Jay Flewelling gets that you're skeptical of improv.
"I feel Portland especially is like 'Oh, that's cute. Let's go see some standup or let's go see music instead,'" says Flewelling.
Talking over Skype, the comedian and founder of Portland improv group J Names sits in the hotel room that Edmonton's Improvaganza festival has booked for him. He's one of 10 performers on the festival's international team—a coveted spot in an internationally recognized festival—but he's still in the middle of the bill in a very large lineup (which includes the trio Broke Gravy, another Portland improv group who are regulars on the festival circuit). Nonetheless, Improvaganza is paying Flewelling for his performances, has put him up in a hotel for 10 days and even picked him up from the airport. According to Flewelling, no U.S. improv festival provides anything close to that kind of treatment.
"There's just a lot more, 'Oh yeah, improv's great,'" Flewelling says about the attitude of improv in Canada versus in Portland. "Somebody came up to me and they wanted my autograph. I thought it was a joke at first."
J Names, Flewelling's main project, is a team of eight Portland improvisers whose names all just so happen to start with the letter "J." It formed in 2014 with just Flewelling, Jake Michels and Jenn Hunter. From there, the group kept adding members of the local scene who meshed with the group dynamic, all of whom happened to have a first name that started with the letter "J" (including Jed Arkley, a co-founder of the Stumptown Improv Festival, which has gained a foothold for improv in Portland's comedy scene since its first iteration in 2014). J Names is active in the national comedy festival scene, and has performed at both SF Sketchfest and Denver Improv Festival, two of the most prominent festivals in the U.S. Flewelling says he's seen a dramatic increase in J Names' audience in recent years, but he still frequently receives the complisult "That was really funny, and I don't usually like improv."
That's partly because Portland lacks what Flewelling refers to as "improv awareness." In Canadian high schools, improv is an extracurricular activity that's as common as sports or speech and debate, whereas many Portlanders have seen one bad improv show and given up on the genre without knowing that good improv is out there. "Portland is so small that you go to somebody's friend's show who's a beginner," he says, "You're probably not going to go to their show again let alone to anyone else's."
"Uncomfortable" is probably the most common word people use to describe their bad improv experience. Usually, that sense of awkwardness happens when the performers aren't all on board with the direction the scene is going, so a member of the group hesitates, fumbles or resist the direction of the scene by making a joke about how the joke isn't funny.
That doesn't happen with J Names. "My philosophy as the group leader has always been to trust each individual as a veteran improviser," says Flewelling. They create scenes that feel fully formed because all eight members commit to moving in the same direction. So no matter how absurd the scene gets, as an audience member, you're willing to go along with it, too—the last show J Names performed in Portland back in April included a competition to be the best dad in Gresham and an audition for a play in which the Keebler Elves fight Nazis.
Though the popularity of J Names and Portland improv has been on the upswing for years now, the scene acquired some promising infrastructure last fall. On a blisteringly hot afternoon, Curious Comedy's artistic director Stacey Hallal sits in the airy, newly renovated theater, where J Names starts its bi-weekly residency this Friday. She echos Flewelling's sentiments about how improv can go wrong. "It's very uncomfortable to be in a comedy situation," says Hallal. "You don't want the person onstage to feel bad."
That—plus a grant given to the theater for its All Jane Comedy Festival—is part of what inspired Curious's extensive renovations. The improv-focused theater is designed to facilitate the audience inclusion that's so crucial for improv: a low stage and cabaret-style seating that's wide, not deep, making it easier for the performers to engage with the audience.
Curious has the ability to foster the growing local scene, but also to export it—the grant allowed Curious to install some seriously high-tech filming equipment. Curious now has four cameras that are operated by improvisors who can anticipate the performance and make live cuts accordingly. It's still something Curious is working to hone, but already, their streaming has a following in India. "Mumbai is crazy populated, and they have like one [improv] group there," says Hallal. So somewhat serendipitously, Curious' live streaming is helping to feed India's growing demand for improv.
Still, Hallal believes the current social climate is enough to spur appreciation of the genre. "Right now, everybody's angry and everybody's intense. I think improv is having this Golden Age because improv is a place where you can see people play, cooperate, engage with you," she says. "It's a very joyous art form."
SEE IT: J Names performs at Curious Comedy Theater, 5225 NE Martin Luther King Blvd,, curiouscomedy.org, with Vanessa Gonzalez. 9:30 pm Friday, June 30. $10-$12.