This past weekend, improvisers from Montreal, Providence and other cities came together at AS220 for three laugh-packed days of performances, workshops and celebratory festivities at the Providence Improv Festival. P!F brings big-name headliners like the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Women and Men team and North Coast Improv to perform alongside local groups of varying narrative focuses and skill levels.
The festival tradition began in 2004 as an informal showcase for the local improv groups Improv Jones, Speed of Thought Players and Unexpected Company.
In setting up the festival, “we wanted to show (the community) how fun and great improv is, not only for those who want to perform but for people who want to open up and engage with the world in a new way,” said Tim Thibodeau, P!F’s producer and artistic director.
Since then, the number of performers has “at least quadrupled,” and the festival has become one of the most beloved community events of the year, with “nearly every show sold out,” Thibodeau said. The festival has also accrued a number of generous sponsors, including Wage House, the Providence Improv Guild, Motif Magazine and the Pawtucket Credit Union.
Thibodeau added that even as the festival grows in size, the talent of the local groups measures up to national groups. “The headliners like North Coast (Improv) are above-and-beyond amazing,” but the groups that continue to return are “very talented.”
The Providence improv community is “very robust” and “engaged in the local community” according to Providence Improv Guild member Emily Levesque-Gottlieb. Outside of performing and practicing, members organize group cemetery cleanups and volunteer at food banks. The group donated the proceeds of its Family Friendly Show on Saturday to the Manton Avenue Project, a nonprofit that pairs grade-school children with adult actors and playwrights to help them write their own plays.
Organizing the three-day festival takes nine months and poses some difficulties. Eric Fulford, a coordinator for the festival and performer with Jackpot!, a team within the Providence Improv Guild, said that organizing the festival can be “a bit like wrangling cats,” citing performers’ “flighty” tendencies. “Keeping them in one place at a given time is the main challenge,” Fulford said.
Still, Fulford says the payoff is more than worthwhile: “I love getting to see different types of improv and different takes on forms and games that we’re all familiar with.”
“There’s a reason why a lot of the groups from outside the state want to keep coming back,” said Thibodeau. “A lot of them say it’s their favorite festival. It’s not about making money for us, it’s about celebrating what we do and making it a big party for everyone.”