by Alison Zeidman
There’s a lot to do and celebrate in November: prostate and testicular cancer awareness (Movember), men and women who are better at loving this country than you are (Veterans Day), the annual slaughtering of millions of short, ugly birds (Thanksgiving), National Start and Give up on Writing a Book Month (National Novel Writing Month), and alllllll these other things on this list here. AND, it’s also Comedy Month in Philadelphia! Hooray!
Programming for Comedy Month kicks off with the 8th Annual Philadelphia Improv Festival, which will run from November 7th-11th at the Prince Music Theater. Matt Nelson, the festival’s producer, was kind enough to meet up with me for a cup of coffee and some good ol’ fashioned conversation—which I recorded, transcribed, and will now leave for you here.
Alison Zeidman: If PHIF were a super hero, what would be its origin story? Or you can just tell me how it got started—I’m just tired of asking that question the exact same way for every interview.
Matt Nelson: I’d say that it wouldn’t be a superhero, it would be like the Justice League, or the Avengers. Because even though I’m now the sole person, as it’s turned out eight years later, it certainly didn’t start out that way. As with most things, it kind of really all started with Matt Holmes, and him being the great facilitator. He got most of us connected with our groups, and then later with one another. Mike McFarland and Jon Sales were performing with me. Nathan Edmondson and Alexis Simpson were performing with Matt, and Rick Horner was doing a couple projects, and there were a few people that were doing different shows around the city. So we were like OK, let’s go ahead and put together a showcase, just for a night. It was maybe like four groups, five groups, but we put them together and we did the show and it was well-attended, and we thought maybe there’s something to this, this sharing a bill. So we put together sort of a trial-run mini-festival in the Spring of 2005. The ads we had were like, “over TEN of the city’s improv groups!” Which meant there were like, eleven. It was two nights at the Actor’s Center, and it was basically every local group we could find. And we did the show, and it went off really well, and it really gave us the confidence to open it up [to be a full-fledged annual festival].
AZ: How would you contrast the focus from the beginning with what the focus is now? What’s the mission statement, today?
MN: I would say that the mission statement is still relatively the same, which is we want to use larger groups from out of town—especially in the early days, this was the case—to draw audiences in that maybe didn’t know much about improv. And then hopefully that would carry over to the regular shows that we do all the time in the city. And we continue to want that to be the case, where we feel like the festival is a draw to introduce new people to improv for the first time, ideally become fans, and then come fill the seats [at regular shows throughout the year]. And there are also some people who will come out of the woodwork and just do workshops, and don’t end up really performing in groups in the city. But really I think where it’s changed over the years is that early on, it was such a…like OK, are we going to get enough submissions to fill slots? Like year one, we were sweating bullets.
AZ: How many groups did you have submit this year?
MN: That’s the thing. I had to reject over 70% of submissions this year. I had well over 100 submissions, for forty slots.
AZ: Can you talk a little bit about that submission process, and the criteria you’re looking for?
MN: Over the years, it’s been just the festival producers, and we’ve more or less done a rating scale. The culture of it’s changed—in the early days we had to do VHS viewing parties; now because it’s all web submissions and YouTube videos, it’s much simpler, people can look at their leisure, which is a lot better and much less judgmental for the people who submit, too, because after hour six of watching improv, you’re much less patient than you were at hour one. This year my two co-producers had to step down because [of other commitments], but I didn’t want to leave it to just me to select the line-up. So what I ended up doing was just emailing a bunch of comedians that I really respected, both locally and out of town as well, and just said, here’s kind of the vibe I’m going for this year, here’s the kind of things that I want you to look out for, can you look at these five submissions and get back to me?
AZ: In terms of that vibe—is there a theme for the festival this year?
MN: More and more we used to see stylistic improv as a crutch—not we as the festival, just “we” as improvisers in general. It was like OK, if you’re doing something heavily stylized, it’s some sort of crutch that you’re using to cover over bad performance. But I think now more and more you’re seeing groups embrace the idea of approaching style and genre from a very specific artistic viewpoint. So this year it’s more peppered [with those types of groups]. And actually you’ll see more than anything with our education this year, that’s where you see the more stylistic choices. We’ve got four workshops. We’ve got Brian O’Connell teaching the Deconstruction, which is kind of the heaviest, most intricate form that you can learn—it’s got pretty much every form in it, at some point, so once you do that pretty much anything else is just a little easier. Kristen Schier is doing a clowning workshop, and she’s hands-down just one of the most incredible and vibrant performers that we have in Philly, and she and Amie are known stylistically for that sort of organic transition [from scene to scene]. We’ve got Rachel Kline coming in from Improv Boston, and she’s going to be teaching a thematic Harold workshop, which basically is the idea of doing a Harold but really paying attention to the connectivity of it all, to the point where it really becomes more of an overall piece. And then finally we have Andy Crouch from Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, and he’s going to be doing a narrative workshop.
AZ: It’s interesting to me how you say that attitude about stylistic improv has evolved over the years. So I’m sure not only that, but other things in terms of improv, putting on the festival, performing, have all changed too. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned in these eight years of doing the festival, either as an improviser, or a producer—is there any stand-out moment, or lesson?
MN: I’d say one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is, “let it go.” Especially when you’re putting together an event that’s just once a year, there’s this compulsion to make sure everything’s right. And much like improv, you can’t. And one of the most difficult things I do every year is the rejections—there are so many groups that I love, but I just can’t put eighty groups in my festival. And more and more as the local scene’s grown, that’s made it really difficult—before it was I just had to reject some out-of-town groups, maybe some locals, and now I have to reject…over half, nearly 2/3 of the groups that applied this year, simply because I didn’t have the space. For the most part the submissions were all just so overwhelmingly brilliant, but it’s like OK, I’ve just got to let it go. I’ve got to do what I can do and pick a rhythm to the schedule to make sure throughout the five nights we’re being taken sort of on a journey through the different styles, both with the size of the group, the tempo that they tend to play at, and also where they’re from, so that you get a great cross-section of stuff. And one of the biggest things you look at when trying to put together a festival is ensemble size, and I can honestly tell you that my festival is not any different from a lot of the festivals—if I’ve got two people that are already in other groups, it’s harder to just give them one of forty slots. And so the idea of Duofest coming along and filling that niche, and not only creating an avenue for them but celebrating them, was exciting and also a huge relief, too, in that OK, I know they’ll get taken care of.
AZ: Can you talk a little bit about PHIF’s involvement with Philly Sketchfest and City Spotlight, under the whole Comedy Month Philadelphia umbrella?
MN: We were running into venue issues—everyone wanted us to book more time, or a solo night. They didn’t want to give us a week, just in case a theater company wanted to come in and take three weeks. So we thought OK, we need to do something to make us more palatable to these venues. The Sketchfest had already existed for a couple of years, so they were a logical choice. And then we produced a third week that really represented stand-up, and it was rough, because stand-ups have mics all over to go to, so for many of them that was the third, fourth show that they were performing in that week, and there wasn’t the urgency or the impetus to get people out to see that show in particular. So the attendance wasn’t fantastic for them, it hurt us financially, and it didn’t feel like it was truly adding anything—so this year, we opened it up. We’ve reached out to comedy throughout the city to shine a spotlight on what’s already going on in the city. So like ComedySportz, the N Crowd, Comedian Deconstruction, Polygon, Laughs On Fairmount, The Big Show…
AZ: So it’s a little bit like Fringe, where you get to promote everything under the same heading, and the groups get that extra level of recognition.
MN: It is, it’s a promotional vehicle. But that’s it. Everyone maintains complete autonomous control of what they’re doing, and we don’t ask for any money, we just want to help promote them, and in turn just by helping build our size, they’re helping us promote us. So it’s a really great mutually beneficial relationship, where they don’t really have to do a whole lot, and we don’t have to change that much, and it still just makes it this big thing.
AZ: The last thing I wanted to talk about is that this year the festival proceeds are going to Career Wardrobe. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership?
MN: Yeah! Every year, since we joined forces over the last three years with the Sketchfest, we decided we were going to have an official Comedy Month charity. So typically we’ll have a raffle of prizes, and then we also donate our money to a cause. And we also try to relate it in some way back to what we do. Last year we did the Philadelphia Young Playwrights, and we selected one of the plays and did a staged reading of it to kick off Comedy Month, and it was a lot of fun. And now this year we’ve selected Career Wardrobe, which is a fantastic organization that basically supplies women and mothers with interview outfits, business attire, so that if they’re in a position where they’re unemployed, [dress] should not be the deciding factor in getting a job. And we just thought that we, with improv and sketch, whether it’s a pantomimed costume, or a visible one that you see in sketch, we are all greatly helped by being able to wear these masks, to step outside of our day for a moment to help us get to a greater place. And we felt that this was a very real-life version [of that]. It just seemed like a really different choice, but one that still tied in in a really great way.
AZ: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to?
MN: Well, there are more local groups in the festival this year than any year in the past. Over the years we’ve tried to strike a balance, so roughly a third’s local, the other third is from the Mid-Atlantic area, and then the remaining third is from various places across the country.
AZ: Was it a conscious effort this year to include more Philly groups?
MN: I think it’s just that there are more fantastic Philly groups this year than ever. I didn’t set out with a particular conscious effort to do that, but just at the end of the day, looking at what was there, it was just like how do I say no to these groups that are just amazing? So I didn’t.
The 8th Annual Philadelphia Improv Festival runs November 7th-11th at the Prince Music Theater (1412 Chestnut Street). For more information and for tickets, visit http://phlcomedy.com.