Thanks to producer Eric Caldwell, co-producer M.D. Christenson and nearly a dozen volunteers, the Alaska State Improv Festival (AS IF) will be returning to Juneau for a fifth year, hosting 24 groups over a five day period in shows and workshops.
Caldwell got his first taste of improv during a class at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in high school, and then he dabbled with it in college. It wasn’t until he returned to Juneau and started volunteering at Perseverance Theatre that he started Morally Improv-erished with Christenson and several others in 2004. He’s been in several groups since, like An Improbable Act and Rorschach Pattern 9. He didn’t turn his love for the art form of improv into a festival until 2013.
“Initial vision for the festival was to create an environment which we could showcase Alaska improv while at the same time building the capacity to grow the scene statewide,” Caldwell said. Alaskan groups have come from Anchorage, Talkeetna and Sitka in the past; this year, they have three from Anchorage, one from Sitka, and Juneau’s own Cogs & Goggles, a steampunk action adventure serial in which both Caldwell and Christenson perform.
The rest of the groups come from around the U.S., many fairly renowned in the improv world — like Liss n’ Sam of San Francisco and 808 from Los Angeles. On the application rubric, AS IF gives equal weight to the originality of the group’s concept, the skills with which the show is performed, whether the show was performed as described and the marketability of the show.
Caldwell said the festival has been growing every year. The first festival began with 12 groups over three days. Now with 24 groups over five days, they’re at capacity and are unlikely to get bigger. The festival has many high quality submissions, Caldwell said, but it can only accept about half due to space, time, and other limitations. Large-scale improv festivals generally require considerations like a paid staff, its own theater space, and a population of millions to draw from and not just tens of thousands, he said.
“So what we have is unique in the improv world, and it’s already one of the larger improv festivals in the Pacific Northwest, so for it to grow at this point would be very difficult. What we’re finding is an increased interest outside of Alaska to attend and perform at this festival. So the expectation is that we will continue to receive more and more submissions and that the quality of the festival, which is already very good, will just continue to increase,” he said.
AS IF’s national reach sunk in for Caldwell when Cogs & Goggles went to Improvaganza! in Honolulu in September 2016. During the festival, the production team had an award ceremony to recognize those who have influenced Hawaiian improv over the decades.
“I was certainly not one of the people being officially recognized but I was mentioned three times during the speeches on the work I was doing in Alaska,” Caldwell said. “That really made it strike home that what we’re doing with the Alaska State Improv Festival is being noticed nationally, and we have a place in the national scene because of the work that we’re doing, and not just a place but a well-recognized place. Needless to say, that was very humbling to have that kind of recognition.”
Caldwell said there’s quite a bit of planning involved with setting up AS IF. This year’s festival hasn’t even begun and he is already looking at dates for next year’s AS IF, as well as prospective master artists (who teach workshops). The shows will run April 27-May 1 and will either take place at the Hangar Ballroom or McPhetres Hall. A full listing of the improv groups’ performances can be found at asifest.com.
The festival offers workshops so that Alaska performers get the opportunity to train with national and international instructors. During the festival, guest improv artists will be provide workshops on various topics, like world and character creation. The complete workshop listing is online, as is registration.
“As an art form, what is appealing (about improv) is that you’re creating something out of nothing. Afterwards, when it’s done well, people have a hard time believing that what you have done is not scripted. That yes, there is rehearsal behind it, but everything up there has not been scripted out. It is happening at that time. It is this form of instant art. You create it and then it is done,” Caldwell said.
He said there has been many times when someone has asked him after a show how he thought it went and he has responded that he needs to see the tape of the performance first to know. Because the performer is absorbed in the moment, they might not realize they acted a certain way, or that another performer did something that added a different perspective to the scene, he said.
Being an improv performer requires the ability to adapt to changing situations and work with the other actors, Caldwell said, referencing a time when he was in a Seattle improv workshop. From Caldwell’s perspective, the other performer looked like she was hailing a cab, but actually to the audience, she was looking down at an Olympic medal she had just won and was waving at the crowd.
“When I got up there all of a sudden I’m in this situation that is completely different from what I had perceived as she starts singing the Star Spangled Banner. All I could do in that moment was realize that whatever reality I had created that I had to incorporate the reality that was clearly being handed to me. We ended up singing the entirety of the Star Spangled Banner at which point the scene ended and I looked out to the instructor who was dying laughing cause he saw exactly what was going on the whole time and that I was willing to change my perspective in the moment,” Caldwell said.
“From a personal standpoint part of the reason that I continue to do (improv) is because of this amazing international community of people, of this base of friends that I have created through my involvement and participation in improv. Because so much of improv involves letting go of your own ideas, listening to other people and creating off what other people bring into the scenario, the people involved in improvisational theater tend to be very giving, good listeners, very positive people. That’s an attractive reason to stay in the art form and to keep making connections and keep bringing people in.”
Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Clara Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.