Not one week after Folk Fest, a new set of performers descends on Juneau to celebrate their art with a state festival.
But unlike the 39th Annual Alaska Folk Festival, this festival is brand-spanking new. And you won’t see its festival-goers carrying around instrument cases or lugging big bass fiddles. These performers travel light. Extremely light. They’re improvisational comedians — from across the Lower 48, Anchorage and Juneau — here for the first-ever Alaska State Improv Festival (aka, AS IF!), April 18-20 at McPhetres Hall.
For three days, McPhetres becomes ground zero for improvisational comedy, or “improv,” as it’s more commonly known, a form of unscripted theater created by performers on the spur of the moment, often using prompts drawn from the audience.
“While you may not be familiar with improv, you probably are familiar with what’s come from improv,” said AS IF! producer Eric Caldwell.
Of course, he was alluding to all the notable comedians, writers and directors who got their start in improv, including (among many others) John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Improv theaters like Second City in Chicago — represented at AS IF! by festival headliner Andy Eninger —and more recently Upright Citizens Brigade in New York have become a farm-system for “Saturday Night Live” and other TV shows.
So what is improv, then? While the word, itself, conjures images of acid-wash jeans, pastel T-shirts and Howie Mandel while he still had hair, improv bears little resemblance to the type of comedy you’d see on “Evening at the Improv.”
“Improv encompasses anything that’s theatrical and unscripted,” said Caldwell, who also performs at AS IF! with both Morally Improverished and Rorschach Pattern 9. “Traditionally, you can break improv down into short-form, long-form and improvised plays. Although not everyone follows tradition.”
Short-form, exemplified by the British and American TV series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, generally consists of short scenes or “games.” In long-form, performers create full-length pieces from interrelated scenes. The most well-known long-form structure is called the Harold, developed by the legendary Del Close, who personally taught all the comedians listed above (again, among many others). Improvised plays are, well, improvised plays: whole stories without prior scripts.
In many ways, improv is the comedy equivalent of jazz. For one, it’s a more experimental form than standup or sketch, and as such, more esoteric. Improv not only depends on the individual performers, but also how those performers gel with each other and the audience. In this way, good improv can be transcendent; bad improv can be brutal.
“You plow through those times, when it’s a slog at every step, to get to those addictive moments of effortless glee,” is how Andy Eninger put it, and he should know. He’s taught sketch and improv classes at Second City since 2001 and now heads its writing program. Eninger will be performing twice at AS IF!: “Sybil,” a one-man improvisational show, and “Pinque Pony,” a two-man show pairing him with his real-life partner, John Loos.
“Some of the best comedy develops on the fringes, and Juneau is certainly on the geographical fringe,” he added. “I’m hoping for fantastic comedy ideas. That I can steal.”
Sub-headlining AS IF!: Ranger Danger and the Danger Ranger, a duo of Drew Coolidge and Luis Cortes from Improv Olympic in Los Angeles.
“The biggest thing for us is that we get to visit Alaska,” said Cortes. “Seeing the festival from its inception should be a fun experience, too, not just for us, but for everyone involved — performers and audience.”
Other companies performing at AS IF include Call of the Wild from ImprovBoston; Squirrel Buddies from the Hideout Theater in Austin, Texas; Mike Brown’s Solo Improv Extravaganza from New York; Cat Pack, an improvised musical variety show from Seattle’s Unexpected Productions and Little Man, a two-woman duo from Chicago.
John Serpico, from Call of the Wild, said he expects the Alaska State Improv Festival to feature “plenty of rain, plenty of bears and plenty of excellent local beer,” while Roy Janik of Squirrel Buddies looked forward to “the geeking out about improv that happens after the shows. It’s such a small world and it’s cool to compare notes.”
“I’d be doing improv anyway, so I may as well do it in places I’ve always dreamed about visiting,” said Mike Brown, who’s taken his Solo Improv Extravaganza to such far-flung locales as Hawaii, London and Budapest. “Of course, my day job is as a flight attendant. Free airfare helps.”
Jay Hitt of Cat Pack remained cautiously optimistic about connecting with Juneau audiences.
“Our show is very interactive and easily adaptable. Improv is all about having a good time with the audience, even though I’m getting old now, so aching knees has also become part of it.”
Charlesy Miller and Liz Siedt of Little Man have taken to visiting the frozen foods section of their grocery store to prepare for AS IF! They also wanted to remind Juneauns that “it doesn’t take any special knowledge to enjoy watching other people shamelessly make fools of themselves. As long as you know you’re there to see improv. If you’re expecting to see a magic show or something… we’ll do that, too!”
Four Alaskan ensembles are also performing at the festival, beginning with Juneau’s own Morally Improverished, which kicks off AS IF! on Thursday night. Scared Scriptless from Anchorage, Alaska’s longest-running improv group, opens the 9 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday night, with short-form.
“As one of the few comedy groups in Alaska, we’re looking forward to representing the state,” one member of Scared Scriptless said on a conference call during a rehearsal break.
“Improv is like playtime,” said another. “It’s a way to interact with your audience in a way you can’t with standup or other forms.”
“It’s very intimate,” said another.
“We better try not to get herpes!” said yet another [laughter].
Also representing Juneau is Not Safe for Improv from the UAS Improv Club, who offered advice for out-of-towners.
“Juneau audiences are very appreciative, but very polite. This can be both wonderful and intimidating —‘polite’ isn’t a term normally associated with comedy,” said Not Safe for Improv’s Heather LaVerne.
“But it’s cozy, here, too,” added Kaycie Thompson. “More than one venue we’ve performed in has couches.”
MD Christenson, like Caldwell both in Morally Improverished and Rorschach Pattern 9, puts it like this: “Juneau audiences are smart and open to creativity. We’re more sophisticated, educated and on-the-ball than you’d think — and sexy!”
AS IF!: Alaska State Improv Festival, Apr. 18, 19 and 20 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at McPhetres Hall. Single tickets $15; festival passes $50, available from Hearthside Books, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, and the festival website (which also includes complete schedule and more details about the ensembles) available online at www.asifest.com.