I’ve met a lot of great festival producers through the National Improv Network. One person I didn’t meet here is Tina Jackson. Tina has been a passionate performer on the festival circuit for about as long as I can remember. She’s been leading by example in the community for a long time, which is why I was excited to hear a few years back that she and Dan Grimm (another fantastic performer) were going to be putting on a festival. Both they and I had been on the road long enough to see the kinds of festivals that did things excellently and those who maybe had a little room to improve. I knew that Tina and Dan, and the people they were working with would build an amazing festival coming from the knowledge of a traveling performer.
And they did. Big Little Comedy Fest has grown quickly and its growing list of amazing producers is still out there on the road doing what they can to make festivals around the country great. In all that time, however. I never really had a chance to ask about some of the really unique ideas at Big Little. So I jumped at the chance to learn a little more.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the only improv festival that isn’t permanently housed in one city. There’s obviously a passion there to do something. What was the genesis of the festival. What made you feel the need to create such a unique festival?
The genesis for Big-Little started about 5 years ago when I was unceremoniously cut from my Harold Team at iO. I had a bit of a personal improv crisis at that time – What am I doing in Chicago if the reason I moved here is no longer part of my life? Am I still a good performer? I had a pow-wow with my former coach, Kevin Sciretta, who assured me that I was still a dynamic performer, and encouraged me to find another avenue for my passion, outside of iO, which turned out to be festivals. Having attended a handful myself, I decided to call a few friends and set up an informal weekend of shows at a small theatre in Grand Rapids, MI (where I’d gone to college). That weekend’s success is what became the first Big-Little Comedy Fest. It was my way of turning lemons into lemonade. My improv redemption.
Turns out, running a festival out of town, and in 2 cities throughout the last 5 years, was both complicated and extremely rewarding. I always compare it to planning an out-of-town wedding, hiring the best musicians, the best wedding photography, and catering. But what’s so great about Cleveland and Grand Rapids is that unlike Chicago, where Big-Little is based, they’re cities that aren’t over-saturated with improv. They’re hungry for shows and workshops and out-of-town exposure, and even local press that they aren’t normally able to garner on their own on a regular basis. What Big-Little has turned into is an opportunity to bring big city improv, sketch, and stand-up in a large-scale event to smaller comedy communities throughout the Midwest. (Hence the name, Big-Little Comedy.) But what we really love is the chance to show places like Cleveland and Grand Rapids at large what kind of comedy already exists in their city by showcasing the great local teams alongside out-of-town acts that draw more attention to the event.
We’re definitely going to be in Cleveland for the forseeable future. Cleveland is my hometown, so last year’s move to Cleveland amazing for me in a lot of ways. Not only was Big-Little able to put on an AMAZING weekend of shows for bigger houses than we ever have before, but (selfishly) I was able to bring my passion home to my family and friends, which was such a great added bonus. We’re also trying to get shows together in Louisville, with a potential for adding a full festival there within the next year.
The festival has been going on for five years, but I know the producers have been on the festival circuit themselves for many years. What kinds of things are you hoping to bring from other festivals? What things do you think you’re making even better
Oh God, I love festivals. One of the best parts of festivals, for me, is the networking you get to do with other performers from around the country. This past year, we made it a point to treat our performers like rock stars, including airport pickup, personal liaisons, killer afterparties, performer discounts, etc. That’s something we’ve always loved about festivals like Out of Bounds, the effort they make to ensure that your stay in their city is as pleasant as possible.
Cleveland comedy is primarily built around a popular stand-up and theatre scene, but the improv scene, although small, is a vibrant one. There’s a little longform, a little shortform, a little sketch (I can’t recommend
Last Call Cleveland highly enough), a little training, but no dedicated theatre or organized scene on a larger
scale. The local teams there have great followings, which makes Cleveland such a great city for a festival. The audiences really love and embrace comedy and come out to support it in force.
And despite being largely unfamiliar with longform, they really seem to respond to it, which is so great.
Every time I’ve performed in Cleveland, it’s been in front of a packed house (and as a regular Chicago performer, that’s such a nice change of pace from some of our regular shows).
What are some things that are new to the festival this year?
New starting this year will be trying to run fests in 2 cities in the same year. We don’t have official dates for an event in Louisville yet, but we’re looking forward to adding more events in more Midwest cities every year from now on.
What are some of the non-performance activities planned for the festival this year? Workshops? Parties?
Where does Big Little go from here?
Onward and upward! We have a lot of things building right now for our 5th Anniversary Year, including more events both in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. Our network’s really been building for the last several years and it feels like everything’s coming together for us now. We added a lot of new staff this year, including 3 new producers, interns, and a dedicated marketing team, which is nice because we’re finally able to do some of the things we’ve had on the backburner for a while, because we didn’t have the manpower to put them into action.
It’s not too late to visit this year. Submissions are open for another week. I highly recommend submitting and heading to Ohio.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.