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.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival.