All the Fun at Improvaganza, the Hawaii Festival of Improv (2016)

Before I get to the fun stuff that happened this past week, I want to share some of my history with Hawaii, and why it had been so important for me to head to this festival. The first year I supported Improvaganza, the Hawaii Festival of Improv was 2011. I’d hoped to be able to attend that year, using frequent flier points, because living in Malaysia at the time meant I didn’t have much access to improv. I thought flying to an improv festival would be a great way to get my fix. Alas, by the time I’d got around to booking flights, I couldn’t get any free flights in September, and booked to visit in October instead, so I could still shoot a music video with Oil in the Alley. I bought a t-shirt through the festival’s Kickstarter campaign that year and told them to hang onto it for me since I’d be there not long after, but then I ended up in a long distance relationship and flew to visit that guy in September that year, so I pushed my trip to Hawaii back to February 2012.

During my 2012 trip, On the Spot hosted a visiting improvisor/clown, who ran a workshop that I got to take, and that’s where I finally met Garrick Paikai and Alissa Joy Lee, the other festival organisers I didn’t already know (I previously knew R Kevin Garcia Doyle as he’s part of Oil in the Alley, who I first filmed in a music video in November 2010). Getting to know the people behind the festival, and how friendly and supportive they were, just gave me that much more desire to attend the festival sometime. Over the years I checked out their line ups and they consistently had acts I knew I’d have loved to watch. I’d also watched videos of Screwbuki and Hush, a couple of shows by On the Spot, and was always impressed with their work.

It was actually through R Kevin that I learned the term long form improv. I’d seen long form shows before, but not much, and they weren’t like the shows On the Spot was producing, that I’d wished I could be in Hawaii to see, like their Wes Anderson style show, or their Snoopy one. R Kevin also introduced me to Jill Eickmann, who is the Artistic Director of Leela, where I perform improv. So I give a lot of credit to Hawaii-based improvisors for my interest in diving into improv as soon as I got to San Francisco two years ago.

I’d actually intended to go to Improvaganza last year, but with the Leela performance schedule, I figured I’d have to perform with YUM! the same weekend as the festival (which ended up happening). I feel like it turned out to be a blessing to have to wait an extra year, because this year Garrick introduced the idea of individual submissions – where individual performers could submit themselves, and be put into a group of performers they may or may not have met before, then rehearse for 90 minutes during the festival, and perform together in a show. Garrick pulled the idea from Barcelona and Australia, and Hawaii is likely the only improv festival in the US to have this option right now. All you needed to submit was a year of improv experience. Needless to say, I submitted myself, and was invited to perform. Not only did I finally get to go to the festival I’d wanted to attend for five years, but I also got to perform there. I’ll talk more about that experience in a bit.

I wanted to make the most of my time at the festival, and my husband’s ability to look after our kids back home while I was away, so I arrived on Wednesday early enough to be able to attend their first ever Legacy Awards. I really enjoyed learning about the history of improv in Hawaii, through those who were honoured. I particularly liked learning about Jonathan Pitts, the founder of the Chicago Improv Festival, as I’d signed up to take his workshop on the Saturday, and he sounded like a very nurturing and encouraging improvisor, which is always great to see from veteran improvisors. But, being a huge Oil in the Alley fan (what with having filmed two music videos for them), the highlight of the night for me was getting to see them perform a song, especially considering they weren’t on the line up for the festival. This meant I couldn’t resist filming it on my phone and uploading it to Facebook.

Oil in the Alley at the Legacy Awards at Improvaganza 2016

Thursday was the official opening night of the festival, and featured an hour long genre show from The Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, called Boy Howdy. Now, I’m generally not that into Westerns, but the performances from this group were absolutely spot on and I was completely blown away by them. I’d previously only seen Kaci Beeler from the group before, when she performed at Femprovisor Fest last year. But this show gave me even more reason to check out the improv scene in Austin.

Following that show was a short form improv competition between four local improvisors and four visiting ones, which the audience got to vote for. The winning team won by only one point!

There were after parties every night, which was great because it meant there were a lot of opportunities to meet and socialise with the other improvisors at the festival. I didn’t stay too long at the first one because I was offered an early ride back to my Air B&B and I didn’t want to figure out how to get back on my own, but it was still great to be there for a short time and chat with people I hadn’t met before. I felt fortunate to be at the festival under my circumstances for a couple of reasons. First of all, going to the festival as an “individual” performer, even though I was staying with some of my friends in Sketchy Alley, meant I had more reason to force myself out of my comfort zone and talk to people I didn’t know. Secondly, already knowing people in Hawaii meant that I had the privilege of being introduced to people by Garrick, R Kevin, and Sean T.C. O’Malley (the other member of Oil in the Alley). I tend to find it a lot easier to talk to people when introductions are made, or if they talk to me first. Being in one of the indie groups also meant there were other people in the same situation as me, so we got to talk to each other a bit. By the end of the first night, I had already been introduced to two of the other five people in my indie group.

Friday was the first night I had to make decisions about what to see, because they had shows running in two different theatres at the same time. I’d planned my nights out well in advance, though, because I wanted to make sure I saw as many different groups as possible. I spent the first two time slots at the Kumu Kahua theatre to see Rachel & Dave, a duo from Austin, Texas; Cogs & Goggles, a steampunk show from Juneau, Alaska, guest starring Mike Brown from New York (who was also my indie group leader); The Audience, a long form group from Santa Monica, California; and The Improv Bandits, a short form duo from New Zealand.

Screwballed/Some Like It Improvised
Screwballed/Some Like It Improvised

For the final show of the night, I headed over to The ARTS at Marks Garage. The first show there was a solo improv show from New York based improvisor Ben Jones called Just Ben, but the tipping point for the night for me was getting to see Screwballed/Some Like It Improvised, a mash-up show between performers from The Hideout in Austin (Kaci Beeler & Roy Janik) and On the Spot in Honolulu (Garrick, R Kevin, and Alissa). It was an improv show styled like the screwball comedy films from around the 1940s. It was a really solid show and they all worked well together. Both groups are really brilliant with their genre-based improv, so seeing them perform so well together in that show just made sense.

Workshop with Kaci Beeler & Roy Janik
Workshop-attendees with Kaci Beeler & Roy Janik

Saturday ended up being a very long day as I decided I wanted to do as much of Kaci’s “Kiss or Kill” workshop as I could before I had to meet my indie group for our rehearsal time slot. Even though I had to miss the last 30 minutes of the workshop for that, I’m really glad I went because I got a lot out of it. Also, Roy was there to help out with the workshop, which was cool too. I took a lot away from it that I’m looking forward to taking to my group YUM! because we’ve been working toward doing more intimate scenes on stage.

By the time my indie group had our rehearsal, I’d met all but one of the other performers. What was incredibly cool about my group is that people had flown in from all over to be part of it. We had people from New York, Alaska, Texas, New Zealand, Hawaii, and of course me from California (but originally Australia). Our group leader Mike Brown was the only member who was in other shows at the festival, so that would suggest the individual submission option at this festival was a great idea.

Most of our group grabbed lunch together after our rehearsal, and then we all headed over to Jonathan Pitts’s workshop “Improv as Heightened Acting.” I really enjoyed this workshop. Everything I’d heard about Jonathan during the Legacy Awards rang true as I watched him teach. He ran an exercise I’d done a few times in Marcus Sams’s duo class in San Francisco, with a lot of useful elaboration during his side-coaching. It gave me a lot of reassurance about the way I’ve been learning to do improv in San Francisco, and why I want to continue to do that kind of work.

After the workshop, I joined Sketchy Alley for dinner, and then headed to the Kumu Kahua Theatre again to catch the first set of shows – Indie Group #2, and Storybox. Storybox was the group Jonathan Pitts brought out from Chicago, and used sticks and cloth to fashion into props, costumes, and set decoration. It was a really unique storytelling improv experience.

Family Reunion Indie Group, photo by Ryan Okinawa
Playing with Indie-Group #3 “Family Reunion”

The second set of the night at Kumu Kahua included my Indie Group, which we named “Family Reunion.” Mike had us do a made-up movie format show. Although we had rehearsed a romantic comedy and an action/adventure earlier in the day, we ended up with the suggestion of film noir for the genre. From what I heard from the audience who saw the show and talked about it, they enjoyed it and thought we did pretty well with the format. Not bad for a group thrown together with only 90 minutes of rehearsal time!

I only got to see about half of Sketchy Alley’s set after that, since my indie group was in the green room for a while after our set, but I’m glad I was able to snap a few photos of my friends. As soon as they were done, I headed back over to the ARTS again because I didn’t want to miss out on the final show over there.


The first group in the final set was a duo out of the Hideout Theatre called Squirrel Buddies, and that lived up to expectations from The Hideout. But the show I’d been hanging out for was the final one. I mentioned above that I had seen videos of Screwbuki and quite enjoyed it. When I saw it was on the line up, I was super excited because I knew it meant I’d be able to see it live. Screwbuki is an improvised Japanese kabuki show, and it was truly a unique experience. I enjoyed all of the characters and the storyline, and everyone worked well together. This is a show that they’ve taken out to other festivals, like Chicago and Seattle, because it’s so different. It’s the kind of show that reminds you that improv can be whatever you want it to be. All you have to do is create it.

This was the night that I stayed out the latest, because it was the final night that pretty much everyone would be at, since many people headed home on Sunday. It was nice that the party was just at the ARTS so we didn’t have to go anywhere. There was food, drinks, music, dancing, and great company. Garrick and R Kevin made speeches thanking people for being involved, and Garrick told us all that we were part of their improv ohana now. Their family. I think that’s the thing that will stick with me most about this festival. The feeling of family and belonging. I’ve heard stories about places that don’t have that same feeling in their improv communities, where it’s more competitive and people care more about their groups than supporting other people in the community. I’d much rather be part of a community that builds each other up and supports. I really valued that feeling at Improvaganza.

Improvaganza Mash Up, photo by R Kevin Garcia Doyle
Playing with Mash Up group “Just Balled Squirrels”

Even though there were a lot of people who headed home on Sunday, there was still one night left for the festival. They have a tradition at this festival for the final night, where anyone who performed or helped out with the festival can sign up for the mash up, and be put into a group to perform together. There were over 30 performers assigned to 6 different groups, and it was really cool to see people playing with others they hadn’t performed with during the festival.

In my group, I got to play with three local improvisors, including Alissa, as well as a couple of guys from Alaska and New Zealand. We improvised a Magnum P.I. style TV show, and I was very grateful to Alissa for bringing me onto the stage when I hadn’t felt like there was a place for me. It ended up being a lot of fun and I was glad to be involved. Then, during the final after party later that night, it was suggested that Alissa and I should perform as a duo. How fun that would be! It would be cool if we could make that work sometime in the future, despite the fact she lives in Honolulu and I live in Oakland.

Overall, I had a really excellent time. I’d like to encourage others to submit to the festival as an individual in the future, because they are going to continue that and I truly enjoyed being part of it. And if you want to be at a festival where you can meet people who become part of your chosen family, then I highly recommend this one. I made new friends that I’m so grateful to have met.

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