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By Laura Latzko | April 19, 2021

The term “improv” can describe different types of performances, both dramatic and comedic. The Phoenix Improv Festival brings together improv performers from around the world to celebrate and share the art form.

This year, the festival is celebrating its 20th year with virtual programming on Friday, April 23, and Saturday, April 24.

The event will include live improv performances from local and international groups, videos, interviews and unconference panel discussions.

“People are going to be watching from around the world, so we want to celebrate what Phoenix improv is, showcasing local performances but also talking about local influences and local styles,” says producer Bill Binder.

“We want to let people know that improv is part of the city. It is a cool art form where you can discover things and go on a journey with the audience.”

Binder says improv has become more diverse, embracing a range of experiences.

“I think the art form, as a whole, has been proactively saying, ‘Let’s go out, find these other voices, celebrate these other voices and try to be more open to everyone.’ I hope we can continue in that direction,” Binder says.

Like the in-person event, the virtual festival will highlight performers with different viewpoints, styles and backgrounds, including a transgender group from Canada called Sphinxes.

Binder co-founded the improv festival in 2002. It started out on a smaller level, with three local groups in a 40-seat theater. The virtual festivals have made the process feel new again.

“Last year, we were stringing up shower curtains behind ourselves and doing our best to learn the conventions like everyone was, learning how do I turn my mic on, and having to do it in a way that was cohesive for an audience,” Binder says.

Binder has witnessed improv evolve in the last year as it embraced technology.

“Online improv and theater existed before this in very small ways, but it has really blossomed over this last year,” he says.

“Seeing the shows now, how much people can read the emotions, how much they can sympathize and empathize with each other versus a year ago, is a remarkable change.”

Binder says while some troupes will be doing more traditional improv scenes, others will be using technology to bring something different.

“I know some troupes had said, ‘Let’s not use Zoom as a conferencing tool,’” he says. “Let’s use our cameras as if they are television cameras. Let’s set our laptops in weird places. Let’s put the camera lower to make ourselves feel bigger or change our eyelines to project our emotions and take advantage of the fact that the audience can really see our face.”

These troupes will also employ virtual backgrounds and tools used by gamers to make their performances more engaging for audiences.

Sharing worldwide

This year, the festival’s virtual format will allow more performers worldwide to participate.

Binder says the Phoenix festival’s reputation is strong in the improv community.

“These are artists traveling to us or agreeing to take time in the middle of the night to be with us,” Binder says. “We really want to treat them like artists and rock stars. They are making our festival great.”

This year, some ensembles will return, like Orange Tuxedo, a Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife team; Utah troupe Pawn Takes Queen; New York’s Honey and Los Angeles improv troupe King Ten.

The virtual format will allow international performers, such as Menelaos Prokos, to take part in the festival for the first time.

Prokos, a teacher and performer from Greece who founded ImproVIBE theater/school, will hit the stage with folks from South Africa, Thailand, Australia and Finland. Prokos, who has lived in several countries, started doing improv in Austin.

“When I discovered it, I thought, ‘I can be a buffoon like I do among my friends but onstage,’” he says. “Slowly, I discovered there is so much more to this. I started appreciating more styles. I stopped trying to be funny, and I started appreciating the honesty.”

Prokos’ style of improv is multifaceted, centered on touching an audience on a deeper level.

“You’ll find so many approaches when it comes to improv,” Prokos says. “I like the one that gives you the full spectrum of experiences and emotions. I don’t like it to be just comedy, because I think it can be so much more than that.”

Prokos says when improv performers come together, they can create in the moment, each bringing something distinctive to the performances.

“It’s amazing how experienced improvisers can really connect and look like a well-fused group, even from different cultures and different countries where people have different sources of inspiration and different ways of operating,” Prokos says.

“It can still work beautifully. When you have different cultures, it’s a richer show because that special thing that every performer has to offer, which is infused from their local way of performing and their local culture’s do’s and don’ts, is very unique to them.”

Prokos says topics considered humorous, as well as facial expressions and gestures, within their cultures have a big influence on improv performers like himself.

“Humor, jokes, what’s funny and what’s not can be very different. It can be very cultural. In Greece, we can be quite a bit more blunt, and I would dare say offensive because political correctness is not in our culture and our way of communicating.

“So, we will more easily touch taboo subjects in a way where we will dive into them headfirst. We are very political, from the sense of resistance, because of the political situation in Greece for all of these years. … You can imagine this affects how you perceive things, the way that you perceive everyday matters, political matters, what you joke about and what you don’t joke about.”

Phoenix Improv Festival

When: Friday, April 23, and Saturday, April 24

Where: Virtual event