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Sarasota Improv Festival leaves the script behind

Florida Studio Theatre's annual festival creates spontaneous comedy with careful planning.

Florida Studio Theatre's 14th annual Sarasota Improv Festival takes place July 12-13.
Florida Studio Theatre's 14th annual Sarasota Improv Festival takes place July 12-13.
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Improv comedy doesn’t just happen. No. Strike that.

Should’ve said …

Improv comedy does just happen. It’s spontaneous by definition.

That said, this spontaneous combustion of comedy needs a place to happen. A crucible, an incubator, a stage. A place where improv artists can sharpen each other’s skills. A place where an improv audience can gather and grow. Creating that kind of space demands commitment and planning. That’s where Florida Studio Theatre comes in.

Back in 2001, it launched the FST Improv troupe. At the time, it was the only unscripted comedy game in town. The troupe rehearsed and learned backstage. They offered intermittent improv shows on FST’s cabaret stage. In 2004, they ratcheted it up to year-round performances.

In 2009, FST took it to a whole new level. The theater launched its first Sarasota Improv Festival. FST Managing Director Rebecca Hopkins was FST’s improv director at the time. Why create an improv festival? What was her goal?

“I actually had two goals,” she says. “I wanted to expose local improv artists to the exciting national scene. I also wanted to expand the Sarasota improv audience.”

"All Play," the annual finale performance of the Sarasota Improv Festival, shown in 2023.
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Hopkins adds that improv comedy was still an emerging art form in 2009.

“Sarasota was a sophisticated arts town, but we’d somehow missed out on the art of improv,” she says. “To get the festival off the ground, I had to find a way to explain it to them. People would ask me, ‘What the heck is improv?’ I’d say, ‘If you’ve seen “Whose Line is It Anyway,” it’s like that. So, we got the message across. We sold tickets — and we sold out! Our first festival was a total success.” Hopkins laughs. “I was just as surprised as anybody.”

She had originally envisioned the Sarasota Improv Festival as a one-and-done event. Its surprising success led to a change of plans.

“We built it and they came,” she says. “More importantly … they stayed! Our 2009 improv festival had all kinds of challenges — including a total breakdown of our AC system. The attendees left sweating, but they left happy. If we could pull off the festival under those conditions, why stop with just the one? We knew we had to do it again.”

FST decided to make the improv festival a yearly happening. Its repeat performance in 2010 was an even bigger smash than its inaugural event. Yet again, the shows all sold out. 2011’s festival was even bigger — and 2012 topped that. 

As the improv festival blossomed, FST was simultaneously expanding its campus. It transformed the old TheatreWorks auditorium into the Gompertz Theatre — a space comprising two cabaret stages and a mainstage. That allowed FST to keep ticket prices low by running three simultaneous improv shows at different venues.

The 21st century rolled on. FST’s more-is-more strategy worked like a charm. Year after year, the improv festival kept growing. Area improv artists grew with it.

Locally and regionally, the festival nurtured homegrown talents. Will Luera is FST’s current improv director. He describes the festival’s regional impact as “transformative.”

Inspiring the creation of new local troupes

“The festival brought world-class improvisers to our doorstep, exposing local talent and audiences to the craft’s cutting edge,” Luera says. “We’ve seen area performers grow by leaps and bounds after participating in festival workshops and sharing the stage with legends.”

FST’s annual festival also inspired the creation of several Sarasota improv groups, including Lazy Fairy Improv and the Early Bird Specials. It also helped jump-start Tampa’s vibrant improv scene.

Nationally, the festival put Sarasota on the improv comedy map. Its honor roll of visiting troupes includes Dad’s Garage of Atlanta, the Upright Citizens Brigade, based in New York City and Los Angeles, and Available Cupholders from Austin, Texas.

The Austin, Texas, comedy troupe Available Cupholders returns to the Sarasota Improv Festival on July 12-13.
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These A-list improvisers definitely entertained area audiences. But they also interacted with local improv talents. As a result, Sarasota became part of a national (and international) improv network. And an improv destination rivaling the scene in Austin, Los Angeles and New York City.

The Sarasota Improv Festival’s exponential growth made it the leading celebration of its unscripted art form in the Southeastern U.S. This growth continued until 2020.

Then the pandemic happened. That was spontaneous, too. Unlike improv, it wasn’t funny at all.

Sarasota’s stages all went dark. FST was no exception. It canceled the real-life 2020 Sarasota Improv Festival. But improv artists think fast. The show still went on — in virtual reality. The fest was a Zoom-only event that bummer summer.

Ralf Jean-Pierre is a member of the comedy troupe North Coast, which will perform at the Sarasota Improv Festival on July 12-13.
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In 2023, the Sarasota Improv Festival came back strong in the real world. Hopkins wasn’t surprised. “The improv festival brings people together,” she says. “After Covid killed the party, the community was eager to share in the celebration — and laugh themselves silly.”

Hopkins laughs at the memory. “It was kind of like hitting the reset dial,” she says. “Our last live festival was 2019. After that, we went through a three-year gap until our next live shows. During that time, Sarasota had a whole new crop of residents and visitors. We couldn’t assume they’d all been to the festival — or had ever been exposed to improv comedy.”

That old question popped up again: What the heck is improv comedy? “We had to explain it all … again. It was back to ‘Improv Comedy 101.’ But we filled the seats — and the 2023 audience left happy this time, too,” Hopkins says.

She smiles. “I expect we’ll do it again.”



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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