IMPROV COMEDY is having a moment in Portland. Between venues like the Brody Theater and Curious Comedy and talented troupes like the Liberators and Whiskey Tango, there's an unprecedented level of energy and excitement around the oft-maligned form.
The next step? A festival.
Improvisers Jed Arkley, Leon Anderson, and Erin O'Regan are throwing Portland's first festival dedicated exclusively to improv. Christened the Stumptown Improv Festival, it's scheduled to launch this August.
Arkley—a member of top-notch local improv troupe Whiskey Tango, whom you might also remember from his title role in Rudolph—On Stage!—answered our questions about the festival via email.
MERCURY: How long have you guys been planning this?
JED ARKLEY: We started planning the fest right after Whiskey Tango got back from the Vancouver International Improv Fest at the beginning of October 2013. I was driving back by myself, thinking of the fest, and it just came to me: "Why isn't Portland doing this?" My next thought was: Leon and Erin. Boom! Pow!
How has the community response been, and have you faced any particular challenges (so far) in putting it together?
No challenges yet. In fact, it's been pretty easy so far (knock on lots of wood).
The community response has been very positive. We made a point to talk to the improv kingpins personally before publicly launching the Facebook page or handing out business cards. Tom Johnson (Brody), Stacey Hallal (Curious), John Breen (the Liberators), Shelley McLendon (the Liberators), Patrick Short (ComedySportz)... we had one-on-one talks with all of them. Part of the goal of the fest is to continue the great trend lately in the improv scene of cross-pollination of theaters and performers. So we didn't want to be seen as stepping on anyone's toes or turf. But they all were pretty much like, "Great! Now I don't have to think about doing it." This was also the reason we wanted to pick a "neutral" theater like Milagro. The point is to be a showcase for improv comedy in Portland, not any particular theater or school.
Do you think Portland audiences are ready for a full-on festival? Why now?
Portlanders are really responsive to smart and unique comedy—whether it's stand-up, sketch, or improv. And when improv is done well, it can be the most rewarding kind of show for a discerning audience. On top of that, audiences have been showing up in strong numbers lately to "all-improv" shows. Personally, I've been performing to larger crowds than ever before over the past year. On top of that, places like Portland Center Stage (with Shelley McLendon curating both the Slingshot series, as well as Improv Night) and Helium Comedy Club (who recently asked Whiskey Tango to do a regular monthly gig) are recognizing that this is a part of the comedy scene worth investing in.
So why now? Besides what I said above, putting the focus on improv for a weekend will coalesce the existing excitement and interest. People who have enjoyed improv casually in the past will now have an opportunity to really dive deep. We have modest goals for this first year, but I think there are 300 improv fans in this town. (Please, dear god, please!) On top of that, this festival is meant to recognize the improv that is already happening in Portland, but we also hope to give the improv scene an added boost. I think Bridgetown [Comedy Fest] gave local comics something to reach for and it really helped to up the quality of stand-up in this town. We want to do the same with improv. There's a TON of talented improvisers, but we definitely need more quality groups.
See Some Improv!
Whiskey Tango at Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th, Thurs Feb 20, 8 pm, $10-15, whiskeytangoimprov.com
The Liberators at the IFCC, 5340 N Interstate, Sat March 1, 7:30 pm, $13-16, theliberators.net