Spotlight On: Twin Cities Improv Festival

A little under two years ago, I was sitting in a hotel room at an improv conference with festival organizers and theatre owners from across the country. It was the end of the day and ideas were being spitballed back and forth about the possibility of a webpage for performers, directors, owners, festival organizers, etc. It was the meeting that lead to the website you’re reading right now.

One of the people at that meeting was Butch Roy from HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis. I had made a point to listen to Butch’s presentation earlier in the day, because of all the various types of improvisors; traveling performers, theater owners, festival organizers, Butch represents the best of each of them. He’s a smart guy with amazing insight and passion for watching improv grow. It was a great presentation and a great meeting afterwards.

Butch is a smart guy who knows how to take charge and get things done. And he’s blessed to be in a city filled with similarly talented people. It’s no wonder that the Twin Cities Improv Festival is one of the destinations for performers across the country.

But many people have never been to Minneapolis and don’t know about the incredible energy in that city. I got to talk with Butch a bit about the upcoming 8th Improv Festival in the Twin Cities.

The Twin Cities Improv Festival has been around for eight years now, but many changes have probably happened since HUGE opened its doors. How has HUGE’s presence in Minneapolis changed the festival in the last few years?

When we started out, the Festival was often the only time of year a lot of our audience would come see improv, we knew that many of them were coming because we had special guests from other cities coming in. We have always tried really hard to reinforce the message to them that “you live in a city full of amazing improv all year long” and even though HUGE has changed the landscape we still see a lot of people at TCIF that need to hear that message.

We set up the Festival to pair visiting groups with locals – both to create a really complementary pairing that is a great show to see, but also to trick people that don’t otherwise come out to shows all year into seeing the local groups that they will probably love.

I was worried that HUGE’s constant presence would hurt the Festival in a way – by giving people their great improv fix all the time – but that has not been the case at all. We still treat the shows all year in a very serious way and try to showcase the very best of what we can do on stage, and then treat the Festival as the showcase of the very best of the best.

A quick look at the festival board and most people will see that one of you have been to just about every major festival in North America. As travelling performers, what are some of the trends you see that you try to bring back to Minnesota? What are some things you try to do differently in terms of the travelling performer’s experience?

Butch Roy

Butch Roy

That’s hard to list since it’s kind of the core of how we approach the Festival.

When we were starting the Festival I certainly paid more attention to things I saw in other cities that, as a performer, I really liked or really disliked. It’s one thing to put on a festival and showcase the best performers for a few days, keeping in mind the little things that will be important to those performers over the course of the Festival is a very different mindset.

So it was less about trends and more about approaching the Festival from the performers’ standpoint at all times – if we’re doing our jobs when we make selections, we don’t need to worry about the quality of the shows we’re putting up. They will take care of the audience – so we should be spending our energy making sure the performers have a great experience and have a great audience to perform for.

I’ve been to festivals that were poorly marketed but really focused on the art, some that were well marketed but poorly planned, some where the producers didn’t even know we were there. Any time I ran into something that made me question if I should have come to a festival, we made note of in the “Never do this” column and we try our best to keep those things at the forefront of our process.

The biggest change we’ve made this year is to separate the submissions from visiting groups from the local submissions – to give traveling groups enough time to properly plan for their trip but also make sure we’re getting the most current snapshot of what’s going on in the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis has a somewhat rare city that has very strong longform and shortform theatres – and many shared performers. How does that landscape affect the festival?

I think it makes us more welcoming – both in terms of what we’re looking for when we make selections and being able to see really great shows in both long and short form – but also in terms of how Minnesotan improvisers know that there’s a lot to be learned from both.

It promotes an environment in which quality is the most important criteria instead of artificial divisions.

Because of that balance, your audiences have a very good vocabulary for improv. What kinds of shows do you hope to attract to Minneapolis to introduce them to something new and challenging?

Our audience not only has an unbelievable improv vocabulary – they see and appreciate really great work, not just the moves that get laughs. They’re savvy. They appreciate a really smart callback or some of the more subtle moves you see in a really great ensemble – which can be so rewarding as a performer.

One of the things I’m most excited about every year is introducing new performers to our audience!

I almost don’t feel like we look at shows as challenging our audience, since they see such a wide variety and have a pretty nuanced understanding of what we do – but when we find something really new, really eye-opening in terms of “I’ve never seen an improv show that feels like this before!” I get really excited as a producer. Waiting months for the audience to see what I’ve been anxiously waiting for them to see is one of the hardest parts of being the producer.

The pairings of groups is one of the more exciting parts of producing the Festival every year for that reason – knowing what the audience is in for and how it’s going to play together – like getting to put a duo that uses movement and dance (the Raving Jaynes) with a duo that features an engineer and dance instructor (Foxtrot) and an ensemble that uses no spoken words at all and just uses music played from audience iPods as the backbone of the scenes (The Score) is really fun.

Any one of those shows alone would be great and engaging and fun – but when you can put them together you get this really amazing trip across the whole spectrum of what you can do in an improv show.

June is probably a smart time for a festival in The Twin Cities. What kind of weather can visitors expect? What should they pack?

HUGE Improv Theater

HUGE Improv Theater

June is the ONLY good time to visit Minnesota, in terms of weather.

I hear from people all the time that say “I visited once, never went back” and I always ask when they came – if they say “January” I just apologize and tell them to come back in June.

Typically we will see high 80’s and sun all day, high 60’s or 70’s at night.

Only once did we have a rainy Festival but the temps are generally always very nice – bring an umbrella, shorts and t-shirts during the day but you aren’t going to be too hot if you’re wearing long sleeves and pants in the evening.

There are many top shelf instructors in Minneapolis, and even more in the cities nearby. That’s something many travelers don’t have access to year round. What kind of workshops or panels will be available this year?

We are still putting this year’s workshops together right now – we will announce those along with the selections. We always have workshops for the experienced performers, we’ve never had great response to the entry level workshops – so everything is focused on serving the performers rather than intro work.

What, outside of the festival, will improvisors be able to do and see while visiting?

There is so much going on in June in MN – the city goes a little crazy when everything thaws out and we know we only have a dozen or so really nice days to have fun – so you can see food truck festivals, film festivals, baseball games, awesome outdoor mini golf – you name it.

If anyone has a request of something they’ve heard of and want to try to see while in town, let us know and the Festival will reach out and see what we can arrange!

Eight years means a lot of time to grow. What have you learned from past festivals that will be part of TCIF 8? What are your goals for the 2014 festival?

I mentioned the change in submissions before – that’s probably the biggest shift in terms of the Festival mechanics – in past years we’d have a group that was really active in Minneapolis and had a great submission in January so they were invited to do the Festival…only to disband a couple months later because of scheduling or real-life conflicts or something – so you end up getting a “reunion show” instead of a catching them in their prime.

The biggest thing we’ve learned is to relax and let the improvisers take some ownership of the experience – we run the shows and workshops but the community here is so warm and welcoming that they throw BBQ’s for the performers and have the after-parties at their houses and really make it their own.

There are always things we’re learning in terms of mechanics of holding so many shows in such a short time – long lines, temp control in the theater, you name it – but the biggest thing we try to keep in mind is that we’re always learning and trying to improve.

For real. If you haven’t been to the Twin Cities Improv Festival, you’re missing out on something special. Submissions are still open for out of town performers, but closing soon.

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