Cincinnati’s improvisational comedy scene has flourished in the past few years. Just look to the Improv Festival of Cincinnati as a powerful indicator of this boom. This year, it boasts 60 percent more performances than it hosted in 2017.
But the festival’s growth can also be counted toward its initiatives to bring in performers from diverse backgrounds.
“We focus on the artists and make sure we’re bringing in the best we can,” says festival co-producer Paul Wilson. “People who are going to put on an amazing show and who are going to expose the Cincinnati audience to new forms, new voices, diverse voices; to diversify the look of the performers, to make sure that we’re getting perspective from far and wide.”
Take Matt Damon Improv (MDI), a troupe comprised entirely of women of color. While many shows focus solely on making the audience laugh, other troupes use comedy and satire to draw attention to larger issues — Chicago-based MDI is one of them. At each performance, MDI chooses a different white improviser to join their team — women portray actress Lena Dunham whereas men play as actor Matt Damon.
“The caveat,” member Angela Oliver explains by phone, “is that (Matt Damon or Lena Dunham) can only repeat words we have said in the improv set, forcing them to really listen.”
Oliver refers to their unique form as a satirical device, one which her troupe uses to bring more awareness to the lack of representation by women and people of color in film, media and even in other improv, where Oliver feels too-often cast as the “sassy black woman” stereotype.
“(Improv) just frees us so much. We get to play whatever we want to play,” Oliver says. “We can be aliens and sometimes we’re detectives from the noir era and nobody’s negating it.”
This year, women make up half of the performers of IF Cincy — a figure that shouldn’t feel as shocking as it does. Wilson says that a combination of diverse improvisors and the immediacy of the art form lead to “a chemistry that you don’t get elsewhere.”
“There’s a change that’s happening and I hope — and I think I see — that improv is leading the way,” Wilson says. “I couldn’t be prouder to be a small part of that fight.”
That diversity is also present in where participating improv troupes are from. While 13 local troupes will be performing, an additional 19 from cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles will travel to perform here. Previously staged at Over-the-Rhine’s Know Theatre, this year IF Cincy will move a few blocks over to Memorial Hall, which allows the festival to schedule two stages at once and double its comedy offerings.
Those familiar with Whose Line Is It Anyway? have already experienced the short-form version of improv, a collection of brief, structured games which typically use audience suggestions as a jumping-off point. Local performers ComedySportz and Cleveland’s Rare Form Improv exclusively perform this sub-genre.
Though short-form is the most recognizable style of improvisation, IF Cincy offers audiences a chance to dive into other formats as well, including long-form performances that feel more like an on-the-fly play. A Chicago-based troupe of musical improvisers will create Anarchy, “a completely sung, completely improvised Rock opera” at each performance, whereas Los Angeles’ JETZO will use clowning to tell stories about a father and son. Another Chicago team, Horror of Terror, will blend “sub-genres of horror from backwoods and fanaticism to slasher and psychological thriller to make a uniquely terrifying comedy” that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, according to an IF Cincy press release.
As for IF Cincy’s rapid growth, Wilson credits the momentum to the support of local audience members — not only to those who have shelled out for sponsorships or donated year after year to the festival’s crowdfunding campaigns, but also to those who enthusiastically attend shows and workshops around the city.
“It’s a community that has built this,” Wilson says. “We’re just lucky enough to stand on stage and introduce it.”
The Improv Festival of Cincinnati runs Thursday through Saturday (Sept. 27-29) at Memorial Hall (1225 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). More info/tickets: ifcincy.com.