You sit in your car, debating the best exit plan from the improv class you impulsively signed up for. You don’t actually want to play the fool in front of strangers. You’re too old for this. And not particularly funny, come to think of it. But you already paid. So you join the 15 people already seated in a circle.
After some introductory work, the teacher pairs you up and shouts: “Unicorn!” Your partner drops to all fours and neighs in delight, shaking his bald head. The rest of the class sees it, too—a rainbow-colored, glittering mane of imaginary hair. You also drop to the ground, freezing your body rigid. Your partner knows, without a word, that you’re his carrot. This stranger you met just 15 minutes ago pretends to nibble your elbow as your peers laugh in delight.
The next two hours pass by like minutes. You took the risk, and you survived.
Improvisation classes like this one are becoming popular—in fact, the city’s two established companies, Improv Cincinnati and OTRimprov, offer a variety of options for every skill level, as well as performance opportunities with live audiences.
Wait, Cincinnati has an improv scene? Yes, since 2011, when Kirk Keevert, along with Dave Powell and Kat Smith, founded OTRimprov with the help of Know Theatre’s resource-sharing program for fledgling artists, the Jackson Street Market. The company still performs at Know Theatre in Over-the-Rhine, along with Saturday nights at Below Zero Lounge and ComedySportz at Memorial Hall. Jon Ulrich and Colin Thornton debuted Improv Cincinnati in 2015 after an incubation period under Dramakinetics, a local nonprofit focused on self-expression and the arts. A new improv group, Cin City Comedy, launched in July.
“There’s a lot of risk and failure in improv,” says Powell. “It’s a risk to go up there and not know what you’re about to do [or] to trust someone else and work together. But the more you do it, the more you learn to accept the possibility that you’ll fail. And then in your professional life or your personal life, you start to realize, The thing I’m afraid of is not going to kill me. I will take the risk.”
If you’re not ready to take that risk, take a seat in the audience. Professional improv returns this month, when OTRimprov hosts the fifth annual Improv Festival of Cincinnati (IF Cincy) at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine. Headlining acts include Emily Fightmaster, a Cincinnati native now working in Chicago with The Second City and The Annoyance Theatre; Working Title featuring Amber Nash, the voice of Pam Poovey from FX’s animated series Archer; Broke Gravy, a Portland, Oregon-based troupe exploring “humor, humanity, and truth;” and The Bearded Company presenting Swords & Sorcery: The Improvised Fantasy Campaign, where fates are decided by rolling a 20-sided die. Some headliners will offer afternoon workshops for seasoned performers and newcomers alike.
“Most people get into improv because they took a class and got hooked or they saw a show and thought, I want to do that,” says Powell. “This festival offers both.”
Improv Festival of Cincinnati, September 27–29, Memorial Hall, ifcincy.com