Sometimes the best theatrical performances are born from putting the cart before the horse, or in this case, staging the play before the script.
This week, the Alaska State Improv Festival (AS IF!) is kicking off its sixth annual event in Juneau, with a diverse series of performances and workshops put on by improv artists, both local and from across the country, including Los Angeles-based super group The All-Girl Revue. The shows and classes will be held at McPhetres Hall and the Hangar Ballroom at various times April 26-29.
This year’s festival will get warmed up with a special pay-as-you-can preview event at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 25 at McPhetres Hall. The preview show is a fundraiser for the theater to replace a light board that was recently stolen from it, and all proceeds will go towards getting new equipment.
“We had a handful of the groups that were already going to be here in advance of the festival,” said AS IF! creator and producer Eric Caldwell. “At the moment I said, ‘We’re doing to a show to raise money to replace it … every single one of them said, ‘Of course I want to be involved.’”
Caldwell spends his time between behind-the-scenes planning of the big event and on stage as part of long time local improv group Morally Improv-erished, as well as Cogs & Goggles, a steampunk-themed adventure serial. He said AS IF! has grown significantly over the past six years.
“For a destination festival, it is quite large,” Caldwell said. “I look at some other communities, some major cities, places like Cincinnati and Las Vegas, and realize how much larger our festival is than some of those. And it’s really a testament to how much our community is willing to support an event like that.”
Improv groups will be coming to Juneau for the festival from a wide range of locales, including Portland, New York, Los Angeles, and Florida. Joining this year’s retinue is renowned Chicago-based improv artist and educator Jonathan Pitts, who will bring his decades of experience to performances and workshops throughout AS IF!.
Pitts, who has performed in over 1,200 improvised shows to date, created the highly distinguished Chicago Improv Festival with fellow performer Frances Callier — going on to produce it for 20 years — and taught at The Second City, Chicago’s famed improv troupe. He has now retired from the producer’s chair and taken to the road, and has been teaching workshops in countries around the globe.
In one notable performance at this year’s AS IF!, Pitts will be bringing along his “Storybox Unscripted Theatre.” Together with Alaskan improvisers and spectators, and some basic props, he will help weave a unique tale with elements of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.”
“We create a character with the help of the audience, and then over the course of the show, we follow that character as they go through their lives, and as they go through their changes,” he said.
Using the tools and philosophies he has developed over his lengthy career, Pitts will also be teaching lessons at the festival workshops. He said that festival-goers who don’t necessarily have a background or any experience in improvisation are welcome, and encouraged, to join in.
“This is a chance to try something new, to try it in a safe setting, to have fun, and to explore … your creativity,” Pitts said.
Pitts has taught classes in various countries — 14 in the last six months alone — and said that there are different cultural approaches to the art form, regionally. In the U.S., improv is often concomitant with comedy, with the rise in popular media associated with it, such as “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Summing up in what he referred to as a “very broad generalization,” Pitts said that a lot of European improv tends to be more theatrical-driven, Australia and New Zealand leans more towards narrative-driven performances, Canada improv is often character-driven, and in some Asian cultures it’s more “heart focused.”
“By ‘heart focused,’ what I mean is they are attempting to make you feel things as well as making you laugh,” Pitts said.
Improvisation as cross-cultural education has deep roots in Chicago. Viola Spolin — theater educator and godmother of The Second City — developed her “Theater Games,” the DNA of modern improv, while working with children from diverse cultural backgrounds in the 1940s as part of the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration, perhaps more familiarly known as the WPA. Each game was designed to allow the youth to connect to and participate in theater education.
“The conflict was, ‘How do we teach theater to immigrant kids when we don’t have the money for sets, props, costumes, or royalties?’,” Pitts said. “So Viola came up with these two hundred games. Each game can be played by a kid, and if you play a game and do well at it, you master a technique, and it gives you …better theater skills, or communication skills, or socialization skills. Playing those games transformed those kids.”
Though everyone may not be cut out to be a professional improv performer, Pitts said that Spolin’s egalitarian dictum, that “everyone can improvise,” still holds true today.
“Everyone can improvise, because the ability to play is innate in humanity,” he said. “I believe the desire and need to play is in all of us … being able to play is a divine right of human beings.”
The Alaska State Improv Festival will be running Thursday, April 26 through Sunday, April 29 with various shows and workshops at McPhetres Hall and the Hangar Ballroom, and with a special pay as you can preview on Wednesday, April 25 (walk-up sales only). Advance tickets are available at all local outlets and on the festival website, as well as a limited number of all-season passes (only 25 will be sold, and are available online only). For further information and the full schedule of events, go online at http://asifest.com.
• Richard Radford is a freelance writer living in Juneau.