Sarasota Improv Festival sets the stage for new wave improv performers at Florida Studio Theatre.
Improvisation is as old as theater. By definition, though, it never gets old. It’s unscripted performance — and the actors are making it up as they go.
That said, contemporary improv comedy dates back to the pioneering experiments of the Second City troupe in the 1960s. The second wave of American improv hit our nation’s comedy clubs and TV screens a few decades later.
That wave also made a big splash at Florida Studio Theatre. In 2009, its first improv festival had the raw feel of a new art form. The experience reminded me of the dawn of rock 'n' roll — the early hits of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Like rock, this medium has evolved.
New wave improv is more like Woodstock. It’s full of experiments the genre’s pioneers never dreamed of.
FST’s ninth annual Sarasota Improv Festival will surf that wave of playful innovation from July 13-15.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in the concept of improv over the nine years of the festival,” said Rebecca Hopkins, FST’s festival producer. “The performers keep pushing the envelope — or ripping the envelope apart.”
Hopkins says today’s new wave improv performers are combining their spontaneous comedy with improbable genres of scripted theater.
“We’ve had troupes do riffs on French farce, 'The Twilight Zone' and Shakespeare,” she says. “That demands an amazing level of sophistication. You have to know the genre conventions by heart.”
In 2016, the unpronounceable Parallelogramophonograph troupe (aka “PGraph”) took festival audiences into the realm of Rod Serling’s dreams and nightmares. “The parody was spot-on,” Hopkins says. “Half the audience didn’t get the references — but they were howling anyway.”
What’s PGraph up to this year?
“I have no idea,” she laughs. “Something harder, funnier and riskier, I imagine.”
New wave improv performers fearlessly tackle such genres as Shakespearean blank verse, French farce and anthology science fiction. The same applies to musical theater.
“That’s counterintuitive, if you think about it,” says Hopkins. “Musicals are highly structured. An improv performer has to work within that structure and make it seem natural. It’s amazing to watch.”
She notes this year’s talents will tackle everything from hip-hop to college radio.
Mike Descoteaux, Michael Girts and T.J. Shanoff’s “BLANK! The Musical” will poke a pin in Broadway show tunes and create an on-the-spot musical in the process.
Katie Dufresne and Stacey Smith of Chicago’s Brouhaha troupe will do the same, on a slightly smaller scale. They’ll be helped by FST pianist Jim Prosser and a few of their little friends — puppets.
“Absolutely,” says Hopkins. “‘Avenue Q’ proved you could have a Broadway musical with a cast of puppets. An improvised puppet musical was the next logical step.”
On top of that, Grupo Complot/Escena will build bridges and tear down walls with a bilingual improvisation.
It seems like today’s improv comedians like to do things the hard way.
“I’d say they don’t like to repeat themselves,” Hopkins says. “They keep evolving and trying new things.”
She adds the improv comedy audience keeps evolving, too.
“They’ve become more educated, demanding and sophisticated,” she says. “Fifteen years ago, they didn’t believe us when we said we’re making it all up without a script. I’m happy to report, they believe us now.”