Spotlight On: San Diego Improv Festival

San Diego is growing fast as an improv city. Different theatres, different styles, but plenty of people who are working towards making improv accessible to the people of San Diego.

Part of that growth means a new improv festival and a new chance for improvisors to visit a new place and share the love (on Valentine’s Day no less).

I’ve had the pleasure to know Chris George for a while now and I was excited to get to talk to him about the upcoming first San Diego Improv Festival and the growth of the city’s active improv scene.

Finest City just opened in December. And you’re putting up a festival in February; that’s a lot going on. Why did you decide to have a festival so close to the launch of the theatre? What kind of shared energy do you think will go into launching this first festival?

San Diego is in a real boom-time as far as improv goes. In the last three years, there has been a huge explosion in the number of theaters, groups, venues, showcases, classes, workshops, and people. In addition to Finest City opening, groups like Sidestage have seen enormous crowds and popular workshop series, and Lifeplay (which focues on using improv skills to help children and teens with bullying, but also does a lot of great traditional programming) has seen a large increase in demand and activity. Basically – San Diego is at a critical point for improv and we feel that it is time to both tie us in to the larger national community, and also celebrate just how wonderful improv is in San Diego right now. We hope to really capture the unbridled enthusiasm our community has right now, and also expand some horizons of some of our players that may have been a little isolated up to this point.

San Diego has a rich collection of improv, both longform and shortform. What are you hoping for visitors to learn and take away from being exposed to San Diego’s improv scene?

The improv community here is very vibrant and growing, but we’re still largely unknown to the greater San Diego community. We’re hoping that our festival can a celebration of just how much we’ve been able to accomplish in the last few years, and introduce the best of San Diego and beyond to our largely untapped audience. We do have some very talented and motivated local players, and getting the word out is still a high priority.

Outside of performances, what other events will be available for performers? Workshops? Parties?

We will have workshops; we have already confirmed iO’s Bill Arnett (3033, People of Earth) as a teacher at the festival and we plan on having on even more great teachers from our local and visiting teams. We are fortunate to have the venue at the same location as our host hotel, which means that we should have a large concentration of improvisers on site, and no one has to drive anywhere. The hotel has a pool and two bars, which I suspect may mean that the party may never stop. We are also planning some afternoon excursions to some of the local flavor.

San Diego is an amazing city. When the festival isn’t happening, what sights would you recommend for visitors? Where are some of the best places to eat around the festival?

The San Diego Zoo is probably the most well known landmark, and is a terrific exhibit, but the surrounding park (Balboa) has science and history museums, walking trails, and shops. The USS Midway exhibit is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that is a popular tourist destination, and is surrounded by the Embarcadero, which is a wonderful waterfront shopping area. The Gaslamp area downtown is a well known party area, packed with bars and restaurants, and the intersection of 30th & University was rated by several national publications as one of the best places to drink beer in the country, due to its high concentration of bars, nearly all of which have dozens of varieties of beer. Speaking of that, San Diego county is home to 40+ microbreweries, most of which have samplings and tours, making us one of the best places for a beer connoisseur. Our theater is located in the middle of the North Park neighborhood, home to hundreds of bars and restaurants, all within an easy walk or cab ride. There are amusement parks just an hour north in Carlsbad, CA, sunny beaches, surfing, sailing, and of course, improv.

What’s the venue like?

A nice place to chill before shows

A nice place to chill before shows

We’re very fortunate to be partnered with the Lafayette Hotel, which is a kitschy, newly remodeled hotel that used to be a favorite haunt of celebrities and actors in the 30’s-50’s. Our theater is brand new, with full lighting and sound equipment, projectors, and has a hand built stage, which is probably one of the best stages that could be built for improv.

To the best of my knowledge, this will be one of the first times San Diego audiences will be exposed to a large number of out-of-town performances. What are your hopes in exposing them to new kinds of improv?

We have had a few out of town guests in the past – Two Beer Queer, King Ten, The 313, Ice Tits to name a few, but this will be the first largest gathering of visiting teams. I think for a long time, San Diegans have only seen shortform improv, and audiences probably only associate improv with silly, gimmicky, or relatively unprofessional groups. We really want to show the wide variety of high quality teams we have available both in town and out. We would love our audiences to walk away that weekend with an appreciate of traditional longform, deconstructive forms (e.g. Armando), musical, narrative, genre, shortform, and maybe even some new, challenging, and unique improv. We hope that the audiences that come see our stuff will continue to check out new and different improv groups, and hopefully join us in exploring and performing.

What kind of shows are you looking for in your submissions this year?

We want about a 50/50 split between home and visiting teams, and we really want to showcase a large variety of shows. We want great teams, of course, but we also would love to get some shows that no one has really ever seen before.

California has seen an explosion of improv festivals in the last two years. What are some things you’ve learned from them and other festivals around the country? What are some things you’re hoping to emulate or change?

Finest City has been very lucky to have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of festival organizers and get some ideas for how to make the festival the kind of one you would want to come back to next year. We want to focus on making our guests feel welcome – we’re hoping to organize some airport and train station pickups to make the trip easier, and giving each team a local contact they can call if they have questions, or even just want to know a good place to get noodles at 2am (for the record, Jimmy Wong’s Golden Dragon Asian Bistro over in Hillcrest). We are aware that a trip to San Diego is a bit of trip for almost everyone, and we want to make that trip worthwhile.

Submissions are open right now. It’s a great chance to come out and be among the first to share improv from your home with the people of San Diego and to meet people like Chris.

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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