At a time when we can binge-watch entire seasons of TV shows in one day, Ventura Improv Company offers something refreshingly different to do this Labor Day weekend. It’s a chance to binge together with actual humans on great live entertainment. Ventura Improv Company’s annual Labor Day weekend Improv Fest is three nights chock-full of improv comedy, featuring 18 groups from across California, representing a range of styles from traditional to musical and the gamut of what’s in-between. What they all have in common are the basic tenets of improv: No scripts. No props. Just the audience and the improvisers — those brave, creative souls who fearlessly leap into the void and come out laughing.
“It is the only art form where the audience takes part in the creation,” says Gary Best, Ventura Improv Company’s artistic director and founder. “You never know what you’re going to get.” What he says audiences can expect during Ventura Improv Fest, now in its 19th year, is to see shows that are “crazy good and fun.” The groups performing in the festival hail from Ventura, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and many of the improvisers have trained with the likes of Second City, The Groundlings, ImprovOlympic and other improv meccas.
Among the performing groups are Songs in the Key of Laughs, which picks random songs to inspire its scenes; Make Your Own Damn Sandwich, which takes its cues from “missed connections” listings on a classifieds website; The Musical Improv Mash-Up Concert, which uses audience suggestions to improvise rap battles, Bollywood dances and other song and dance surprises; Ventura Playback Theatre, which asks the audience to share true-life stories to fuel scenes; Fancy Football Comedy, a duo that will perform its own improv form called “Butter Cake”; The Resistance, which will improvise a complete action-adventure movie that puts the audience on the front lines; and Sea Enemy from Los Angeles with its long-form improv that’s purposefully peppered with typical improv “no-no’s.”
The festival culminates on Sunday night with two Theatre Sports Shows featuring special guests. These shows are competitions between opposing teams, complete with audience participation and judges. The emphasis, however, is on having fun.
As a bonus, each evening will open with a pre-show. Improvisers will be chosen to mix it up in a free-for-all that could include any style of improv. If past festivals are an indication, some of the chosen will be members of the ChImps from Chadwick High School in Palos Verdes. The student group has become a staple at Ventura Improv Fest. The group’s leader, Michael “Mister” Cass, says, “It’s like the Lakers inviting our high school basketball team to play a real game at the Staples Center and [greeting us] with a real level of acceptance.” Cass recalls a time when one of his students performed a scene with Gary Best. Because improv is built on the belief that experience doesn’t matter as much as commitment to each other and the scene, the student held her own with the veteran improviser. “Neither one flinched, neither one retreated,” says Cass. “They both built the scene and the audience howled.” In improv, Cass adds, “There’s this willingness to do something with no idea how it will turn out. When it clicks, there’s no place you’d rather be.”
Rasika Mathur, a Second City alumna and a newcomer to Ventura Improv Fest, says, “There’s a magical element to improv. You create something from nothing.” Both Cass and Mathur cite the first rule of improv, as articulated by goddess of improv Tina Fey, which is “Say yes and . . ..” This sentiment holds the key to great improv. Without it, a scene stops dead. Cue the crickets. “Say yes and . . . ” means that an improviser agrees with whatever his or her partner says and builds on it; pretty simple, but essential.
That commitment to “say yes, and . . . ” is expected from the audience, too. If an improviser says, “I’ve got a pigeon on my head,” the audience has to go with it or the scene won’t work. Audience participation is key and Mathur says it’s one of the things that makes improv feel like playtime. Shy audience members shouldn’t worry. Mathur says improvisers are pretty good at knowing who wants to be called on. “It’s usually the person pointing at someone else.”
Ventura Improv Fest features two show blocks plus a pre-show every night. Show content is on par with a PG-13 movie rating.
Ventura Improv Fest, Sept. 4-6 at Ventura Improv Company, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura. For more information, call 643-5701 or visit www.venturaimprov.com/ventura-improv-festival.