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Improv Festival Shows Spontaneity in Its Many Forms

by Jean Schiffman

Improv Festival Shows Spontaneity in Its Many Forms

Improvisation as a performing art is infinitely variable; its permutations include long form, short form, sporting-style competition, assorted games and more. Spontaneous, and, at its heart, comedic, it can also be poignant, even heart-breaking. In fact, declares Bay Area-based improv actor and teacher Rachel Hamilton, who is among the 34 acts to appear at this year’s 11th annual San Francisco Improv Festival, to say “I do improv” is just as general as saying “I dance”: Do you waltz on the international ballroom circuit, break dance on a city street corner or perform ballet on a stage?

The festival, a week-long extravaganza of performances, workshops and comedy jams, showcases just about every conceivable approach to improvisation, a theatrical genre that emerged from Chicago in the mid-20th century.

“What I love about this festival,” says Hamilton, “is you can see improv in so many formats. … You can see maybe a sci-fi radio play, or four women who get a suggestion from the audience, like ‘senior prom’ … You could see a five-act Shakespearean play, or Tennessee Williams characters…”

The groups participating in the festival were chosen from among over 80 video applications (plus a few invited guests), and rated for such qualities as storytelling, character work, ensemble playing and professionalism. Most participants are Bay Area based, but a few are from elsewhere—Damaged Goods, for example, comes from Louisville, Kentucky. Although the range of formats is broad—the festival selects especially for that diversity—all adhere to the basic tenet of improvisation: scenework that emerges spontaneously from mutual trust; from listening and behaving entirely in the moment; from giving and taking; from following the all-important “yes, and” commandment (accept everything your partner offers and add to it) that perhaps above all else distinguishes improv from sketch comedy and other scripted theatrical genres.

This year’s lineup, says Jamie Wright, who
has been festival executive director since 2009, runs the gamut of styles and includes larger troupes like Reno, Nevada’s Utility Players and San Francisco’s Chicken Scratch Improv. It encompasses what he calls “slow-burn (or not) comedy” from the Los Angeles duo WeirDass and “audience-immersive multimedia shows” like My Cousin’s Wedding from L.A. Some sketch comedy (as in the local group Chardonnay) will also take the stage. Wright points out that even within long form (an improvised play) different types exist, notably the “Harold,” a structure, with specific components, invented here by late improv guru Del Close and The Committee.

Among the headliners this year is writer/performer Matt Besser’s improv4humans, a Los Angeles-based show that Besser normally records in a studio for podcast with three guest performers; it's inspired by improv suggestions via Twitter. For the live festival, Besser’s guests are the duo WeirDass and much-admired improviser’s improviser Susan Messing (who also appears as Messing With a Friend); suggestions will come initially from the audience. Besser was a founding member of the sketch comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB, which appeared on Comedy Central for three seasons); he was directed by Del Close himself in the Chicago company The Family and has worked extensively on TV.

For his colleagues, the married couple Stephnie Weir and Bob Dassie, who comprise WeirDass, performing live improv is one among many ongoing TV, film and stage projects. Weir was a writer and actor on “Madtv” (2000-2006)—her incarnation of trainwreck Anna Nicole Smith is unforgettable—and, more recently, she shone on the TV sitcom “The Comedians” with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. Weir and Dassie have performed not only with UCB but also with Second City in Chicago and elsewhere.

Despite having such long-running TV characters in her toolkit, Weir says she never walks into an improv show trying to play a recurring character—that of course would be antithetical to the improv ethos—but suspects that some of the same physical gestures or qualities may occasionally surface. “The best is discovering something completely new that surprises you,” she says. “I’ve had maybe a dozen shows where I was so plugged in that it feels almost magical, like riding a wave; [there‘s] something random about it that you can’t control.” Adds Dassie, “When you’re so in the moment that you’re not conscious of the stage or the audience, you’re just connected to your partner—that’s the challenge and the goal.” The two have been performing together for about 15 years and know what lines not to cross in performance. “We’re respectful of each other,” says Weir. Adds Dassie, “We don’t use improv as therapy.”

It’s a truism that the improv community, just like the standup community, skews toward the male, 60 to 40 percent male to female, guesses Wright, who aims for as much diversity as possible when programming, in terms of gender, ethnicity and age.

Bucking the status quo is the San Francisco long form group Vagina Jones (VJ); the name, explains cofounder Kaeli Quick, was chosen to counter the mostly male-dominated teams. “We thought it sounded like a badass name,” she says. The group came together through Endgames, a local improv training and producing center. Quick, comedic writer Chelsea Larsson, who joined the group a year ago, and the other three members have backgrounds in Second City, UCB and more. “What’s great about improv,” exults Quick, “is you get to cast yourself, as Amy Poehler says in her book ‘Yes, Please.’ There should be unlimited spots in improv for us and we should be making our own opportunities.” (VJ hosts a “Lady Jam” monthly in which anyone can get stage time if they identify as female.)

Quick describes VJ’s style as aggressive and fast-paced, starting off with a “living room” (a setup in which audience lobs suggestions to the actors), which leads to a few personal anecdotes—“very organic”—from which details and sometimes premises evolve. “We all love singing, so sometimes we end with an improvised song and dance routine,” she adds. “In improv,” muses Larsson, “you walk out and look in your partner’s eyes and have no idea what’s going to happen.” Yet Quick calls the process “safe”: “We’re taught to treat our teammates as poets and artists and geniuses. There’s nothing you can do or say that’s going to be wrong. You can let down your defenses. The improv stage is different from the [real] world in that way.” Adds Larsson, “When the whole team can be vulnerable, beautiful things can be created.”

“I think the best improvisers are the ones who can relax and be present in the moment, not rush it or force it or pre-load it,” theorizes Hamilton, who has been working in the form almost 30 years in New York, Chicago, L.A. and now the Bay Area. “When I go onstage with a partner, we say, non-verbally, Will you go out and be surprised with me? The courage comes from taking away what feels safe—templates, things that worked in the past, which is a cheap safety.” She relishes suddenly finding herself inhabiting, say, a scullery maid in a medieval castle, or a right-wing gun toter. Recently she found herself portraying an anti-Semite (she’s Jewish). For the festival, she and a yet-to-be-chosen partner will create what she says is akin to a series of short plays—“certainly funny, but by virtue of truth and specificity, not by virtue of trying to be funny. Very acting based, committing to the truth of the circumstances.” As Wright says, “Even when performers aren’t making jokes, they’re saying what’s true in a way that’s uniquely their own. It’s hilarious and joyful, an experience you can’t have
any other way.”

Sept. 10-19

San Francisco Improv Festival

Eureka Theatre

215 Jackson St., San Francisco

sfimprovfestival.com