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Preview: 2015 Columbus Improv Festival

Grant Walters Grant Walters Preview: 2015 Columbus Improv Festival(left to right): CJ Tuor, Mel Evans, Jason Stockdale, and Bruce Phillips in Hitch*Cocktails at The Annoyance Theatre & Bar. Photo by: Patriac Coakley.
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“Funny” may not be the first adjective that comes to mind when you’re asked to describe what it’s like to live in Columbus.  But, if you’ve ever found yourself at Wild Goose Creative (a quaint gallery and performance space located in the heart of SoHud) when Columbus Unscripted has any of their seven productions on stage, you won’t need more proof that a smart, vibrant – and at times edgy – sense of humor is bubbling under our city’s surface.

Improvisational comedy is still finding its feet here, and hasn’t quite reached the widespread following achieved by famed institutions like Chicago’s The Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.  That being said, improv teams – and audiences who are coming out faithfully to watch them – are proliferating around town; a trend that Columbus Unscripted hopes to continue to nudge forward as it kicks off the fourth annual Columbus Improv Festival on Wednesday, October 21st.  

Bill Sabo and Barbara Allen, co-directors of Columbus Unscripted, sat down with me the other night and shared their vision for this year’s festival.  “We really want to emphasize Columbus to the rest of the nation.  We want them to know that we’re here, and that we have local people who are doing fun stuff. We’re not the stereotypical improv show like Whose Line Is It Anyway?  It’s a variety of really solid improv from local and national people”, explains Sabo.  Allen adds that “each year we kind of have a focus, and this year (it’s) on the fusion of where storytelling, stand-up (comedy), and improv meet. Last year at the festival, there was a real interest in stand-up, and so this past year we’ve developed Columbus Unscripted: Stand Up for Stand-Up to encourage people to get out and try it.  And so, we’ve had a lot of local comedians, as well as new aspiring comedians come out – and we’ve done it twelve times with headliners from Columbus that are up-and-coming.”

Established a little under a decade ago, Columbus Unscripted has built its foundation solidly on the development and support of local talent.  Sabo shares that his past experiences in the improv community have instilled in him the importance of creating a space where all participants feel a sense of belonging and encouragement.  “I always go back to the Annoyance Theatre because it’s my favorite place – it’s in Chicago.  (Artistic and Executive Directors) Mick Napier and Jennifer Estlin will always, always welcome you in.  It’s always a welcoming place.  And it’s always ‘Go out and do this stuff! Just do it! Dare to fail! Dare to succeed!'”

(left to right): Jason Stockdale and Caleb George playing the drinking game in Hitch*Cocktails at The Annoyance Theatre & Bar. Photo by: Patriac Coakley.

(left to right): Jason Stockdale and Caleb George playing the drinking game in Hitch*Cocktails at The Annoyance Theatre & Bar. Photo by: Patriac Coakley.

Allen agrees, emphasizing that those same values are reflected in the festival’s events. “From the minute you walk into Columbus Unscripted, it’s a welcome home and a family atmosphere.  You will find something that’s for you.  Every night we’ll round out the evening with an “all-play” that is meant for people who have never tried improv before to (do so) with those in the community and our guests in a safe environment.  We would never set someone up to fail, so we create a space for even those who think ‘maybe I wouldn’t…’  They get caught up in the excitement and want to give it a try.”  Allen explains that the festival is designed to be inclusive and a great value for those who take part.  “We have six nights of performances.  We keep the prices low, and we have student rates.  The shows will run from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm, with our headliner in the middle.   On Wednesday, we’ll have free workshops for kids at Whetstone Recreation Center  – those are for ages 7 to 17 – and we’ll finish with a performance for family and friends at 7:00 pm.”

For adults wishing to dive a bit deeper into the art of improvisation, a variety of workshops focused on different facets of performance will be open to the public.  “The workshops are great – you don’t have to have any experience to be in them,” offers Allen.  Sabo further endorses that attendees “can expect in any workshop we’re offering this year – and any time, for that matter –  to come in and have a whole lot of fun, and to learn something, and to maybe push their boundaries.  And leave saying ‘I feel better about myself because I did this, and I’m going to do more. I want do more.'”  Sabo and Allen instruct an ongoing series of improv classes offered by Columbus Unscripted on Saturdays and Thursdays throughout the year.  However, workshops held during this year’s festival will be facilitated by an impressive slate of visiting performers and writers – something that Sabo sees as a necessary and beneficial in the education of improvisers. “There are quite a few classes and people teaching here (locally) – more than there have been in the past. So, we want to move ourselves away from that and bring in people who do this on a daily basis; who make it their career and profession – to teach us so we can go up that level. I can teach to a certain extent, but then I have to give that over to someone who knows the ropes.”  Allen concurs: “there are some great people from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, who are coming in to really speak to that idea.”

As for the performance line-up during the festival, the majority flavor is still decidedly local.  “We’ve got a sampling of improv, which includes unscripted work from eleven troupes from Columbus that are active performers with shows and gigs and their own backstories and histories.  Some are new, some are out of Columbus Unscripted, some are from the community at large,” confirms Allen.  She also refers proudly to the roster of invited performers, highlighting some notable names from the improv community that have made significant achievements regionally, nationally, and even internationally. “Our Thursday night show will feature Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzuto from Chicago.  They’ve just gotten back from Europe and have been touring with an award-winning show called Here.  Tara is from Columbus, so we’re hoping a lot of people will come to see their hometown lady and her fiance in action. On Friday, we have From Justin to Kelly coming from New York’s The Magnet Theatre, and Saturday rounds out with Jamie Campbell and Steven Lyons, from Chicago and L.A. Last year, Jamie recorded an album with us and it was number one on Amazon. He’s done a brilliant launch of his career – just an amazing individual.”

Allen also points out some other featured performers that will take audiences and workshop participants a bit outside the typical realm of improv. “I’ve got a super girl comedy crush on Kelsie Huff, who is probably one of the most generous people ever, and she’s coming to do workshops on stand-up and storytelling.  She has an amazing show called the kates – an award-winning (feature) in Chicago.  On Sunday, we have Speak Easy, which has its own following in Columbus and does true-life storytelling, and Larry Smith of SMITH Magazine, leading Six-Word Memoir improvisation.  He’s done that all over the country, and is married to Piper Kerman who wrote Orange is the New Black. Monday is our Stand Up for Stand-Up show with Leslie Battle to bring us home – she’s a beautiful soul and she’s really funny.”

When asked what goals or milestones they hope this year’s festival will achieve, Allen wants those in attendance to see “a celebration of the craft.  We want to be a place where you know that we love the craft and we want to support improv – the unscripted work.  We love to look to those that are in the field leading.  We love what Columbus is doing and we want to see that merger where those come together.”

Sabo believes the festival will strengthen what Columbus Unscripted can continue to offer to the community – some of which has created an impact in unexpected places.  “One of the things that might be a surprise is that we do a program with Marion Correctional Institution.  It’s meant a lot to the guys who are going to be released and it works on their social skills and their self-confidence.  We say yes to anything and everything.  If anyone had told me three years ago that I’d be driving to prison three times a week…(laughs).”

Allen continues: “We’ve done improv in a bowling alley…”

“…and in a bar”, Sabo interjects.  “It was horrible. I always equate it to walking into somebody’s house, sitting down on their couch, grabbing the remote and changing their TV station, and locking the doors.”

All joking aside, Allen believes that remaining flexible and being willing to take risks will help to drive the festival – and improv within Columbus in general – forward.  “I think for Bill and I with Columbus Unscripted – we’re so committed to the craft of improvisation. So, keeping the core of (the festival), the foundation of it as improv – but I’m open to saying ‘yes’ to anything and seeing where it takes us.  We’re going to be rolling out a season (of performances) like other theaters do with some big surprises and interesting partnerships with Columbus groups and (locally) established theaters. We’re really open to anything – and we’ll do anything.  Building ensembles, building classes, and continuing to coach groups.  Columbus improv is really growing.  If you look around – the bug is here, the word is out, and the creativity out there is amazing.  We’re lucky to have this kind of community and we’re proud to be a small part of that.”

Sabo agrees: “We’re very strong in the philosophy that there is one way – and only one way – to do improv, and that’s the way you like to do it.”

Columbus Unscripted’s fourth annual Columbus Improv Festival will take place from Wednesday, October 21st, through Monday, October 26th.  Workshop and performance locations/times/days, tickets, and a full schedule can be found by visiting the festival’s website.

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