Laugh — and take a class to make others laugh — at Sarasota Improv Festival

The fest celebrates its 10th anniversary July 12-14.

Sarasota Improv Festival

Florida Studio Theatre: 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota
July 12-14

$10-$25 per show; $29-$79, passes. Workshops: $35; $90, set of three.

click to enlarge Baby Wants Candy is one of three headliners at the Sarasota Improv Festival July 12-14. - Baby Wants Candy
Baby Wants Candy
Baby Wants Candy is one of three headliners at the Sarasota Improv Festival July 12-14.


Improvisational comedy is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen next. Except for this week’s Sarasota Improv Festival, that is. It’s becoming pretty predictable, and that’s a good thing.

“Predictable,” as in the festival is now in its 10th year. And it keeps growing, bringing in dozens of acts from all over the world. Events come and go, but the festival features various types of improv in a setting that includes performances for fans and classes who want to give it a try.

We talked to Rebecca Hopkins, Managing Director of Florida Studio Theatre and the festival’s producer, about the local scene, what people can expect this year and how to be a good audience member.

How has the festival changed over the years? 

We started with two nights in one theater. We had 13 groups — three were local — and about 40 improvisers. The audience response was so overwhelming we just kept going. Now it’s an integral part of the summer on the Gulf Coast, much like the Sarasota boat races.  Each year it just grew organically — now it’s in all five spaces, has between 80 and 90 performers, international groups and the best improvisers in this country.  

How many different types of improv exist? What makes the experience different every time? 

At the foundation of improv you learn “Yes, and” which basically equates to “anything is possible and whatever idea my scene partner throws at me I’m going to go with it and try to expand upon it.” That type of commitment leads to overwhelming creativity.  

When I started improv was still new. It was basically “get up and do a scene and try to be funny.” Now you have musical improv, hip-hop, long-form, short-form, freestyle (which Will invented), murder mystery, soap operas, every genre of storytelling you can think of.   

The festival’s showcasing more than 75 performers. What are the benefits and challenges of having that many people participate?

It’s actually 86 this year at last count. The benefit is the synergy they build off of each other. These are not beginners. These artists are at the top of their game and they come to Sarasota knowing they have to bring their “A” game. They build on each other’s energy and really start to bounce off each other. 

The challenges are all logistics. How do we schedule the shows to allow festival participants to see a real diversity of work? What are each of them doing so the weekend builds on itself and that synergy works? How do we schedule the workshops so they can also take advantage of the opportunity to learn from one another?  And then far less glamorous stuff like, where are we housing all these people? How are we going to pick them all up from the airport? How to feed them and how to make this continue to be the festival they all want to attend?

How do you ensure you have a good representation of various styles?

This is a curated festival, which means it is by invitation to perform. Many festivals take submissions. We stopped doing that because we only have so many performance times available. We know who is out there and invite them to come. A lot of times groups will recommend others to us and we’ll check them out. Will (Luera, Florida Studio Theatre’s Director of Improv) is also very engaged internationally with other festivals and via networks. So he really has taken on keeping his finger on the pulse. We get together and discuss it and send out invitations. 

The fest has international groups and local acts, like Dear Aunt Gertrude, Third Thought and Hawk & Wayne. How does our local scene compare to others? 

The Florida scene is really growing. I think the festival has helped strengthen it because it gives our Florida artists the opportunity to connect with the rest of the country. It is actually one of the reasons I started the festival. I knew nothing accelerates growth faster than inspiration. I believe you are going to continue to see Florida grow in importance in the world of improv. The festival has been significant in putting the state on the map and FST works all year to continue to collaborate with the broader field.

Improv workshops are a common theme at improv events. Why is that? Is it a way for traveling performers to make money?

I don’t think it’s about money, but it does help a little. The importance of the workshops is the cross-pollination of the work. Improv is developed by the actual performers, so the workshops are where the structures are shared. It is also a great place for anyone to just put a toe in the water and see if this is something they might like to do. 

What’s your dream audience like? What are some basic dos and don’ts? 

The dream audience has honestly been the festival audience. They come in on our side, ready to have a good time. We love people who want to laugh, who answer our request for authenticity without trying to be the show themselves. The thing you learn about dealing with audiences is most of them want you to succeed. Most want to have good time. 

The really good improviser knows not to pick on someone who doesn’t want to actively participate. That’s no fun for anyone, but we also avoid those who want to participate a little too much. We love the real answers. Let us do the funny part. So come in feel free to laugh, have a few drinks, but don’t get trashed. You’re not as funny when you're drunk as you think you are. Laugh, laugh often, and laugh out loud. That gets us going.

What twists or additions would you like to see in coming years? 

That’s a trick question. If it’s really a twist, we don’t know what it will be. We’re open to what comes next. Wherever this crazy art form is going, we’re going to be there. We’re not going for “big” just to get big. We want to be the best. The fest not to miss. Although I keep trying to figure out how to get a beach volley ball tournament in there. I think it would be hysterical. 

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