Stand-up and deliver

At the Philadelphia Improv Festival, even audience members have to prepare to do stand-up comedy.

Some people are afraid of clowns. For others, it’s heights. Confront most people with the onerous task of public speaking and performance, and they would be more eager to chance skydiving minus the parachute. The art of improvisational comedy, where actors perform without rehearsed lines, props or any general plan, is nothing short of an extreme feat of wit and reflex – the theatrical equivalent of Parkour or freestyle rock climbing.

Rick Horner, a member of the comedy group Whipsuit and producer of this year’s Philadelphia Improv Festival, said the art of creating humor in the moment is nothing short of magical.

“Improv is pretty much like crack,” he said. “When you do it, you want to do it any and every way you possibly can.”

Philadelphia’s two comedy schools, Comedy Sportz and the Improv Theatre, have made the city an ideal host to an improv festival. Acts from across the country are attending, including New York’s trigger-happy Sid Vicious (Courtesy Philadelphia Improv Festival).

Crackheads and improv performers share few other similarities. Improv requires a sense of trust and dynamic between fellow actors and balances stream-of-consciousness with the Stanislavsky-method of living and acting in the moment.

“When you see the credits at the end of the movie, you are pretty much all of those people,” Horner said. “You’re kind of being called upon to be a player and director, [and] you need to edit your own stuff.”

The freedom and danger of performing unhindered by props or preconceived ideas attracted Alli Soowal, a member of the comedy group BWP and producer of this year’s festival, to dabble in improv five years ago. She’s witnessed Philadelphia’s tight-knit, eccentric comedy scene grow in leaps and bounds along her journey.

“There’s no such thing as mistakes,” Soowal said. “You can’t and you won’t let [your partners] fail.”
Horner described the city’s fledgling comedy scene as now entering its sophomore or junior year. It has two prestigious schools in Philly (Comedy Sportz and the Philly Improv Theater), and many of the local acts in this year’s festival have performed in world-class improv theaters like Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and Dirty South Improv Festival.

As the broken economy forces everyone to make more out of having less, tickets for Improv Fest, running Nov. 13-15 at the Plays and Players Theatre, sell for as little as $10 for a single block on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. The groups performing span from New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago to local favorites like Rare Birds Show and Men About Town.

If you plan on attending, you may want to prepare for some improv yourself. Horner said many of the groups this weekend will call on the audience for suggestions or to write intimate secrets on paper for instant inspiration.

Jimmy Viola can be reached at

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