Over the weekend of September 15-18, 2016, 15 improvisers gathered in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for the first annual Basement Improv Summit, organized by independent touring improv groups Glassworks (Eau Claire/Minneapolis) and From Justin to Kelly (New York). During the weekend, attendees shared their extensive experiences and perspectives on improv comedy, both in the form of intensive discussions and performances. Those in attendance were:
- Chris Fair, Laser Comedy Show, Chicago, Ill.
- Chris George, Finest City Improv, San Diego, Calif./Chicago, Ill.
- Mack Hastings and Elliot Heinz, Glassworks, Eau Claire, Wis./Minneapolis, Minn.
- Daniel Lattimore, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.
- Kristina Martinez, Dan Deming-Henes, and Tabatha Wethal, Atlas Improv Co., Madison, Wis.
- Matt Newman, Coalition Theater, Richmond, Va.
- Justin Peters and Kelly Buttermore, From Justin to Kelly, New York, N.Y.
- Nicholas Riggs and Hannah Prince, Tampa Bay Improv / Unscripted Theatre, Tampa, Fla.
- Dylan Rohde and Andrew Newton, The Backline, Omaha, Neb.
The program for the discussion sessions was loosely divided between conversations concerning improv craft, performance, and theory and improv business models and execution. The conversations that unfolded in the room were rich, passionate, and wide-ranging in scope. Several common themes and takeaways emerged:
Transparency: We believe that transparency is necessary to cultivate and sustain a fair, welcoming, and generative improv community. These communities can provide better experiences for all stakeholders by surfacing and sharing all the information that community members and visitors need to succeed there. We believe that improv communities should commit to making public their decision-making processes; to establishing clear expectations for performers, teachers, students, and visitors alike; and to minimizing barriers to communication between decision-makers and performers.
Mindfulness: We believe that “who knows what will happen, it’s improv!” is a flawed mentality that holds back the progress of the art form. Improv need not be a roll of the dice, it can be a series of conscious choices: calculated and informed risks taken in order to produce better, more consistent shows, and to give necessary definition to the spaces in which they are performed. We believe that performers and theaters should actively commit to deciding what kind of shows they want to do and what kind of entities they want to be, and taking the necessary series of steps to get there.
Resource-sharing: We believe that the sharing of resources is critical to creating a professional standard for improv nationwide, and thus raising the bar for all those that do it. For all we claim to value agreement and mutuality on stage, improvisers are often reticent to embrace those values offstage. We believe that improvisers should commit to helping each other out, and that the values and the standards to which we hold ourselves on stage should directly inform the way we relate offstage.
Inclusivity: We believe that improv communities are at their best when they welcome and involve members of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. True inclusivity is not just a matter of numerical tokenism, but of fostering a culture of awareness, respect, and empathy. Further, we believe that improv is a powerful social tool that should be used outside of these communities to foster greater understanding and communication between individuals and across cultures and experiences. We believe that truly inclusive improv communities will produce better, funnier, more meaningful shows.
Traveling: We believe that touring and traveling and getting outside one’s “home theater” benefits all parties, not just so-called “master teachers.” It is time to break both the myth of the upper echelon and the myth that there aren’t enough opportunities to go around. We want to create and foster opportunities for improvisers of all experience levels to teach and travel.
Ownership: We believe that taking control over our own creative processes and outputs is critical to creating and sustaining the sort of meaningful and substantive work that will elevate our art form and enhance the joy we get from doing it. We believe that performers should be encouraged to own their own work, rather than waiting for permission or opportunities to be bestowed on them by others.
Finally, we believe that improv should be celebrated as an art form that is an end in itself, not just a stepping-stone to sketch comedy or commercial auditions. We believe that improv is a terminal degree. And we believe that this should be celebrated.