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Orange County Improv Festival 2024

Event Recap: The 2024 Orange County Improv Festival

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From June 13th to June 15th, the Orange County Improv Festival brought its performers’ quick wits and creative imaginations to OC audiences with its 11th annual showcase. Developed to combat growing narratives around this county’s cultural vacuity, the OCIF seeks to “expose the vibrant comedy taking place behind the ‘Orange Curtain’” that we call Orange County. Held in auditorium 1 of The Frida Cinema, the festival featured all manner of acts and comedians taking the stage to offer their unique comedy stylings to the greater Santa Ana Community. 

Outside on the parklet, I see performers alternating between rehearsing last minute performance details and eating dinner for some fuel before the show starts. In the lobby, guests mingle with performers, shooting the breeze before the show begins, when there’ll be little time for catching up. Inside the auditorium, people find their seats while the house speakers play, seemingly in earnest, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,”  in what can only be called “The Death of the Rickroll.” People like synth-pop too much for this song to have remained permanently a symbol of trolling.

The first night sees 10 acts on the bill, split into two blocks. I scan the names to see if there’ll be any film-related improv, given the venue we’re in. Tonight, that means the group We’ll Adapt, a musical-based group that improvises spinoffs of famous plays for beloved supporting characters. Seems perfect.

But first up is the county’s only “all teenage” improv team, the Lumberjack Baristas, an energetic group of four, plus one grown-up coach who would ask the audience for suggestions but did not perform onstage. These promising young actors initiated the festival with a neat exercise in both comedy and memory. After getting the suggestion for a place (someone suggested a spaceship), one member of the team improvised a whole scene onstage alone for about one to two minutes. Then the scene would reset, and they would perform the same exact scene again, only this time another member would join in and attempt to improv alongside them without knowing the context. The scene reset three times until every member was on stage doing the whole play together. Lights out. Time elapsed. Applause. A great start to the evening.

Apart from a few exceptional short form games, most teams at the festival are doing traditional, long-form, “Harold” style improv. That is, soliciting a single suggestion from the audience, and enacting an entire play from this suggestion for the remainder of their stage time. This format was pioneered by Del Close and other improvisers in Chicago all the way back in 1958, but on this summer night in Santa Ana in 2024, it felt as fresh and vital a form for dramatic expression as ever.

Friday begins, and I wonder how a longer festival that runs from morning to night may logistically work. Because comedy is, fundamentally, an abstract form, perhaps it is best received “after hours,” when the twilight of structured daytime and dreamy decompression are at their peak, more readily able to absorb abstract cognitive concepts. Formulating the connection between familiar set-up and unexpected punchline, stand-up comedy thrives on surprise. Are people too “on guard” before 5pm? If so, thankfully they can attend one of the many improv comedy workshops occurring during the day at the nearby Santora Building. All led by esteemed improv teachers and actors working in the entertainment industry, the topics on the schedule are to include: “Subverting Expectations,” “Weirder Weirds & Truthier Truths,” and “Making Object Work for You.”

But night falls, and the pavers of 4th Street are again lined with folks looking to laugh after a long week. It’s officially the weekend, and behind the concession stand are themed cocktails and spiked Icees. The performance enhancing drugs of improv culture. Just as the night previous, the atmosphere in the theater is warm and inviting. A living organism. People laugh freely and strangely, as if one by one we each were overcome with a unique mania that emanated from the stage.

As the festival progressed, the intrinsic link between improv and cinema became abundantly clear. Before they were screening silent movies, theaters hosted vaudeville and burlesque acts in an industry of bygone entertainment that celebrated all disciplines. As with improv itself, the unpredictability was the appeal; you could be sure that each act would be nothing at all like the one before it. The rough-around-the-edges quality of improv is a feature, not a bug. The lack of polish creates value, especially when contrasted with art by committee practices of major institutions, and now generative A.I. Like Theater, improv only exists via the medium of the human soul. Nothing else comes close.

The art of improv is the art of life itself. Nothing scripted, nothing planned. To take on the unexpected, headfirst, knowing what’s done cannot be changed but that also the future is completely open to interpretation, is what we all do each and every day of our lives. A collaboration with fate that recalls the inimitable words of Fred Astaire’s The Band Wagon: “The world is a stage / The stage is a world of entertainment!”


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