Improvisation is performance without a net: There’s no script and no direction. The actors onstage succeed or fail on the strength of their quick wit and ability to work together. When improvisation works, it showcases creativity in its rawest, most spontaneous form. With a goal of getting Asheville on the map as a destination for improvisational comedy, the Asheville Improv Collective is hosting its inaugural festival, Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 3-5, at three venues around town.
“We’ve got 33 troupes from around the country — more than a third of which feature local performers,” says AIC’s art director, George Awad. The six headliners are Jaime Moyer (Second City Hollywood, Disney’s “KC Undercover”), Stephanie Courtney (The Groundlings, Flo from Progressive Insurance commercials), Celeste Pechous (founder of Dosage Improv Workshops in Los Angeles, the upcoming political thriller Against All Enemies), Maribeth Monroe (Second City, NBC’s “The Good Place”), Ryan Archibald (Second City, artistic director at Atlanta’s Village Theater) and Susan Messing (former director of Second City’s National Touring Company, Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend”).
The headliners will team up in various combinations. Three show blocks — at The Magnetic Theatre, The Wortham Center for the Performing Arts and Ambrose West — will feature a total of 10 performances. A series of daytime workshops is scheduled at The Wortham Center (Friday) and Ambrose West (Saturday).
AIC brought Monroe and Moyer to Asheville before. “Their shows were phenomenal, and their workshops were amazing,” Hall says. “So the community here already knows and loves them. And we knew that, via them, we’d also be able to get some other people who hadn’t been here just yet.”
And the Asheville-based improvisers are a key part of the festival. “You’ll get to see a lot of the talent that’s already here in Asheville,” says Clifton Hall, the dean of AIC. “I would put some of our shows up against any other great show that you might see. There’s great improv here.”
Many major cities across the U.S. have thriving improv scenes. And though they arrived here via different routes, both Hall and Awad believed that Asheville would be fertile ground for improv as well. What was needed was a creative collective to organize and promote improvisational comedy.
Hall relocated from Dallas in 2015. “I was very ingrained in the improv comedy scene there and very much wanted to bring that idea and that community to Asheville,” he says. Once settled in Western North Carolina, he started doing standup comedy. After six months, he decided to take a big step: “I thought, ‘All right, I’m just going to put it out there, start teaching classes,’” he says. “Four people signed up, and we just got started from there.”
Awad first tried improv “on a whim” while in living in Chicago. He moved to Asheville in 2013, handling show booking at Trade and Lore Coffee. He met Hall and scheduled some of Hall’s classes at the coffee shop. Eventually, they moved improv operations to Habitat Brewing Co. on Broadway, expanding their schedule of shows and classes. The AIC stayed on when Archetype Brewing took over the space in February.
To date, the AIC has seen more than 100 students pass through its various classes. There are five levels of classes for adults, from the basics of long-form improv to an advanced scene studio. Some students are actors; others “might just take one or two classes,” Hall says. “And then they’re like, ‘Cool. Now I’m ready to give those presentations at work.’”
For students ages 13-18, the collective offers a two-level course of study and a workshop. “They fetch us coffee,” Awad jokes. Without missing a beat, Hall chimes in: “Yeah, they do a lot of work around the place. Small hands; they can reach into spots where we’ve dropped things.”
Along with running the collective, Hall and Awad have frequented improv festivals around the country. “People from all over perform,” Awad says, “but there are also a lot of great workshops, [taught] by the upper echelon in the improv world. You’re rubbing elbows, you’re seeing new techniques and you’re meeting new people.” He wanted to bring that experience home.
“We have a pretty big crush on where we live,” Hall says. “Every festival I go to, I think, ‘Y’all’s spots are amazing, but check out what we get to look at when we’re doing improv.’”
WHAT: Asheville Improv Comedy Fest 2019, aicasheville.com/aicfest2019
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road; Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, 18 Biltmore Ave.; The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St.
WHEN: Shows on Thursday and Friday, Oct. 3 and 4, at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 5, at 3, 5, 7 and 9 p.m. $129 all-access pass/individual shows $15-$25. Workshops on Friday, Oct. 4, at 10 a.m., 12:30 and 3 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 5, at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., $60-$75