The Rapidian

Grand Rapids Improv Festival brings comedy into the present

From October 17 to 24, the third Grand Rapids Improv Festival has shows every day, an improv bar hop, workshops and Improv Chaos.
Rapid Delivery Improv played "Four Corners" at the Monday kick-off of the Grand Rapids Improv Festival.

Rapid Delivery Improv played "Four Corners" at the Monday kick-off of the Grand Rapids Improv Festival. /Carly Schweppe

Dog Story Theater

Shows run each night through October 24.

7 Jefferson Ave. SE

Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Tickets can be purchased here.

Two members of No Outlet Improv Troupe dueled.

Two members of No Outlet Improv Troupe dueled. /Carly Schweppe

Strings Attached had their puppets on a trip to the hardware store and one sounded exactly like Donald Trump.

Strings Attached had their puppets on a trip to the hardware store and one sounded exactly like Donald Trump. /Carly Schweppe

It's time for a short break in routine. This week the Grand Rapids Improv Festival (GRIF) is here to remind you how good it can feel to keep things spontaneous. 

“Improv is basically a performance that relies on audience suggestions and it’s different every night. It’s not scripted,” said Nick Milbratz, a member of the No Outlet Improv Troupe.

“A big part of how we got started was the ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ type of improv,” said Katie Fahey, one of the directors of GRIF and a member of No Outlet. “Very audience based. Live action. We do practice but the only things we practice are the structures, not what’s going to be said. So everything is being made up on the spot in front of an audience.”

And there are so many structures improv troupes can play with and a million unexpected turns scenes can take in the moment, as seen at the Kick-off Celebration of GRIF Monday night at the Dog Story Theater. Four troupes took the spotlight throughout the night and drew huge laughs from audience members and from one another during ridiculous games with hilarious results.

No Outlet Improv Troupe created scenes and characters all based on things audience members found in their pockets, like gum and lint. Strings Attached, which does improv with puppets, had one puppet talking only through sound bites of Donald Trump’s speeches playing over the speakers while two other puppets responded as the three made their way through Home Depot. Rapid Delivery Improv brought two audience volunteers up, asked them their professions and took turns making up job-themed pick-up lines for them, none of which can be printed here. And With the Dark gave the audience a story about a family and the journey of a Comcast employee who no longer works at Comcast, all without any lights on in the room, but with the help of props the improvisers used to create sound effects for their tale.

“The number one rule of improv is ‘Yes, and…,’” said Kristin Hirsch, member of No Outlet and a GRIF director. “So if you’re in a scene with a bunch of people and one person takes it in one direction, everybody else just says ‘Yes, that’s where we’re going. This is what’s happening now.’ If all a sudden one person is a troll, now you’re all trolls. You don’t question that. You just go with it. And that’s what makes the improv scenes really good. When everybody is on the same page and paying attention and listening.”

The members of each troupe never left each other out there to take on a weird scenario by themselves, in other words, nobody ever said ‘No.’ They jumped in, building on what their fellow improviser started or made a crazy change to move the scene in an entirely new direction. When Stings Attached had a minute or so when the Trump quotes couldn’t be heard over the speakers, they made a joke of it, referencing frustration with the particular kind of phone they were trying to connect with the theater’s sound system. Not only did they manage to work that joke in again in unexpected ways later in their part of the show, but the following two troupes did as well, bringing everyone in the room full circle or a figure eight or some strange looking shape with connected points.

“One cool thing that I always think about is improv makes you live in the present,” Katie Fahey said. “So if we heavily engaged an audience for an hour and a half I hope they walk away in lighter spirits and wanting more. I really think the fun part about just making it up on the spot with audience suggestions is everybody is like, ‘What are they going to do with this?’ and so they’re really engaged and watching it, hopefully, if we did the right thing.”

During GRIF, improv troupes from Grand Rapids to Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky will come together to do shows and just hang out together. 

“The whole reason we created the festival is because we saw a bunch of different individual improv troupes happening but there wasn’t really a community focused around it,” Fahey said. “We thought ‘Hey, let’s give this a try and just see what happens.’ Our first year we had four troupes total, last year we had 20-something and this year we have 36.”

There will be lots of improv to watch every night and most shows will be held at GRIF’s home base, Dog Story Theater.

Some of the events will be things you might not necessarily find outside GRIF week.

The Downtown Improv Hop is happening on Thursday with stops at Hemingway Lounge, B.O.B.’s Brewery and J.Gardella’s Tavern, each with a different improv show or two to watch. There will appetizers and drink specials as well as an improv karaoke challenge at the end the night.

Friday night is Improv Chaos. For one show only, troupes and individuals will be mixed up into new troupes consisting of people who don't usually work together and have maybe never met before. 

There are three different adult improv workshops at the Dog Story Theater on Saturday and a family workshop directed at youth on Sunday.

“Anybody who has an interest is welcome to do it,” Hirsch said. “I think if you’ve never done it before it’s a really great chance to just kind of test it and see if you like it and if you’re experienced it’s always good to brush up on skills and learn new ones.”

For a full line-up of events, ticket information and opportunities to try improv for yourself, check out the official GRIF website.

“There will be something for everybody here,” Hirsch said. “Whether you just want to watch, whether you want to participate, whether you want to walk around downtown and drink some beer and watch an improv show. It’s eight days and everybody’s sure to find something they want to do.”

GRIF is sponsored by Artesian Distillers: Hemingway Lounge, B.O.B.’s Brewery, The Comedy Project, The Cottage Bar, The Fuse Box, The Garden Diner, GR Comedy Tours, J.Gardella’s Tavern, Meritage Hospitality Group, No Outlet Improv Troupe, One Trick Pony and Woosah.

When the festival ends, be sure to head out to Comedy Outlet Monday’s (COM) at the Dog Story Theater for a weekly fix of unscripted comedy.

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