The most fundamental rule in being spontaneous on stage with improv is "yes...and." The idea behind this term is that all the actors must agree to agree. It is sort of like two children sitting down to play a game of checkers they must first agree to play the game checkers. You cannot all of a sudden take out a Monopoly piece, place it on a red square and shout, "Go to jail!" Those are not the rules of the game and thus the game would end. In improv we do exactly that every minute and second we are creating a funny scene. Sure, it's far more complicated than checkers, but it really isn't so long as we agree to "yesand."
Some five years ago I was directing the city's only improv comedy club at the time, in Union Station. I had already been a successful actor and improviser, creating and managing other improv clubs in other cities. I had studied at Second City in Chicago and in my hometown of New York City. I had even worked with the pioneers of the art form. So I thought I was doing all the "yesand" one can do on and off the stage but I wasn't.
I kept seeing other local actors learning or catching the improv bug here and then moving away. I kept seeing really talented people come through my audition doors and then working hard developing their craft, only to eventually not have a city to support their talent. Over and over I myself had to pick up myself or my cast to travel to other cities to perform our shows. I found myself thrown into the Comedy Improv Festival circuit where I was doing a dozen festivals a year. What was wrong with this "yesand" picture?
I was not in agreement with my community of talent and I for sure was not with St. Louis. I finally thought, "Why not bring the festivals here?" I asked some local peeps and sure, some thought St. Louis could never support theatre that is not Broadway musicals or at least mainstream stuff. I can even remember programming the first Improv Festival in 2000, and having some talented, smart people say, "Oh yes, be sure you get Drew Carey here." I laughed because here was the problem: the local talent didn't even believe in themselves.
The first year was a hit. We rented out the Focal Point and partnered with COCA, since they were bringing in Second City. It was a success. The festival reached all kinds of people who would never come downtown to catch an improv show. Can I grow this idea? "Yesand" is what I kept telling myself and others.
I kept doing the festival circuit, and slowly I began asking some really amazing acts from other cities to perform at our very own St. Louis Improv Festival. At the same time I began visiting these festivals dubbed Fringe. It was amazing. Never before did I see the talent I was now catching at the various Fringe Festivals in the United States. The artists were raw, independent and very much on the edge of theater, dance, art and music. "Fringe" came to represent the same thing independent filmmakers call Sundance and Tribecca Film festivals.
Fringe Festivals are exactly what name implies, "on the fringe." I will never forget when, last year, I decided to change the name of the then-St. Louis Improv Festival to just St. Louis Improv Fringe. A woman actually called me up to ask if I were displaying fabric with fringe on the stage. I told her no, but asked her if she would pay for that show. She said yes, so you may see that one year!
This year's Fringe is still heavy on the improv acts because those are our roots and I don't want to move too far away from that. But this year I am proud to say we are really showcasing local artists. Lots of St. Louis performers are the main acts. I do not want to forget that this why I organized this beast. I want to keep "yesanding" my community. I want to give local performing artists like Thomas Brady a place and venue to keep doing what they do. And what he does is so needed in this town! Lord, he travels to Italy to showcase his sculpted works of light and magic, why not do it here in his homeland?
Eventually I see Fringe Festival becoming bigger than just a festival for two days. Sure, it's nice and simple now, but eventually I see it looking and feeling like a "First Night" for about 30 days, taking place all over the city and county. This is how it is in Scotland, Philly, New York, and Minnesota, so next is St. Louis. Not only is it great for our audiences to see the work locally, but it could keep the St. Louis artists here. It also can become an attraction for the city, bringing in dollars, and that's a big "yesand."
See for yourself by joining us during this year's Fringe Improv Festival, September 9th and 10th at COCA in The Loop. You're also welcome to come to our Pre-Festival kick-off at Laughs On The Landing, St. Louis' newest improv comedy club, on Thursday, September 8th.
For details see www.stlfringe.com or call the Fringe Hotline at 314-647-8030.
Ed Reggi is an in-demand actor and teacher based in St. Louis; you can keep up with his comings and goings at edreggi.com. As an interesting aside, he typed this article on the smallest keyboard known to man, attached to his Treo phone.