Area theater troupes gear up for annual Santa Cruz Improv Fest
There’s one story that I must tell you, and I always quote this,” says Gerry Orton, who begins telling a story about Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improvisational theater. “He was in San Francisco, and I was taking a workshop from him—this was several years ago—and on the evening of a performance while he was there, he was interviewed on stage by a teacher of improv. The teacher said, ‘Keith, why do you still do it after all these years? Why do you still travel the world and teach?’ And his answer was, ‘Because I still don’t understand it.’” Orton lets out a knowing laugh. “And that’s so true.”
Orton is the director and founder of the Monterey-based Mirth-O-Matics, one of the many troupes participating in the ongoing Santa Cruz Improv Fest, which kicked off last weekend and continues into the beginning of June. Featuring local and near-local troupes performing in a variety of styles that range from short-form to Armando (long-form) to full-length plays, the festival serves not only as a feast for fans of improv theater, but also as a primer for the uninitiated.
“It’s a great smorgasbord,” promises Clifford Henderson, one of 12 members of the Santa Cruz-based troupe Loose Cannon. “We’ll be seeing improv from Santa Cruz to Monterey, from San Francisco to San Jose, and all of it is a very high level of improv,” she says. “You really can’t miss on any given night.”
Loose Cannon—which will close out the festival on June 1—has been together since 1996, and its managers/founders, Henderson and Dixie Cox, are also the founders of the Fun Institute, an improv acting class company that has had a significant impact on the local improv theater community. “A lot of the players from Santa Cruz who will be in the improv fest this year have studied with us at one time or another,” says Henderson.
The festival is a testament to the robust health of the local improv scene, evidenced by the esteem with which the performers regard the work of their peers. “The state of improv on the peninsula is very healthy,” says Orton. “Cliffi and Dixie are just fantastic role models and teachers,” he continues, citing their drop-in classes in particular. “They just personify what improvisation is all about: being positive, and really challenging yourself, and having fun while doing it.”
Orton describes improv as “the tight rope of theater performing,” and Henderson has witnessed firsthand how her adult students have gotten hooked on the thrill of it. “They crave that sense of creation,” she says. “It serves adults who are wanting to be in the moment, or wanting to work as a team. You watch people grow and bust through personal barriers, and I love seeing the gift that improv gives people, how it changes their confidence and gives them a broadening sense of themselves. I do it for the process more than the product.”
Orton concurs, saying, “You want to be in response to what your partner says, so it’s a matter of always being in the moment, being present.”
There is an ineffable exhilaration associated with being in the moment, just as there is a certain comfort in knowing that another moment will arrive to take its place. “Anything in which failure is success works for me, and that’s exactly what improv is: You have to fail to succeed,” says Cox. “It’s really just good-natured people willing to fail in public.” Because in an art in which failure is inevitable, the chance for redemption is always just around the corner.
The Santa Cruz Improv Fest is currently under way, and runs through June 1, at the Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15. View the full schedule at facebook.com/SantaCruzImprovFest, and purchase tickets at brownpapertickets.com.
Photo: Marcia Quakenbush