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Attending the 15th Annual Seattle Festival of Improv Theater

Posted by on March 3, 2017

A lot has changed for me in the roughly five months since I flew to my first out-of-state improv festival (in Honolulu, Hawaii). For me, though I’d been invited to perform in a group I was put into with other improvisers I didn’t know, attending that festival was primarily about reconnecting with old friends, and making new ones. In the months that have passed since then, I’ve performed in 5 shows at 3 festivals (Hollywood, SF Sketchfest, and Antelope Valley) with my Leela improv ensemble YUM!, and was also invited to be a producer for San Francisco’s Femprovisor Fest, an improv festival celebrating the diverse female talent across the US.

With Oil in the Alley

With Oil in the Alley
Photo by Eric Caldwell

So when I flew to Seattle over the Presidents’ Day long weekend last month, even though my reasons for going were largely the same as travelling to Honolulu (reconnecting with the same old friends, and making new ones), there was a sense that things were a little different this time. Namely, having the responsibility of looking at things from a festival producer’s perspective. I’d arrived on the second day of the festival, and met up with Eric Caldwell, who I’d met in Honolulu and who produces the Alaska State Improv Festival, which sadly falls on the same weekend as Femprovisor Fest (otherwise I’d be looking to travel to his festival, too, because he’s such a great guy). He provided me with the hospitality I’d felt in Honolulu by introducing me to several improvisers, namely from Seattle, but also Chicago. It felt different being introduced to some people as one of the Femprovisor Fest producers, but somehow more comfortable to be introduced as a friend and fan of Oil in the Alley/someone who shot music videos for them (see Rule the World (Skulls & Dragons) shot in Nov 2010, and He Makes You Laugh, shot in Feb 2012). See, Oil in the Alley were performing at the festival; only their second set of shows outside of Hawaii, and one of the biggest reasons I chose to go (the other being to see two of them also as part of the cast of Screwbuki).

I remember when I posted my blog about the festival in Hawaii, Eric commented on the fact I’d mentioned how much I appreciated being introduced to people, because of how difficult it is for me to talk to people otherwise. That’s one of the reasons I so appreciate that he often did that for me in Seattle. It makes a huge difference, because there are a lot of people I may not have spoken to otherwise, like some of the festival producers. I think the only festival person I talked to without a formal introduction was Brandon Jepson, because he hosted the Dust Up on the final night, and I had friends encourage me to sign up and play in that. I was fortunate that he remembered me emailing him a month earlier asking if I might be allowed to do that, though!

Stylized, my Dust Up group, featuring improvisers from Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco me), Chicago, Hawaii, and Mumbai Photo by Alissa Joy Lee

Stylized, my Dust Up group, featuring improvisers from Philadelphia (Kristen Shier), Seattle (Brandon Jepson), San Francisco (me), Chicago (Joe Bill), Honolulu (Matthew Toyama), and Mumbai (Naveen Kaushik)
Photo by Alissa Joy Lee

Performing in the Dust Up with Joe Bill Photo by Todd Gardiner

With Joe Bill in the Dust Up
Photo by Todd Gardiner

I had vaguely known what to expect from the Dust Up beforehand, due to Hawaii’s mash up festival show being inspired by it, and having participated in that last year. The reason I’d emailed beforehand is because I didn’t know the Seattle improvisers, and I didn’t know if it was only going to be open to festival performers. Brandon’s email had told me that spots would first go to festival performers, but I’d be able to play if there was room for me. So after Eric Caldwell and Matthew Toyama (one of the Screwbuki performers) asked if I was going to sign up, and encouraged me to at least ask, I went to the stage and talked to Brandon, mentioning that I hadn’t been a performer but would like to participate. He said of course, because I’d been around the festival so much (and I had; I’d been to all the shows, workshops, and after parties I could fit in, with no time for sightseeing), and then remembered the email I’d sent. It was a lovely introduction, and I think paved the way for good conversation later that night. Plus I ended up performing in the same group as him, and other talented people, including one of the people who’d encouraged me to sign up.

This blog post seems to be getting out of chronological order, but that’s okay. I have a scattered mind sometimes; this can be like a highlights reel.

Manacle

Manacle

Choosing which shows to see each night was difficult. My friend R Kevin (of Oil in the Alley & Screwbuki) had highly recommended I see Bassprov, which is the duo Joe Bill was performing in (I took one of Joe’s workshops, and performed with him in the Dust Up), but Bassprov was performing at the same time as Oil in the Alley both nights. I checked the line ups of both shows, both nights, and ended up sticking with the Oil in the Alley shows because on the Friday night I wanted to see Manacle, due to taking their workshop called “Up Close & Personal” (I’m always looking to discover new ways to explore intimacy in improv) and their style sounding most similar to the work I do with YUM!. On the other hand, I also wanted to see Yichao’s solo show Pint of Life on the Saturday, because I’d met Yichao and was Facebook friends with him, but hadn’t actually seen him perform before.

Manacle’s workshop was similar to Kaci Beeler’s workshop I took in Hawaii last year, touching on some of the same topics, though the exercises were different. Aden and Eric Nepom are also very lovely and sweet people. One of the interesting things to be noted in the workshop was seeing how much more intimate whispering in someone’s ear feels compared to giving someone a hug. This was one of the exercises I did in Kaci’s workshop, too, but I don’t think I’d acknowledged it to the same extent, then. It just goes to show that you can still learn something from doing an activity you’ve done before.

Oil in the Alley

Oil in the Alley

Sticking with both Screwbuki shows on both nights was also difficult, because I also wanted to see the improvised Bollywood musical show from Mumbai, but at least I got to meet some of their cast. A couple of them were also in Oil in the Alley’s “Improvising Songs in Concert” workshop on the Saturday. I have very little interest in performing musical improv, but having been a fan of Oil in the Alley’s for close to seven years now (it’s kind of crazy to think it’s been that long), and knowing so much about them, I just wanted to absorb as much as I could from their knowledge. I actually learned a lot in their workshop, and despite the fact I don’t think I could perform musical improv myself, I felt like I came away with the ability to improvise lyrics to any random song if I practice long enough, now I know their techniques. Also, as scary as it was for me to sing in front of other people like that, I was at least at an advantage, because they taught us what to do using a tune I’m so familiar with because it’s the same one they used for Stuck in Traffic (What if I Die Here?), which I’ve watched probably far too many times after filming and editing it, and posting it to YouTube. Also, when we separated into duos to improvise our own songs, I got to partner up with one of the improvisers I’d seen perform in Something Wicked on the Thursday night, so that was cool. He was a great partner to work with.

Oil in the Alley in the fog

Oil in the Alley in the fog

I feel like I’ve said this before, but perhaps not on my blog. One of the things I enjoy so much about Oil in the Alley is the way they invite their audience to be part of the show, so they can seamlessly use invisible improv. They treat their audience as if they’re their biggest fans, and it’s hard not to get caught up in that. Not only that, is that they respect and appreciate their fans. As Sean has now declared that I’m their #1 fan for forever, I feel incredibly chuffed, and eternally grateful that instead of scaring them off with my occasional obsessive bouts with their show because I’m such a big fangirl when I get to see them, they actually genuinely love having me around, and are grateful for the effort I’ve put in to help promote them, through the photos and videos I’ve done. Getting to see them is like a reunion of that. On top of all that history, though, Seattle was actually the first time I’ve seen a full show of theirs without also handling a video camera.

My all access pass to Oil in the Alley

My all access pass to Oil in the Alley
Photo by Eric Caldwell

Screwbuki

Screwbuki

As mentioned above, aside from Oil in the Alley, the other big drawcard for me to attend this festival this year was Screwbuki, which I’d only seen live once before, in Honolulu last year. I really love unique and different improv styles, and improvised Japanese kabuki is as unique as you can get. It was really wonderful seeing both of their shows, and connecting with the rest of their cast whom I hadn’t already met/befriended. In addition to watching their shows, though, I also had the opportunity to take Garrick Paikai’s “Louder Than Words” workshop, which half of the rest of the cast of Screwbuki (R Kevin, Matthew Toyama, and Matt Mazzella) was also involved with. I’ve been a fan of silent improv since a) I did a workshop in Hawaii with Deanna Fleysher, and loved the response I got from the other people in the workshop, and b) seeing video of On the Spot’s Hush show, so having the opportunity to learn this technique from Garrick himself was something I had to jump on. Taking this workshop really reinforced how much I love working without words. Toward the end of the workshop, we improvised in silence while Mazzella played the keyboard, and it was really wonderful seeing how seamlessly the improv was inspired by the tone of the music, and in turn how Mazzella’s music was inspired by the silent scene work. I found that there was so much more truth to discover in the work when words could not be used as an escape. I love playing with silence so much now that I’m actively talking with other San Francisco improvisers to see who would be interested in improvising in a show without words with me.

With Eric Caldwell, Garrick Paikai, and Alissa Joy Lee

With Eric Caldwell, Garrick Paikai, and Alissa Joy Lee

As for the last workshop I did, Joe Bill’s masterclass “Embracing Your Power,” scheduled for three hours, ended up lasting four hours. It left me with a much shorter window to nap between that and the Dust Up on Sunday (I was absolutely exhausted because the excitement of all the improv left me sleeping very little over the weekend), but it was 100% worth it. We built on different techniques to go deeper into the emotional side of a scene, which is, again, something I’m always looking to do more of with YUM!. Also cool was introducing myself at the start of the workshop as someone who performs with Leela in San Francisco, and having Joe say, “Say hi to Marcus and Jill for me.” I love acknowledgement of the awesome people in my improv world. I probably also benefitted from not having seen him perform before, because otherwise I might’ve been starstruck from his 40 years of experience. Over the years, I’ve found it much easier for me to interact with other cool people when I don’t actually know all they’ve accomplished in life, and how awesome they really are. There’s a good example of that in San Francisco, where I had normal, down-to-earth conversations with an awesome improviser well before discovering he was a writer on my favourite sitcom in the nineties. Ultimately, though, I’d much rather learn from and improvise with people I like, regardless of what their personal accomplishments are. And the biggest takeaway I got from Joe was that he genuinely cared about the craft, and wanted to help everyone in the workshop be better improvisers. That nurturing side of an improv teacher is always great to have.

Your Moms

Your Moms

Of the shows I went to, which I wasn’t already familiar with, the groups I was most blown away by were Your Moms, an all female group from Vancouver, Canada, whose entire set was about these four middle-aged mothers and their friendship; as well as Smuppets, and The Cotton Gin, both puppet improv shows local to Seattle. Given Eric was at the festival in part to promote his Alaska festival to other groups, it was really lovely that he stepped aside from promoting it to Your Moms so I could talk to them about submitting to Femprovisor Fest, since it would be impossible for them to attend both festivals when they’re on the same weekend. Definitely cool to talk to them in that capacity, though!

The Cotton Gin

The Cotton Gin

The Seattle Festival of Improv Theater marks the 6th improv festival I’ve attended in some way. The more I see, the more I enjoy and respect the diversity of the shows. It gives me a lot to think about when it comes to submitting to perform at improv festivals myself. YUM’s success rate of getting into festivals I’ve submitted us to tends to cause me to question if perhaps I should consider submitting other shows I’m part of instead, such as LiGht BrighT, to highlight the sexuality diversity that isn’t often seen in improv (watch our most recent show here), which I haven’t done because finding dates we’re all available for just to perform in San Francisco is hard enough. But then it occurred to me there’s potential for an improv show I created, directed, and debuted on Inauguration Day in January, So You Want a Job. It’s a unique format inspired by reality TV; the shitstorm that is Donald Trump’s Presidency, at least in the sense that he wants to “bring the jobs back;” and the card game, Funemployed. The beauty of this show is that, with the reality TV style job interview opening, I have a lot of flexibility to play with a different cast whenever I want, and could handpick different improvisers who I know would work well together, who are also interested and available to travel to a festival with me, just as I’ve been doing with the show already. Whilst the cast of the first show included Adrian Bosada, Jeff Stein, and Matt Haley, the next show will feature the all female line up of Diana Brown, Shirley Chan, and Leila Carrillo (if you’re interested in coming out, mark your calendars for Friday March 24, 2017; it’ll be at the EXIT Theatre at 8pm).

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Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

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