OC Improv Festival Turns Being Funny Into a Team Sport

How big a deal is the inaugural Orange County Improv Festival, which began last night at Stages Theatre in Fullerton and runs the next two nights?

“It's a huge deal,” says ringleader Joshua Nicols. “It's the first festival of its kind in Orange County, we've got 26 teams coming in, some as far as Detroit, and we've got some of the best players in the country.”


Notice two key words in that quote: Teams and players. If your concept of improv is the slap-dash, no-structure antics seen on the long-running TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway,” you've seen improv, but only one slice of it. Though often perceived as a red-headed stepchild of stand-up comedy, improv takes the best elements of stand-up (you know, funny stuff?) and traditional theater (like acting) and then tosses in a huge X factor: Everything is made up on the spot.
“Stand-up is a prepared, self-referential monologue,” Nicols said. “In improv, you're learning the rules of how to improve your probability of making good choices on the fly. You're not referencing yourself and even if a story evolves, there's no point of view. All of it is created on the spot.”
Two more key differences between improv and stand-up is that improv is fed as much by the audience and the performers, and it isn't singular. “It's a team, a community, an ensemble,” Nicols said. “It's looking good as a whole instead of looking good individually. So in that respect, it's closer to theater than it appears.”
There are two main types of improv: Short-form, which most people are familiar with, and long-form, which tries to adhere to a loose narrative structure. Both types will be on display throughout the festival.
“Short-form is more gimmicky and less theatrical,” Nicols said. “It's pantomime, like, 'OK, I'm fucking a toaster now.' There's nothing wrong with it. It's high energy and sells a lot of tickets. But with long-form, you have players who are really acting. It's a narrative, not just goofy parlor games, even though it's still being made up on the spot.”

Both forms will be on display at the OC Improv Festival, which was Nicols idea. Though there are companies from across Southern California and beyond, the bulk are from OC. So this is a coming out party of sorts for companies like the nine-team one Nichols has run for four years at Stages.


Last night, the spotlight was on OC talent, with seven area teams performing half-hour sets. Tonight, 11 companies, including teams from Fullerton, Los Angeles and Detroit, will perform, followed Saturday by eight more Southern California teams, including Nicols' long-form team, Ghostlight, the Santa Monica-based Mission Improvable, and  the LA-based troupe, Dr. God Revival.

Several of the faces you'll see will be familiar, as some of the players have appeared on TV shows ranging from “Arrested Development” and “The Walking Dead” to “Community” and “The Office.”

Though each team has its own spin, Nicols said they all embody the spirit of an artistic medium that he thinks is one on the verge of finally gaining mainstream popularity.
“Obviously, improv has been around for as long as people have gotten together and talked,” he said. “But the germ of what we know it as today began in the 1950s. Most of the early Saturday Night Live regulars got their start in improv in Chicago and they turned it into sketch comedy.

“But I think the general public is still in a shroud about what it is. Shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and all those Christopher Guest movies are improvised, but many people don't know that. I think once people realize how entertaining and mind-blowing it is, it's really going to catch on. There are improv companies all over the country, even the smallest town, since it can be done so cheap and under any circumstance, from a theater to on a street corner. I really think we're on the cusp of an improv explosion.”
Orange County Improv Festival, Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m.-Midnight. $10 each night. 

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