Without a net: Festival showcases the fearless art of improv

I’m terrified of improvisation. How can you get up on a stage and wing it? How can you get up there and trust that what bubbles forth from the recesses of your brain will be meaningful and entertaining to those watching? Hell, I couldn’t ask a girl on a date in high school without writing a script! How can you invite an audience into your warped world without some sort of transcribed guidance? (Those who knew me in high school will read this and ask, “What dates?” To which I say, “Exactly.”)


So to me, improv occupies a special place in the performing arts. Watching improv has a gut-churning equivalence to watching a high-wire act at the Grand Canyon, or watching people jumping off cliffs in neon webbed mylar suits like psychedelic (and psychotic) flying squirrels. Improv is amazing.

“Terrified is an interesting word,” says Eric Caldwell when I tell him my thoughts on improv. No doubt Caldwell has an interest in people’s impression of improv. He’s been director and producer of Juneau’s improv troupe, Morally Improverished, since its inception in 2004.

And this weekend, Caldwell and his partner M.D. Christenson, are putting on an entire festival of jaw-dropping improv. The 2014 Alaska State Improv Festival will showcase — in Little Ol’ Juneau — some of the nation’s best improv performers. Performers will be coming from Austin, Atlanta, New York, Chicago and more. This is also the second year of the festival, officially making it “annual.”

From tonight through Sunday night, at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., at McPhetres Hall, the festival will showcase a series of improv “performance sets.” Three improv groups perform in each set. Variety is prioritized. Caldwell suggests that if someone goes to any two sets, they’ll see at least five completely different acts. Adding to the variety is Sunday’s set at 8:30 p.m. The set begins with an Austin-based group called Indigo Shift. They specialize in improvised dystopian cabaret; something about the apocalypse, singing, and fishnet stockings. That is followed by “The Mash Up;” a mix and match of different performers from different attending groups performing together for the first time.

There are also a series of workshops taught by master artists. They will occur at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. One artist is Susan Messing, the 2010 Chicago Improv Festival’s “Improviser of the Year.” She will teach about “specificity;” helping improvisers get to the heart of their scene. She is also doing a class on joy; allowing actors and improvisers to re-discover the love of their craft.

Also teaching is an Atlanta-based improviser Amber Nash. Nash will teach a class on creating genres appropriate to your community. For example, Nash and her partner create a format called “Big Ol’ Show” which is a send-up of the antebellum South like “Gone with the Wind.” You can’t get much more “Atlanta” than that!

There will also be classes on improvised puppetry, playing with genres and connecting with your scene partners.

None of this, though, answers the question, “what is improv?” Caldwell is a good guide for this question, having been active in the form for more than 20 years.

First, there is short-form improv. This is primarily a comedic form — a form most people are familiar with. The show “Whose Line is it Anyway” is an example.

Then, there is long-form improv which is more a series of scenes that may or may not be connected. The long-form tends to be more theatrical and also tends to focus on comedy.

The third form is more of an emerging school of improv focusing on improvised plays. Many of the festival’s trainings, such as narrative and genre-based improv, focus on this form. The goal of an improvised play is to produce one complete story that adheres to theatrical convention. It is here where an audience might see more dramatic work. (When I asked Caldwell for improv experiences that have floored him over the years as an audience member and performer, both of his examples were of dramatic improv.)

The Alaska State Improv Festival will have examples of all three forms.

Fascinated by this idea of performing without the safety net of a script, I ask Caldwell if anybody can do improv. He thought about this one. “Yes,” he slowly said. Anybody can train to do improv to a certain level. He goes on to clarify though that the people most successful at improv work well with others, listen, respond, and create an honest space.

Even though there is no script, there’s still a story. Caldwell mentioned Mudrooms (Juneau’s storytelling event); you don’t get up on stage without knowing your story. The same is true for improv. You know your story, it just hasn’t come out yet. Actors have to break through the thought of “where’s my script.”

Once they get beyond the need for a script, they can be in the moment. The experience can even become very comfortable, though nerves are common. Caldwell considers improv artists a little like hockey goalies. Many have little quirky rituals they perform before a show to move beyond the nervousness.

To be good on stage requires the performer to unblock their mind; to have no filters. (The very thing in real life that can get you in trouble.) This is necessary so that whatever is created in the scene flows. Where ever story flows, performers must stay true to the story because, for that performance and in that moment, the story is reality.

It has taken Caldwell 10 years to get to this point of hosting a festival of nationally recognized improv performers. On a personal level to Caldwell, creating something in Juneau worthy of the national improv community was important. For example, in the past few years, Caldwell and Christenson have had two different shows accepted to outside festivals. One was the Hawaii Festival of Improv and one was the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater. People have noticed.

The response Caldwell has received to the Alaska festival has been so positive it’s clear people clearly believe Alaska has something to contribute. As Caldwell says, “At this point I feel like I can say, ‘we belong.’”

Eventually, Caldwell hopes to offer an “Introduction to Improv” course through the community schools. For now, locals can go to the Alaska State Improv Festival website at http://www.asifest.com/. There are performer pages for every single ensemble with links to the performances that got them accepted to the festival. Also available are the schedules for all the performances and workshops.

Perhaps we should take an improv class this weekend. I imagine most of us could probably stand to go through life a little less scripted.


• Clint J. Farr can be reached at cjfarr@hotmail.com.


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