New and improv-ed

The launching of the San Francisco Improv Festival, back in 2004, signaled a major resurgence for improvisational theater in the Bay Area, long dominated by the exceptional BATS (Bay Area Theatre Sports) and related groups, but recently joined by a host of newer outfits as well. The rollicking festival attracted eager audiences, while bringing together a somewhat disparate local and intergenerational community of improvisers with national and even international acts. There was cross-pollination everywhere, in meetings on and offstage between players and groups, in workshops and master classes, and of course in many a bar. It all contributed to the latest wave in a tradition of Bay Area improv that reaches back to the storied days of the Committee in the 1960s.

Then things got rocky as well as rollicking as SFIF organizers shifted around and founding members headed to other projects and/or climes, culminating in last year’s hiatus. The cancellation of SFIF 2009 might have been more discouraging had not the members of Crisis Hopkins, the San Francisco–based improv and sketch comedy troupe, thought fast and leaped into the breach, organizing a last-minute smorgasbord they called the Temporary Improv Festival. Still, while TIF proved a modest success, the name alone inadvertently contributed to an impression that the peak might have already occurred.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As if to prove the point, SFIF has risen once more, like a soggy phoenix from a still-cresting wave. The revival of SFIF, which comes under new Crisis-led management, frankly looks more ambitious than ever. It even comes with an iPhone app.

“Which is ridiculous,” says Sam Shaw, Crisis Hopkins member and a cofounder of SFIF in 2004. “The people I’m working with — including Anthony Veneziale from The Freeze, and Jamie Wright, Cassidy Brown, Chris Hayes, and Chris Libby — we’ve come up with these little touches that I never would have thought of. We’re going to have a food truck for primetime shows hanging out in front of the [Eureka] theater. We’ve got Solstice, this bar in Pacific Heights, [to] help us serve alcohol, so we’ll have a full bar. There’s a lot going on.”

Of course, the real meat is in the shrewd and eclectic programming. In addition to a generous number of local, national, and international troupes, SFIF 2010 is hosting workshops (including an already sold-out improv “boot camp” with Armando Diaz) and inaugurating the SFIF Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Improv Community, which this year goes to beloved veteran performer Barbara Scott of BATS, True Fiction Magazine, Tonal Chaos, and other groups.

Also among the special events is an intriguing “Look Back at The Committee,” featuring a panel discussion with founding director Alan Myerson and other unannounced guests in conversation with improv historian and Monty Python pal Kim “Howard” Johnson. Shaw says this last event, connecting the improv scene with some of its heftier roots, realizes a long-held dream.

“I cofounded the fest with Shaun Landry in 2004, and ever since then I’ve wanted to do a program on The Committee. It was San Francisco’s Second City from 1963 to 1973,” he explains. “They did topical political satire; they did sketch comedy and improvisation.” Led for a time by the wildly influential improv director-performer Del Close, The Committee also spearheaded major developments in the form, in particular an exciting long-form structure called the Harold (a name coined by Committee musical director Allaudin Mathieu). “It’s like a 30-minute riff on a topic where the audience goes along for the ride,” says Shaw. “And it was born in San Francisco.”

Half-way out in the year from SF Sketchfest, the popular comedy showcase held each January, and centered in the same 200-seat venue downtown, SFIF looks more than ever like a natural compliment to its unaffiliated cousin. “We love Sketchfest, and we love doing it every year,” says Shaw, who notes the complimentary aspects to their programming as well. As for the Festival’s performance roster, the names alone tantalize. OJ in a Sippy Cup, for instance, just sounds refreshing.

“OJ in a Sippy Cup is a pretty awesome name,” admits Shaw. “They’re a duo from New York City, and they’re very fun. I have to say that I love the name Slave Leia. That’s an all-woman improv team from L.A.” Among other highlights, Shaw points to Men: A User’s Guide, “a really exciting duo from the Netherlands. They’re very highly trained long-form performers doing a show on men and men’s issues, and it’s just hilarious.” He sheds light on an enigmatic title, The Super-Dupers: Doo-Wop-Ner. “That is going to be doo-wop small claims court improvising,” he says, clearly impressed. “Their submission just said ‘doo-wop small claims court.’ And we let them in.”

Clearly, one take-home lesson is the sheer variety of improv out there. The common denominator remains the all-inclusive collaboration in the moment, in which audiences participate to varying degrees. “The fourth wall is very porous,” agrees SFIF’s executive producer Jamie Wright, a Bay Area native who came to improv from afar while bartending at Amsterdam’s famous Boom Chicago comedy club. But he stresses that interaction shouldn’t sound intimidating. “I’m an improviser and even I don’t like getting singled out by a comedian. Improv is really inviting, a very joyful thing to go to and watch. It’s also impressive. You are going to see something completely unique, and you’re going to be part of it — one way or another.”

SAN FRANCISCO IMPROV FEST

Aug. 12–21, $15–$50

Eureka Theater

215 Jackson, SF

(800) 838-3006

www.sfimprovfestival.com