Always More Room to Improv: The Emergence of the Improv Community in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area

Feature Story By: Angelie M.

Imagine a junior high school boy trembling in front of his peers with a racing heartbeat and sweaty palms. “When it was my turn to speak, I shakily made my way up to the podium, gripped my notes as if they would fly away, stood before the microphone, and froze. I don’t know if it was the crowd size, the insecurity of fearing my peers’ opinions, or if it was the feeling that Bob’s entire campaign hinged on what I said in the next few minutes, but I froze and could not utter a word. Bob lost the campaign,” Torch Theatre performer Shane Shellenbarger said.

This story is one of many reasons that drive people to enroll in improv classes at local improv venues, and people in Phoenix are no exception.

For those unfamiliar, improv is a form of live theatre entertainment in which all characters and scenes are created in the moment without any pre-planning and are inspired by spontaneous suggestions from the audience or another source. Theatre venues devoted mainly to improv usually offer improv classes as well, such the renown Upright Citizens Brigade in both Los Angeles and New York City.

The improv community in the Phoenix metropolitan area has grown over the last two years seeing an increase in people taking classes, volunteering or performing at local improv venues. The number of improv opportunities in the Valley has increased over the past several years. National Comedy Theatre Phoenix and The Torch Theatre both established in 2007, and the Phoenix Improv Festival is now in its 12th year of existence. “The Torch Theatre alone has grown immensely since the opening of its own space at 4721 [North Central Avenue in Phoenix] in 2011. We had a small loyal community before, but within the last two years we have doubled our community – with twice as many graduating classes as we had from 2007 to 2011,” said Torch Theatre training center manager, board member and co-founder Jacqueline Arend.

Torch Theatre teacher, performer, board member and co-founder Jose Gonzalez noticed an awareness of improv growing on a national level as well. “Part of that is because of how many people in television and film have a background in improv. There have always been people in the entertainment industry, whether actors, writers, directors or producers, who had done improv as they were coming up,” Gonzalez said. Former Saturday Night Live player and Bridesmaid leading lady Kristen Wiig is an example as an alumni of the renown improv training center The Groundlings School in Los Angeles.

Arend adds, “Nationally, we have definitely seen a growth in the community, although festival travel and folks coming in for PIF [Phoenix Improv Festival]. We knew folks out there, but with the new addition of Nick Armstrong’s Camp ImprovUtopia [in Cambria, Calif.], you are now seeing communities from all around the country coming together to learn.” Nick Armstrong and Bill Binder founded and introduced their new social media platform for improvisers nationwide known as National Improv Network, or NIN, at the last Camp ImprovUtopia gathering this past May 2013, attesting to the significant presence of improvisers nationally.

The longest running improv company in the Phoenix area is Jester’Z Improv in Scottsdale that has been making people laugh and teaching students improv since 2001. “We seldom have a small crowd anymore, and more often than not our shows sell out!” according to Jester’Z actor, director and teacher Paul Green. Popular improv theatres in the Valley include The Torch Theatre in Phoenix, National Comedy Theatre in Mesa, in Tempe, Chaos Comedy Improv in Phoenix and Outliars throughout the metropolitan area, and people are not just going to these theatres to laugh.

Taking improv classes are not only useful for building skills for acting or just as a hobby; they also provide other forms of self-improvement. “You start to listen better and notice how most people really don’t listen that well to each other as much as wait for other people to stop speaking so they can speak. Lessons from the study of improv help people learn how to take bigger risks, shrink their self-judgement of ideas, which opens them up creatively, and can improve how we interact and work with others,” Gonzalez added.

Torch Theatre improviser and tech volunteer Jeff Cardello also sees the benefits of practicing improv. “I think it has definitely made me more comfortable talking in large groups of people.”

These improv communities not only breed laughter and self-improvement, but also life-long friendships and relationships. National Comedy Theatre Phoenix co-owner, co-director, teacher and producer Kristina Lenz recalls how improv shaped her social life. “Because I started at such a young age, it became the framework of my social life basically. I met my husband Dorian, who is also the other co-owner and director, at an improv show, and ever since then, we’ve done improv together, and now it’s my career.” Another National Comedy Theatre Phoenix improviser and workshop teacher Anthony Thornton attests to this common theme. “Met a lot of cool people. It kind of encompassed mine and my wife’s life because we’re here all the time. The only friends I hang out with on a consistent basis are other improvisers,” Thornton said. “I met the love of my life and future wife, Nina Miller, through improv,” Gonzalez added. Arend shared a similar story. “It led to the relationship with my husband.”

Learning about long form improvisation allowed Torch Theatre theatre manager Clifton Gray to find his purpose. “I went to a show in March of 2011, and I was hooked. I found this, and I was like, oh, this is it. This is what I am. Being here.”

“I now have no fear of speaking, singing, or performing in front of an audience, thanks to the instructors and students of The Torch Theatre,” Shellenbarger said. He is a graduate of the Torch Theatre’s long form improv training center and performs with his musical improv troupe Nerdy Virgin Birds.

Angelie is an ASU student of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is also an improviser and volunteer of both The Torch Theater in Phoenix and National Comedy Theatre in Mesa. @AngelieMeehan

Special thanks to @JCardello, @TFG46, @KrissyLenz, @ATComedy, @Jose602, @JackersTheShoe, @WHBinder, Enrique Grove and Paul Green.