For many, mention of the word "improv" brings to mind Who's Line Is It, Anyway?, Drew Carey's long-running yukfest on ABC, which has been practically the sole representative of the art form in the mainstream media. For the past 50-odd years, however, in live venues across the country, another animal altogether, "long form" improv, has been stalking the land, gathering diehard underground followings.
Long form is a series of improvised dramatic scenes, rather than quick games and gags; rarely televised, it's the apotheosis of the live theater experience, as the audience is witness not only to performance, but to creation. For the serious improv connoisseur, top-notch long form bears the same relationship to its shorter brethren as a three-course banquet has to a 3/4-ounce bag of Funyuns. Thanks to groups such as Transactors, Comedy Worx and Dirty South Improv, long form improv has been a staple of entertainment in the Triangle for years.
This week, from Feb. 6-11, the Carrboro-based Dirty South will host its annual Dirty South Improv Festival, which is fast becoming one of the premier improv showcases in the nation. Now in its seventh year, the DSI Festival is the culmination of founder Zach Ward's tireless efforts to put the Triangle on the improv comedy map. This year's fest will pull in 450 performers from around the country to mix it up with the locals for six nights of mostly long form spontaneous comedy. Along with well-regarded performers from traditional improv redoubts like Chicago, New York, Toronto and L.A., teams from Sedona, Ariz., and Carbondale, Ill., testify to improv's role in the spreading new wave of "alternative comedy."
Ward, who graduated from Chapel Hill High and UNC, put together the first festival in 2001. "I had just moved to Chicago earlier in 2000. In Chicago, I was starting classes at the Annoyance Theater and Improv Olympic and I really wanted an excuse to come home," says Ward, speaking recently by telephone. "I was like, 'Hey, I want to come home, I want to do shows, and I want to teach everyone what I've been learning. So, let me create a festival so it seems official.'"
The DSI Festival's increasingly high profile is starting to attract major talent from outside North Carolina. Among the main draws, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton from Chicago will reprise their good-old-boy alter egos, Donny Weaver and Earl Hinkle, in Bassprov, a two-man tour-de-force centered on fishing and beer. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB), New York's improvising mecca, will send an eponymous team of regular performers, including UNC-Chapel Hill grads Anthony King and Charlie Todd.
Headlining the festival is Horatio Sanz, late of Saturday Night Live, who will perform Friday, Feb. 9 at Cat's Cradle, on a bill with Bassprov and UCB. Trained at Second City and Improv Olympic in Chicago, Sanz moved to New York in 1998 to become the first Latino to join the cast of SNL. On the show, flashes of his quick-witted brilliance often leaked through the canned routines, but for a more rewarding creative outlet he had to look elsewhere. To that end, during his eight-season run on SNL, he became a stalwart of New York's improv scene, which by then had coalesced around the Upright Citizens Brigade, a four-person troupe that he helped found in Chicago in the early '90s.
In contrast to the stifling confines of SNL, where, according to Sanz, speaking recently from New York, "different layers of higher-ups have to approve everything you do," improv lets performers take their art directly to the audience, unfiltered. For many of the most successful comedy writers and performers with high-level day jobs in the entertainment industry, dropping in on improv shows is a vital creative ritual, a way to keep in touch with audiences and refuel their artistic wellsprings.
"I think everyone who's a performer has some attention deficit problem," says Ward, laughing. "Specifically improvisers, who are looking to do something brand new every single night they do a show. Improv in general, as an art form, is the one thing that's kept me interested the whole time."
The improv world is a tight-knit subculture, with a well-versed fan base and a clubby network of performers. It combines elements of standup comedy and traditional theater, but in one important respect it differs markedly from both: For even the most successful practitioners, it doesn't pay the bills. Improv can be a training ground and stepping stone to fame and fortune; witness troupes like Second City, iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), UCB, and L.A.'s The Groundlings, which practically function as pipelines to SNL and Hollywood. But improv has never attracted the big, mainstream audiences that would make it a financial end in itself.
Instead, improvisers are rewarded with artistic satisfaction and rabidly loyal followers who know that on a good night, they're witness to the creation of something unique, something that will never be repeated. "It's the kind of thing where if you try to talk about it around the water cooler the next day, no one's going to get it," says Sanz. "It's sort of a big inside joke that the audience gets to be in on."
From the audience's perspective, improv comedy can look like unbridled chaos. Newbie viewers are apt to assume that their cutup officemate or wacky cousin could simply get on stage and start goofing around and—voila! improv. In reality, it's a craft that demands years of preparation. Being naturally funny is just the start. Would-be improvisers must learn rules of collaboration, of agreeing with fellow performers' choices and working together to find the "game," the dramatic heart of a given scene. Training in acting helps to establish character and invoke authentic emotion. From that beginning, only years of practice will bestow the skills needed to perform, consistently and confidently, without a net.
As with jazz, America's other great 20th-century improvisatory contribution to the arts, collaboration is the key. "It's got a lot to do with the connections you can make with another person in that moment," says Josh Cohen, of the New York-based duo The Josh and Tamra Show, which will perform Saturday, Feb. 10 at The ArtsCenter. "It's almost like a high, to be able to make that kind of subconscious, instantaneous connection. It's this kind of weird, almost zone-like experience that I find very exhilarating." Before becoming an improviser, Cohen was a muppeteer with the Jim Henson Company, and in an interesting twist on standard improv, it's his puppets that interact onstage with his partner, Tamra Malaga, to hilarious effect.
Along with Transactors, ComedyWorx and the newly opened iO South Training Center in Raleigh, the DSI Fest is boosting the area's reputation as an improv magnet, to the point where it may soon rub shoulders with Chicago, New York and L.A. Which suits Zach Ward just fine. "My ultimate goal is that North Carolina becomes a hotbed for improvisation," he says, "and trains the next generation of comedy talent."
The Dirty South Improv Festival runs from Tuesday, Feb. 6 through Sunday, Feb. 11. Tickets are priced between $5-$20, and shows take place in Carrboro at the DSI Comedy Theater, The ArtsCenter, Cat's Cradle and DSI Studio. Most acts will be long form; devotees of short form (à la Whose Line Is It Anyway) can catch ComedySportz at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights at The ArtsCenter. See the festival Web site at festival.dirtysouthimprov.com/2007 for more information.