgeous 200+ seat theater. Social events at local bars and restaurants will be planned and organized, so you will have an opportunity to spend time with other performers. Discounted hotel rooms will be arranged. If you would like to teach a class, a classroom with be provided to you. What would you like to see at our festival? One thing we do well is listen, and are always open to ideas.

For those who haven’t been to Roseville/Sacramento, what are some of the things people can check out in the city during the day or any places to visit?

There are lots of great things in the region. Here are just a couple (we’ll list more on the website soon):

Placer County Wine Trail

Hiking and Biking trails

Award Winning Restaurants

Sacramento Kings basketball

The Crocker Art Museum

white water rafting in Montreal

Old Town Sacramento

Maybe I’m biased because Sacramento is my hometown, but I have to say this festival was amazing and the venue is a great place to do your improv show! It’s an amazing theater and you’ll get a great crowd! Paul and Betsaida have created a wonderful community here and the Sacramento/Roseville area is a great place to explore. It’s Gold Rush town!

To submit to the festival instantly on NIN click HERE.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail For more information visit: or


Embrace Your Community

One of the biggest pieces of advice we can give about starting an improv theatre in a small town is you have to love your city. That may sound pretty simple or naïve, but stick with us here. What we mean is, you need to embrace everything about your town for good or bad. We live in a small rural town in Southern Utah called Cedar City. At first glance it might not seem like the kind of place an improv theatre would do well in. It’s the kind of town where nothing is open on Sunday or after 10pm on the weekdays. However, it’s home to a University and has a small but thriving arts community. We used all this to our advantage. We took all the negatives and turned them into positives. For example, one of the biggest negatives about our small town is the fact that choices are limited. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard people say, “there’s nothing to do in Cedar City.” The advantage this gave us is we created something to do that quickly became a staple of entertainment, especially for the University students. Now when we hear someone say there’s nothing to do, we say, “have you ever seen Off the Cuff?” Another negative of our small town is they tend to fear change. This is where patience paid off big time for us. While the University students were quick to welcome us the town itself was a little reluctant. We realized that this feeling all came from a fierce loyalty to Cedar and we needed to prove ourselves. We accomplished this in two ways. We stuck around and continued to grow and we got involved in our community. Getting involved was huge. We do workshops with the local high schools, we volunteer at city events, we participate in the parades, and we get our name out there. It took a while, but we’ve been able to form connections and friendships that have helped us out more than we say. The more involved in your community you can be and the more you support local businesses the more they will, in turn, support you.

Go outside your town and network.

The great advantage to living when we do is how easily we can access information. It’s so easy to see amazing improv and find a lot of great information on the web that can help you stay current and fresh with your improv and always keep you moving forward. Off the Cuff has benefited so much from taking opportunities like the National Improv Network and Camp Improv Utopia. As a small community these types of things allow us to get connected and make our community better. Nick’s post about a rising tide raises all ships is very true for us. The more the word about improv gets out and the success of improvisors gets more mainstream smaller communities will grow and larger communities will prosper.  This is a huge. It’s really easy for your troupe to fall into patterns that limit growth, especially when the only improv you see is each other. OTC makes it a point to go outside our community as much as we can. We love to travel to festivals and theatres to see other shows so we can broaden our horizon. This is crucial, it’s so easy to get stuck in a rut and become complacent when you’re the only gig in town. In order for you to remain current you need to see what else is out there, take every opportunity to go to a festival, watch shows in person, meet other improvisers, take workshops so you can bring back to your theatre the best information out there. Through this you’ll also meet the most incredibly talented and giving people in the world who are so eager to help you in anyway they can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take advantage of the knowledge of those who have been through professional training and love improv as much as you do, they are so happy and willing to help. Off the Cuff would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for some amazing people that have helped us in so many ways and those people accepting us with open arms into their communities thus making our community bigger and better.

Strive to be better and be proud of who you are.

As a small community, NEVER become complacent. You have to drive yourself to want to improve and practice. Just because you might be the only improv group and the area doesn’t mean you are the best. Keep your ego in check, which sometimes in a smaller community might be harder because the audience only sees you perform and doesn’t have all the options a larger community might have. At the same time, don’t let your ego tell you the opposite that your group doesn’t know what they are doing and improv in larger communities is better just because it’s from a bigger city. Be proud of your work. There is a term called “farm-prov” thrown around in larger communities that refers to improv groups from smaller communities. “Oh great, here’s another farm-prov group from nowhere.” Embrace that term! WE ARE FARM-PROV! Watch us take that suggestion, help it grow into characters, relationships, themes and scenework and harvest the laughter! (By the way does anyone want to go to festivals as a group called farm-prov and dress up like hillbillies and totally kill a show with us?) Small communities rock! That being said, we are all part of a larger community and the more we as improvisors, theatres, festivals, friend’s, and foes embrace this it’ll do nothing but grow.

Make goals that are realistic and be ready to go beyond them.

We always have a clear vision of what we want to accomplish and what we think we can accomplish. We budget our money wisely and think business decisions through thoroughly. When we set goals for OTC we make two lists: what we want to accomplish and what we know we can accomplish. Both remain on the table at all times. We first try to accomplish the goals we know we can. We make it a point to not put the cart before the horse. That being said, in a small town you have to create opportunity for yourself and this requires doing some things before you’re ready. If we tried to accomplish only what we thought we could, we would never be as far as we are now. For example, when we decided we wanted to host a festival, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t live in a big town where there are already improv festivals or even festivals close by. We had never run a festival before and had only participated in one. We asked for advice from people we knew who went to festivals often and we went for it. We had no clue how to accomplish that goal but had we waited until we were ready, there wouldn’t be a Red Rocks Improv Festival at all. We always think ahead to next year, we never close ourselves off to the option of changing the festival, and this mentality has helped us improve. Each year our festival gets bigger and we learn more about what we can do to make it the best it can be. We remain flexible and ready to change but always have a vision and a concrete idea. Remember that there are amazing opportunities out there. You might have to look a little harder for them and work a little harder to make them happen but it’ll pay off.  In a small town where improv is not established, you’re going to be the first to do a lot of the things. Being the first at anything requires a huge leap that takes quite a bit of courage and faith. You have to take the leap and learn how to fall as you’re falling. Creating an amazing strong improv community in a small town is a lot like doing improv, first you say yes then you figure it out as you go.

Guest Bloggers: TJ and Wendy Penrod

Tj and Wendy are the Founders and Artistic Directors of Off The Cuff Improvisation in Cedar City, Utah. In January of 2014 they will be celebrating 10 years as a company and this year marked their 4th Annual Red Rocks Improv Festival which has attracted troupes from all over the country to their small town.


Spotlight On: Eau Claire Improv Festival

ECIFThe Upper-Midwest doesn’t havea a great improv scene; it has several. Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison & Detroit are each growing communities with their own style. Smack in the middle of that, Eau Claire, Wisconsin has been looking to grow into a nationally recognized community of its own, and it seems to be off to a great start with the help of people like Amber Dernbach and Elliot Heinz. What tarted as a single high school team back around the time of Jurassic Park and Crystal Pepsi, has now grown to a vibrant improv town. Eau Claire now has an improv festival all it’s own. We’re excited to have a new festival as part of the network and I was able to reach out with some questions for Amber – the festival’s lead coordinator so travelling improvisors could learn a little bit about their festival and maybe try to add it to their next round of visits.

Eau Claire is pretty new to the national improv scene. What’s the improv like there? You’re in a pretty unique place to be quite near Chicago and Madison which are strong longform and shortform cities, respectively. How do those play out in Eau Claire?

The improv scene here has been fostered at our Eau Claire Memorial High School, where alumni have then gone out with the goal of improvising in the nation. Since the beginning of the high school program in 1993, Eau Claire has rapidly learned to love and support the local improv scene. The adult teams in the area share a unique blend of short and long form improv, where you can see both in one performance. The Memorial improv program begins its season with short form, but always works towards the final goal of a long form performance at the end of the school year. A university has also finally emerged in the last few years, focusing only on short form. High school alumni often come back to Eau Claire after years of experience in places like Chicago or Minneapolis with incredible long form performances. The Eau Claire audience is beginning to get the hang of long form improv as more teams emerge and continue to push the scene as far as it can go.

Rick Andrews

Rick Andrews

What can a visiting performer expect if they visit. In addition to a show, will there be any special workshops or other events? Will there be a chance for improvisers to meet each other outside of showtimes?

We will have workshops available from Rick Andrews (NYC, Magnet Theater), individuals from Minneapolis, Chicago, and Eau Claire. Most of the festival is close enough together where it will be impossible not to meet everyone. This year we are offering a “home base” of sorts at a local improv household. Here teams are free to crash on the floor or a cot. The basement of this house has a small theater and will be available for teams to practice, warm-up, or jam with one another. We will have other housing options if teams wish not to be a part of the “home base” household.

When the festival isn’t going on, what other things are there to do in Eau Claire? What’s the best place to grab food near the festival? Are there any historic sites or interesting places to visit nearby?

Accessible, affordable, park-like Eau Claire can be a winter wonderland in December. We have several parks that folks can walk through, antique shops for gazing, several eateries for grazing. The Leine’s Lodge is just a short drive away in Chippewa Falls, WI where adults can tour the brewery and have a few drinks as well. Grab a cup of coffee at Racy’s, breakfast at the Nucleus on Water St. or the Grand Ave Café on Grand St., lunch at the Acoustic Café, dinner at Tokyo Japanese Restaurant or Shanghai Cuisine. Eau Claire is full of cozy shops and café’s, all within 10 minutes of one another.

Lazy Monk

Lazy Monk

Other great things:

  • Rivers
  • Bike trails
  • Egg Roll Plus
  • Pad Thai (restaurant)
  • Lazy Monk Brewery
  • Banbury Place, independent artist studios in former tire plant.
  • Joynt, scooters
  • Galloway Grill
  • V1 Local Store
  • Public Library
  • Antique shop
  • UWEC Jazz
  • Vibrant downtown music scene
  • Strong local ethnic communities, primarily Hmong and Mexican.

This is your second year. What inspired you to put on a festival last year? What did you learn from that and hope to make even better this year? You’re surrounded by many improv cities, what are your hopes for making Eau Claire something special?

I decided to organize ECIF because there is an increasing improv scene in Eau Claire. What started as a near cult-level high school improv scene has spilled into a local adult scene. So many Memorial High Improv graduates have continued to be working improvisers around the region. Its important to celebrate this history and continue to develop local talent by offering accessibility to visiting national artists. What I learned from that first festival is that people in Eau Claire want more improv! Six hundred people attended a show or took a workshop last year. That level of support for a first year festival, run out of my kitchen between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m., spurred me to continue a second year. Eau Claire is special. We nurture our local artists and stay connected to those who started here.

I hope that we are able to offer shows to a wider audience this year and make improv a conversation topic for citizens everywhere. We want people to crave more improv in the community! We already have a thriving music scene, so we believe that improv can succeed just as well.

Anything else you’d like people to know about the festival?

Eau Claire is such a neat town and a place that you may not expect to find in Wisconsin. We experience every season here, Which allows us all to adapt to situations without hesitation. The scene here is young, but our community is very supportive with nightly crowds anywhere from 200-600 in the audience during the festival. Friends are made here and connections stay strong.

The festival is taking submissions right now. Feel free to submit or drop Elliot any questions on his profile or in the comments below.

Spotlight On: Denver Improv Festival

DIF_LogoThere are plenty of festivals going on this year. Sometimes it can be tough to decide on which festivals to submit to without knowing much about the city or its festival. This is the first of hopefully many interviews with festival producers around the country to provide a little peek into what visiting their festival might be like.

David Schultz is one of the many members of The GroupMind Foundation, the non-profit organization which produces the festival. I was fortunate to get in a little time with him between producing shows and planning the festival along with the other members of GroupMind.

The Denver Improv Festival kind of disappeared a few years ago and then re-emerged. What motivated the re-launch of the festival? What were the hopes for what the new festival would become?

Well, I guess there are two answers to that first question. First, the improv scene in Denver really began to mature 3-4 years ago, which brought a renewed interest in doing a festival. It seemed like a great time to bring it back. There were new theaters opening, new training centers picking up steam, and the scene was really taking off. Secondly, the Denver Improv Festival is organized by the GroupMind Foundation, which is a non-profit organization. Because of the lapse in doing a festival, we needed to bring it back to maintain our non-profit status. That may have been the last nudge we needed, but it was a nudge precisely when the scene was ready for it. Our hopes were pretty simple – bring the festival back and try to get better every year.

What are your goals for the 2013 festival?

Above all else, our goal is to bring the whole Denver improv community together to celebrate how far we’ve come, and enjoy each others company. Of course, there are some goals that we have every year – put on great shows, show the best of Denver improv, bring in talent from other cities to expose locals to other styles, and have as much fun as possible. GroupMind also has some boring goals this year like better utilizing corporate sponsorship, keeping our headliners as happy as possible, and filling all of our workshops. Everyone seemed to have such a blast last year – so my general goal this year is to not screw things up too much.

There are a lot of great theatres in Denver with very different philosophies. How does that variety shape the Denver Improv Scene?

A lot of the theaters and training centers are relatively new and their viewpoints are so different. Because of that, a lot of improvisers have gone through the curriculum of two or three different theaters. That exposes them to different points of view and let’s them find a style/technique/form that they really connect with, and they can take ideas from all of the programs. As a result, we’re seeing a lot of good teams that aren’t house teams tied to one theater. I’d like to see more of that. A new venture called “Red Rover” was organized by Justin Franzen at the Voodoo, and quarterly they put on a show where several of the training centers bring on a current class to perform and represent their style, and the night wraps up with instructors from all centers performing together. It’s neat to see, and shows the diversity between training centers.

Outside of a performance, what else can performers expect? Will you have any master workshops? Or unique workshops? Will there be any other organized activities?

We are finalizing our workshop lineup over the next couple weeks, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself in terms of content. One thing I will say is that we are doing fewer workshops this year, and limiting them to the headliners. In years past, we also included local workshops. In retrospect, that diluted the training pool a bit and made it hard to fill up classes. This year headliners get better numbers, and we can teach local workshops at a time when they aren’t competing with headliners. In terms of organized activities, we’ll be doing after parties – these were a TON of fun last year. Look for karaoke too. One of my favorite memories last year was walking into an 80 seat theater at 1am and seeing every seat full as karaoke was going on.

For those who haven’t been to Denver, what are some of the things people can check out in the city during the day? Where’s the best place to get breakfast near the festival?


Pineapple pancakes

All the venues under consideration are located downtown, and downtown Denver is very walkable. If you are a fan of craft beer, you couldn’t be in a better spot. Also, one of the favorite destinations was a bar called the 1-Up. It’s great because it is jam packed with old school video games and pinball machines. It’s a blast, and for .25 it can be pretty cheap. I think Nick Armstrong got severe forearm cramps playing Track & Field last year. If you have transportation, Denver is only a quick drive to amazing outdoorsy stuff like Red Rocks, the turning of the Aspen, and Casa Bonita. As far as breakfast, the big hits last year were Hi Rise Bakery and Snooze – home of the delicious Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes. I pride myself on recommending places to go, so anyone who makes it out this year can hit me up and I’ll point them in the right direction.

You’ve been to many festivals and experience the good and bad. What are you bringing to DIF that you’ve discovered at other festivals? What are you hoping to provide at DIF that people haven’t experienced before?

I actually haven’t been to too many myself, but I did just return from the Detroit Improv Festival and boy do those folks know how to organize. I was taking lots of notes, although I don’t even dream to match their scale this year. What I would like to provide is a real sense of community, and allow troupes from other scenes to mingle and share ideas. We aren’t a huge festival, and I see that as a good thing and allows for more intimacy. Last year people really mingled at the after parties and it was an absolute blast. I want to bring everybody together, display great improv, and leave everyone with a smile on the face. Hopefully that word of mouth spreads, and more people want to come next year.

Submissions for The Denver 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 or The GroupMind Foundation, you can visit the festival website or drop a message to David directly here on the site.

The GroupMind Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3)organization whose purpose is to enrich, educate and entertain our community in the art of improv. It will work toward this mission through educational outreach programs for local schools, the Denver Improv Festival, and various performance and skill workshops.

Good Press Takes Work


Don’t let this go to print

You’ve been working hard on your troupe, your theatre, your festival. You’ve been waiting for that chance to get some good coverage in the local press. The moment finally comes. You go down to your nearest 7-11 to pick up a copy and it’s… terrible. It’s a tiny article that takes several minutes to find. It has all the wrong info. It totally misrepresents what you’re all about. How can this be? The simple truth is this. You talk to your friends about improv. You surround yourself with people who get it. But the press in many cities simply doesn’t have the context for what you’re doing (Microsot Word still doesn’t even recognize the word), and to expect a Pulitzer winning article on your show isn’t going to happen without some effort on your part.

Here are seven tips to prepare and enable good press coverage. I’ll speak in terms of newspapers, but the same things apply for radio, television and web coverage. And I’m sorry to say it, but doing everything in this post will still lead to a crummy article or two. But keep at it. Continue to educate your press and the public in your town about what improv is and the quality of your coverage will blossom.

Politely Decline

Sooner or later you’re going to get a phone call or an email out of the blue from the local news. You didn’t send out a press release. You don’t have any big shows coming up. The call kind of catches you off guard. It can be a great opportunity, but you need to be prepared to politely say no thank you. This sounds almost blasphemous and its very difficult to do. But it sometimes will lead to much larger long term results.

It’s easy to get an ego boost from the contact, but step back for context for a moment. Unless you have a pretty good reputation in your city already, this reporter knows nothing about you and probably has some not quite accurate ideas on what improvisation is. There’s no news story to be had. You’ve been assigned as (cue dramatic music) a filler piece. Improv has been prime filler piece material for years. Improv articles appear in regular rotation right between “Biff! Pow! Comic Books Not Just For Kids Anymore” and “Grandma’s on Facebook Now. ‘Like’ It Or Not”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a filler piece. They can potentially bring people to your show. Keep in mind that the filler piece doesn’t go to the star reporter, it goes to the cub reporter out on their first or second article. They’re looking to get something in by their deadline. They likely have a set of preconceived notions and they are basically looking to put a couple of dates and a soundbite into the Mad Libs they inherited from the last cub reporter before they even call you.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play newspaper Bingo with the last improv article you saw. How many of these can you spot?

 If you didn’t think Sarah Palin, a dinosaur and Gangnum Style were funny, you clearly haven’t been down to see the folks at ComedyHut.

If you’ve only seen Whose Line, you only seen the half of it.

You’re on a quest for buried treasure. Suddenly a robot pops up. Or a zombie. Think Fast! That’s exactly what the quick-witted folks down at Bucket-O-Yuks do every week.

We’re always ‘folks’ by the way. When you get asked. Thank the reporter very much for their interest and invite them to come see a show. Seeing a show and being in your space can illuminate what you’re about far better than two minutes on the phone can. Suggest that you don’t feel answering a few quick questions will accurately portray what you are.

If they agree. Great! Comp them. Come down and say hello.  Let them see what your all about. If they aren’t willing to come down to the theatre, respectfully decline the article and wish them good luck.

But… Isn’t all publicity good publicity? Who cares if the article’s a little stale if it gets people in the door right? Sadly no. No ill intent is in those lazy articles, but they paint a picture of improv that further builds up the stereotypes and misconceptions about the craft and reinforces the reasons people use as excuses “not” to see improv. Of course you will get a few people to come to your show. Those people are expecting to see what the article made you out to be, and they’re going to be disappointed and disillusioned. They won’t come back. They’ll leave bad Yelp reviews. They’ll encourage their friends not to return.

When you get the offer for an article. It’s tempting to jump at anything, but be prepared to say no.

Press Releases

Send them. Send them in a timely manner and send them properly.

In the age of the internet, press outlets received hundreds of press releases every day. Many of them get thrown out because they aren’t speaking the same language that people are prepared to read them. A press release is a specific type of document with its own formatting rules. They aren’t complicated, but they should be followed if you want traction. There are many guides out there on the simple formatting layout of a press release. Learn it.

Be specific. You have shows every week. Why should you get coverage today? Post specific stories, show openings, special guests, theatre milestones. Something to actually write about.

Give lead time. Don’t send a press release on Thursday for a Friday show. Three weeks notice is good for daily journals. Three months is good lead time for quarterly or monthly journals.

Be regular. Your first press releases will get overlooked, but if they’re formatted well and respectful, your name will start becoming familiar. There’s a difference between regular and annoying. Don’t send something every day. But post regularly. If you’re a festival, this is especially true. Post schedule announcements, venue, show times, all that jazz.


Articles are great. Reviews are amazing. Press will always push back on this idea. “How can I review a show that won;’t be the same next week?” Well that’s poppycock. Do you know what you’re in for if you go see T.J & Dave or Baby Wants Candy? Of course you do. You know the level of quality you’re going to get. If you have ongoing shows or troupes, invite a review. More people are going to respond to a positive review than the vague promise of something good that may happen.

Quality Press Kit

If a quality article is underway, you’ll be asked for media. Typically photos and logos. Have these available rather than having to scrounge for them. Have them high resolution. If it’s a logo have it in vector format if possible (.AI or .EPS files are more press friendly). Just as importantly have a press kit that’s up to date and has what you want to say in it. Spend time writing out a short bio (one paragraph) and a longer bio (three to five paragraphs) that says exactly what you want it to say. Quotes might be pulled from this, so it’s wise to have it reflect what you actually believe.

An archetypal journalist

You’ll be surprised what I choose to quote.


A common thing in many bad articles is bad quotes. Not inaccurate quotes, just bad ones. Remember that you think you’ve said something golden on the phone, but you said  a lot of other things as well. All of them are fair game. It’s completely fine to pause before answering a question.

Talk about what you are, not what you aren’t.  Sometimes you’re specifically asked about comparisons to other things. Whose Line is an especially common go-to. It’s fine to answer these questions and pointing out the differences, but don’t put your own ideas out in that way. It’s the same thing you learn on stage. Talk about the here and now, not what isn’t happening. Talk about who you are and what you believe. Talking about TV shows that aren’t you only spend valuable time talking about what you aren’t. And.. well.. people like Whose Line because it’s fun. People like stand up because it’s fun. Drawing distinctions paints you as not fun.

Talk about who you are.

Share the Love

Do some quick algebra with me. How many people live in your city? Let’s call that a. Now what is the total number of seats in every improv venue in town? Let’s call that b. Is a greater than b? If so, then why are you worried about “competition”. There are thousands of people out there who don’t know about improv yet. If they can’t make your show, but might be able to see the show down the street. GREAT! More people who can appreciate improv. Different theatres have different philosophies, but if the other venues in town are fighting the good fight, share the love. They aren’t the enemy. The enemy is ignorance. So don’t be afraid to raise awareness for all good improv in your town.

Be Part of Your Community

All of the above might lead to a single great article. But they won’t lead to anything beyond that. One thing I muttered at improv spaces across the country is that no one comes out and supports the arts in their local community. If you’ve ever said that, then I’m putting you on the spot right now. When was the last time you went out to a jazz show, or a stand up set, or an art exhibit? Be part of the solution. Does your city have First Fridays? TEDx? Ignite? Does your University have public lectures? Does your neighborhood have a small business council? Does your local government meet with local business? Go to these things. Support your local community. Tweet about them. Use your theatre to support them in any way you can.  “But I have shows every weekend” is not an excuse. There are ways to get out there.

Your theatre is not an island. You’re part of the fabric of your city and your culture. If you close off to that, it will close off to you. If you embrace that and participating then people will know about you and the press will know about you and be happy to celebrate your milestones with you because you are part of the city’s pride.

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


Pages: 1 2 3 4

Who’s Online

There are no users currently online