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Phillyist Interviews... The Philadelphia Improv Festival

By Don Montrey

It's that time of year again: a chill fills the air, leaves turn delightful shades of red, yellow and brown and improvisers from around the country descend on the City of Brotherly Love for the annual Philadelphia Improv Festival.

Phillyist sat down with festival producer Alli Soowal to talk about this year's offerings, improv versus sketch and why a growing art form like improv gets a bad rap.

Full Disclosure: The interviewer, Don Montrey, is performing in the Festival. Now you know!

Phillyist: Alli. Hello.
Alli Soowal: Hello!

First, some audiences and writers confuse improv with sketch and stand-up. Please explain the difference so they can never be confused again.
Stand up is generally one person with a prepared set of material (jokes, observations, etc.) speaking directly to the audience. The audience is not generally involved, other than those jerks who heckle the comedian. Think Seinfeld.

Sketch shows are pre-written and rehearsed sets of scenes that can flow together thematically or not. They frequently use props and video, and the audience acts basically as an audience—no involvement other than laughter. Think SNL.

Improv is more like a sketch show made up on the spot—nothing pre-written or planned.  The audience is involved because they provide the initial suggestion of what the show will be about, and occasionally the audience reaction guides the performers—consciously or not. The most well-known example of this is Whose Line Is it Anyway.

What is it about improv that elicits such a cult following?
I think it is the magic of watching something entirely unique being created in front of your eyes, with the knowledge that it will never happen again. It's almost like a fine dining experience, but knowing that you can never have that same meal again.

How many improv groups are there in Philly?
There are too many to list! The main places to see improv are ComedySportz and the Philly Improv Theater.

ComedySportz is the longest running show in Philadelphia. It has a cast of around 35 actors—many of whom both teach improv and perform in local theater (1812 Productions, The Walnut Street Theater, etc.) and on national television. They also offer some of the best improv classes in the city with the most experienced instructors.

Philly Improv Theater is 4 years old, and has week long runs of shows each month featuring many local improv groups as well as out-of-town groups. They also teach improv classes—focusing on longform improv.

Why does improv get a bad rap?
I think that because it is made up on the spot, there is always the potential for a not-so-great show. If that is someone's first and only experience watching improv, they will come out of it feeling that improv stinks, and people tend to pass along negative feedback quicker than positive.

What groups are you excited about seeing/presenting?
We had such a talented pool of applicants from which to choose this year, so I am excited for all of it! The following shows will be new to the festival and I am very excited for them: CSZ Philly Presents: Improv Battle of the Network Starz—ComedySportz performers playing improv games as famous stars from the 70's and 80's (Friday at 8); Beatbox from Chicago—they meld improv comedy with freestyle rap and hip hop (Saturday at 11.) One of their members is a human beatbox—the best I have ever heard and he is teaching a workshop on how to freestyle rap. Finally, I would recommend MISTER DILPOMAT (Saturday at 11) from the Dirty South Improv Theater in North Carolina. I arranged a local celebrity to perform with them—come see to find out who!

For returning favorites, I would recommend Tybrus from NYC (Saturday at 8), Lunchlady Doris, Philly's longest running longform group (Friday at 11), and Rare Bird Show, also from Philly. (Saturday at 9:30)

Does Philly improv differ from Chicago or NYC improv? If so, how?
Philly improv is different because it is newer, more of an underground feel to it. People get into improv here in Philly simply for the love of the art. In NYC or Chicago, people may use improv as a stepping stone to commercial or TV acting.

This is the 4th year of the festival, how has it changed over the years?
It has gotten bigger and better every year. We have gained national recognition as a more prestigious festival than in previous years. Therefore, we are attracting higher quality performers as well as top-notch instructors.

Where do you see the festival heading?
I would like to see the festival continue to attract great talent from across the country, so as to showcase the best. This will help in keeping Philly improvisers at the top of their game.

What do you want to achieve with the festival?
We actually have a pretty detailed mission and vision. In a nutshell, we want to book top-level acts from across the country to create a national relationship with improv groups and performers, bring media attention to the festival and the city, and make Philadelphia a destination for comedy. We also want to showcase top local talent and bring in top instructors in order to help the local scene continue to grow.

Why should someone come to the Philly Improv Festival?
Because it's awesome. If you are a fan of improv, this is your chance to immerse yourself in improv for 3 full days. If you are new to seeing improv comedy, this is the perfect opportunity to check it out - you will see not only the best of the city, but of the country!

Thanks Alli.
My pleasure, Don!


-Taken from Phillyist.com (November 13, 2008)

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