I rarely wear shorts unless I’m on an adventurous outdoor holiday. However the Phoenix climate made the wearing of shorts a mandatory requirement. For the first time in my life, I rehearsed and directed improv in a pair of shorts. Achievement unlocked.
When I was invited to direct a new feature of the Phoenix Improv Festival; The International Ensemble, I was both flattered and excited. Those feelings turned into an almost overwhelming sense of pressure to not screw it up as I approached my departure date and saw the line-up for the festival. Lots of big names and heavy hitters. So what could I offer?
The Phoenix Improv Festival is quite a large affair. Housed in the beautiful Herberger Theatre Centre in Downtown Phoenix, the festival featured acts from all over the US. Mixer Shows as part of festivals however don’t really feature in US festivals compared to them being a staple in Europe. The fest wanted to bring an extra element to their approach by including a director and setting a strict rehearsal period so a show could be prepared.
The Ensemble featured 5 other people. Kaisa Kokko (Finland), Nora McLeese (Netherlands), Anna Renzenbrink (Australia), Lee Boyes (Canada) and Jay Flewelling (USA). Each of the ensemble aside from representing their countries, they also brought their own unique style and flair to the mix. I was excited for the potential, as everyone was quite experienced and highly active in their improv communities. I couldn’t have asked for more wonderful people to work with.
I approached the project with an open mind. We had 2 shows in the festival and I knew it was important for us to offer something different. I had a couple of ideas that I brought to the group but it was important that everyone was onboard with what we went it. We spent the first few days workshopping on a few areas that I love: Slow burning comedy, drama, intimacy and of course, playing to fail. My approach also had another purpose, to help create a bond between the group whereby we felt an immense responsibility to each other.
Over the 4 rehearsal days, there were laughs but there were also tears. Scenes that really pulled on the emotional heart-strings. Scenes that gave an open honest portrayal of the human condition, of love and of sorrow. We had something special develop from those workshops and our anticipation for the shows grew. I’ve always felt that improv troupes should have a Guardians of the Galaxy feel to them – distinctly different personalities that offer something different as individuals but fit like a jigsaw as a group. We were the Guardians of the Galaxy!
From our rehearsals, a beautiful format emerged that brought together comedy, drama and intertwined theme, stemming from a strong opening which highlights who we are as a group. We affectionately dubbed it a “Phoenix”. The show was very well received. (See video below for one of our performances.) I was both grateful and delighted for what we achieved and the new friendships forged throughout the process. It was a pleasure to work with such talented performers and artists. I’m looking forward to sharing the format back home and seeing what people do with it.
But the fun didn’t stop there. I got play in a really fun duo at Garage-prov with Rachel Tullio as well as co-host the jam. Rachel is a very giving performer, and we got play with very interesting relationships on stage.
I also got to play in an Armando Show as part of The Revival at Space 55. We had a guest monologist from the music industry and I shared the stage with Kaisa, Jaclynn Cherry, Jose Gonzales and 3 of the cast of the wonderful Honey from New York’s Magnet Theatre. It was a fast paced, gamey show which was riddled with retro music references which I got a kick out of. Super fun.
The festival was riddled with talent. It proved impossible to see everything. There was 4 hours of shows per night! I did get a particular kick out of a few acts. Honey were incredible. Their show was very tight and the comedy was well-knit throughout the narrative. Mayhem from Huge Theatre, Minneapolis were an excellent duo. The last time I was wowed by a duo was when I first saw London’s Project2 and Mayhem are at that level. They make it all look so effortless while maintaining a realism in the worlds they create.
Festivals play a very important role in the improv community. They offer local audiences a chance to see acts from all over and give performers a chance to play in front of new audiences and really test the standard of your art form. They also give groups a chance to ensure that they are approaching the art form with a professional head. It’s not bar-prov and much of the audience probably wont know you. It’s a great opportunity to grow. Last year I performed or taught in 5 international festivals and it still didn’t feel like enough!
The warmth and attention that visitors to Phoenix received from the festival team was world-class. The theatre itself was beautiful and traditional. Huge shout out and thanks to the Phoenix Improv Festival team led by Bill Binder and Jacque Arend as well as all the festival volunteers and “Den Moms”. And of course a massive thank you and appreciation for Anna, Nora, Kaisa, Jay and Lee. Honoured for the opportunity to work with such talent.