There are often debates in the world of improv as to whether improv is theatre, comedy, improv comedy or whatever other labels we can come up with. Regardless of what people consider it, it’s an art-form that is developed in cities and countries through the fostering of community. Most improv audiences are made up of improvisers and people with a love for the art. It’s very easy to see that it’s only through mutual respect and support, will the art nurture and flourish.
Improv Utopia is the epitome of community. I’ve written about Improv Utopia in previous years and this time round, I was donned with the privilege of being a Camp Counsellor. To those of you unfamiliar with the American concept of camp, it does not involve offering therapy to improvisers going through hard times, but it does involve being the head of your appointed cabin, and helping ensure that Camp goes smoothly and everyone in your cabin is looked after. I was honoured to be asked to be a Counsellor and I was assigned to Cousteau Cabin which has some of the oldest cabin traditions at Improv Utopia.
When I first attended Improv Utopia a few years ago, it was their East camp in Pennsylvania. Over 120 people converged at Camp and I knew only 2 people. However it didn’t take long for the social anxiety to subside as I started to forge friendships. Cut to this year and the excitement of getting back to camp was high. I have been lucky to form strong friendships with a number of fellow campers over the years and this time round, some of them were also Counsellors. In my personal life, the last 9 months have brought many challenges. However Improv Utopia has become a space where I can breath out and just be ok with being me. The unconditional support and positivity as well as the strong friendships formed are disarming of all things negative. (I guess thats why its called Improv Utopia!) The opportunity to play, learn and grow is profound.
Camp Improv Utopia is place where ego has no place. Everyone is treated like the a superstar and there is no competitiveness between performers, theatres or instructors. At Improv Utopia, you are very much living in the moment and it’s an incredible inclusive, supportive experience. Every improv community and city can learn from his approach.
I had the privilege to work with 4 wonderful teachers this time round.
Celeste Pechous – Second City, L.A.
Carla Cackowski – Second City / Improv Yak, L.A.
Eric Hunicutt – iO West / Echo Theatre, L.A.
Kevin Mullaney – Under the Gun Theatre / Improv Resource Center (IRC), Chicago
Celeste: “The Supporting Role”
Celeste’s focus was all about supporting on stage. We could have just spent the time listening to her fascinating stories from over her improv career and it would have been just as worth it, as her tales from recounting experiences in 20 years of improvising was fascinating. Her skill though was making everything she taught relatable and personable. There was some truly wonderful moments for the group with Celeste and she gave a fresh insight into supporting on stage in even just a small way making a greater impact without pulling focus.
Carla: “Playing with Point Of View”
I love point of view play. Carla focussed on character point of view and I must admit that I revel in any point of view work. She also puts a heavy emphasism on emotion in her work which again is a topic I adore. If an audience isn’t laughing, then they should be crying or be moved by the work we do on stage. We can only laugh as hard as we can cry. Carla enthusiasm as for what she does in contagious. She is as playful a teacher as she is a performer.
Eric: “Using the Whole Buffalo”
Eric’s focus was on developing inspiration from your long form opening rather than focussing on inventing. Be it a group opening or monologue or whatever means you choose. This was quite interesting as Eric helped us really focus on pay attention to the small stuff and literally bleed inspiration from even the most immaterial detail. In particular, it was interesting in what we did around taking inspiration from scene painting. I’m not usually a fan of scene painted openings as I often feel it can stifle the mystery and excitement of discovery, however Eric did give us some fun tools to work with which I’m excited to try out again.
Kevin: “Surprise Yourself”
This was an interesting one too, Kevin’s focus was essentially introducing chaos on stage and being ok with it. He used 4 different tools that we each selected from, observed and worked on it before then playing with all 4 elements together. We used a number of different tools, from random monologues in unrelated areas, to over the top reactions as well as other tools. We also worked with combining all the elements together which was a great way of reassuring improvisers that there is nothing to fear on stage and that everything that happens is an opportunity for success.
There was a couple of new people at Camp this year who were also taking their first improv class. That spirit of community combined with the support and love from those who attend provided a solid, safe space for the new folks to play. It really emphasised to me why Improv Utopia is so special. I remember watching one of the new folks, David, do a scene in a Jam with the whole of Camp watching and seeing him bursting with playfulness. Everyone was behind David and you could feel the positive energy. I remember thinking that I wished my first improv classes were in a space like this. It was amazing to see what David had accomplished in such a short space of time.
Its exciting to see friends again and meet new people. I can’t list out everyone but I will just mention just a few of the many people who attend camp that inspire me.
Josh Nicols of Spectacles Improv Enginee remains a huge inspiration to me. He has achieved so much in Orange County with his improv theatre and he is a joy to watch perform. He’s also incredible personable and humble with everyone and everything. If improv had its Buddha, his name would be Josh.
Robert Long of the Centre of Improv Advancement, Bakersfield is another gem in the improv community. Completely selfless and one of the most calming improvisers I’ve ever met.
Jaclynn Cherry from ComedySportz and Detroit Improv Festival epitomises the playfulness of improv both on and off the stage. I’m grateful for the friendship we’ve grown over the years.
Erin Daruszka from Leela San Francisco has stories to tell. She is very much a flag waver for the profound impact improv can have on us and she is the road to achieving great things.
Joey Shope. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Joey could bring peace to a war-zone with his sense of humour. The guy is a powerhouse of comedy.
The Penrods of Off The Cuff Comedy Utah, are also innovators in the improv community. Their festival, Red Rock Improv Festival, is one of the most talked about festivals I hear of. Wendy and TJ are a scream but also quite visionary when it comes to improv.
Bill Binder of The Torch Theatre Phoenix, has been seen more of me in the past year than he wants to! We’ve had time to hang out and play outside of Improv Utopia both in Ireland and the US. Bill is a silent hero, working hard behind the scenes to make things happen. He’s also incredible knowledgeable and most conversations with him will either reveal some random fact or…. his voicemail. If you have his number, call his voicemail now! One of my joys at the San Jose Improv Festival was discovering my own show, Neil+1, had made it up on Bill’s chart analysis for his Math of Improv workshop!
Mike McFarland of Sidestage Improv San Diego, is another leader in his domain. He does alot of work at Camp to help with PR and branding. But he also gives himself to people and has time for everyone.
And of course Nick Armstrong. A good friend and rapidly becoming a father figure of the improv community.
Not Just Camp
It wasn’t all Camp though. I did have the good fortune of teaching and performing Neil+1 in the inaugural San Jose Improv Festival at the charming American Improv Theatre. Jeff, Amit and the festival team did a wonderful job. There is no bigger sense of “Don’t screw this up Neil” when you are sharing the slot with Stage 4 Improv, that’s for sure!
I also got to finally catch David Razowsky perform live alongside Joe Liss and Rachel Hamilton in Rachel’s Theatre in San Francisco and what an inspiring show it was. Rachel has a wonderful space and the atmosphere that night was electric.
Improv Utopia runs 3 camps in the US each year, California, Pennsylvania and Yosemite. Spots book out incredibly fast. I highly recommend checking it out. http://www.improvutopia.com