The Why and the How of Improvative Productions

My improviser friends who’ve known me and see me grow in the SF Bay Area improv community may have seen this coming. Because Improvative Productions is the result of me wanting to do certain things and make specific shows happen, for quite some time. In some cases, even before I moved to Oakland, back when I lived in Malaysia and there was only one improv group that I was aware of in the entire country, and they only performed short form shows. But I don’t know how many people know that history, and so I thought it would be worth me blogging about for anyone who might be interested.

This really all started before I lived in Malaysia, though. In the country of my birth—Australia.

I first discovered improv as a live theatre art form in the year 2000 during my first trip to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I had just started performing stand-up comedy as a teenager and wanted to see how the pros did it. My mother had accompanied me on that trip because, I mean, I was still in high school. I’d pre-purchased all my stand-up show tickets, but while we were there, I discovered a free outdoor afternoon show that included a couple of my favourite stand-up comedians at the time. That’s where I first saw improv—a Canadian duo called Hot Nuts and Popcorn. I’ll admit, I was impressed, and I wanted to know more.

Flyers from Cops on Heat (2001-2002)
By this point, I’d also already been working on a website about Australian comedy and comedians, putting up profiles and interviewing anyone I could get in touch with. It was still the early days of the Internet, so accessibility to these comedians were in some ways easier than it is now, and in some ways harder. It depended upon a number of factors. It was through working on this website that I discovered the long-form improv show, Cops on Heat. Or rather, one of the members of that show found me and got in touch because they were bringing the show to a festival in the city I lived in, in early 2001, and were looking for ways to promote the show. I helped promote the show for them, and watched it live several times, both in Perth and in Melbourne. I adored this show—it was basically an hour-long version of a single short-form game (an interrogation game where the perpetrator has to guess what they’d done from the audience suggestions based on what the interrogators say without using the actual words). They had costumes, and the perpetrator was a guest improviser, while their main three person cast were all cops.
The 3 Canadians at Melbourne International Comedy Festival, 2001
This was a production. This became my idea of what an improv show could be. I took an improv workshop with them in Perth, but back then I was too shy to think I could pursue it as an art form for myself. Instead, I watched the improv shows I wanted to see, most notably The 3 Canadians (which were Hot Nuts and Popcorn plus a third member; a group of three men who had met through the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, Canada). I was a big fan of The 3 Canadians. I even made a fan website for them, and trekked out to Toronto, Canada in 2004 and 2005 to see one of them perform at Second City when he was a cast member there.

Second City Toronto programs 2004-2005

Shortly after I returned to Australia after that trip (that also included a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and Sundance Film Festival), my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’d just begun studying for my Graduate Diploma in Media Production (having already graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Internet Computing with minors in Media Studies and Multimedia Information Systems, which I studied primarily because I loved building that website about Australian comedy), and was no longer performing stand-up comedy, but improv still called to me. While my mother was sick, I took a weekend youth improv workshop, that included a live performance at the end. It was nerve-wracking, but I did it, and that was the last time my mother was able to come out and see me perform in anything before she passed away a few weeks later. She braved the public space in the wheelchair she’d been limited to due to her chemotherapy treatments just so she could support me. I recorded that show, and I believe I still have the video from that show.

Cut to: a few years later, when I lived in Malaysia.

Living in a foreign country with a husband and a toddler was challenging. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t feel like I even knew myself any more. I’d felt like I lost myself to motherhood, and I wanted to be more than that role. My mother was more than that role. She was a freakin’ pioneer for women in the engineering field, for goodness sake! Back when she studied engineering, she was usually the only woman in her classes. So I grew up thinking I should be able to do anything I wanted to do since that’s what my mother did. I decided to do the only thing I could think of to find myself again—returned to my roots in stand-up comedy. I returned to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as an audience member in 2009 (though I didn’t just watch stand-up—this is where I caught a Spontaneous Broadway production, which I also loved, and it was another improv show that included costumes). I was still in touch with that improviser I saw at Second City in Canada, and he helped motivate me to get into performing stand-up in Malaysia, which I followed through on. I tried to work with local comedy producers in Malaysia to help set up workshops for him to teach there, but the stand-up comedy scene was still in its infancy then, and few people seemed interested in doing improv as well. Later that same year, I also befriended an Hawaii-based improviser online, and that introduction is quite likely what really set the wheels in motion that led to me starting Improvative Productions—yes, roughly eight and a half years later.

You might ask yourself, “How can one improviser have that much impact?” But you may be underestimating the dearth of access to improv in Malaysia, and how much that limited access made me crave it even more. Especially for an autistic person who Must Know Everything About Their Special Interests.

Dominica recording Oil in the Alley, 2012
R Kevin (the Hawaii-based improviser) and I were friends before I started following his improv, though we initially connected through him sending me a document he had previously written, hoping it would give me information that could help me try and jump-start improv in Malaysia. His interest in supporting my pursuit is one of the reasons I count him as a mentor on this journey, despite having only taken a couple of workshops with him years after we met. Because we lived so far apart (Malaysia vs. Hawaii), I first encountered his improv through watching video clips his duo partner Sean shared on their Oil in the Alley Facebook page. I was an instant fan, even though I didn’t quite yet understand everything that went into developing a show like theirs. I’d never heard of invisible improv before, let alone seen it. Their “famous 80s rock stars back together for a reunion tour” personas were totally believable to me. Watching their clips online made me want to see them live. It made me want to work with them in some capacity. So I did—in November 2010 and February 2012—I flew to Hawaii from Malaysia, watched them perform, and recorded their shows and music videos with them. I know I’ve helped generate new fans for them as a direct result of those music videos because people have told me that directly.

On the Spot performing Screwbuki at the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater, 2017
A significant portion of my experience with improv grew out of that. Learning about Improvaganza – the Hawaii Festival of Improv because R Kevin is one of the producers of that, and seeing the line ups year after year making me want to travel there specifically for the festival to see these unique improv shows (especially after meeting the other producers on my 2012 visit to Honolulu). Watching the innovative shows by On the Spot Hawaii (which R Kevin is also a member of, as are the other Improvaganza producers)—especially Screwbuki, their improvised kabuki show, and Hush, their improvised silent movie format—first as online videos, and then live. Studying improv at Leela in San Francisco because R Kevin recommended Jill Eickmann to me, and then with Marcus Sams (who now runs Moment Improv Theatre) in his Two Play program because I enjoyed when he taught drop-in classes at Leela. Learning about the amazingness of Seattle’s Festival of Improv Theater because both On the Spot and Oil in the Alley performed there, and I wanted to see them live again. These are the people who inspire me. These are the people I want to share with my community. These are the people I want others to see and also be inspired by.

Since moving to Oakland in 2014, I’ve trained heavily in improv theatre (with classes, rehearsals, and performances keeping me busy 3-4 nights a week at the peak of my training). I performed with Leela’s Performing Improv Ensemble YUM for over two years, and was their production manager for the majority of that time. I got us accepted into three festivals (SF Sketchfest, Hollywood Improv Festival, and Antelope Valley Improv Comedy Festival). I then went on to create So You Want a Job (which I’ve taken to Improvaganza – the Hawaii Festival of Improv, and the Alaska State Improv Festival, and has been invited to another yet-to-be-announced festival), and co-created [ ]: an all-women non-verbal improv show, and Salt ‘n Burn: We Fight Monsters, a duo improv show inspired by the TV show Supernatural with Alissa Joy Lee (one of the Improvaganza producers). I’ve additionally taught Leela’s production managers as their Production Manager Coordinator, and helped produce Femprovisor Fest in 2017-2018.

So what exactly are my goals with Improvative Productions?

Well, seeing that I came at improv through a rather non-traditional-for-Americans-route, I’ve latched on to enjoying very specific kinds of shows, and wanting to share those shows with other people, whether that’s through developing and performing in those shows, or bringing those shows to other people to see. I’ve been able to experience so many of those shows as an audience member at improv festivals, and sometimes when I’ve talked to members of those groups, I’ve found that submitting to our local improv festivals isn’t an option. Sometimes the dates don’t work, or there are financial constraints.

At this point, I have a long list of shows and groups that I want to bring out to the San Francisco Bay Area, both to put on shows and teach workshops. I realised that there wasn’t really anyone specifically focusing on this in the Bay Area outside of festival times, so it didn’t matter how many groups I talked to about wanting them to come out, if I wanted it to actually happen, I had to be the one to make it happen.

I care a lot about the community I’m part of, and the connections I’ve made in the improv world. This is my way of giving back to the community and sharing what I love in the San Francisco Bay Area. I hope that sharing these shows I love with the Bay Area community will help inspire other improvisers to explore what else they can do with an improv production.

But producing shows is expensive. Especially if you want to cover the cost of things like travel and accommodation, and (if possible) paying the performers, too. You can’t do that with selling tickets to shows alone, not with how much people are willing to pay for improv shows in the Bay Area (see my survey results, coming soon). Running workshops helps, but isn’t always enough. Hence why I’m additionally offering services to improvisers that utilize the skills I’ve built over the years. Pay me to do video, coaching, or website work, and that money goes toward the cost of producing these shows and workshops, and finding others I want to bring out. The more money I can make doing that, the more groups I can bring out, and the more shows I can produce.

Right now, I expect most of the income for this business will come primarily from video related work. As mentioned above, I have a Graduate Diploma in Media Production, so I’ve been working with video production and editing for over a decade. When I lived in Malaysia, I took on the role of recording TimeOut KL’s monthly stand-up shows and editing their promo videos for a while. More recently, I was responsible for editing Leela’s show videos and getting them up online. Leela has since decided to discontinue that service for their non-P.I.E. groups, and as a result I’ve had a few people ask me how much I’d charge to video and edit for them separately. So it made sense to set up a business to offer that service officially. However, I realised that if I was going to ask people to pay me for that, I needed to make sure the quality would be better than what they were getting before. I’ve heard complaints from improvisers and producers alike about what is lacking with improv performance videos, and I wanted to be able to solve those issues. Over the course of three weekends this month, I spent time recording improv shows at various theatres (Moment Improv Theatre, Leela, and All Out Comedy Theater) to test my equipment and gather example footage. Ultimately, I’ve decided that for now, for the cheapest option available to improvisers, I’ll record shows on two devices that will allow me to provide the best audio and video recorded between them, because there are a lot of factors that can affect the look and sound of the recording, and I don’t necessarily know what the best result will be beforehand, especially if I’m recording at a theatre I haven’t recorded in before. It’s good to have a backup option in those cases.

Aside from being asked about videoing improv shows, I’ve also been asked about coaching a new improv group, and had improv students tell me I should teach. As a result, I want to make myself available to coach improvisers on a flexible schedule that works for them. I’ve also been developing a workshop called “How to improvise with the Strengths of an Autistic Person,” because since learning that I’m autistic last year, I realised that I’m consistently complemented on choices I make on stage that are a direct result of me being autistic, and I wanted to be able to teach people how to make those choices themselves. It just made sense to put all of these things together as part of the same business.

But I am also open to being hired for anything else that is related to improv or video production that I can help with. Since registering this business, I’ve also been hired to participate in a corporate gig, and assisted with an actor’s self-tape audition. I’m flexible, and open to working with people based on their needs, and adapting my skills if necessary. I’ve just reached a point where I need to make sure I’m monetarily compensated for my time and skills.

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