– For Washington Improv Theater, the Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament is the biggest event of the year. With 58 teams vying for the comedy crown this year — that’s a record-setting high of 174 performers — the blackbox theatre at Source is humming with energy. DC Theatre Scene probed the minds of three performers right in the thick of it — Artistic and Executive Director Mark Chalfant, rookie contestant Mandy Murphy, and WIT alum Megan Cummings — to take the pulse of DC improv’s biggest competitive tournament. –
It’s magic to get to work with smart people to make something playful and interesting happen onstage.
We do FIST for five full weekends, through April 7. Last weekend was opening weekend, with several shows a day. It was a marathon. We had a lot of full houses, with people sitting on the floor. I’ve never seen an audience that’s so committed to the performers.
This is our sixth year of FIST. I think it’s sort of the perfect marriage between our role as a performance company and our mission to train as well. FIST lets us bridge those two things, and show all our students what performing is like from the inside out. Plus, it shows our audiences what the classes are all about.
We really want everyone in Washington to be experimenting with improv. We’re kind of evangelical about this. Even if someone’s not enrolling in a class, we want to talk to them. Because for those of us who are performing, it has had a profound impact on us.
Some people start taking a WIT class because they want to improve their public speaking skills. Or they have some vague notion that they need to find a creative outlet. So, initially there is this whole personal development phase for new students. But once you’re in the sandbox playing around with it, you start to really dig into the craft.
I was the first full-time staff member at WIT. I started in 2006. Before that, everything was done by a group of volunteers. Since then, we’ve grown to a full-time staff of three. It’s a lot to do. But when you see and feel all the results, it’s hard not to be happy with them.
The groups are formed in many ways. Some FIST teams are formed by just asking around in class. Others are formed because those people are already ensembles within WIT’s company. This year, I was on a team of seasoned players, and you couldn’t have asked for three more different and variously talented folks. And we were eliminated the first night! So those 12 minutes weren’t the right 12 minutes for us. And that’s part of the lesson of improv. Nothing is guaranteed.
You have to develop an intimate relationship with failure. If you’re not failing pretty regularly, you’re probably not playing creatively enough, pushing yourself enough.
Some FIST teams want to have the absolute freedom to go anywhere and do anything. Other teams hatch a really clever premise that they improvise within. Like, we had a team performing the other night called Rumspringa, which is that Amish custom of sending your teenagers off the farm and into the real world to see whether they’ll return home and honor their ways. So, this team performed in Amish clothing, as if they were kids on their Rumspringa doing improv for us. They were hipsters pretending to be Amish people pretending to be hipsters.
An audience is vital. Their feedback, their laughs and gasps… that’s what helps the players find their way through the narrative. They have to be discovering: who is this specific audience? What is our community finding interesting right now? A team can have an interesting idea for a set, but if no one’s laughing then it’s not the right joke for that moment, for that night.
In later rounds, the competition gets a little more fierce. The way the bracket is structured, two teams who advance side by side in round one will be playing again side by side later on. There’s probably a bit of rivalry that develops that way. But FIST is also really good at creating community. People are all backstage together, and that’s part of the point.
The growth of the improv community in DC has been like gangbusters. There are so many people who have come up through WIT’s classes that perform in DC all the time now. And the interesting challenge for us, at the artistic core of the company, is: how do we continue to drill down into the artistic process? We have to continue to make shows that are even more amazing than the last ones. Having that dialogue among the whole community of players has been incredibly exciting.
I took a Level 1A class in the fall, and I just recently finished Level 1B. I’ve lived in DC for a little over two years now, and I just wanted to get my hands into something new. I had a very brief period of doing improv in high school, so I was vaguely familiar with it. But my cousin has performed with The Second City in Chicago, and I’m always hearing from him how much fun he has with it. He’s a businessman by day, but at those shows he pulls out this incredible onstage personality.
It’s cool to have an outlet. To laugh and have a good time. To channel who you are and build up your self-confidence. You have to get comfortable making a fool of yourself in front of people if you’re going to be comfortable more generally in life.
The two guys I competed with on Thursday night were my classmates in 1A and 1B. Nick Henning and Arthur Chu — they’re hilarious. We were a little cautious because we’re kind of rookies. But we thought, hey. What the heck. It’s a good chance to practice and get better.
We practiced a lot with another team. The six of us got together and helped critique each other. It was an extension of what we did in class. I think it was really helpful in building up our confidence and our sense of play.
There’s no math to it. There’s no one way it has to happen. There are just a few general rules. You always support each other. You always take what people give you onstage as a gift and run with it. And then it all comes down to the audience. It’s how the jokes work in the moment based on the sets you happen to do.
I really love the fact that everyone is inevitably gonna laugh. You just have to let loose and check your personal issues at the door.
You can’t plan everything. You can practice as much as you want, but you’re not gonna know what happens until you step out onstage. It’s very exciting.
There are people of all walks of life in WIT classes. The students have a real work ethic, but also a level of comfort with each other. It’s rare to do an activity together that doesn’t have to start with questions like: Hi, what do you do for a living? The crew of people who are teaching and playing are people who aren’t going to judge you. They want you to have a good time and to lay it all out there.
I’m not someone who’s looking to get into doing improv professionally, necessarily. I really just want to have fun with it. It’s a great outlet. Down the road, who knows?
I’ve been performing with WIT for about three years. I had no prior experience with improv. But back then I was visiting a friend in Chicago, and I went to see her perform. She was having so much fun onstage. That was what got me to start taking classes at WIT, which I did with a different friend of mine.
And those two friends? They’re my FIST teammates this year. We’ve been friends for ten or eleven years, before any of us were doing improv.
The first day I did improv it felt like adult playtime. People were running around in their work clothes making faces. But as you get into it, you pick up on the teamwork aspect of it. At that point it becomes about community, and trusting people. You start to see the same faces around — people you took classes with last month, or last year, or two years ago. It’s almost like church to some folks in that way.
This past August, one of my friends from the improv community had a stroke, and everyone came together and cooked meals for her. That’s when you realize that it’s not just about what’s happening on stage. We all have the same core belief. And that belief is that when you step out onstage and trust others, they have to trust you.
One of the tenets of improv is to say yes. You have to work with what you get, what your partner gives you to work with. I find that people who think like that — who can immediately say yes to things — are willing to do that in their personal lives too. It’s an outlook on life.
Joining FIST is kind of like being asked to the prom. You get turned down, you have to turn other people down. People have to make teams quickly, and lock it in early, so that you have time to knock around ideas together.
It’s hard to do very much in just 12 minutes. Some teams use formats, some don’t. Using a format can help supplement your impulses. It creates a little order out of chaos, kind of like when a basketball team practices plays. It’s still an improvised game, but you start to get a sense of where you need to be at what moment. You get better at sensing when the ball is going to come your way before it comes.
Improv competitions are hard because the outcome is so subjective. Everything is based on an audience vote. So, who knows? We all just try to do a really good show.
There’s always instant audience feedback. They will laugh, or they’ll give you blank stares. So you’re always trying to instantly incorporate that feedback into your show. If you dangle a carrot and they laugh, then you may put it away and take it out once or twice again toward the end. That’s what separates us from stand-up comedians. We’re playing, and adjusting the content all the time.
Once it’s over, the adrenaline is still running through your body like crazy. Even after they announce the winner, it takes an hour or two to come down from that feeling. Even if it’s a bad show, you still have that rush, having been out in front of people like that.
And, it’s a single-elimination bracket. That’s the beauty of FIST. Experience and practice means nothing if you can’t get the audience vote. It’s always anybody’s game.
[Awwww! – Unfortunately, Mark and Mandy were both eliminated in the First Round. But Megan and Team Good Friends are still in the game and compete next March 23rd at 9:30pm.]
Speaking of game, here’s how FIST works: (thanks for breaking it down for us, Rachel) –
FIST is a six-round tournament and every show is a step in the competition. 4 three-member improv teams perform 12-minute sets opposite one another. The audience then determines via secret ballot which 2 teams advance to the next round. (While votes are tallied, the audience takes in a WIT ensemble improv performance.)
The 2012 bracket started with 58 three-member teams. Teams are all formed uniquely for the 2012 tournament; team members cannot perform regularly with one another and cannot have performed together on a FIST team a previous year. FIST runs Thursdays at 8pm and 9:30pm, Fridays at 9:30pm and 11pm, and Saturdays at 8pm, 9:30pm and 11pm from March 8 – April 7, 2012 on WIT’s home stage at Source (1835 14th Street NW, WDC). Performances last 90minutes. Tickets range $10 – $20 and vary depending on tournament round; lower priced tickets always available online in advance.
But Wait! We have a special discount for reading down this far: Use code: “gofightwin2012” to get $2 off your online ticket purchases. Tickets.