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Local Comedy Spotlight: The Nestival

Grant Walters Grant Walters Local Comedy Spotlight: The Nestival
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The Nest Theatre's third annual improv festival, featuring local and out-of-town performers, kicks off Thursday night

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In 2016, veteran Chicago-based improvisers Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto established Columbus’ first dedicated improv performance and training center.

Three years later, after finding its permanent home at the edge of Downtown in Franklinton, The Nest Theatre is thriving — regularly selling out shows across its 12 rotating productions, and filling up its core curriculum classes that have attracted students at all levels of experience.

DeFrancisco, a Columbus native, and Rizzutto met while performing, writing, and teaching at both the iO Theatre and The Second City. Their improvised musical duo show, Here, which had its first long-term residency at iO, is now one of The Nest’s monthly staples when it’s not being toured. As of this month, Here has visited 23 countries and 75 cities — and counting.

In 2017, DeFrancisco and Rizzutto introduced The Nestival, a now-annual three-day performance showcase that attracts local, regional, national, and international artists who bring a wide range of improv, sketch comedy, live lit, and experimental theatre to Columbus. Entry to the festival is competitive for performers, who apply months in advance in hope of scoring a slot on the schedule. Tickets for the once-a-year event, as you can well imagine, sell out quickly.

The vision for, and evolution of, The Nestival has been important to the pair personally and professionally on many levels.

“Coming from so many years in Chicago and touring so long ourselves, we’ve seen the joy created at festivals and the ability to bring communities together from all over,” DeFrancisco explains. “It’s a good way for groups to exhale and enjoy one another’s art, and gives folks a chance to experience other people’s shows when usually they’d be out there, performing themselves.

If festivals are done well, they are happy temporary homes for touring artists and provide resources of study during the festival weekend for the performers — and awesome shows for public audiences.”

Rizzutto agrees. “Lots of new groups from new locations coming in has been great, too. So many people get to meet one another and have a great time.”

The third iteration of The Nestival opens this Thursday, April 4, at The Nest, with local ensembles TNE, Jodie & Robin, DeMuth & Teeters, ROT, and Fine & Dandy, along with Dayton’s Strictly Platonic, and Toronto’s DUO DAD. Here anchors Friday’s schedule, followed by The Nest’s weekly competitive improv show, ComedySportz, and DeFrancisco and Rizzutto’s TRIO: Live at Melody Ranch, a hilarious, recently-added production that brings local improviser David Price into their renowned musical mix, on Saturday.

DeFrancisco and Rizzutto took a few moments away from festival preparations to talk with me about what show-goers can expect when they buy a ticket, and how The Nestival has contributed to the theater’s growth and place in Columbus’ improv scene.

What opportunities does it provide for both local teams and teams from outside Columbus?

Rance: All the performers are exposed to groups they wouldn’t normally get to see. When you live and perform in just your own city, it takes a big step of innovation to create something new, but at The Nestival, you get easily inspired by exposure.

Tara: Yes. I love that. We are relentlessly committed to the Columbus community, and when we were asked to move home to create this space and school, we took it to heart. We wanted to bring what we had seen globally for people that want to bloom and flourish where they’ve been planted, and help Columbus have multiple resources and exposure to other places — and have our worldwide friends that visit have exposure to the blossoming scene here in the city.

What specifically do you look for when you’re adjudicating festival entries?

Rance: We look for a nice blend of differences, some technical — like, how many people make up a team, what style of improv or comedy do they do.

Tara: Yeah. When curating a festival, we look for teams that bring different skills and qualities to the table, so each show slot of many teams will complement each other and make an awesome sampler weekend of what is out there.

Tell me a little bit about this year’s roster of performers. What are they bringing to the proverbial table?

Tara: Heck yeah! It’s exciting. Over the past two years, we have had players from Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Philly, Aurora, Indianapolis, NYC, Cleveland, Madison — where else?

Rance: Miami, Louisville, Atlanta…

Tara: Dang. A lot. I believe this year we add a few new cities to the mix with our 23 teams this festival. I know additionally this year we have Oklahoma City, Dayton, and our first Canadian team!

Rance: We have some fun outside workshops from visiting artists designed for the performers as well; two of those over the weekend.

Tara: Basically, improv festivals are joyful conferences for the performing arts, with hilarious shows for the public each night. This year, we have shortform, with local players and guests on ComedySportz All-Stars, all types of longform from both the local team and national guests, musical improv with Here and teams from Oklahoma City and Chicago, duo teams, genre-based teams like Wisconsin’s PuppetTown and Yes Ma’am. We also have a show kicking off Thursday night called DUO DAD, a Canadian pair that is a fella and his 85-year old father doing a set that do shows regularly up there in Toronto. Festivals are so fun. All these teams together in one weekend — unique, funny, heartwarming, hilarious stuff.

The Nest has found a home at a fantastic venue that’s allowed you to let improv as an art grow in the city. How are you both feeling about the theatre’s progress and place in Columbus?

Tara: When we were designing and saving our pennies to open The Nest five years back from Chicago, I think the hope was that we could provide a home for improvisers scattered all over the city and give them the healthy, hilarious, happy home they deserved in one dedicated space. We wanted it to be like Cheers for comedy people. We were overjoyed to see how we personally have been embraced by our community.

I don’t know that we knew it would explode so much so soon. We have now invited hundreds more new improvisers into the fold since 2016 via our training center, exponentially increasing the number of people doing it in Columbus in less than three years since our doors opened. We’ve been told the improv scene has more than quintupled since The Nest was opened from just within our doors. It’s been a lot of work.

As a kid, I loved Columbus. I’m glad I went to Chicago, because I adored it too, and I got to do everything there I moved for and more, but it didn’t seem fair to me that someone would have to leave the city they loved to earnestly, wholeheartedly study or perform an art they were curious about. Art should be everywhere, and for everyone. It was always a goal to begin something here for people like me that really, truly wanted to dedicate part of their lives to this, and had no resources. The Nest is changing the game. We feel excited that so many public audiences now know more about improv in general and love it.

And I know creating an ethical, inclusive place for both performers and audiences has been a significant part of The Nest’s development.

Tara: Yes! Our very public mission statement here since 2016 is generally ‘More Art for Everyone, High Tides Rise All Boats’ — that artists should work to take care of one another by being ethical and showing support — and ‘Lead with Love.’ And we apply that in all ways we conduct the theatre. We are also a Safe Space registered in the state. That was important to us and it was one of the first things we did in Columbus. We want to make more room and give scholarships and amplification to people of color, to the LGBTQ community, differently abled folks, people over 65 — just people that haven’t gotten as many chances to learn in artistic communities like our training center.

As far as shows go, our goal is straight-up quality and professionalism, so that when people do in fact see that first show, we know they’ll come back and be excited about the art of comedy. Newer art forms are at a deficit. Like, if you go to a bad concert, you’re not like, ‘Screw all music!’ [laughs] But, right now since it is newer to them in Columbus, if people see a bad improv show, they are like, ‘Screw improv!’ When art is new to a group of people, the producer has to treat it with professionalism and utmost care, so that audiences both understand it and enjoy it, yet are challenged by it, are curious about it — and want to try more of it.

We want to treat our audiences like artists, poets, and geniuses, capable of laughing hard and having that escape, and also able to feel beautiful things, to recognize intelligent moves, and feel human moments between people, to primarily enjoy themselves and think ‘This is a simple, cool, amazing thing.’ That’s our goal with the public.

How have the two of you grown as people as a result of your craft? How could other people who see a show and say “Oh, I really would love to try that!” benefit from taking the leap and trying improv?

Tara: Improv changes lives. Improvisational tenets and their application in the day to day saves lives. Lots of people come to learn improv because it seems fun and someone may have told them they were funny. That’s wonderful. Come. We love you, funny people. However, the real journey and breakthrough begins when you realize being funny is only a part of what this is about. It’s the idea of inviting play back into your lives, that adults can be cruel to their creative spirit and there’s such importance to re-engaging with yourself in a loving, nurturing way, then, well, the byproduct, the result, is joy and humor.

People laugh when they connect with you. You are pure potential onstage and you are something magnetic. It’s that simple, and it’s exciting.

Rance: We are passionate about this. We are celebrating our 20th year of being professional performers and instructors this year, and it’s safe to say it’s changed every part of my life.

Tara: Every part. This is life work for us. And all the humans we get to meet globally that we play for and teach are a resounding echo of their own in their communities, creating joy for more and more people. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference. Try improv at The Nest. You will see.

What would you want the public to know who are buying tickets for The Nestival this weekend?

Rance: Our shows tend to sell out so grab tickets ahead of time, especially for the festival.

Tara: Yes! You have the opportunity to not only see the best teams in Columbus, but teams from all over do what they love and what they are appreciated for in their own communities.

The Nestival runs Thursday, April 4 through Saturday, April 6 at The Nest Theatre, 894 W. Broad St. in Franklinton. Tickets are $10-12 online before the day of the show ($12-$14 at the door on the day of the show), and are available on theatre’s website. The Nest’s weekly productions run regularly most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

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