The Stumptown Improv Festival is my favorite comedy festival in Portland. Still going strong in its sixth year, Stumptown is one of the biggest comedy draws in town, and the fest’s organizers and co-founders Leon Anderson, Jed Arkley, and Erin Jean O’Regan are rock-solid professional forces who never steer audiences wrong. (Full disclosure: O’Regan is a Mercury sportswriter.) (Fuller disclosure: Anderson is in one of Portland’s great, longstanding improv teams, Broke Gravy.)
Over the years, Stumptown has introduced Portlanders to a number of wonderful acts (like White Women and Virginia Jack, who are returning this year), but it’s fantastic to see a lot of new faces on this year’s schedule. That’s why I’m drawn to improv comedy: a desire for unpredictable humor. Here are some of the new groups, whose shows I recommend:
Dark Side of the Room
Dark Side of the Room’s improv imagines the adventures of the Black characters noticeably missing from classic films. One of their regular members is Mark Kendall, who performed his solo show The Magic Negro and Other Blackness last year at the Siren; although Kendall won’t be at Stumptown, that tells you a bit of what you can expect from Atlanta’s Dark Side of the Room. (Fri Aug 9, 8:30 pm)
Fistful of Kicks
Uhhhh... anime improv? I am flippin’ there. This troupe of Asian improvisers are known for their longform storytelling skills and their love of riffing on anime tropes. You can expect giant robots, magical children, and the power of friendship. (Fri Aug 9, 7 pm)
Coko and Daphney
There’s a lot of buzz around this duo—ensembles are great, but duos are where it’s at—who are self-described “improv soulmates” and recently celebrated five years of performing together. At festivals there’s a lot of excitement around new interactions, but longstanding teams are the ones that have formed enough of a language to get deeply weird. (Sat Aug 10, 7 pm & Sun Aug 11, 8 pm)
While the talent looks amazing, Stumptown Improv 2019 also faces some challenges that might be confusing this year.
First challenge! “The North”: “Shit hit the fan in 2017, during Trump's first year," Arkley says when I push back on his request that we refrain from mentioning the name of the country directly north of the US (rhymes with “schmanada”), where some of this year's troupes came from. It turns out comedians are running into the same kind of border-crossing problems that music groups encounter—and that music communities have invented sneaky systems to circumvent. I thought they were so nice up there. According to Arkley, the problems come from “the US side of it. They literally had agents Googling group and individual names. I kid you not.” This feels new, but in 2017, one of Stumpown's headliners, Hip.Bang!, couldn't make it through the border crossing at all. The Imports ensemble that performed instead were terrific, but it was also disappointing to anyone there specifically for Hip.Bang!
Second challenge! Location, location: “Curious’ stage is my favorite improv stage in town,” Arkley says of Stumptown Improv’s 2019 location shift. The past three years have seen the fest housed comfortably in the larger auditoriums at the Artists Repertory Theatre, but ART’s ongoing construction project shifted Stumptown Improv to Northeast Portland’s Curious Comedy. This is a blessing because Curious has way better snacks. The downside is that the venue has 40 fewer seats than what Stumptown is used to accommodating. Shows are even more likely to sell out (and they usually sell out).