2016: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Hello friends! It is that time of year again, time to start preparing pitches for the New Zealand Improv Festival. The dates have already been announced (4-8 October at BATS Theatre) and we have plans for a programme of performances, workshops and networking/social opportunities to delight, inspire and connect improvisors and audiences. 

This year, however, I’ve been inspired to try something a little different to what we’ve worked with during my tenure as director. You can read more about this below, but I first wanted to talk you through some of the challenges we face putting on this beast, and what we’re doing to address them. I really like being open about all of this, so everyone has an understanding of what we’re doing, why, and how it affects them and their plans. 

THE CHALLENGES

Audiences
Let’s talk figures. Last year, we had 65% audience across our 20 performances at BATS. It drops to 45% if you take us (the improvisors) out of the equation. In previous years this has sat at around 80%, with 65% non-improv audience. I believe the drop can be attributed to a few things: the increased number of performances (20 instead of 17); the overlapping performance times; the difficulty in promoting 20 individual performances that all take place during a single week; ??? In short, all things we can address. Before you start to worry - don’t! We still made a wee profit on this festival, which will be reinvested. We just want to make sure it’s absolutely bangin’. 

For 2016, I have reduced the programme back to the 17 shows of 2013/14. I’ve also set the performance times so they don’t overlap - 6:30pm, 8:00pm, 9:30pm, and 11pm. The difficulties in promotion… that’s another thing.

The Abundance of Awesome
For a long time, the shape of the festival has been a showcase of work from individual companies and troupes, with each bringing a cast and a format, and the festival attempting to put on as broad a programme as possible - both in terms of content and spread across the country (and overseas where we had awesome work submitted). In your feedback, you have often commented on this, and admired the showcasing nature of it. From my point of view, it is bloody fantastic how many companies there are working in improv and putting on amazing work, and I have been spoiled for choice each time I sit down to programme. 

However, you’ve also noticed and fed-back on the abundance of excellent people that come together at festival time, and noted that you would like to be able to PLAY with each other more. It’s always been tricky balancing the desire to showcase as much as possible, and to provide enough meaningful opportunities for people to play. 

So. We want to play together, we want to watch each other’s work, and we (the festival) needs a slightly easier time selling the variety of work to our audience. 

What I’ve come up with for 2016 is a departure from the norm, and also something a little different to what I’ve seen/heard of from other festivals. It takes inspiration from everywhere and hopefully comes together in a unique and rewarding way for all our participants, and our audience.

THE CHANGES

Workshops
There was a lot of feedback regarding workshop times, accessibility, and quality. In terms of scheduling, I am keen to retain the weekday workshops especially with visiting improvisors, while increasing the number of weekend workshops to maximise locals’ ability to take part. If you are an out of towner coming along, we may attempt to organise some workshops the weekend before official kick off, so keep that in mind when you plan your travel. 
In terms of quality - I am eager to look into the planning of a teacher’s conference this Winter, giving improv tutors from all around NZ the opportunity to come together for a weekend, share notes, and take part in workshops. I will also write some guidelines based on the feedback from last year’s festival and offer these to all pitching tutors.

The Code of Conduct
Last year was our first year of running the festival with a Code of Conduct. The point of a COC is two-fold; on the one hand we want to try to prevent events and behaviour that are upsetting, dangerous, or otherwise negative. On the other, we want to ensure that everyone involved in this festival at every level knows that if something is to happen that hurts them, the festival has their back. I think we achieved that last year in that although we had challenges, we had a framework to address them. I am heartened by your feedback on this process and the way you embraced it. With all the activity in Chicago and US improv scenes, I am even more convinced of its value and will be taking steps to make it more comprehensive, with clear paths of action for everyone involved to take when necessary. 

The Proposed Performance Programme (The big changes!)
This year’s festival will have four distinct threads. It requires a little self-selection and some casting decisions by me, and I ask for your trust and understanding in making this all work. 

  • Thread 1 - All-In (6:30pm)
    Similar to Improvention’s Canberra Challenge, this thread is an all-in improv show, directed and hosted by experienced improvisors and open to anyone with at least a beginner level of improvisation. The exact form for this show is TBC, but I hope to give every single improvisor who participates in the festival the opportunity to take part. It will be short form, fun times improv, and the audience will get a familiar and enjoyable experience. 
  • Thread 2 - Directed Formats (8pm)
    This thread is for what I would call intermediate level improvisors, though open to anyone who is interested in the workshops. I’m looking for directors with show formats they’ve led before, that they can direct on stage, and that they can teach relevant skills for in a three-hour workshop. The cast for the show comes from that workshop, and the show can be anything - genre, new formats, new styles, short form, long form, anything in between. I will admit a bias towards mid/long form since Thread 1 will be short form, but I am open to suggestion. For this thread I’m looking for development opportunities for improvisors who are comfortable with short form directed work and want to push themselves further, to learn new formats and styles. I want directors who can lead said improvisors strongly and give an audience an excellent time. Think Zombies?, Thrills & Swoon, In The Parlour - work that you’ve developed elsewhere and are ready to lead people through. Participation in the workshop will be through the general workshop registration, and casting will be at the discretion of the director of the show. Remember, everyone can play in Thread 1, so if performing is a priority, sign up for that too. Directors: I’d prefer shows with a minimum of 6 players, and am open to any cast size beyond that. 
  • Thread 3 - Collaborations / Open Improv (9:30pm)
    This thread is for experienced improvisors - teachers, directors and performers who are comfortable in a range of styles. At this stage it will be either collaborations devised by players on the day they perform OR an open improv format that I determine across the board. Participation is through invitation by the festival director. 
  • Thread 4 - The Other Stuff (Late shows, opening/closing nights)
    We will have an opening and/or a closing night special performance, like NZ vs The World, and two late shows that are open to any and all participants. Think Pundemonium, a music night, a late night sexy time - that kind of thing. A few fun events that we can all have a great time at, on stage and off.

What does this mean?

  • All work will be created the week of the festival. No one will have to devote resources to rehearsals before arriving.
  • Audiences will have clearer choices to make, opportunities to return to shows they enjoyed, opportunities to attend all the shows in a night, and a less confusing programme. 
  • Improvisors will have more opportunities to PLAY TOGETHER. 
  • Individual companies will not be able to bring entire shows this year. However directors of formats created by those companies are welcome to pitch them for Thread 2, with all appropriate credits to be made. 
  • Participants can expect an engaging, enlightening, challenging and enjoyable time at NZIF, with high quality development opportunities in both performance and workshop settings. Also karaoke. That’s definitely happening. 
  • Accommodation will be provided for teachers and directors. We are investigating sponsorship arrangements and deals for participants and hope to offer an affordable option to anyone coming from out of town. 

From where I stand, it feels like a big change, but also a reasonable development given the size of the improv community and the breadth of our skills and expertise. I can’t wait to try this, and I hope this idea excites you as much as it delights me. If it goes well AND the showcase side of NZIF is missed, I’ll be keen to discuss options for an alternating programme style or try something new again.

In any case - it’s time to put your thinking caps on and start planning your pitches for 2016! The tentative timeline is: pitches due end of April, successful teachers/directors contacted early May, full programme announced internally late May/early June. 

If you have any questions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. This is your festival, let's make it together!

Much love, 
Jen
Festival Director
Contact: jen@nzimprovfestival.co.nz