Last year was my first year attending Improvaganza, the Hawaii Festival of Improv. I’d attended as an individual that got put into a group to perform. It was so much fun that I encouraged a lot of people to apply to the festival this year. Which seemed to have worked, because I ended up being credited as the reason they had so many San Francisco groups and submissions for the festival this year. One of those groups being my own show, So You Want a Job, that I somehow miraculously had curated a cast for who were all interested in travelling to the festival with me, and performed with them with video recorded in time to submit in April. It was only the second time that show had been performed. But more on that later.
Getting the Most Out of Improvaganza
I’ve been to a few improv festivals now, and heard from people about how other festivals go. I have no doubts that Improvaganza is absolutely one of the best, and I think that it’s good to know going in to the festival exactly what you can get out of it. Knowing the producers and the atmosphere of the festival as I do, I think it’s important to respect what they offer.
Diverse Selection of Shows
If you’re ever feeling like your improv is going stagnant and you wonder what else improv can offer you as a performer, this festival is a great place to see a variety of different formats, styles, genres, and so on. This year’s festival included musical improv (including a hip hop show), silent movie improv (from the festival hosts), shadow puppets, a heavy metal themed show, reality TV (my show), a Vietnam War era show, apocalyptic cabaret, Harry Potter, and so much more!
So, whilst it may be common for some groups to just duck in and do their own shows without supporting the other acts, I would not recommend doing that at this festival, because you’d really be missing a lot of quality improv that could inspire you to take your improv in a new direction.
There are after parties every night of the festival – the first couple of nights are generally at a bar near the theatre where you can grab some food and drinks, the Saturday night is at the theatre after the final night of invited shows, and the Sunday night is karaoke night. Not every festival has such an easy way to socialise with the other performers you see on stage there, but it’s very much encouraged here, because the producers want their guests to become part of their improv ohana. Sometimes it can be obvious who sticks around and who doesn’t, and as a result, it seems like groups are more likely to be invited back if they do socialise. I find the after parties are the best time to thank the producers and festival staff for all their hard work, because that’s when they’re not worrying about making sure everything is running smoothly for the shows. With how genuinely nice everyone is who is involved with putting the festival together (from the producers, to the tech people, to all the volunteers), why wouldn’t you want to be part of that atmosphere? Now, as an autistic person, I understand that socialising can be difficult sometimes. But that’s rarely been the case for me here. It doesn’t feel like a chore when everyone who sticks around is just so genuine and friendly.
You may also find added benefits to socialising with improvisers from other cities. In the case of this year’s festival, there were a lot of improvisers visiting from San Francisco and Seattle. Those who did interact were keen to see each other again at their own festivals, and/or in their own cities. Festival selection can be difficult from watching submission videos alone, so sometimes meeting producers at other festivals, or having a good reputation and word of mouth, can count for a lot.
When it comes to a show like mine, where I have the freedom to change up the cast, and I want to be able to play with improvisers in other cities, I want to meet the people who want to do that with me. I had conversations with the men in Tacklebox from LA (who I first met at last year’s festival) about just that, because they were impressed, and they’re such lovely guys that I’d love to be able to play with on stage. You just never know what possibilities could arise from attending the social events.
The Mash Up
On the final night of the festival (Sunday), any performers who are still around are invited to sign up for the mash up (an idea they got from Seattle; another wonderful festival for most of the same reasons). Sign ups are then put into groups with other improvisers they probably didn’t perform with at the festival, and then each group is given ten minutes to come up with a format together, and then ten minutes to perform that format for the rest of the audience.
I’ve participated in this twice in Honolulu, and once in Seattle, and I absolutely love it. It’s a great way to get to play with talented improvisers you’ve enjoyed watching on stage, but wouldn’t normally get to play with. Perhaps you’ll even find someone you’ll want to start a side-project with. After I participated last year, former CIF Producer Jonathan Pitts suggested Improvaganza producer Alissa Joy Lee and I should form a duo. Whilst we have yet to debut such a show, we have been talking about it, and it’s something we’re both keen to see happen.
Improvaganza attracts some of the best improvisers in the US, and as a result of that, the workshops they include tend to be taught by nationally and internationally acclaimed improv teachers, with a variety of topics or themes that may be more difficult to find in your local area. On top of that, it’s another great opportunity to interact and play with improvisers from other cities you may not normally get to perform with.
But, It’s Hawaii!
That’s true, and naturally you’re also going to want to enjoy as much as Oahu has to offer as well, whether it’s beaches, hiking, museums, food, whatever! The good news is, most of Improvaganza’s related events are in the evenings, apart from the Saturday workshops. There’s plenty of time to do those tourist things during the day, with the added bonus that posting about the activities that you want to do in the Facebook group for performers means you might find other improvisers to join you in those activities. And if you don’t think the four days of the festival are enough for all those tourist things you want to do, then tack on some extra days to your trip before and/or after the festival. You may still find other improvisers who are there before/after the festival who can join you, too. Or be like me, and beg one of the producers who loves hiking to take you and one of your fellow improvisers on a hike the morning after the festival (achieved primarily because it was a public holiday so he didn’t have to be at work, which isn’t always the case).
The information packet performers get at the meet and greet session on the first day of the festival also includes recommendations for tourist activities people might like to do, and places they recommend getting food.
Performing “So You Want a Job” in Honolulu
The journey of getting my own show at Improvaganza has been a long process. I first met one of the producers, R Kevin Garcia Doyle, online roughly eight years ago, back when I still lived in Malaysia. He’s been a particularly influential character in my improv life, because without him, I may have studied improv somewhere else in San Francisco. Had I studied somewhere else, I may never have met the people who became my festival cast for So You Want a Job, and honestly, if it wasn’t for being inspired by the unique styles and shows coming out of Hawaii, I may never have thought to come up with the concept of my own show either. It may just never have occurred to me that it was possible to do that.
I’ve only been actively improvising for the last three years, however, since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I’d wanted to do improv all those other years I knew R Kevin, but there was so little opportunity in Malaysia that it was practically zero. So I simply admired their festival from afar for a long time, never thinking I’d actually be able to come up with my own show worthy of their festival myself.
But then, early this year saw the perfect storm of elements that led to the creation of “So You Want a Job.” I had approached Leela’s Artistic Director, Jill Eickmann (who is the person R Kevin introduced me to three years ago, that led to me studying at Leela) about directing a mash up show in January. She gave me an available show date – Trump’s Inauguration Day – and I set about finding a cast. So few people were available for the show and rehearsal time I had, that the cast size (three people + me) ended up informing the show format. I knew I wanted to do something with the Funemployed card game, based on having played it with a couple of improvisers in December, but it was that first rehearsal, the debut show date, and the cast size that really informed the format for this show.
When I was invited to be one of the producers of Femprovisor Fest this year, that led to me thinking, “Who would be my ideal all-female cast, so we could perform at Femprovisor Fest?” Whilst I didn’t end up getting to put that show up in time to submit to the festival with that cast, the cast I came up with was one that I was so excited about that they ended up being the cast for my next show anyway. And when I had that show date on the books, Improvaganza submissions opened, so I rushed to see if the three of them would be interested in me submitting and having us perform in Hawaii. Much to my delight, they all agreed, and so basically by happy chance I got to submit to my favourite festival with my own show and a delightful cast, which was then later selected to be part of the opening night.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had, and that no obstacle stood in my way long enough to prevent me from enjoying it, though they might have tried. When I booked my initial flight, I was scheduled to arrive in Honolulu with plenty of time before the meet & greet session. I should’ve gotten in at 1:30pm or so. But then United changed their schedule and pushed it back to a 3:50pm arrival time. I still had a little wiggle room with that, so I didn’t bother trying to get them to change it. But then when my plane sat at the gate in SFO with everyone on board for an hour because half the runways were closed and people kept getting out of their seats, I was stressed. By the time I arrived in Honolulu, I had to be dropped off at the theatre, barely making it in time for the start of the meet & greet, and then I was lucky that my Airbnb was so close, because I somehow managed to go there, drop off my things, get changed into my show outfit, and grab what else I needed and got back to the theatre all in twenty minutes, so I was still at the theatre half an hour before the scheduled show start time. One of my cast members, Shirley, commented that she had never ever seen me in the state I was in that night. She was a life saver, leading us through a meditation in the green room before the show. That calmed me down a lot and helped put me in the right frame of mind for the show.
The opening of “So You Want a Job” has evolved almost with every show, at least in terms of how I help my cast develop their characters at the outset. The first few times, I’d had them introduce themselves by name, but then I experimented naming them myself in our first SF Barprov show, after they were already seated and knew what they were applying for, until finally, in Honolulu, on a whim I said, “I’m going to introduce you at the top of the show.” As a result, I think we may have had our most successful show to date, and certainly a new video I can use to submit to future festivals. You can watch the full video below, thanks to Shaun Landry filming it.
Taking Shirley, Diana, and Leila with me to Hawaii was absolutely one of the best experiences. I felt incredibly proud that my friends in Hawaii enjoyed watching them on stage and meeting them, and thrilled that my cast loved the festival as much as I do. There is something just so incredibly rewarding about introducing people you like to other people and experiences you like, and having it go so well. I love sharing the love around.
I enjoyed having them with me so much that they are likely going to remain my ideal festival cast, and I’m going to prefer to submit to future festivals if they’re all able to join me. “So You Want a Job” will be appearing at AS IF – the Alaska State Improv Festival – in April 2018, but we’ll be down a Leila and up a Marcus Sams, since Leila wasn’t able to make that trek with us. Attending Improvaganza the way I did has certainly helped me evaluate how I decide what festivals I submit to in the future, because I want to be able to offer such great experiences to my friends at other festivals. From what I’ve heard about AS IF, they won’t be disappointed there, either.