Backstage: Improvapalooza’s 7th year packed with ‘explosive creativity’


Sabahat Chaudhary, left, and Jamie Bingner from the group Rumspringa, will perform on Saturday's Improvapalooza at Washington Improv Theater. (Andrew Bossi)
August 13, 2013

heliumprov (he·li·um·prahv) n. when you suck in helium and proceed to perform improvised comedy, colloquially known as “improv.”

Just some vocabulary you might want to know as you gear up for Washington Improv Theater’s seventh annual Improvapalooza. “It’s fast and loose,” said Dan Miller, WIT’s external relations director and the person who explained to me what “heliumprov” entails.

More than 100 performers were selected from 200-plus submissions for this year’s Improvapalooza, which will feature 135 shows, including the one fueled by helium. Big numbers for an event that boasted only 34 shows in 2008.

“It’s a marathon of experimental improv,” Miller said. “This year will be our longest ever.” Monday through Thursday, shows start at 8 p.m. and wrap up at 11; Friday has the same start time and goes until 2 in the morning. Saturday goes from noon until midnight.

In case that seems like a little much, you can buy a pass that lets you come and go as you please, like one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tours of the city. “Even I know there’s only so much improv a person can watch before you need to get some sunshine,” Miller said.


The Green Knight, played by Brendan Kennedy, left, and Todd the Elf, played by Teddy Nagel, right, battle to the death in the production “Medieval Story Land” currently running at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn. (Chelsie Lloyd)

“The binge isn’t as much the appeal as the creativity,” he said. “It’s just explosive creativity behind each of the shows.”

This year’s offerings include “Improvisers and other actors,” a sketch in which one person recites lines from a scripted piece and someone else improvises reactions; a show inspired by anime; a show that takes on professional wrestling; and, for the second year running, an improvised episode of “Downton Abbey.” At 2 p.m. Saturday, there’s a mini-FIST (“Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament,” WIT’s March Madness-style improv competition).

The players consist both of Washington Improv Tournament teams and independent groups. “There will also be lots of matched pairs from people playing together who don’t normally,” Miller said. “It’ll be a lot of cross-pollination among D.C. improvisers.

“I think that Improvapalooza is the favorite time of year for a lot of D.C. improvisers because they get to do things and perform with people that they don’t get to all year-round,” Miller said. “They get to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea for a show. Who wants in?’ And in the spirit of saying ‘Yes’ in improv, you’ll have a ton of people who are willing to go with you on your idea.”

For instance: “People say, ‘Hey, want to dress up like the Spice Girls and do a show?’ Yes, that is happening at 6:30 on Saturday.”

Monday to Aug. 24 at 1835 14th St. NW, www.washingtonimprovtheater.com, 202-204-7770.

Medieval times

Scott Courlander used to live in New York City. He did sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade (the comedy theater founded by, among others, Amy Poehler) and “got a directive that came down from the artistic director: He was sick of shows that were just a bunch of random sketches stuck together. He wanted shows that had themes and maybe even plots.”

Courlander got to work, motivated in part by the new mission statement and in part by the fact that “a lot of the New York theater, comedy especially, is all very edgy-edgy. So you have a lot of sexual things, a lot of things that go to the lowest common denominator. So I set a goal for myself: I wonder if I can write a funny show that does not need those things. That would still be funny to adults but wouldn’t use those things as a crutch.”

He cranked out what ultimately became “Medieval Story Land,” which was great and all except that, at 90 minutes long, it was about three times too big for the UCB format.

Courlander, a North Potomac native, moved back to the D.C. area, settling in Gaithersburg. One night when he was running late for a date with his now-fiancee, Courlander dug the “Medieval Story Land” script out of a drawer for her to read while he got ready. (Interesting pre-date move, to be totally honest. Like “Hey, I don’t know if you like me. How do you feel about rough drafts?” But anyway, looks like it worked out for these lovebirds, so, mazel tov.)

She liked it so much that Courlander decided to submit it to the Capital Fringe Festival, where it debuted last year.

The show “is a parody of the fantasy genre,” Courlander said. “I’d say it’s got a taste of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and that Monty Python-y silliness to it.”

Some plot for you: A simpleton elf boy is presented with a magical sword. Now under ordinary circumstances, I presume this elf would wander off with his sword, quit his job baking cookies with the rest of those Keebler kids and spend the rest of his days getting into sword fights and generally gallivanting about, as elves with swords are wont to do. However! His great power comes with great responsibility because isn’t that always the way; he who has the sword inherits along with it the responsibility to save the kingdom.

Because of the show’s successful run last year, Courlander landed another run, this time at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, with a new director and cast.

“It’s a very different show than the one we put on last year,” he said. “The first time around, I think it was a comedy first, ad­ven­ture second. [This] has gone in the opposite direction: ad­ven­ture first, comedy second.”

Through Aug. 25 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Rd., Gaithersburg, www.gaithersburgmd.gov/theater, 301-258-6394.

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