Every improv show is a one-time-only event, and that impermanence lends the medium its thrill. At the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater, each twist and turn is spontaneous and unexpected (even for the performers). It's the biggest improv week of the year in Seattle, as 31 top troupes from around the country (and...Italy?) create comedy out of thin air for 12 electrifying and wholly unique performances (each featuring a mix of three or four teams) over five nights (February 18–22). The mind behind the comedic madness is Andrew McMasters, the cofounder of both the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater and its home base, Jet City Improv.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with McMasters about Seattle Festival of Improv Theater's origins, the state of improv in Seattle, and biomedical engineering.
What originally made you want to start the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater?
When we started the festival in 2003, one of the things we had found was that there was a lot of work going on nationally, and Seattle didn't feel very connected to the national community. So our idea was, how can we actually bring in artists from all over the country to come to Seattle in order to help us continue to grow? And then, how can we continue to sort of tie together the improv community in Seattle. So that was sort of the idea behind it.
Are there any groups that you’re especially excited to see at this year’s fest?
Yeah, definitely. There are a couple of groups coming in who are really quite wonderful. One of them is a group that we have not had here for about three or four years. They’re called Imp, and they do an almost completely silent show. And what's great about it is it's all very physical and involves the audience in so many different ways; they will actually bring audience members on stage with them and use lots of pieces. But what's great about it is that it starts to actually let people who are doing improv here in Seattle see that, “Oh, look I can do these things without having to talk all the time.” It really shows how you can tell a story without having to just use words or rely on your wit and smarts; you can tell the story just from movement.
Do any moments from festivals past stick in your memory?
I guess it's kind of an ongoing memory, but we will hold a party for all the participants, the people who are coming to perform and people who are here in the community. And one of the things I always love to do is to actually sit and run the keg. And the reason for that is because everyone comes up and then has a chance to talk to me. So I actually have a chance to interact with everybody there because everyone's gonna come and get a beer. [Laughs] So those are my favorite memories, basically being able to have the chance to touch base with everybody, whether they're from all over the country or from right here in Seattle.
As far as favorite, times that we've done the festival. I think one of my favorite memories of all of them was actually the first year that we did it in 2003. That was also the first year that we had actually gotten our [Jet City Theater] here at 55th and University Way. We were holding the festival at another location that we were renting, but we had just gotten the keys to take over this building and this venue. So we were able to showcase what would be our new home to everyone. And that was great because then there was a party in there and people got to see it and go, “Oh, wow. This is gonna be crazy.” And then over the years, as people have some back to the festival, they've been able to see the changes that we've done and the way we've taken the space and build it into a world-class facility.
And how would you kind of characterize the state of improv in Seattle?
Growing by leaps and bounds. The example that I use is that last year's festival, I forget how many local groups we had, but I think it was less than ten. This year we had nearly 20 submissions that were all local improv groups. There are so many small independent groups that have started up, that are doing work in little tiny theaters all over the city. It's not just Jet City Improv and Unexpected Productions and Comedy Sports. It is a wealth of people that are out there, creating their own work. And that, to me, is amazing. And that's always what I've sort of hoped for because, as I like to say, the work that happens, the more people come to see work, and then the more audience members you have for everything. So the tide raises all boats.
On a personal level, what makes improv such a special medium?
For me, it's the fact that it is a live conversation with the audience. The way that I like to describe it more than anything else is that the audience discovers what's happening at the same that the actor on stage discovers what's happening. So, when someone stands next to another actor and says, “Oh, Mom, do this.” That's the first time they've heard that. They now realize they are that person's mother and then they have to move forward with that. So the actors are in the moment of discovery on stage, and the audience is that moment of discovery as well. Everyone is doing the same process. And I think also for a lot of theater, it's very much about “sit down and then watch what we're going to show you,” as opposed to, “sit down and be an active participant in what is going to happen on stage.”' And that, to me, is what makes it so exciting.
What are the future plans and goals for Jet City Improv?
I mean, we have been continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. This year we brought in a new managing director to really help us with our infrastructure and continue to grow all of our programs. We've got three different parts of the company: it's the performances that we do, it's also our education programs, and then the last part is our outreach. We are 501(c)3. We do weekly classes for incarcerated youth, and then we do programs over the summer visiting children with disabilities; children with severe burns or children that are going through cancer treatment. So, for us, I think a lot of the heart of what we do really is in the outreach. It's the ability to take the fun and energy that we show to audiences here on our stage and that we teach to people who're in our classes, and bring it out to people who need that the most in their lives.
If you weren’t working in improv is there another line of work you think you would’ve pursed?
[Laughs] I was actually going to go to school for biomedical engineering. I chose theater instead. Maybe not the smartest move, but that's the way it goes. [Laughs]
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The festival is gonna be amazing! And as we go into the next couple years coming up for the festival, I think we really will see this expand into more venues and more time slots and possibly even two weeks, just because this community is growing so large and the national community is getting such recognition. There've even been articles that were just written in American Theater magazine about improv. There was a review in the New York Times about an improvised musical. So I really think that improv is starting to come into the realm of what people are recognizing as a theatrical art form.
Seattle Festival of Improv Theater
Feb 18–22, Jet City Improv Theater, single tickets $18, festival pass $60