It was supposed to be a one-time event. But the Sarasota Improv Festival proved so popular with audiences that it became an annual tradition.
"It's a crazy 48 hours," Rebecca Hopkins said, "and we're now in our fifth year."
Hopkins is the director of the Sarasota Improv Festival and managing director of Florida Studio Theatre, which has hosted the festival since its inception.
She's also a founding member of FST's resident improv group, which came into existence 12 years ago. She thought it might take a while to develop an audience for improv in these parts, but found that audiences were immediately receptive.
"The thing about Sarasota audiences," Hopkins said, "is that they're very supportive. They're supportive, and they're also very knowledgeable."
This year's festival is Friday and Saturday, featuring 18 improv companies from around the United States. Most will perform 40-minute sets.
One thing that surprises some festival audiences, Hopkins said, is the variety of different styles of improv. Some companies do series of short sketches based on audience suggestions, some do one piece in 40 minutes. Some bring audience members up on stage to be part of the show. A Chicago company called Stacked does musical improv
The group headlining this year's festival, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, also from Chicago, actually uses audience suggestions to spontaneously parody a Shakespeare play.
"They have Shakespeare down," Hopkins said. "Iambic pentameter and everything."
The Improvised Shakespeare Company is the one group that's performing a longer show, about an hour-and-a-half, at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Some people may be skittish about audience participation, but they needn't worry, Hopkins said. Skilled improv actors can read audiences, and know whom to interact with. They avoid people who seem too eager and people who seem too reticent.
And when improv groups ask for audience suggestions, they don't want people to work too hard to be clever. Top-of-your-head replies are ideal. The performers supply the creativity.
"If I ask you to name something that's in your medicine cabinet," Hopkins said, "I really am looking for you to say dental floss."
Here's the schedule for this year's festival. Performances are in several FST theaters, so more than one performance can be scheduled for the same time:
July 12: 6 p.m. -- FST Improv (Sarasota); 7 p.m. -- ImprovBoston (Boston); 7 p.m. -- Sick Puppies Comedy (Boca Raton); 8 p.m. -- Dad's Garage (Atlanta); 8 p.m. -- Hawk & Wayne (St. Petersburg); 9 p.m. -- Jester Theater (Orlando); 9 p.m. Lazy Fairy (Sarasota); 10 p.m. -- Available Cupholders (Austin).
July 13: 4 p.m. -- Vintage Whine (Sarasota); 5 p.m. -- Smith & I (Chicago); 6 p.m. -- Mad Cowford (Jacksonville); 6 p.m. -- The Third Thought (Tampa); 7 p.m. -- Dad's Garage (Atlanta); 7 p.m. --ImprovBoston (Boston); 8 p.m. -- SAK Comedy Lab (Orlando); 8 p.m. -- Stacked (Chicago); 9 p.m. Special Event: The Improvised Shakespeare Company (Chicago); 10:30 p.m. -- All Play.
Details: July 12-13, Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets: Weekend pass $59; Single-show tickets $10; other packages available. Information: 941-366-9000, www.floridastudiotheatre.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.