The Stumptown Improv Festival is back! Has it really been a whole year? It doesn’t feel so long ago that I was sitting in Artists Repertory Theatre—not a bad seat in the house—with festival sponsor King Quince, talking about his quince farm and watching improv about quince fruit. (Quinces have figured heavily into every year of Portland’s only improv festival—Oregon Quinces are a major underwriter.)
Improv has more to recommend it than the odd quince, but I can still make the argument that both are an acquired taste. The rules of improv are counterintuitive and often vary from performer to performer. Some pantomime their on-the-spot inventions. Some simply say what they’re holding. Some aren’t even interested in being funny as much as imaginative or ironic. Deep stories can develop in improv. It’s very much like jazz. It’s joke jazz.
Even if you see a lot of comedy in Portland, this festival is a unique opportunity to catch visiting troupes from the East Coast, LA, and Vancouver, BC—the cream of each city’s improv crop. And if you’re curious about local improv, the Stumptown Improv Festival also provides a crash course in Portland’s best. Here are a few groups I’m excited to see this year:
Big Bang Improv
Big Bang is new to Stumptown this year, but fans will recognize Rachel Rosenthal from her performance at last year’s fest with her hip-hop improv team North Coast, and from her teaching residency at the Siren Theater last winter. Big Bang practices a Boston free-form style which, if you’re hardcore into improv, means you’re like (monocle) oh yes, the Boston style. But if you’re a casual fan like me, it means they jump scenes, narratives, and perspectives like they’re creating a Baz Luhrmann movie before your very eyes. It’s great for short attention spans—or anyone who thinks improv can run a little long.
The Right Now
Another fast-cutting, quick-moving troupe, the Right Now hail from San Francisco and LA. They’re an all-woman trio of power suits and leaning in, with jokes that frequently cut straight to the funny bone of a liberal West Coast audience member. (Sometimes I just like having jokes aimed at me.)
There’s lots of well-deserved hype surrounding LA trio Dasariski. Their goofs are so creeping and their performances so long that they improv for a solid hour, without another troupe. The slow-roasted barbecue of improv, Dasariski’s approach is masculine, musing, and cerebral. I just realized I should have done all these blurbs in the style of whiskey descriptions—Dasariski is perfectly peaty with a natural sweetness.
Very physical—bordering on combustive—Tunnel is a great Portland troupe that also co-founded Kickstand Comedy and currently teach classes above the Siren Theater. One of the most fearless improv troupes I’ve ever seen, Tunnel delves with abandon into dangerous territory and risqué subject matter. Last year, there was a running gag about aggressively nude children—high rye, sweet and biting.
An imaginative, hilarious trio focused on physicality and unique characters—for Broke Gravy, the story is nearly as important as the punchline. Featuring Stumptown co-founder Leon Anderson, this group is hard to predict but always puts on a wonderful show. It’s a little weightier on the palate, with honey and malt.