Portland loves standup comedy. Mention improv, though, and you'll likely meet a chorus of groans from people imagining family-friendly schlock or scatological juvenilia. There's no question that the democratic accessibility of the form—it's billed as an outlet for every yahoo who fancies himself a jokester, for every executive who imagines the inane games will catapult her performance in the boardroom, for every kid performer trying to overcome stage fright—has led to a lot of dreck.
Enter the Stumptown Improv Festival. The fest, in its inaugural year, isn't about universal participation. (Though there are workshops.) Festival co-founders Jed Arkley, Erin O'Regan and Leon Anderson combed through nearly 70 submissions from across the U.S. and Canada. About two-thirds of that pool, they say, was chaff and could be eliminated immediately. But they're confident the 15 groups selected represent some of the finest improvisers working today. I asked Arkley and O'Regan—Anderson was off "working" his day job as an "engineer" (air quotes are all Arkley's)—to make the case for the fest.
This isn't Who's Line Is It Anyway?
Arkley and O'Regan say the improv at their festival won't be based on hackneyed games (speak only in the form of a question! guess my quirk!) or on bad audience suggestions about poop or having sex with animals. Expect long-form improv fueled by story and character. Arkley says they selected groups that shirked unfunny goofball gags about monkey farms or three-armed babies in favor of "a solid, surprise-based form of comedy.â
Improv is a highwire act.
The risk of failure is one of the things that makes the potential rewards of improv so great—and potentially greater than in standup, which may pretend to be off-the-cuff but is often canned (see: "earlier today" never means "earlier today").
There are some very funny Canadians.
No, really. Three of the groups at this weekend's fest hail from Vancouver, B.C., including the Sunday Service, a group Arkley likens to fellow Canucks the Kids in the Hall for their self-awareness and willingness to bend the rules of improv; and Virginia Jack, two very funny women who begin their shows by building distinctive characters and then rapidly swapping roles.
And the locals aren't bad either.
If you're able to name one Portland improv group, it's probably the Liberators. And yes, the eight-year-old troupe does smart, savvy improv. But there are groups far older (Brainwaves and the Brody Theater, both of whom will be at the fest) and younger, namely Whiskey Tango, an all-dude group that dresses (or tries to, anyway) as if they're auditioning for the role of Mr. Big on Sex and the City. Arkley belongs to Whiskey Tango, as does standup stalwart Gabe Dinger, and with their character-driven brand of improv, these guys have risen quickly in the last two years: They've performed at SF Sketchfest, the Vancouver International Improv Festival and most recently at the massive Del Close Marathon in New York.