SEATED IN FOLDING CHAIRS, swilling whiskey and "mystery beer," the audience that crowded into Old Town/Chinatown's Siren Theater for J Names Improv's April show was a reactive one, occasionally punctuated by recognizable performers from across Portland's improv and sketch comedy communities.
There's a good reason for this: The troupe's conceit—that all of their names start with J—is about as sophisticated as rounding up kindergartners by their birthdays, which makes it all the more striking that it works.
And it does.
The subjects that come up in the course of an improv show don't always translate to print. Do you care about Jed Arkley's masterful wistful face, or the fact that there was an ode to outgoing performer Jake "Golden-Haired Beauty" Michels?
And yet it's not an overstatement to say that J Names puts on one of the strongest (though too rare) improv shows in Portland right now, managing to thread ideas through on-the-spot narratives, to consistently say yes (the first rule of improv) to all manner of absurd premises, and then to imbue even the strangest set-ups—poisonous Rubik's Cubes, full-ride math scholarships to elementary school, the travails of pygmy flamingos—with sharp humor and unhinged pathos.
But you still kind of had to be there to appreciate it.
This is the problem with improv. It's out there, and it's great, but we don't always have the awareness or the vocabulary to talk about it. Part of that's the present-tense nature of the format. But another factor is a general lack of coverage of improv—and acceptance of it as an art form. That might be changing.
A Golden Age of improv
FROM THE INFLUX of new spaces and performers, to the growth of the Stumptown Improv Festival, where local groups like the Liberators more than hold their own alongside high-profile acts from New York and LA, improv in Portland is arguably where stand-up in Portland was just a few years ago, before it became widely recognized as a crucial piece of the city's cultural life. As stand-up once was, improv is on the verge of becoming something big. All of the improv practitioners I spoke with said something to that effect.
When I ask Kickstand Comedy Space co-founder Dylan Reiff, who moved to Portland from Chicago, how the Portland scene differs from the Windy City's long-established improv community, he says that he had greater "access to seeing consistently amazing improv" there, but that "the gap has been closing considerably."
Curious Comedy Theater's Stacey Hallal says something similar. "When Curious opened seven years ago, the improv scene was very small," she tells me, before adding that the scene has changed. "Over the past two years we've seen a significant influx of great talent from other cities... it's a golden age of improv here at this very moment—very similar to Chicago in the early years at iO [formerly ImprovOlympic] when Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and that generation were playing there."
"As more improvisers come up through the ranks of the awesome improv programs in Portland, they will begin to fan out, starting more independent groups and expanding the reach of improv in Portland," says Domeka Parker of the Brody Theater. "There have historically been just a few places to dig into improv and just a few groups. But that is changing in a big way."
But while it's clear that improv is likely the next frontier of Portland performance, the improvisers and show organizers I spoke to said they don't see this reflected outside of the improv community itself. Nearly to a person, they thanked me for writing about improv—not for writing about it positively, but for writing about it at all.
"I think improv has been largely overlooked by the press for at least as long as I've been doing it in Portland—which is 17 years," says Hallal. "When articles are written about Portland comedy, they focus purely on stand-up and neglect sketch and improv entirely. We have people who have national reputations and impressive accolades that no one in Portland knows about. Often, when we are covered, reviews start with, 'I usually hate improv, but THIS was good!'"
Parker echoes Hallal. "Theater reviewers didn't truly know how to engage with improvisation," she says. "Journalists weren't certain how to categorize improvisation and clumped it in with stand-up, accidentally misleading audiences, but all of that is changing now."
Reiff has a concise explanation for this: "It's harder to watch seven people fail onstage than one person tell a joke you don't like."
He's absolutely right. But it's also true that improv is like pretty much any art form that gets regularly made fun of by people who have no direct experience with it—all too often, "I usually hate X" just means "I've never seen X." It's also an inherently weird format that seems to carry an even bigger stigma than stand-up.
And yet there's clear demand for it. At last summer's second-ever Stumptown Improv Festival, the tiny Milagro Theatre could barely contain the crowds that showed up; this summer, it moves to a bigger space at Artists Repertory Theatre.
J Names' Arkley, who co-founded the festival with Erin Jean O'Regan and Leon Anderson, describes the venue change as "a responsible jump" made to accommodate some of that overflow. "Last year we had more than 100 people on the waiting list," he says. "After the first couple years, we were like, 'Wow, people are really interested in this.'"
But while Stumptown is indisputably well attended, Arkley says this doesn't always translate to shows year-round. He has an apt sports metaphor: "Americans really get into the World Cup every four years, but never watch soccer."
Improv Church Is Now in session
ON A RECENT TUESDAY NIGHT, a crowd of improvisers and spectators trickle into a linoleum-tiled attic that once served as a Chinese-language classroom. Since Kickstand Comedy moved in above the Siren, it's become a performance and practice space for the city's comedy community.
While other spaces might skew toward stand-up, sketch, or improv, Kickstand hosts all three, with a motley lineup of shows running Monday through Wednesday every week, very few of them your traditional stand-up showcase. There's Andie Main's social justice comedy benefit series Revolution Comedy, which raises funds for causes like Planned Parenthood and the Bernie Sanders campaign. There are podcasts like Dan Weber's long-running bible "study," and brand-new ones like Adam Pasi's Time Capsule, where comics discuss their failed, dated, or otherwise abandoned jokes. Recently, the geek-folk sister duo the Doubleclicks hosted a variety show at Kickstand, pairing their songs about origami elephants and evil boyfriends with sketch comedy and stand-up from Jen Tam and Zak Toscani.
"And tonight," says Kickstand co-founder Reiff, "it's our improv church."
He's only sort of kidding. Every Tuesday, the space gives over its entire evening of programming to improv—five hours total, starting with a low-key improv happy hour practice, a performance featuring four invited teams, and a closing jam ("our version of an open mic") that anyone can participate in. It's less a formal show than a chance for improvisers to share work and build their skills—in keeping with Kickstand's original mission to operate as a sort of "comedy gym." Reiff also sees it as a chance for "the comedy community [to] see what's happening with the improv side of things."
Kickstand's been an unusual entry into Portland's collection of performance spaces from the beginning. Set apart from almost all of the city's theaters by its extremely low price point (most shows have only a suggested donation for admission) and its all-encompassing approach to programming, it's proudly nontraditional, and made headlines—including in this paper—when it first opened at its original home in the basement of bike shop Velo Cult.
That early good buzz didn't last—the space was promptly shuttered by the fire marshal over permitting issues three months in, and Kickstand, which had been lauded by local performers and arts writers alike as a promising multi-format venue, became just the latest in a series of the many Portland arts organizations tasked with searching for a new, permanent home.
"We were very wary of where to go next as a permanent space," says Reiff of the ensuing effort to find a way to get the space up to code, which would have included architectural changes required by the fire marshal, and which he says resulted in "a big game of telephone that I just didn't see ending any time soon."
After a somewhat beleaguered interim, with Kickstand's shows finding temporary homes everywhere from the now-defunct Habesha Lounge to Action/Adventure, Curious Com-edy Theater, and the Brody Theater, Reiff and co-founder Garrett Palm connected with the Siren's Shelley McLendon, who offered the upstairs space in her new theater, which has been the home base for Bad Reputation Productions, the Liberators, the multiformat storytelling/improv show Leviathan, and McLendon's sketch duo with Michael Fetters, the Aces, since October of last year.
It's a synchronistic pairing: Reiff counts the Liberators' John Breen among his most valuable mentors in improv, and while Kickstand's nowhere near as established as McLendon's Bad Reputation Productions, both organizations have carved out space for multiple comedy formats. The week of the J Names show, the Siren hosted a revival of Bad Reputations' 2010 adaptation of bad-good movie Road House, whose cast included J Names improvisers Arkley and Janet Scanlon (and, full disclosure, Mercury Editor in Chief Wm. Steven Humphrey).
The connection with the Siren is a boon for Reiff's personal practice that also speaks to the scene's lineage between spaces and generations of performers.
"It impacts the way you think about an aspect of improv," he says of the partnership. "I'll see John make a move, or Shelley... [and wonder] how can I work on the skillset that takes me to that point. Because if you don't see it in practice, it can be hard."
Just weeks later and a few blocks away, the Brody Theater, a longtime hub for improv classes and performances—and once one of Portland's only outlets for improv, along with ComedySportz, where many local performers also cut their teeth—is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a month of dedicated programming. As the artistic director of yet another go-to spot for improv classes and shows, Curious Comedy's Hallal says the Portland scene has hit "that critical mass of talent and momentum, while still having enough stage time and opportunity available for people to develop into superstars."
As with any arts scene, there are hurdles to building a wider audience when it comes to improv. And as also happens in stand-up, there are departures to cities with more established scenes—Kickstand's Palm and J Names' Michels are both headed to LA.
Still, there's a contingent of local performers who aren't going anywhere—and a strong sense that with the right conditions, Portland could be a prime case study in how improv can sustainably thrive—as stand-up has—in a mid-sized city. Arkley sees promise in the independent improv groups that have enriched the scene, and a more general demand for good, smart comedy, which he says sets up potential for audience overlap between stand-up and improv. "Portland improv, like [Portland] stand-up, plays it really smart and to the top of our intelligence," he says.
The Siren's McLendon, a longtime member of the Liberators, and who uses improv to some extent in all of her scripted shows, sees that overlap happening already, on a conceptual level. "Great improv depends on you being in the moment and reacting to what's happening right in that moment," she says, "which is useful in any form of comedy—and in life in general."