Baltimore Improv Festival offers shows, workshops

Fourth annual fest will be held at the Patterson

  • Philly-based Matt Holmes' show "M@&" (pronounced "Matt and…”) involves a person chosen from the audience to perform an extended improv with him.
Philly-based Matt Holmes' show "M@&"… (Handout )
August 12, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Improv Festival lineup includes The Amie & Kristen Show/The Kristen & Amie Show from Philadelphia, Nobody's Token from New York and the Lodge from D.C.

"These are people we would pay money to see," says Michael Harris, artistic director of the Baltimore Improv Group.

He's referring to the acts filling up the Creative Alliance's space at the Patterson this weekend as part of the fourth annual Baltimore Improv Festival, which Harris also directs. "What's exciting is to see really the best performers from this region, the whole D.C.-to-Boston corridor," he adds.

The lineup includes The Amie & Kristen Show/The Kristen & Amie Show from Philadelphia, promising a fair share of "girly moments;" Nobody's Token from New York, an audience-generated sitcom; and the Lodge from D.C., which promises initiates a minimum of decorum.

Baltimore Improv Group is well represented in the mix, too. "Six years ago, we had one troupe performing," says Catharine Robertson, executive director of the group and former artistic director of the festival. "Now there are six troupes and around 40 performers. We're always experimenting with more ways we can inject improv into the area."

Experimentation is never-ending in the improvisational world, and this year's festival has plenty of examples. One comes from Philadelphia-based Matt Holmes. Billed as m@& — pronounced "Matt and," of course — this improv comedy relies on the willingness of strangers.

"It's pretty unique even in a unique art form," Holmes says. "It's just me and a member of the audience, just winging it. I start by asking if there is anyone new to improv, maybe someone dragged there by a friend. I ask the first person who raises his hand to join me."

Holmes and most of the performers at the festival will be doing long-form improv, running with a concept for 20 minutes, a half-hour, maybe more.

"The trend has been toward long-form," Harris says. "The trick with long-form improv is how to keep taking information from the audience, to keep that relationship going, so it's not 'we perform, you watch.' You want that input, so people know it's not planned or written."

Things can still have a structured format, though. Take iMusical, for example, an ensemble from Washington Improv Theater that specializes in improvising a whole musical comedy. "You think they must have rehearsed it, but they haven't," Harris says.

Travis Ploeger, director of iMusical, notes that "an improvised musical is, by its nature, more complex, but, in some ways, it doesn't feel as difficult. In the end, once you initiate the concept with each other and the accompanist, you have to go with it."

The troupe has performed more than 1,200 instant musicals since 2006, with subject matter ranging "from boy-meets-girl love story to the most bizarre concepts, like ancient Incan history," Ploeger says. "Whatever kinds of crazy characters and situations are involved, the stories inevitably are about the human condition and human relationships."

To launch each iMusical, the audience suggests a place. "We're looking for a physical, nongeographic location," Ploeger says, "not something like Tijuana, but a broken-down gas station on the outskirts of Tijuana."

The Philadelphia-based team called Ladies and Gentlemen takes the musical improv idea an extra step. After soliciting audience members for a locale and a title, this gang doesn't just do any old musical style while extemporizing its way through a plot; a specific genre of Broadway musical is very much in mind. Hence the show's title: "Rodgers and Hammerstein Are Dead."

"It's a unique challenge," says Jason Stockdale, director of the troupe. "There are a lot of musical improv groups out there, but I don't think any others are so narrowly focused. We all studied what it meant to be a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And we have a fantastic improvising piano player who trained himself to play songs very similar to what we'd hear in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. We try to be funny, at the same time telling a story. It's a fully fleshed-out musical, with dancing and singing."

Although a new "Oklahoma" or "The Sound of Music" might not be generated every night, cool things are bound to happen. That should be true of any show during the Baltimore Improv Festival.

"In some larger improv cities, the audience is made up of other improvisers," Harris says. "They can be more critical and even have a condescending attitude toward the performers. In Baltimore, you get people who want to be a part of it and have a good time."


If you go

The Baltimore Improv Festival presents shows Friday and Saturday starting at 7 p.m. each day at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. Improv workshops will be held there Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more information, go to

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