Spotlight on Grand Rapids

A few years back, Big Little Comedy hosted an event in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That was the first chance a lot of improvisors got to experience improv in that city. Now Grand Rapids is hosting it’s own festival. I know from experience that Grand Rapids is a great place to visit, so I’m terribly excited about an improv festival and scene happening there. I got a chance to talk online with the festival’s producer Katie Fahey about the festival and what she hopes it will become.

Most people outside of the area don’t realize how big of a city Grand Rapids is? What’s the improv scene like out there. What gives it a unique voice?

One thing I love about GR’s improv scene is that it isn’t afraid to be experimental. There is a weekly event called Comedy Outlet Monday’s. It’s basically a big comedy experiment lab where people come to try out new ideas in front of an audience, and it has lead to some fantastic comedy! Everything from lights-off improv, comedic juggling, and nerdy ‘ted talks’ – there is so much talent, all ready to jump in and collaborate all of the time. We’ve got a really supportive improv community,ready to ‘yes and’ the heck out of anything you give them.

GR also has a lot of cool troupes that give back, and work towards bettering the community, we have an event planned that we’re very excited about called ‘Comedy- Beyond the Laughter’. It’s a panel highlighting 3 different groups in the community that use improv for healing, raising awareness, and giving back to the community.

Along the same lines, your audiences are going to be exposed to new things at the festival. What kinds of shows are you hoping to attract to showcase new kinds of improv to your audiences?

The Grand Rapids Improv Scene is rapidly developing, but it’s still finding its footing with all of the great things happening in Grand Rapids. The festival committee is hoping to attract some experienced long-form troupes, niche troupes, and really troupes from outside of GR to show our audiences what else, and other varieties of comedy are out there.

Why start a festival now? How do you think it will shape the future of Grand Rapids, both for performers and audiences?

Last year was our inaugural year, and it was a catalyst for the local improv scene, so many wonderful things and collaborations have formed in just a year since and we hope the festival keeps collaborations strong and the community working together.

We hope to expose our audiences to the many variations of improv, and hope they leave with a greater appreciation for the art of improvisation!

Michigan has a great history of improv; Detroit, Ferndale, Novi, Ann Arbor, Hamtramck, even Houghton. And of course, you’re not too far from great improv in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois (except for that pesky lake between you all). What are some of the things you admire from other festivals and shows that you hope to bring to Grand Rapids. And what are some of the things you feel are missing that you hope to bring to the scene?

Grand Rapids is a great place for improv. Our audiences have come to love and expect great things from all the acts in this area. But they may not yet be aware just how much variety there really is out there, and just how vast the scope of what “improv” really encompasses. We’re excited to bring the excitement and community love of improv to Grand Rapids that other festivals bring. We’re really focused on helping improvisors connect with other troupes, and work with new people while they’re here! We have several events that focus on this, especially our ‘Improv Chaos’ event, it’s a fantastic night of strangers becoming troupe members.

We’re also very lucky to have a Commedia de’ll Arte (one of or the oldest form of sketch improv, involves masks, many theatrical elements, and is just a super unique interesting art form) presence in GR, which we’re proud to highlight as part of the festival.

For performers visiting for the first time, what kinds of things are there to do around town when they’re not performing? Where are the best places to visit and eat?

Our performance venue is within walking distance of a thriving downtown, full of great art venues, theaters, ballet, museums, markets, restaurants, a zoo, and of course BEER! Grand Rapids is Beer City USA, after all, and you can’t leave here without sampling some of the finest suds our town has to offer!

Downtown, Eastown, Gaslight Village, and the Center of the Universe are all absolutely fabulous and unique neighborhoods to eat at in Grand Rapids.

We highly recomend:
to find exactly what you’re looking for.

What’s the venue like?

The Dog Story Theater, in downtown Grand Rapids, is a thrust stage with great sightlines and an intimate feel that allows for easy audience interaction. It has become an improv hub in Grand Rapids, and has some of the most welcoming staff/volunteers in town, perfect for improv!

Are there going to be activities outside of the shows for imporvisors to do? Workshops? Panels? Parties?

Yes all of the above!

Jams and Parties on the bookends of the festival 10/12 & 10/19 – along with some in-between that those accepted into the festival will know about!

Thursday is our night on the town-think Improv Bar Crawl, where you get entertainment at every bar

We’re having our awesome “Comedy- Beyond the laughter” panel on Saturday 10/17 at 4:00 pm highlighting how you can use Improv for healing, raising awareness, and creating community.

Workshops! Will be throughout the festival, but pretty heavy during the day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the festival.

A festival can have a huge impact on the relationship between theatres in town and between performers and audiences. What would you like to see happen between this year’s festival and a year from now?

We’re hoping that the festival planning committee, can become a permanent entity going into next year. No Outlet Improv Troupe financially backed the last, and this years festival, but they’re planning on donating revenue raised this year to a festival committee that can make the festival self-sustaining into the future. Our ultimate goal is to be able to pay every troupe that performs!

One of the biggest draws for submissions for festivals is word of mouth. Of course, in your first year, there won’t be any past performers to spread the good word of your festival. People don’t know you yet. But if the festival goes as planned. What do you hope visitors will say about your festival?

We do have a certain amount of word of mouth from our small but successful first outing last year. The success of that has certainly led to many more local improvisers submitting and getting involved this year. Our hope for next year is that this year’s visiting troupes from Ferndale and Chicago and St Louis and all over, will return home and tell their communities about how great it is in our little corner of the globe, how supportive our community is, and how excited our audiences are to see everything they have to offer!

Submissions are only open until Midnight tonight (Eastern). 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.

Spotlight on Detroit

thumbnail_1389710217-300x300[1]Disclaimer: My heart belongs to two cities: Phoenix and Detroit. The Detroit Improv scene quieted down about ten years ago, but it’s back in full force and their festival is quickly becoming a “must go to” event. If you haven’t been up to DIF, I strongly recommend it. And personal guarantee, if you visit Detroit for their festival this year and have never had a coney, I will buy you one with a Vernors’.

There have been some changes to the festival since last year and I got a chance to talk to Jessie Kunnath about the festival this year.

Last year was a big growth year for The Detroit Festival, and also a year of a lot of change. What does that mean going into the 2015 festival?

Last year we really stretched the seams on our festival, extending the activities from a 4 day festival to a 7 day festival. Moving into 2015’s festival we have evaluated what worked and what didn’t and made adjustments. We decided as a board that a 4 day festival is the right length for our community and we’re working on making it as organized as possible.

We’re keeping some of our most popular events such as the Saturday afternoon BBQ and family friendly show. One of the things we are modifying for this year is that we are keeping all the festivities within the downtown Ferndale area, easy for walking and parking.

Outside of the festival, the Detroit scene has seen a lot of growth. What kind of improv are audiences used to seeing in town now?

Within the last couple of years, the improv community has really begun to grow. Not only are classes filling up at all of our local improv theaters (Go! Comedy, ComedySportz Detroit, Michigan Actors Studio, Planet Ant), but other notable groups such as The Detroit Alternative Comedy Collective (DACC) has formed and brings indie troupes into local restaurant/bar/brewing establishments for improv nights.

Improv audiences in Detroit are great! Due to the talent of our local improvisers they have been exposed to everything for fast-paced short-form to monoscenes and Harolds.

Along the same lines, what kinds of shows are you hoping to bring into town to expose audiences too?

One of the most amazing things about DIF is somehow we’ve been fortunate enough to bring in premier, veteran improvisers and this year is no exception. We’ll be releasing the full list of acts in early June.


Photo by Heather Sejnowski

One great thing about the festival is the proximity of the venues to each other. Where will performers be playing this year?

Performers and audiences can except all activities and shows to be within walking distance of downtown Ferndale. We’ll be utilizing Go Comedy and The Ringwald theaters and also adding in a new partner Local Kitchen & Bar.

The festival is right near the border of Detroit and Ferndale, which means really interesting things in both directions. What are some things visitors should check out near the festival?

Detroit is a revitalized city. Sure there’s still some bad streets but there is so much new life. If you are a foodie, a craft brew lover, a historian, a music lover or a sports enthusiast we have things for you in the Detroit-Ferndale area. If this is your first trip to the city, be sure to drink a Vernors’ ginger ale or Faygo red pop and get yourself to a coney island pronto. We have a bunch of craft breweries popping up all over too. If you have some extra time during the week, be sure to check out a Detroit Tigers baseball game at Comerica.

Detroit doesn’t have a reputation for food, but there’s a lot of fantastic food that just can’t be found outside of Michigan. What are some things or places people should check out to eat?

I don’t know why Detroit doesn’t have a food reputation – let’s change that one meal at a time, shall we? This year we are fortunate enough to partner with Local Kitchen & Bar that has nice higher-end pub/bistro feel to it. Their menu changes seasonally and they have many vegetarian-friendly meals. Try their brunch!

There are also amazing restaurants within walking distance of the DIF venues: Anita’s Kitchen (Middle Eastern), Como’s (Italian), The Fly Trap (cozy diner featured on Diners, Drive-in & Dives), Imperial Bar (gourmet tacos) and M-Brew (all Michigan-products – great burgers). But if you are in the must-eat-in-Detroit mode, there’s the iconic American vs. Lafayette coney island rivalry for the best coney dog (a hot dog in a steamed bun covered in meat sauce chili topped with diced onions and mustard).

Outside of shows, what other activities will be happening for performers this year? Classes? Parties?

Along with our premier shows, we be offering premier workshops taught by those headliners. We’re still confirming the who, what and when but rest assured this year will have an amazing selection to pick from.

Each night of the festival, DIF will be hosting a festival-sponsored afterparty as well. The location will change from night to night, but it’s a great chance for the performers to mingle amongst other performers and volunteers. In the past, our after parties have had karaoke, made-to-order drinks and a live DJ. Do NOT miss.

What are your great hopes for the festival this year?

I’ve been with the Detroit Improv Festival since the beginning, serving as a volunteer, then a director and board member. My greatest hope for this festival is that we can live up to everyone’s expectation because this festival really is top-notch. I want to be able to show that DIF is dedicated to their mission statement of advancing the art of improvisational comedy in metro Detroit. I’d like to show all the attendees (including those laypeople) that Detroit is a blurb on the map that has a vibrant and strong community, mixed with that mid-west niceness.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.