Thursday, November 13, 2008

INTERVIEW: Philadelphia Improv Festival producers Matt Nelson, Alli Soowal & Rick Horner

Matt Nelson (Men About Town, The N Crowd), Alli Soowal (ComedySportz, MakeOut Clinic, Men About Town, BWP) and Rick Horner (Whipsuit, ZombieShark, MakeOut Clinic, director of PHIT house team Activity Book, the Improv Incubator ) are producers of the fourth annual Philadelphia Improv Festival, which runs tonight through Saturday.

Why did you start this festival?

Matt Nelson: We saw it done other places and I think the first time when we thought it could happen was when Rick put together an event at The Rotunda. It featured what, three to four groups?

Rick Horner: Well, it was funny because it was all of the long-form groups in Philadelphia, which was three groups. And now it's just unbelievable that there are so many groups that spawned the right way. But yeah, I think it was that show where so many people showed up. I had no idea that many people were going to come.

So the response was really good?
MN: Yeah, the response was really good and it was the first time that there was a really cohesive idea of collaborating groups together on a shared bill. You would see "come to my rehearsal and I'll go to yours" and people would go to each other's shows, but you would never see a whole bill of groups for one night. And that was the first time that we thought "oh, we could do something like this."

RH: And we were surprised that it hadn't happened before.

MN: Mike McFarland and I along with John Sales were in a group called The Ninjas and we thought, "this thing went so well, let's put out a meeting."

What was it like the first year?

RH: We did sort of a starter festival the first year because none of had experience doing this, so we thought we would make a lot of mistakes. And actually I don't think we had as many as we thought we would. And that led us to the first one that was in the fall.

MN: Yeah, that mini one was called "F. Harold". It was eleven local groups and that geared towards that fall when we put on the first full one. That first year we had 30 groups and it was at the 2111 Sansom theater where they have the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival and we actually had the Upright Citizens Brigade touring company as the headliner. And actually one of them was Bobby Moynihan, so a Saturday Night Live guy performed at the very first Philly Improv Festival.

What do the out-of-town groups think of the festival compared to others?

Alli Soowal: One piece of feedback that we got last year from one of the groups is that we put other more experienced festivals to shame. Just in the way that we personalize it and treat each group as the special people that they are.

MN: Yeah, our guiding principle is in the way we want to treat our performers. That's what makes the weekend possible.

How do you treat them different than other places?

MN: I think it's a lot more personal. We really take the opportunity to get to know everyone and it's not like "oh, here's that group from somewhere." We talk to the individual people, make them feel welcome and a lot of the performers are even staying at our houses this weekend. We do a lot of networking not just during the festival and we are constantly talking to people. We do surveys and find out from people what they like and what they didn't like and we adjust things from there. And we give people food and after parties...

How do the Philadelphia groups match up against the other groups from across the country?

AS: I think we rate up there. We have some of the groups like Rare Bird Show that got into the Chicago Improv Festival last year and they had a headlining spot at the Del Close Marathon this year.

MN: They went on an hour before the four [original UCB members]. And new people too that are just blowing it up...

RH: I think the awesome thing is that a lot of times in the past Philadelphia was thought of as a proving ground in that if you were any good you're saying "well, they used to be in Philly and now they're some place else." That's not the case anymore. We house the talent ourselves and we have all of these achievements but come back because we love Philly. And that's the difference from in the past.

MN: And I think that the scene itself has hit these tiers as it's gone along. So you've had the veterans who were putting on really good shows that had their niche audiences and it was just that. And then it slowly started to grow out and as that group grew out, you got more peripheral people that were into improv that just didn't even know. But by the nature of the beast of more shows going on, it caught people's attention. And then they got involved more locally and its just kind of grown to where it's now reaching it's third generation where people are really working hard to develop the quality of the shows.

Do you think there's a distinct Philly style or reference point or sensibility?

MN: Nathan [Edmondson, original co-founder for the festival] had a good point about this on WRTI that people are still really elbowing in and seeing how they fit in the area. We're building to a critical mass in which you are really going to see what's going on. But I think if there's anything that really separates Philly, it's just such a curiosity with format: good, bad or misguided, people just like to explore different ways that they can approach presenting their show to an audience. So you've got all kinds of people that are hungry to jump in and really try all kinds of crazy stuff.

RH: I'm not sure if this is different for every city, I imagine that it is, but I feel like we have such a really diverse group of people from all different backgrounds of life that are all doing it right now that so many really cool things are really coming out.

AS: And also the fact that people that are doing improv in Philadelphia are doing it because they love improv. They're not doing it as a stepping stone to something else like you'd find in New York or Los Angeles. So you get the people that are just doing it for the love of the art.

MN: Yeah, it's not the means to an end, but an end in itself and that's what you want.

What is it about improv that made you want to create a whole festival for it?

RH: All of the hurtful things we get to do to people. [laughs] You can destroy somebody or make them hurt on stage.

On stage? I thought you meant rejecting groups...

RH: All of that.

AS: "The opinions of Rick Horner do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire festival." [laughs]

RH: It's a chance to be a kid and play.

MN: And escape yourself. You can be anyone and anything. It's interesting to be something entirely other than yourself that it still completely informed by your personality and everything you're exposed to. It's an odd place to be live in, which is fun.

Is there anything that scares you when you are on stage?

RH: Scared of how good I am [laughs]. I hope I never say that again.

MN: Me too [laughs].

AS: Improv can be frightening and I think that's probably one of the reasons why you get such a high is that there's always the opportunity to fail.

Where do you think the Philadelphia improv scene goes from here? What's the next step?

RH: I think the most recent develop is that Philly improv is sort of eating it's young. People that were audience members are now in groups and are awesome, which is great and what we really want to see, but that just means that there's less audience unless we keep filling the seats. I think that honestly improv is still vastly undiscovered in Philadelphia. I'm blown away when I see shows that are not stocked full of audience members with the regular level of talent that we have with shows all over Philadelphia. That blows me away, because that's just someone that's sitting at home that is missing out on something that's incredible happening live in front of them that is almost happening to them. Because if you can get in touch with something on stage, it's like it's happening to you. How can you miss that?

RELATED:
"Why So Serious?" [City Paper]
On WRTI's Creatively Speaking
"Stand-up and deliver" [The Temple News]
"Go ahead, make a fool of yourself" [Courier-Post]
"No script, no problem" [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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