Amy Shostak is a kickass improviser and the Artistic Director of Edmonton’s legendary Rapid Fire Theatre. She has performed across Canada, the US and Europe. She also created Kiss My Bus, a play literally performed on a bus for the Edmonton International Fringe. A graduate of the University of Alberta, she loves heavy metal and naps.
In a whimsical turn of events, I was given the power to curate a comedy festival. I get to hand-pick people that I deeply respect, people who inspire me, people who I have never met but love from afar, and give them an opportunity to do what we all love. Not to get all mushy, but it fucking slays.
Improvaganza is in its 13th year, and this will be my third time organizing it. Our guests vary from a few celebrities, to relative newcomers, to old favourites, to innovators. But no matter who comes to our festival, the focus is always on showing our guests a good time. And by “good time” I mean to say, we aim to make the festival fulfilling. Fulfilling socially, professionally, and artistically.
I don’t think Improvaganza is perfect, but I am darn proud of it. From my experiences travelling to other festivals around the world (some enlightening, some awful), I have thought a lot about what makes a festival enjoyable. Here is some advice for festival organizers that I think will launch your fest from zero to hero.
1. Have someone you like pick your guests up from the airport. There is no excuse for lost guests. Especially adorable international guests. So, do yourself a favour, and arrange a ride for them from someone you trust and find socially tolerable. No one likes weirdos, not even desperate artists. For an added bonus, have every driver take your guests by the theatre before taking them to their hotel. Once at the hotel, have your driver go into the hotel with them to make sure they check in without incident.
2. House all your guests together. If possible, have your guests stay all in the same place. This creates a sense of community. Billets can be fine, but hotels are better from our experience. If you do billet, make sure no one is abandoned in the suburbs.
If possible, pay for your guests’ hotel. This is a big chunk of change that you can cover with a decent sponsorship. Our sponsored hotel isn’t even nice – it’s on top of a blues bar, and can be described as rustic at best, sketchy at worst. Despite this, the staff at the hotel is super accommodating to our requests, all of our guests stay on one floor (which allows for fun, camp-esque door-knocking) and we are allowed to party in the hallways til 6am. It works for us.
3. Make your guests feel special. Go that extra mile, whatever that means to you. At Improvaganza, upon arrival at the hotel, guests find a six-pack of beer on ice in their sink, a full calendar of events (shows, workshops, social), contact info for important people, an embroidered Improvaganza towel/pillowcase (as I mentioned, sketchy hotel), coupons and gift cards for local restaurants, a map, and a festival pass.
4. Be there and be nice. Have a present and approachable staff. There’s nothing worse at a festival than not being able to get in touch with whoever’s programmed your show, or not knowing who they are. Worse, is being scared of them because they are jerkish. Guests should feel able to ask you for whatever they need: a tech rehearsal, a weird costume request, emotional support, a quiet place to work, anything. Your presence and availability will make your festival better.
5. Program Mixer Shows. Give your guests a chance to perform together – jam shows, experimental concept shows, ensembles – all these things are a great way to give more performance opportunities to your guests outside of their showcases. As obvious as it is, many festivals do not have these at all, or they don’t have enough of them.
6. Give your guests things to do. Care needs to be taken when it comes to the social schedule. If you program nothing, people will want to drink in your theatre every single night because they know no other alternative (which, if you’re providing free beer can become problematic). On the other side of the spectrum, if you program too much, there will be a guilt factor when your guests cannot keep up with you. Emphasize the planned activities are optional, and try to get a few key party people behind them.
In terms of what to program, we recommend: nights at bars with sponsored food and drink specials, or nights that feature your performers (maybe one is a DJ – set them up at a local club, or if you have a house band – get them gigs around town during your festival). Local experiences are good too: your art gallery, cultural landmarks, etc. We have a barbeque at our GM’s acreage every year – which is one of the highlights of the festival. It is an all-day affair and includes hot tubbing, a poker game, bocce ball, soccer, and getting blotto. Rule of thumb: if you genuinely think your social calendar is cool, other people will too!
7. Find Work/Party balance. For each of our visiting guests, we offer professional development workshops during the day. These workshops help make the festival full for its participants. They are led by world-class instructors, on a variety of topics. My hope is that when you leave our festival, you feel that you have some new ideas or exercises to take back to your respective cities, so our festival is fulfilling professionally and artistically, as well as socially.
8. Pay people. Ideally, a festival should pay performers. Realistically, a festival should try to make sure performers don’t lose money by being there. I know paying performers is impossible for some groups, but I dream of a day where people don’t have to shell money out of their pocket to come to our festival. We are not completely there yet, but we are getting there. If you can get your guests to teach workshops for other improv groups in the city, do paid corporate gigs, or offer them travel honourariums from public funding or corporate sponsorship, then you are moving in the right direction. If you are making money on box office, your guests should be seeing results… in their pockets.
9. Fill your house. Occasionally, a troupe from Rapid Fire will come home from a festival and say, “It was fun, but we only had eight people at our showcase.” Infuriating! How is this possible? It is not the international group’s job to do their own marketing and promotion. It is the job of the festival organizer. If there are eight people at a show, you have failed. Especially if they are all improvisers. If you can’t fill a house for a visiting troupe, then maybe you are running too many shows, your festival focus is too broad, or you need to seriously rethink your marketing.
10. Prove you’re legit! If you’re a performer in addition to an organizer, make sure you have an opportunity or two to perform at the festival, or at least your company does. Your guests will be curious to see you perform, and, the harsh truth is, it will add legitimacy to your festival if your company’s performances are also good.
11. Please don’t complain. Whatever it is. A showcase bombs. Someone needs to go to the emergency room. People get in a fight. Do not complain during your festival. Do your best to fix what’s gone wrong, and continue on. Save your negativity for a festival post-mortem with your co-producers, but never let the ire take over in front of guests.
12. Take care of yourself. A happy organizer breeds a happy festival. I can only speak from my experience, but leading up to IMPROVAGANZA, I like to take a few nights off drinking, sleep more than usual, and stock my fridge with Gatorade. The last thing you should do is get sick at your festival, or worse, be cranky. And, when your festival is done, take a vacation! You deserve it!