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By Michael E. Miller
David Christopher has reason to gloat. The fourth edition of the Miami Improv Festival, presented through Sunday on two stages at the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium, is "our biggest one ... not just in terms of the number of shows and workshops, but also in stature," says the event's executive producer.
The festival will include the South Florida debut of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the return of The Groundlings, and workshops led by comics from Second City. Overall there will be 50 events. The three troupes are without doubt the real farm teams of American comedy, particularly of the fast, edgy, and surprising variety hilariously represented by now-famous alumni such as Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, and half the casts of Mad TV and Saturday Night Live.
It doesn't take a genius to predict that many of the young comedians scheduled to improvise their stuff this weekend are set to follow in those funny footsteps. As for the workshops, well, do you think you're funny? Here's a chance to expose yourself in public. Big time with the pros, and among whatever peers you choose, from little kids and teens to seasoned veterans.
"We're not just a weeklong event that comes into town and then leaves," Christopher says. "We're local, and our mission is really to cultivate an improv community in Miami. The shows are great, but the workshops are a huge component of the festival: to get people involved not just by watching but by doing. You learn the improv lingo, the ground rules, you are immersed in comedy. And the great thing is we get not just the general public but also some really experienced improvisers.
"And our workshops are small. We keep them really limited in size so instructors can really come in and teach."
Can you teach anyone to be funny? Christopher, a comedian who is set to headline three shows this weekend, believes that "people are either innately funny or not funny, and some are funnier than others."
But, he adds, "Improv doesn't necessarily have to be funny either there are a lot of dramatic improv acts."
More and more acting exercises as well as new full-length plays and musicals begin with improvisation, with audience suggestions. Just don't go for the obvious. "I always tell people it's not just about comedy," Christopher says. "The more you try to be funny, the less funny you'll usually be. You don't find love, love finds you; it's the same thing with improv. You find your own voice, and comedy finds you. We can prepare people to be funny, to allow themselves to find their voices."
And to be surprised. The one sure thing about improvising from audience suggestions as many of these acts routinely do is you can't ever be sure what's next. A man walks into a bar, Dubya walks into a door who knows? Depending on the mood, the weather, or the crowd, the festival might move toward bathroom jokes, political barbs, slapstick, or intricate wordplay. "The cool thing about improv," Christopher says, "is that you have to be quick to connect references. You find out what the audience wants, and you give it to them instantly. You have to adapt instantly."
Perhaps the most adept at adapting are I Sebastiani, a Boston troupe billed as "the greatest commedia dell'arte troupe in the entire world" that is making its local debut at the festival. Their masks hark to the Renaissance, and their stock characters, including Arlecchino and Pantalone, are archetypes. But their plots come from the audience and within the rough scenario that begins it all their humor is of the streets.
From Los Angeles, where the film industry makes live theater feel like an endangered species, come The Groundlings, definitely live and now celebrating the troupe's 31st season. Its history is rich, and the list of comedy all-stars who first strutted their stuff in the Groundlings' stage on Melrose Avenue is long: Kathy Griffin, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Julia Sweenie, Maya Rudolph, Lisa Kudrow, and even Paul Reubens, who created his Pee-wee Herman character as a Groundling.
The Upright Citizens Brigade, originally from Chicago and now fully bicoastal with theaters in Los Angeles and New York, performs locally for the first time at the Improv Festival. Just the Funny, in the middle of a busy local season that continues without missing a beat after the festival, offers three shows: revivals of the local hits The Big Show and Duocity, plus the premiere of the sonic improvised spectacular 4 Track. What else to expect? Among others, there is what sounds like a twisted and very funny Canadian show called Inside the Out-of-Work Actors Studio. Then there is the Miami premiere of Personal Assistant, Celisa Grayer's saga about one woman's search for identity, self-worth, and balls.
There's a movie too: a mockumentary called Yes And, from Jack Reda, founder of Washington's DCUP (District of Columbia Unscripted Players). That might sound risky the last comedy troupe to make the national rounds, Capitol Steps, was about as funny as C-SPAN with a piano. Still, "It's just like This Is Spinal Tap awesome even for people who don't know all the conventions of improv.
"It's hysterical," Christopher swears.