It’s not just that the Sarasota Improv Festival has gotten better every year, Rebecca Hopkins said. Improv itself is getting better.
“Every year, these artists are pushing the envelope,” she said. “They’re tearing the envelope into little pieces.”
Hopkins is the managing director of Florida Studio Theatre, which has been home to the Sarasota Improv Festival since the beginning, and she’s producing director of the festival itself.
“This is our ninth year,” Hopkins said. “Can you believe it?”
Over the years, Hopkins said, she has seen the talent level in the improv world rise and the breadth of ideas in the art form expand.
Among the shows at this year’s festival are “Brouhaha,” an improvised puppet musical, and “BLANK! The Musical,” an improvised Broadway-style musical that is now playing Off-Broadway and drew a strong review from the New York Times.
The work in “BLANK!” shows one way in which the art of improv has enhanced itself in recent years, she said. Not long ago, improv groups would have the audience suggest a title and create a musical on the spot. That was impressive enough, but “BLANK!” takes things further.
“They have the audience suggest not just the title, but some characters and some points of the story arc,” Hopkins said. “That boxes them in even further. And they’re absolutely hilarious.”
In musical improv, the musicians and the actors are improvising together. Melodies are being invented along with the lyrics.
“I never talked about it before this year, because it never occurred to me that people didn’t know that,” she said. “But the musicians are improvising too, just as much as the actors. Apparently a lot of people thought there was one melody for all the ballads and the actors just made up new words.”
Another highlight of this year’s festival, she said, will be Complot/Escena, one of the best-known improv companies in Mexico. They’ll perform one show in Spanish and one in English
One reason she’s excited about Grupo Complot/Escena is that groups from other countries, such as ImprovMadrid, which came to the festival a couple years back, have a different way of looking at American culture and the English language that makes for a distinctive kind of improv.
The festival runs for three days, beginning Thursday, with 22 groups performing and usually several shows going on at once, so festival audiences can take their pick.
What they all have in common is that the audience is involved.
“You can’t do improv without the audience,” Hopkins said. “That’s where all the ideas come from.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone in the audience has to be involved. You can be a passive observer and enjoy the show just as you would a rehearsed play, or you can shout out a suggestion or two (at the appropriate time) or maybe even allow yourself to be pulled onto the stage. One of the skills improv performers develop is picking the right people from the audience. If you want to be left alone, they’ll be able to tell. They’ll also be able to tell if you’re eager to upstage them.
“They don’t want to pick someone who doesn’t want to be part of the show,” she said. “And they don’t want to pick someone who will be too much a part of the show.”
Here the entire schedule:
7 p.m.: FST Improv, Dear Aunt Gertrude, Just The Funny
8:30 p.m.: When X Meets Y, Sick Puppies Comedy, The Third Thought, Square One Improv
10 p.m.: FAST Florida All Star King of the Hill Competition
6 p.m.: FST Improv
7 p.m.: “Brouhaha”
7 p.m.: ImprovBoston
7 p.m.: Villain Theater
8 p.m.: Dad’s Garage
8 p.m.: Available Cupholders
8 p.m.: “BLANK! The Musical”
8 p.m.: Grupo Complot/Escena (Spanish show)
9 p.m.: STACKED
9 p.m.: Joe Bill & Friends
9 p.m.: Parallelogramophonograph
10 p.m.: North Coast Improv
11 a.m.: Just For Laughs
5 p.m.: Complot/Escena
5 p.m.: Hawk and Wayne
6 p.m.: Available Cupholders
6 p.m.: Big Bang Improv
6 p.m.: STACKED
7 p.m.: North Coast Improv: ANYBODY
7 p.m.: Parallelogramophonograph
7 p.m.: Joe Bill & Friends
8 p.m.: ImprovBoston
8 p.m.: Dad’s Garage
8 p.m.: SAK Comedy Lab
9 p.m.: “BLANK! The Musical”
10:30 p.m. All Play
Details: July 13-15, Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave, Sarasota. Two-day pass (Friday and Saturday) $65, One-day pass (Friday or Saturday) $49; single show tickets $10, Single tickets for “BLANK! The Musical” $25. Thursday night passes and three-day passes are sold out. 941-366-9000, floridastudiotheatre.org.