What I’ve Learned, So Far, as an Artistic Director

October was my official one year anniversary as Artistic Director for M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, CA. It’s been an amazing learning experience. You see, there are tons of books on how to do improv, maybe too many now, but there’s not a book about how to be an Artistic Director. It’s like only other AD’s can pass their stories down from generations past, much like the Native Americans did passing on their stories on and on to preserve their history. I know this blog might not interest a lot of you, I’m sure there are only a handful of AD’s in the world that specifically run comedy theaters. But I want improvisers to see the insides a little bit and show you what’s up in the business end of things. Here are some observations, advice I’ve learned over my year as AD:

  1. It’s rewarding! You get to see the growth of many of your performers. It’s an honor to help artists reach their full potential and seeing it is an amazing experience. You see novices turn into masters at playing the piano and actors shine brighter than the first first day they stepped onto the stage. I never get tired of it and it’s what keeps me going.
  2. It is a hard job. You have to cut troupes, players, your friends. This is a very hard thing to do, to e-mail or call a friend or performer to tell them you can not longer perform for now. This sometimes causes strains in friendships and with your performers.
  3. Professionalism – You find out, who is a professional and who is not, really fast. People who don’t show up for a show, are unorganized, flaky. You name it you’ll find them fast and have to deal with it.
  4. You’re the middle man! Yes, you’re the balance of the force. You are the liaison between the business itself and the artists that perform with you. You have to find compromise on a daily basis.
  5. You can’t please everyone – You’re dealing with a ton of personalities. Imagine you can’t even get your team of 8 to decide on a Monday rehearsal, imagine that with hundreds of people and having to get decisions made.
  6. Compromise – I’m not always right and some decisions I’ve made are not the best. But you have to make those mistakes so you can learn from them.
  7. You Should do this – You’ll hear this a lot. So what do you do? Listen, their could be a good idea in there. But know that most of the time the person saying “you should do this.” will not help you carry out that idea. Try to get them involved in helping with  the idea instead of just suggesting. I’ve actually found out when I was more forward about that and gave them tasks it worked.
  8. You hear more complaints then praise. Not that I’m looking for praise at all, but your job is to have a vision and direct a theater into that vision. Sometimes people have issues with that, again see 5 and 6 above. HA!
  9. Have a vision and communicate your vision – You can’t just be an admin. You have to have a vision on what you want done and how it fits with the theater. Communicate all your ideas and why you’re doing them with your community. To make sure the community is involved so they have a say.
  10. The Community – That’s what it’s all about. My community has surprised me on many levels and I’ve been doing this for years. At the end of the day you do it for them. They are awesome, deserving and most of the time do this for free. That’s one thing I will always remember when I go into the theater. My philosophy I’ve made with them, if you’re doing this for free you should be A. Be having fun and B. Learning something. If you’re not let’s talk and make sure you can accomplish those.
  11. Be Available – Don’t hide in an office, be available to talk to your community. I have an open door policy. I can be available for anyone in my community to give them notes, listen to what they have to say etc.
  12. Lead by example – Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do.

I’m sure their are a ton more little things I’ve learned along the way, but these are the pretty major ones I’ve learned and hopefully a little advice and an open door to see what your theaters owners or Artistic Directors go through. I’m pretty lucky to have a wonderful comedy community at The Westside Comedy Theater. They make my job worth it and they are a great group of people.

Spotlight on Los Angeles Improv Comedy Festival

The Los Angeles Improv Comedy Festival enters its 13th year. The festival is held at iO West in Hollywood and is going to have a mix of celebrity shows and improv troupes from around the country even a 7 day improv show trying to break the world record! I was able to interview iO West Artistic Director James Grace about the fest:

NICK: It’s amazing to think it’s the 13th year of the festival. What are some of your favorite memories from the past 13 years of the fest.

JAMES: Each Festival we’ve had, there’s been such a joyful mix of beginners to comedy legends, performing, watching and celebrating the art form that has changed each of our lives, so it’s hard to choose only a few memories but I’ll try.

I loved the SNL vs MadTV shows from the first few years of the Fest, with cast members from each show “competing against each other” in one big montage; they were the ultimate example of collaboration.

I also love seeing the performers from outside of LA as they make connections and friendships during the course of Fest week and then seeing them return year after year. There are also some amazing local groups (who who seem to be at the Fest annually) which are some of the best improv groups of all time like; Beer Shark Mice, Opening Night! The Improvised Musical, Weirdass. The various casts from TV and film coming to improvise is always a thrill like, Community, The Office, Reno 911, Broken Lizard, The Sarah Silverman Program just to name a few. But I have to say, seeing Monty Python’s Eric Idle on our stage was like having the Beetles stop by, it was awesome!

NICK: What do you look for in a submission?

JAMES: With a submission, we are looking for the quality/experience of the group or person submitting and we are always looking for original and unique content to add to the Festival. Try to shoot and edit your submission videos as professionally as possible, so we can focus on your talent and not be distracted by sound or picture problems.

NICK: What can a troupe expect when getting into the festival?

JAMES: Troupes that get into the Festival, not only have the opportunity to perform for peers, comedy heroes and industry; they also have the opportunity to learn in workshops and panels from top instructors, comedy heroes and industry. On top of that they will get to see some of the best improv groups in the world, be a part of history, performing in the 7 Day Improv Show and make new connections and friends that will be with them for life. So I guess they can only expect a life changing experience!

NICK: What kind of workshops will you be offering at the fest?

JAMES: We will have a wide range of comedy workshops and focuses, from individual to group improv to casting to marketing your group and much more. There will be the chance to study with the top improv teachers in the country as well as workshops taught by special celebrity instructors. We will also have several panels at the Festival with topics beneficial for brand new improvisers to veteran performers as well as some special panels with casts of your favorite comedies giving a behind the scenes look into their show.

NICK: This year you’re having 4 competitions. Can you explain that and what do they win?

JAMES: The four competitions are a HAROLD COMPETITION, a DUO COMPETITION, a CAGE MATCH COMPETITION and a STAND UP COMPETITION.
For the HAROLD COMPETITION, two teams are given 25 minutes to perform their take on the classic improv form the Harold. Winning prizes include a showcase at the famous Comedy Central Stage at The Hudson Theater, a 4-week run on the iOWest Main Stage and more.

For the DUO COMPETITION, each two person team is given 25 minutes to improvise, battling against another two person team for the funniest set. The winning prizes include $200 and the opportunity to host a monthly Duo show on the iOWest Main Stage. For the CAGE MATCH COMPETITION two teams are given 20 minutes each to do whatever kind of improv they want. The lights will be cut at 20 minutes. Winning prizes include a showcase at the famous Comedy Central Stage at The Hudson Theater, a 4-week run on the iOWest Main Stage and more. For the STAND UP COMPETITION ten comics per each first round competition, 5 minutes each, and the top two comics chosen by audience vote each night go to the finals. Our Stand Up Competition finalists will get the opportunity to perform another 5 minutes with special guest headliners on the championship night. The winning prizes include $200 and the opportunity to host a monthly Stand Up show on the iOWest Main Stage.

All competition details are listed at http://ioimprov.com/west/festivals/annual-improv-comedy-festival/

NICK: There’s a 7-Day Improv Show! You guys are trying to break a world record. How did this all come about?

JAMES: This year as we looking to set the Guinness Book of World Records for Longest Continuous Improv Show (150 hours straight, starting 7pm Sun Aug 2nd -and ending 1am Sun Aug 9th) with our 7 Day Improv Show. This show will allow for more stage time opportunity for our Festival groups, in addition to their Festival showcase show.

This show was pitched to me by two performers from the iOWest Theater, Keith Saltojanes and Rob O’Connor and I loved the idea of so many improv groups getting to be a part of history, so we sat down and figured out the logistics of doing a show like this. We will be live streaming the whole show and I expect some extremely interesting improv to take place in those early morning slots. I can’t wait to see this show!

If you’d like to instantly submit to the LA Comedy Festival you can do so HERE.


Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He has also taught many workshops around the country.

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