Sarasota Improv Festival is often called a festival of headliners.
Think of it as the Bonnaroo or Coachella of the improv world.
The event is a showcase for the best of the best in the art of improvisational theater.
This year, more than 20 groups will perform on five stages July 12-14 at Florida Studio Theatre.
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Improv artists will come from as far as California, Spain and France to participate. There will also be some well-known faces onstage.
Improv group Orange Tuxedo is made up of Carla and Craig Cackowski. Craig is part of the ensemble cast of the popular Comedy Central show "Drunk History."
And as a special treat, comedy legend Dick Smothers, one half of the Smothers Brothers, will give a talk on his life and unwitting role in the creation of improv.
So, what is improv?
Improv pulls from scripted theater, musical and stand-up comedy.
Taking cues from the audience and each other, improv actors make up a scene as they go along. Some groups employ music, and others tell a story or make use of physical comedy gags.
Rebecca Hopkins is managing director for Florida Studio Theatre. She founded the theater's improv group in 2001 and the festival in 2008.
For someone who has never seen improv, Hopkins describes it as "theater in the moment."
"It's the most visceral theater there is," Hopkins said. "We do make it up as we go along, so it's going to speak to whatever is happening in the world around us right now. But it's going to do it with comedy. It's meant to bring the audience in, not push them away. What improv does it celebrate our humanity."
At the heart of improv is the concept: "yes, and." It means that no matter what material improvisor A gives improvisor B, improvisor B must accept it and add onto it. Otherwise, the scene is over.
"By trapping yourself in a world where you have to accept and add and give, and where it's more about your scene partner than yourself, you find all these creative funny scenes that explore our world," Hopkins said.
It's the most immediate kind of theater.
Hopkins started thinking about a festival when local audiences started getting excited about improv.
"When I started FST Improv here in Sarasota it was the first time that improv was really introduced to the community. As we developed our own improv troupe, the audience started getting very excited about it. But I knew there was a lot of exciting work being done around the country."
Hopkins attended other festivals and got ideas. Her first goal was to introduce the Saraosta area to improv as an art form.
"My second purpose was to heighten the growth of the work we were doing by giving our own home team more interaction with the best in the country," Hopkins said. "To inspire and open our horizons. That's how it started. It was an experiment."
Since 2008, the festival has grown organically, drawing bigger names and crowds each year.
"Improvisors from around the country are blown away by how engaged and intelligent our audiences are," Hopkins said. "They really challenge the improvisors. It's put Sarasota on the map for improv."
Will Luera started out as a participant in the festival with improv group ImprovBoston.
"I used to really look forward to it. I felt like it was one of the best if not the best festival in the country. I always enjoyed the hospitality and the audiences."
Eventually, he got a job offer with a curious title: Director of Improvisation. Luera says he couldn't pass it up.
"A big part of my job now is just running the improv program," Luera said. "Of all the time I do a week, about five percent is onstage performing. The rest is teaching, directing and managing our in-house ensemble, administrative work, updating curriculums and contacting clients. So a lot of it's office work like anyone else."
Luera got his start in improv on a whim. In his youth, the world of traditional theater left him feeling rejected.
"When I first started at my college, there were very few opportunities for me to audition," Luera said. "I didn’t have the experience and I didn’t have the look for many of the rolls that were auditioning. However, in improv, you don't necessarily get type cast into what you look like. In my opinion one of the beauties of improv is that you can be anybody."
10th anniversary highlights
Some improv festivals are so big that they feel like conferences more than shows.
Alternatively, Sarasota Improv Festival is small and curated.
The setup allows audiences to see the best performers and also allows for more interaction among improv artists.
This year, the festival features three nights of performances.
Here are some of the highlights:
Thursday: Hopkins says new improv goers can't go wrong with one of the headline acts. On Thursday, the headliner is Impro Theatre from Los Angeles. The group creates "completely improvised, full-length plays in the styles of the world’s greatest playwrights, authors and composers."
Showtime: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Friday: "I knew that I needed to bring La Carpe Haute to Sarasota last November," Luera said. "We were both at the same festival in London and I was watching them do their show. At this point I've probably seen thousands of shows. You see bad improv, you see really good improv, and then you see some that inspires you and brings out the student in you again. And Le Carpe Haute was one of those."
Showtime: 8 p.m. Friday.
Friday: That’s My Song: An Intimate Evening with Dick Smothers is a surprise last-minute addition to the festival.
"The Smothers Brothers, their impact on comedy is just amazing," Hopkins said. "They didn't know they were doing improv, but they were. Dick lives here in town and he started coming to the improv shows. And I sit and talk to him all the time and get these amazing stories, and I said, 'we should do this for people.'"
After the interview, musical improv group North Coast will compose a tribute to the Smothers brothers on the spot.
Showtime: 5 p.m. Friday.
Saturday: Baby Wants Candy, a music-based improv group from Chicago, will headline the final day of the festival.
Showtime: 9 p.m. Saturday.
Saturday: The festival concludes with an "All Play" in which all of the improvisors get on stage at the same time.
Showtime: 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
Luera is excited about Orange Tuxedo.
"There's something so simple about the two-person act," Luera said. "And the fact that they’re a married couple I think adds to that chemistry."
Showtimes: 7 p.m. Friday amd 8 p.m. Saturday.
Like it? Try it!
The festival also offers workshops for experts and newcomers to improv.
"The workshops are a good place for the improvisors to learn from each other at a higher level," Hopkins said. "But we also offer some for people who have been thinking, 'maybe I can do this.' You get to take a little master class workshop from some of the best people in the country. It's all levels."
Sarasota Improv Festival details: July 12-14. $10 single tickets, $25 headliner tickets and passes from $55. Call 941-366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org to buy tickets.