Why do improv festivals?

I’ve returned from the Gainesville Improv Festival a little tired and a lot satisfied. First some diary, then some reflection:

I ended up doing two shows, one “Uncle Ukulele” and one jam. My solo performance on Thursday had some fun highlights and while I don’t believe it was the best show I’ve done, it picked up steam as it went along and the audience was with me. I was invited to play in the GIF All-Stars Armando Diaz jam on Friday night. It was a fun, low-stakes show with a diverse cast of ten from Chicago, LA, Minneapolis, and various Florida cities. The weekend was filled with familiar faces like Tom O’Donnell, Dave Hyland, and Dustin Sharpe (Mod 27), Jesse Parent and Joe Rogan (Jokyr & Jesster), Mark Bratton aka Ho’Lease and the boys from Pimprov, and plenty of new Florida faces including Skyler, Jeff of ArACka, and Brian Jaeger and James Gallen (Taser-Friendly). The parties? Thursday, too loud. Friday, just right.

On Saturday, the fiancĂ©e and I headed down to Orlando to catch a show at SAK Comedy Lab, featuring her uncle and SAK artistic director, Dave Russell. The most-unexpected moment (and thus, a definite highlight) of the entire weekend was walking into SAK and seeing Jim Doyle’s headshot on the “Who’s Performing” wall. Jim and I met on YESand.com a few years ago and then in-person during the 2006 Miami Improv Festival. It was fun to see Jim and Dave (plus the rest of the talented cast) play to a crowd who ate it up. Finally, we saw some old friends from my high school days and had a terrible waitress (a requirement of any vacation).

GIF marked my fifth improv festival invitation and the seventh festival I’ve attended, overall. But I’ve never made a dime on them. In fact, I’m plunked down several thousand dollars in airfare, hotel, car rentals, submission fees, and parties over the years on festivals alone. It begs the question, why go to festivals at all? It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, and it doesn’t put more butts in the seats at your local theater. So why go through the trouble of taping a show, creating a submission tape, writing a bio, printing photos, spending a few bucks on an application fee, and then essentially “pay-to-play”?

Improv festivals typically have an education component worth your time.

There reaches a point for many improvisors when classes don’t necessarily entice, but for many beginners looking to sharpen skills or veterans looking to learn from the best, classes are the way to go. You don’t live in a city with a big improv scene? Go to a festival in one of those cities and learn from their top instructors. On top of that, many festivals bring in instructors from across the nation for their locals (and visitors) to learn from. It’s an opportunity more young improvisors could and should take advantage of on a regular basis.

Where better to learn what the nation is doing in improv than at an improv festival?

Online communication, articles, books and so on are great ways to learn how other people are treating the art form, but there’s something to be said about experiencing it, first-hand. Improv festivals pull in performers and students from all over the world. Thanks to festivals, I’ve met performers from Japan, Norway, England, NYC, LA, Denver, Toronto, Florida, Chicago, San Francisco, Phoenix, Boston, Salt Lake City, Chapel Hill, Honolulu, and so on. What am I supposed to do, travel to all of those places, individually?

Improv festivals can help you gain exposure.

Make no mistake, many people are trying to get their name out there, and an improv festival can help you do that. I don’t see this as a bad or self-indulgent thing. Getting out there and getting known, even in something as tiny as the improvosphere, can be a step in the right direction, especially in the realm of networking. As for folks who say going to festivals only to become famous, I liken these people to the haters who complain when their favorite “local” band makes it “big,” crying out how the artist “sold out.” Dude, what did you want, for the band you love to stay your tiny little secret and be miserable not trying to move on to something bigger and better than the every-third-Thursday open jam night at Bar McGrew? Grow up.

Improv festivals play a key role in networking.

I had my time and energies spent in the above three categories, but I now mostly enjoy festivals for the networking. Improv festivals are like family reunions – old friends are happy to see each other and the new folk get welcomed into the fold. It’s fun to know I have connections around the nation with a shared love of this little art form. For me, it has translated into couches to crash on (which I’ve done, from San Francisco to Chicago to Denver to Orlando and so on), to phone calls / blogs / message boards for discussion (YESand, CIN), to unique performance opportunities (the jam session I put together with Tom of Mod 27 and Jokey & Jesster at MIF 2006 immediately springs to mind), and publishing opportunities (how many times can I type YESand.com in this post?). All of those things happened because people got to know me and trust me at improv festivals.

That’s why I’ll keep applying to festivals, that’s why I’ll keep going to festivals, and that’s why I’ll keep recommending festivals to improvisors of any experience level.


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