A little over four years ago in September, my teammates and I at Post Dinner Conversation were part of a jam in Ybor City hosted by local Tampa improv company, The Box. A lot of local improvisers were there - more than we knew existed - and we got a major hit of inspiration.
We thought, "Someone should do a bigger version of this, like, a weekend thing, with teams from all over the state."
We were super green improvisers at the time with less than a year under our belt, though like many, were crazy about this new art form we'd found. We'd only been to Sarasota Improv Festival earlier that summer, which was a behemoth of an event compared to our weekly coffee shop shows in Tampa. When my roommate Murphy Barthe and I got home from the jam, we stayed up until about 3AM brainstorming the Tampa Improv Festival.
We gave ourselves 1 month to plan and execute the whole thing. In short, we were out of our minds. Looking back now, I realize it was sheer will and stupidity that carried us into a successful first year, worrying 'round the clock for 30 days and going without sleep for most of it as I worked on organizing the details late at night after work.
I looked at as many improv festival websites as I could - including Gainesville Improv Festival, Out of Bounds, and North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival - and set the wheels in motion. I payed attention to the way other festivals worked to put butts in seats, advertised their shows and workshops, and set up their schedules. I adopted a few submission forms, using intuition and guesswork to put the pieces together and make it look like we knew what we were doing. That was something I learned well from doing improv and all that I felt I needed to really know to get the ball rolling.
Two days after the initial conversation, Warren Buchholz put together a website and logo, I created an event plan, contacted Micheal Murphy at Silver Meteor Gallery, and shot out our first team submission application on Facebook.
The first week, we got no submissions. I almost pulled all of my hair out and couldn't sleep.
By the second week 12 teams had submitted. Shortly after releasing our 11 team lineup for that first year, SAK Comedy Lab's Richard Paul and Third Thought's Patrick McInnis reached out and offered to teach workshops at the festival. The weekend arrived, all three nights of shows drew a good sized audience, filling Silver Meteor with the most largest improv audiences it had seen in many years. American Stage's Hawk & Wayne served as the first headliners, backed up by then Improv Boston's Artistic Director Will Luera (now Florida Studio Theatre's Director of Improv in Sarasota) with his team Big Bang, as well as teams from Orlando, Miami, Boca Raton, New York, and our own backyard.
We were small but mighty the first year, not able to do much advertising or outreach, but the community that formed around the festival had a blast hanging out and learning more about each other - many of them for the very first time. With a year to plan better, the second Tampa Improv Festival moved locations to Tampa Pitcher Show, a sizable dine-in movie theater in the Carrollwood neighborhood where host company Post Dinner Conversation (now Tampa Bay Improv) had built a small cabaret stage in the lobby for weekly shows and workshops. That year, the festival was expanded to 9 workshops and over 30 shows, welcoming new teams from Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta, and all over Florida. Piggy-backing off a deal already made by Brokenmold Entertainment for the same weekend, Upright Citizens Brigade TourCo was added as a headliner in the last minute and Level Talent Group out of South Tampa sponsored a party bus to take performers from the venue in North Tampa to Ybor City for the show.
After closing doors at Tampa Pitcher Show, Post Dinner Conversation moved to a smaller venue, so the festival moved back to Silver Meteor Gallery, which had undergone much needed renovations. Planning for a bigger audience and performer pool than the previous year, festival staff spent extensive time the week before preparing the space. The outdoor area surrounding the theater was shaped with a lounge area, merchandise booth, cafe bar, sign wall for all performers, and a large green room to accommodate the 200 some performers attending the festival. SAK Comedy Lab was picked up as a main sponsor, and Aly San Juan created an initiative to interview every performer after their show to document the festival and create a short promo documentary for the next year. In total, 35 teams and 4 workshops wowed over 300 Tampa residents, adding teams from Kansas City, Savannah, Austin, and the San Francisco/Philly mashup, Bicoastal. Every show and workshops sold out, including the live recording of Improv Nerd with legendary chicago improv artist, Jimmy Carrane. That week, Creative Loafing ran their first comedy issue in history, featuring the Tampa Improv Festival as their main story.
This year has already brought major upgrades. The festival has been rebranded as the Tampa "Bay" Improv Festival, proudly representing the Bay area. Jumping over the bay and working in conjunction with American Stage Education, TBIF will feature a slew of workshops from out of town instructors and is proud to welcome Groundlings' Nick Armstrong and Upright Citizens Brigade's Amey Goerlich as this year's headliners in downtown St. Petersburg.
Submissions for Tampa Bay Improv Festival 2016 close August 31st. You can submit your team or workshop through The Improv Network by clicking here.