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No Script, no problem

By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER

Ask Matt Nelson, executive producer of this week's Fourth Annual Philadelphia Improv Festival, if he has seen growth in the city's improv scene since the first festival, and you get one word: astronomical.

Nelson, a 31-year-old Oregonian, says that when he arrived here five years ago, "there was ComedySportz performing weekly, Lunchlady Doris, who were in every Fringe since the beginning, and a couple of other random groups."

Now he counts two dozen companies, enough to have inspired him to create PhillyImprov.com, a Web site chronicling the various classes, shows, groups and competitions happening around town all year long.

The Philadelphia Improv Festival, which begins tonight and runs through Saturday, is modeled on those in other cities: Its participants - as with the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe - appear because they were chosen through juried competition or were courted by festival organizers.

Technically, there have been five festivals since 2003, but Nelson doesn't count the first one, which he recalls as a trial run with 10 groups, all local. This year? Thirty-nine companies from 11 cities in the United States and Canada will perform, with five different instructors offering improv-technique workshops over the three days. That's some serious comedy.

Not that improv is all funny business. One of the many groups with which Nelson has performed, Philly's now-defunct Hellbaby, specialized in "improv tragedy." He also cites the local Tongue & Groove, whose members perform "improv realism" - "not comedy, tragedy or anything like that," he explains, "just whatever happens to occur."

And though this year's festival is heavy on comic troupes, enough diversity exists in that genre to stave off funny fatigue.

There's short-form improv, which Nelson says is "probably the most widely known because it's televised on shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Nick Cannon's Wild 'N Out." Practiced by ComedySportz and local favorites the N Crowd, short form consists of brief scenes and "games" whose themes are called out - by an audience member, emcee or performer - at the top of each segment.

Then there's long form, whose structure may or may not conform to one of several "styles" outlined by the improv gods. Nelson explains these styles in football terms: "The game exists, but there are a lot of different ways you can play. Once you're out there you really don't know what's going to happen . . .. So the style is like your play. It helps keep you on course; even though everything's made up, it's still within a particular rhythm."

Del Close of Chicago's Second City created the "Harold" style, a fairly complicated set of nine short and long scenes, but there's also an "Armando" and probably as many others as the world's various comedians can, well, improvise. Many of these long-form strategies rely on the Rule of Three: "Once is instance, twice is coincidence, thrice is funny."

And if this sounds like an awful lot of structure for such a freewheeling form of performance, that ought to serve as a helpful reminder that doing improv well is a lot harder than it looks.

Some groups follow standard operating procedures, while others blaze their own paths. New York's Baby Wants Candy, which includes former Saturday Night Live comedian Rachel Dratch and which Nelson very much wants to recruit for next year's festival, constructs an entire rock musical on the spot. Chicago's Beatbox, which will appear this year, and whose Rene Duquesnoy will teach at a festival workshop, incorporates freestyle rap into its shows.

Beatbox's particular variation "started at a party, like most improv ideas," says Duquesnoy, 36. "I started beatboxing, and my friend started freestyling - it was like, 'Your improv fell into my hip-hop!' . . . kind of like the birth of the Reese's Cup."

Though Beatbox weaves hip-hop through its performances, its audience is still a somewhat homogenous crowd. "We give out our fliers at colleges," Duquesnoy says, "because they are the best places for improv shows. In college there's some diversity, but not a whole bunch."

Nelson finds a similar pattern in Philadelphia. "The 18-to-35 demographic has been our bread and butter . . .. They're mostly immediate downtown residents, or from South Jersey and the Main Line. But not from the Philadelphia neighborhoods so much."

However, ComedySportz's Kelly Vrooman, 26, who also hosts the entirely improvised Sunny Side Up Show on PBS's Kids' Sprout channel, would like to see growth in another demographic: female performers. She recalls that when she discovered improv at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, a male friend told her, "Women just aren't as funny as men, so they'll never be as good at improv."

Vrooman says, "It was devastating for me, and I really thought it was true until I began to work on it and took . . . classes from all these incredible ComedySportz women."

Philadelphia Improv Theater (PHIT) is an example of women's importance in this city's alt-comedy movement. It's run by a woman, artistic director Alexis Simpson, who's also a member of the scene's current enfant terrible, Rare Bird Show.

The theater's Web site says PHIT hopes to "create and produce improv in the tradition of theaters like Chicago's Second City and New York's Upright Citizens Brigade." So far, with improv-to-script shows like 2008 Fringe hit The Hoppers Hit the Road, regular shows at the Shubin Theatre, and the naming of three PHIT house improv teams, it's making strong progress.

Duquesnoy says a successful improv scene, like Chicago's, must be "enthusiastic . . . And you also need collective effort."

Matt Nelson believes Philadelphia meets - and surpasses - those requirements. "You're just seeing a more consistent product, a lot more quality in what people are putting onstage, a lot of cross-promotion and support," he says, not to mention the creative cross-pollination and many classes available to help burgeoning improvisers hone their craft.

As Vrooman succinctly puts it, "No one likes to see a show that's not good."

 

-Taken from The Philadelphia Inquirer (November 13, 2008)

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