Mention an improv festival to any improviser and they’ll always tell you two things: the shows you cannot miss and the workshops that will change your life. It’s a given; you go to the festival to immerse yourself in as much amazing improv as possible. But what happens when you don’t want to do anything improv related at an improv festival?
In June, The Escape Artisans had the privilege of playing at the UCB’s 19th Annual Del Close Marathon in New York City. “Del Close is generally considered the father of Improv. He was the driving force behind improvisational comedy in Chicago for over 30 years, influencing Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, John Belushi, Chris Farley, and the Upright Citizens Brigade, to name a few. After Del’s passing in 1999, the UCB started the Del Close Marathon to celebrate their mentor and keep alive his name and teachings for future generations.” (UCB, 2017) The Del Close Marathon is one of the largest, most famous improv festivals, encompassing 56 straight hours of improv on ten stages across New York City.
As soon as we announced that we had been accepted to the festival the suggestions started rolling in.
“Take as many workshops as you can!”
“Don’t miss the 3:00 AM bit shows!”
“The shows at the Chelsea theater are worth the two hour wait!”
It all sounded amazing. And absolutely exhausting. I’d recently started a new job and was required to get a specific industry license ASAP, so every free minute was filled with studying. The week leading up to the festival was a whirlwind. My licensing exam was that Tuesday, I was teaching multiple classes at a conference my job was hosting on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and then immediately flying to New York and playing in the festival that night. While I was excited that my team would get to play in NYC, what I really wanted to do was crawl in bed and binge on Netflix and ice cream.
A couple weeks before the festival I told my teammates that other than our show, I didn’t want to do anything improv related while we were in New York. To my pleasant surprise, everyone felt the exact same way I did.
Fast forward to Friday, June 23rd. We arrived in New York that evening, climbed eight flights of rickety stairs to our small Airbnb, went to dinner, and rode a wave of adrenaline through our show at 11:00. After the show, the entire team went into vacation mode. For the next 72 hours we didn’t talk about or think about improv. Completely the opposite of what you’re supposed to do at a festival. And it was one of the best decisions we’ve made as a team.
After miles of walking, numerous boxes of wine, amazing meatballs, Josh blurting “My ride is here” every time we heard a siren, and two ridiculous restaurant experiences (you’ve never lived until you’ve been accosted by the manager of an Indian restaurant or chased down the block by a server demanding a larger tip) our team ended up closer and more connected to one another than ever before.
One of my favorite things about the trip was each night at the Airbnb, drinking (or, if you’re Matt, spilling) wine and talking about our day. Between trips to the roof and random walks to the CVS down the street, we’d recap where we went, who we saw, and what we did. Chelsea was an early riser, so she would go out exploring while everyone else was sleeping, Chris and Dale spent Saturday shopping while the rest of us explored the financial district, and Elyse just started a new job, and wasn’t able to come to New York at all. But none of us felt left out of the adventure. Improv is about creating a world, digging into the details, and bringing that world to life for the audience. In this case, we were each other’s audience.
The payoff for a weekend of ignoring improv was huge. Our team was refreshed, inspired, and more in synch; and our shows were funnier and more cohesive. While talent and skill are important, a successful improv team is built upon a foundation of friendship, trust, and shared experiences. Sometimes this looks like seeing shows and taking classes together.
Other times, you have to throw everyone into a small Airbnb in a new city and have a weekend of ridiculous adventures.