Spotlight on Hollywood

thumbnail_1432453349-300x300[1]There’s a new festival in Hollywood. And while you may not know the festival yet, you likely know and respect some of the people behind it. It’s going to be a new experience in the Hollywood area and a good chance to get exposed to the philosophies of the many schools out there. I got a chance to talk with Jeff Thomson about what’s new about this festival and what he hopes it can acheive.

A quick count on my end shows thirteen active improv festivals in California. California is a huge state and one with a booming improv scene, but it’s curious to see another festival in California, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Many festivals across the country start to bring any kind of festival to the area. With an abundance of festivals nearby, you must have seen a gap that you were tying to fill. What is the Hollywood Festival bringing to the community that hasn’t existed up until now?

In the Los Angeles area, there are a lot of improv schools. Last time I counted, we had 15 venues for improv (teaching, performing, or both), and I’m sure that I’m forgetting some. Part of the problem in LA is that there is so much good stuff, that it’s impossible to keep track of all of it. You spend too much time at UCB, and you miss out on a great show at Second City. You might know everyone at ComedySportz, but completely forget that the Groundlings is several blocks down on Melrose. And how do you choose between studying at NOW, Nerdist, or Miles Stroth? I wanted to find a way to bring everyone together; the Hollywood Improv Festival grabs people from all of those amazing LA venues, but we’re also privileged to have people submitting from outside of the LA bubble. I think this emphasis on diversity is most emphasized by our panels in which representatives from almost all of the major schools in Los Angeles will discuss improv. It’ll be good to have everyone under one roof for a weekend.

Along the same lines. Los Angeles is home to hundreds of great improvisors from many great theatres. Is your hope to showcase the shows of Hollywood, or to show Hollywood audiences what improv in other parts of the country are doing. Or is it somewhere in between? Should out of town groups be interested in submitting?

Our focus is both the diversity within Los Angeles and within the global improv community. Audience members will be able to see teams that they already love, local teams that they haven’t had a chance to see yet, and out-of-town teams who are amazing (just far away). I like to think of this festival as an improv sampler plate; you get a little taste of everything. I’ve really appreciated some of the out-of-town submissions weve received, as they’ve helped me see how diverse improv can really be. We welcome all out-of-town submissions or people who just want to drop in and hang out with us during that weekend.

mainstage2-2014[1]What part of Hollywood is the festival in? What’s the venue like and what are hotel options in the area like?

Hollywood is actually a fairly small area; we are a mile south of the famous Hollywood and Highland intersection, which also puts you about a mile away from Second City, iO West, and ComedySportz (and less than 2 miles away from Groudlings and UCB). The theatre is a beautiful 99-seat venue on Theatre Row; when I walked into it the first time, I immediately thought “Doing improv in here would be amazing.” While there are some hotels within walking distance, I feel like AirBnB is a much better choice. You get to feel like you’re living in LA for just a bit and some places are within blocks of the venue.

The word Hollywood has connotations that go beyond geography. Industry is permanently intertwined with that name. How much of that idea will be a part of the planning and the execution of the festival?

I mean, there will be a lavish, end-of-festival party on the last evening of the festival. That’s pretty Hollywood. Industry comps to shows are available, and I’ll be talking to a few agencies in the weeks leading up to the festival. If someone were to get a kick-ass audition or find some representation as a result of this festival, I’d be thrilled. But I think there’s something more than the glitz and glamour connotation of Hollywood; people come to this town because they have a passion for the art form and they want to share it with the world, this festival is just another place in which they can do it. And then party afterwards at our lavish, end-of-festival celebration.

Why now? Why is 2015 the time to start this new festival? And what are your hopes for 2016 and beyond?

Well, I was talking to my friends Annie and Levin O’Conner, and we were discussing improv festivals. The conversation developed further, and I thought it would be a good idea to produce one, especially if we could get all of the LA improv theatres on board. I called Nick Armstrong and he helped me flesh out the details, and here we are about 3 months later. I felt like it was something the community needed and I thought it was something I could do, so I did it.

I really have no idea what 2016 will bring. As this is our first year, I’m looking forward to finding out what worked and what didn’t and then experimenting in future years. Maybe next year we’ll have more parties? I really love throwing parties.

Visiting performers always need to consider budget when traveling. What should be realistic expectations for transportation, lodging and food during the weekend. What will the festival be providing for troupes who perform?

Visiting performers can always reach out to me and try to figure out the logistics of travel and depending on their preferences and the size of the group, there might be a variety of options they can consider. Food prices will vary based on where you go; you can easily spend $40 on one meal, or make it last the entire weekend (by eating IN N OUT for every meal, which might not be a bad choice). LA also has a nice balance of super ritzy hotels and moderately priced inns and motels. As far as transportation goes, I’d recommend either walking or using Lyft, as the parking situation in LA can be a little jarring to an out-of-towner. It’s relatively easy to be in LA on a budget, but you can also turn it into a vacation. There are lots of bars, tourist spots, nightclubs, and things to see. Just make sure to never walk alone, Hollywood can sometimes be dangerous at night.

Shows will dominate the evenings. Are there daytime events planned for performers who want to hone their skills? Workshops? Panels? Events?

Our workshop schedule has not been announced yet, but in addition to having improv workshops, we’ll also have fun things like drop-in yoga classes. Saturday and Sunday at noon we’ll have two different panels that I’m super excited about; we’ve gotten representatives from almost all of the major schools and theatres to discuss improv. This will be a unique experience because most people only discuss one school of thought at a time, but it will be interesting to hear different opinions and philosophies presented at the same time. And I’ve mentioned the party before, but I’m still really excited about it. We’ve rented the Bugatta (a supper club and event venue a little southeast of the theatre) and we’ll be throwing a party there; they have amazing food and a wonderful selection of drinks, and I’m really excited to do bits all night with everyone.

As a traveling performer myself, I cross paths with many friends in cities around the world. When deciding on traveling to new festivals, it’s always great to hear the opinions of those who have gone before. Obviously that won’t be happening in your first year, but what would do you think people will be telling their friends about your festival in the months after their stay?

Well, my sincere hope is that, at the very least, people won’t be saying “Man, that Jeff guy was an asshole. Let’s never come back.” That would really suck. I’m hoping that people really value to diversity of shows; each performance is unique in it’s own way and the teams compliment each other, but also really stand-out on their own. I’m hoping that people come away from the festival with a renewed appreciation of the art form. Perhaps more importantly, I want people to make friends and connections. I’m hoping people walk away saying, “I had a good time; I had some great laughs and spent time with some amazing people.”

Submissions are only open for a few more days. Get on that and submit.

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

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