Countdown to a Unique Fundraiser

If innovation and adaptability are the soul of improv. There are possibly no better personifications of it than Kelly Buttermore and Justin Peters. The creators of From Justin to Kelly, The Very Normal Festival and The Countdown Improv Festival have spent years re-imagining what it is to be performers and teachers, creating conferences and festivals that weren’t carbon copies of the events that already existed around the world. That didn’t stop when our stages had to close their doors last year. Justin and Kelly created new online experiences that went beyond putting their shows on Zoom.

This weekend, they’re putting on a very special and unusual show and fundraiser for the Countdown Festival. I was able to check in with them about the one of a kind festival and fundraiser.

What’s the origin of the name and the festival?

Countdown is unique in many ways, but chief among them is that it’s the only festival in the world devoted exclusively to trio, duo, and solo improv. We’ve been a duo now for 11+ years, and we’re big fans and partisans of small group improv. We like it, in part, because it’s hard. When there’s just a few of you on stage, there’s nowhere to hide, and you’re have to learn pretty quickly how to make your choices work, rather than abandoning them in a panic and retreating to the sidelines to hide out for a few scenes while ruing the day you ever signed up for improv class. Anyway, we were inspired back in 2017 to found a festival that put small groups front and center. In Tampa, where we do not live. (We like to make things difficult for ourselves, we guess.) We’re now in our fifth year, which is unbelievably exciting to us.

The two of us have spent a lot of time performing, teaching, and headlining at festivals all over the country; we took from those experiences and vowed to create the sort of festival that we ourselves would be excited to attend. Our orienting principle is that the festival is first and foremost a truly performer-focused festival, where we welcome, value, and celebrate every single performer on the bill. We don’t have headliners and we don’t stratify our participants; we extend the same courtesy and hospitality to everyone, and we work really hard to situate all of our performers to do their best work and have a great time. We’ve all been to festivals where you board the plane home and think “did anyone even know that I was there?” We pledged never to have anyone ask themselves that question after attending Countdown. (We also pledged that no performer would ever have to pay for a bottle of water while at the festival; this is a really big thing to Justin, for some reason.)

The name itself has a couple different origins. One is the notion of a “3…2…1” countdown, which aligns the trio, duo, and solo angle. We also run a roaming pop-up comedy space in Brooklyn called Countdown Theater; the idea there being that this space (just like improv) won’t be there forever, and if you weren’t there, then you missed it. Ephemerality is the name of the game!

The idea of a “festival” has had to be re-thought this last year as we went online. How did you approach re-inventing yourself?

Reinvention was the name of the game for us in 2020, as it was for improvisers and improv producers everywhere. When we decided to produce Countdown online in 2020, rather than just shelving it for the year and coming back in 2021, we realized that we had to proceed as if we were programming five nights of television, rather than five nights of live performance. Since people would be watching the festival on their screens, we had to adopt the vocabulary of television and make the festival something that would be worth “binge watching.” So we created ongoing narratives, running bits, and through lines to help cohere things. We also held Zoom calls with every single act preceding the festival to help them brainstorm ways to adapt their show to the needs of the camera. It was all a huge learning experience — and an incredibly rewarding one at that. We expanded Countdown in every conceivable way — more performers, more workshops, and two additional nights of shows, and ended up running our biggest and most successful festival yet.

countdown at very normal fest

The Very Normal Festival

The virtual version of Countdown was in August 2020, and we were so galvanized by that experience that we decided to turn around and run another one right on its heels in December 2020 called the Very Normal Festival, in honor of the very normal year that was 2020. We encouraged acts to submit the sort of weird, uncategorizable shows and bits that they always wanted to try but could never fit into a traditional festival lineup. We took what we’d learned in August and leaned even harder into the thematicism, and we came up with an overarching narrative that the two of us had been conscripted by a mysterious unseen figure known as the Commodore to produce the most normal comedy festival ever made. Anytime the festival deviated from that norm (which happened constantly), the Commodore would communicate his displeasure via a series of messages in bottles. (There was also a vaguely nautical theme to all of this.) The narrative built over the course of the four nights until the big reveal that the Commodore was really the two of us the entire time. It all ended with a singalong of the Looking Glass song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” It was absurd and ridiculous and made us want to build more weirdness into our in-person events moving forward.

We need to mention here that neither the virtual version of Countdown nor Very Normal would have been possible without the help of our friends and production partners Anthony Francis and Marisa Cutaia from Improv U in Delray Beach, Florida, and our Atlanta-based designer, Dan Deming-Henes. They are superstars!

There’s lots of traditional fundraising routes. Why a telethon?

While we’re also pursuing traditional fundraising routes this year — sponsorships, grants, and so on — our costs for 2021 are projected to be higher than ever before, so we need to find ways to open new revenue streams. The telethon — in which we’re going to be performing a 12.5-hour monoscene with no breaks — seemed like a fun stunt that at best would galvanize community support and consolidate individual donations around a central thesis, and at worst would make us both really exhausted and sort of depressed that no one else cares about this thing as much as we do. It’s worth a shot! We wanted to do something fun and unique where just hearing about the concept would theoretically grab the audience’s attention and make them not only think “wow, I gotta see that!” but also “wow, that’s ambitious and I want to support that!” We also wanted to do something that was, frankly, fun and creatively fulfilling/challenging for the two of us — and, voila, the idea to do a twelve and a half hour-long monoscene was born.

We’ll be honest here, we have literally no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Then again, we also never could have foreseen producing an improv festival in Tampa, a city nearly 1200 miles away from where we actually live in NYC, but here we are. Life comes at you fast!

A dramatically long show could take many forms. What drew you to the monoscene?

The monoscene was a natural choice for us, as it’s the basis for our duo’s own signature format, the Walter, which emphasizes eye contact, physical proximity, and a total commitment to the moment. A 12.5-hour monoscene, however, is a whole other ballgame, so we’ve gotten over 50 improvisers (and counting) from all over to join the scene over Zoom as character walk-ons over the course of the day. (Those characters can also recur — just as long as they return as the same character later on, otherwise total chaos will ensue.) It’s going to be one hell of a show.

As the founders, producers, and faces of a festival centered around small group improv, we wanted to show just how hard we were willing to commit to the most extreme version of duo improv we could dream up. It’s going to force us to really sit in the characters that we create, and be patient with our scenework. We think the length of the show is actually going to be a little bit freeing, insofar as we can just *live* in these characters and this world for an extended period, and not have to work so hard to impose a 30-minute story arc on the whole thing. There’ll still be story and character arcs, don’t get us wrong, it’s just that we can let them develop over time, which is sort of cool.

Why Twitch? Will you be using the chat?

We had really positive experiences with Twitch with our two festivals last year; the platform is really user-friendly and allows for instantaneous audience engagement via the chat, which is a lot of fun to watch in real time. We will definitely be using the chat for the telethon, both to stoke donations and as a recap feature for those viewers who will be joining the scene in progress and will want some context for what they’re seeing. Think of it as a “Previously on this telethon…” Should be fun! But we’ll also be streaming simultaneously on our Facebook pages in case that’s easier for people.

What is Twitch? How do I use it?

Twitch is an online video service, similar to YouTube or Facebook. The major difference is that it is primarily designed for watching live video instead of per-recoded shows. This has made it a natural place for many improv companies. You can watch shows without an account, or you can create a free account and gain the ability to chat with other audience members, and sometimes performers in a chat area.

The Fundraiser can be found here on Twitch. Be sure to search for some of your other favorite improv shows there too.

Learn more about Twitch here.

How can people support the festival?

The biggest way you can support the festival is to donate to our fundraising campaign. Literally every dollar helps as we return our festival to an in-person event this year, and it’s especially helpful in the wake of the pandemic, which has had the effect of increasing production costs and lowering revenues for performing arts venues and events everywhere. Producing an event of this magnitude is hard, doing it in this environment is even harder.

By donating, you’ll not just be helping us to put on a top notch improv festival in September — one founded on egalitarian, mindful, performer-friendly principles — you will be helping to revitalize improv comedy in Tampa. Tampa’s Box Theater closed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, leaving Hillsborough County without a dedicated improv venue. Our festival has always been a vital part of the improv ecosystem in Tampa, now it plays an even bigger role as the only extant improv event in town. Despite the fact that we don’t live here, we love it here and have come to know and truly love the improv community in Tampa Bay, and we want to be a part of rebuilding it here.

Getting to the Point

An improv theatre is getting ready to open in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That alone is cause to celebrate. But the story here is pretty remarkable. And they could also use some help from the improv community. So check out their video and then read up on the quick interview I got to do with Jason Tomalia


Michigan has a long history of improv, but never really in Ann Arbor. Which is surprising. For non Michigan folks. Tell us a little bit about Ann Arbor and why it’s a town so in need of improv.

It did have a successful improv theater downtown for a while called Improv Inferno. I won’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs of why it closed, but I can tell you it wasn’t because they were having a hard time drawing an audience.

Ann Arbor is a university town. There is a solid music scene and the University of Michigan even has a division devoted to musical improv. We’d like to have a stage that embraces improv in all its forms. Ann Arbor is also a counter-culture hub that thrives on questioning and challenging everything. Satire is a natural fit and improv is a medium that allows for pushing boundaries with topical and relevant material.

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Jason Tomalia

That said, there is improv all around the state. How have you been connecting with the other great performers and festivals in your state?

I have been active with the improv community in Detroit and did some volunteer work with the Detroit Improv Festival the last couple of years. I have a good relationship with the folks at Go Comedy! and we are working with Gary Lehman who heads up Go U (Go Comedy’s improv training program). Gary is also a performer and director who is well connected to the Detroit improv scene.

I am taking time to get out and watch other performers and groups. We will be inviting established groups in to perform on Fridays and Saturdays, so I will be continually looking to connect with groups from all over the state and beyond.

Tori and Jason will obviously be involved. Who are the rest of your ensemble? How did you come together?

I already mentioned Gary. Mike Fedel also teaches improv in the Ann Arbor area and has a connection to the improvised music scene and he is a musician himself. Meriah Sage is a counterpart to Tori and provides depth to our Saturday Family Series goals as well as creative dramatics for kids, which is essentially a precursor to improv. She is also an outstanding director, designer, and marketing guru. All of us have ties to Eastern Michigan University.
We will be forming our cast of Pointless improvisers (you like that?) through auditions and they will be pivotal in creating our improv, sketch shows, and array of other offerings.

We truly want to embrace a spirit of cooperation so we will be reaching out to others (theaters and individuals), but I don’t want to say too much because nothing has been finalized. (I know, mystery, right?)

Tori Tomalia

Tori Tomalia

When you faced a crossroads, you decided to make the world a little better. Why improv? What has it given to you in your life? How do you hope to share that with the world?

Oh, wow. Why not improv? What hasn’t it given to my life?

Just before Tori’s diagnosis, she was making a name for herself through teaching and directing at EMU and I was getting more connected to the improv scene in Detroit. After the news, I tried to maintain a level of normalcy and continue on, but I had to draw back and process our new reality. I fully relied on skills gained through improv, i.e. accepting change as fuel and going where the scene takes you. The experience has driven home the notion that life is one big improv set with the stakes constantly being heightened. It is up to us to find a way to cope, to “yes, and” and carry on.

Improv has helped me grow and become a better person in so many ways. It has given me an ability to dig down deep, trust my instincts, and find solutions. It has provided a safe place to truly question and it forces you to empathize. Improv builds confidence and character. It has taught me how to have someone’s back and trust in others to have yours. Okay, improv mixed with Tai Chi, meditation, and theatre experience.

Life is improv and improv is life. Conversation is the most natural form of improv. We all do it, everyday. To take that and turn it into a theatrical experience is totally awesome, and super scary. I think the scary part is also a draw. Fear gets in my way all the time. It is what has held me at plateau points with my own improv. It has kept me from making bold moves. Fear has kept me on the back line. The funny thing is that I say fear has done this, but really it’s just me letting the fear have control. Improv is scary, or at least it can be. We grab a suggestion and go. Who knows where we’ll end up? A group’s chosen form hardly guarantees success and can be a hindrance. Improv has taught me to take a deep breath and jump. It will work out. We will find a way to make it work. That’s a good note for life in general. Am I babbling? I should probably shut up. Whatever. The skills I’ve learned through improv have made it easier to cope with my wife’s cancer, have made me a better dad, and have given me the ability to tackle difficult times with a sense of calmness, strength, and belief that we can make the seemingly impossible a little more doable. Improv has also instilled a strong desire to live with honesty, empathy, compassion, kindness, and love. These are the values we teach our kids. These are also values that help strengthen communities. Okay, we’ll call that good. I’ll shut up now before I write a book.

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One beautiful thing about improv is that each theatre can pursue their own passion. You’re passion about life is clear from your video. What kind of improv really motivates you? What will Pointless be sharing with the rest of the improv world?

I love long form improv. I love the story structure and the freedom to go anywhere and create anything. Don’t get me wrong, I love short form too, but long form is my true passion. I love satire, as well as social and political commentary. I want our improv to be fun and funny, who doesn’t, but I also want it to question and challenge.

OK, so craft beer. What makes yours delicious?

I brew with love. This may sound cheesy, but I approach beer like improv. Beers have styles, just like sets have forms. Think of a Harold like an IPA. Strong aroma, hoppy, and you’ll probably love it or hate it. There is little in between. Anyway, there are specific elements and points you are trying to hit with various styles of beer, but it is always the brewer that adds their own twist on the recipe. Go out and buy three or four different IPA’s, stouts, porters, lagers, or whatever and sample them along side of each other. There will be differences even within the same style. The same is true of improv forms and groups.

We will be brewing on a small system so that we can take audience suggestions and develop new recipes on a constant basis. This means that even our “go-to” beers will have some slight variation from batch to batch. I look at this as good. Grains and hops are slightly different from year to year. I say embrace it. I’m not interested in modifying ingredients to make sure that each and every time we brew the same recipe it tastes exactly the same as it did before. It will be damn close. To the point that most won’t notice the subtle differences, but the avid consumer will be able to say things like, “oh, this has more citrus notes than the last batch.” There are improv groups that I’ve seen tons of times. Their sets are always different, but almost always delicious… uh, I mean entertaining.

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Pointless can only grow. How do you want to see it blossom? What impact are you hoping to have on the community?

Initially blossoming will entail the addition of sketch comedy shows, a college team night, music-based improv, group events, and web content (shorts, web series, etc.). I also want us to get into feature length film/video projects, both improv based and fully written material.

We would love to add a larger brewing system in the future where we could brew and distribute our favorite beers. I also want to do tribute beers to all the improv greats, e.g. Viola Spolin, David Shepherd, Paul Sills, Del Close, Dudley Riggs… Honestly, we could have a tap dedicated to beers inspired by improvisers all over. Think about a beer that honors the intensity of a Mick Napier, or the fun-loving quirkiness of Jill Bernard. Oh, man, great people, great beers.

We will want our classes and workshops up and running as soon as possible (when our doors open, if not before), but that will be another offering. I’d like our school to become the premiere place in the Ann Arbor area for training in improv and writing. I’d also like to see our performers build a body of work while they are with us. I would love to see our little pocket of the country become a powerhouse in the realm of improv and new media offerings.

Our family lives in the neighborhood where we are opening our business. We have a vested interest in making this community stronger for all who live here. My goal is not to become a millionaire, if that is a side effect then cool, but my goal is to provide for my family and give back to the community in any way we can. I firmly believe that businesses have a responsibility to the communities they serve. I know that we want to have events that align with the values I mentioned earlier. I will figure out a way to give to lung cancer research. I ultimately want to find a way to create financial opportunities for improvisers. It gets hard to work for free, so I want to be forward thinking on devising ways to make sure improvisers are compensated for their time, energy, and hard work.

To wrap up, I thought about being a doctor when I was younger, but my heart wouldn’t let me get too far away from the arts. When I was a kid, I was doing an improvised one-man baseball game and shows with my cousins in my back yard for my mom and grandma. I knew this was going to be my life. I devoted my adulthood to theatre. B.A. in theatre, M.F.A in creative writing, an M.A. in theatre with an emphasis in improv, a diploma in improv/sketch writing from the Brave New Institute, and a diploma in improv from GoU. When we went through the intense pregnancy with our twins, my son’s surgery, and then my wife’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I wished I had become a doctor. Then I realized that I had chosen the profession that helps people find meaning and peace through the tough times. Comedy helps us cope with the harsh realities of life. The importance of play is highly underemphasized. I am at my best when I keep things light, funny, and don’t take myself too seriously. I want to give that back to my community and offer skills that will help people tackle issues with new eyes. We need to be willing to work together, and more importantly, play together in order to make cool things happen.

To support Pointless, you can head over to their Kickstarter for the next two weeks.


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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