The Canary Has Died: The Demise of Festival Workshops and the Future of Improv

In 1996, my college improv group attended an improv festival in Athens, Georgia. It was called Improvstock. This was before the internet was The Internet; I’m not even sure how we found out about it. Everything we knew about improv was either from our director (a theater department grad student) or from the two or three improv books that existed at that time. Were we doing it right? We had seen Whose Line and a few of us had seen SAK Theater in Orlando but we had never met any other improvisers. Especially not any real professional improvisers. Improvstock promised to change that.


Twenty groups from around the Southeast socialized and performed for each other. It was like finding out you had a sibling you had never met before. We were doing it right and there were others just like us. A big draw was the workshops that were offered. We learned new short form games, new warm-ups and heard rumors about this thing called Harold. For us it was like having Christmas morning all weekend. When we weren’t sleeping, we were comparing notes with each other.


The workshop everyone wanted to take was taught by Loose Moose instructor Dennis Cahill. There was a wait list to get in. Each troupe was limited to sending only a few members to make sure that this mans knowledge could be spread evenly among all the groups. At other late-90’s festivals, like the Big Stickin’ Improv Fests in Austin, workshop wait lists and limited per-troupe attendance were the norm. If you were lucky enough to get into a good one your fellow troupe members would bombard you with questions about how it was. For us, festivals meant workshops.


Fast forward to April 2016. I’m at the Des Moines Improv Fest. Twice the size of Improvstock. I’m no longer a college student but a headlining performer and workshop instructor. Wait lists for my work shops? No. My workshops were two thirds full and only attended by members of the local hosting theater. A year later in St. Louis, the same thing. Workshops had stopped being a draw, especially for out-of-towners going to festivals.


The decline of festival workshops has been a long process spread over 20 years. The reasons why are varied, some are innocent and some more sinister. My fear is that, like the canary in the coal mine, the death of festival workshops signals weaknesses in the greater improv community. Like the domino theory of the Vietnam war era, festival workshops will topple and hit the domino of improv festivals in general, which will fall and hit traveling workshops. This may knock into the domino that is the goodwill and brotherhood of our community at large. Which will hit … Is there anything left?


“Been there, done that.”


In 2002 I began traveling and teaching workshops at local theaters around the U.S., Canada, and, quite fortunately, Australia and the U.K. The information I brought with me, mostly long form from the iO/Del Close branch of the family tree, was objectively new for many students wherever I went. I was an emissary of long form, preaching to a doubting world steeped in short form, that, yes, an audience would “get” what they were doing if they only tried.


Ten years ago in Brighton, England, I taught a workshop for 12 people that had never done long form and only a few had even seen it. We were doing a monolog deconstruction (Armando, ASSSCAT, what have you) and one of the students asked what the scenes were supposed to be about since I asked them to not replay the monolog. That was a fairly typical question in those early days.


A few years later, as videos, books, and previously obscure resources became easy to obtain thanks to the internet, the “Intro to long form” syllabus fell out of my workshop rotation and was replaced by “Advanced long form”. I still had something to offer. I was no longer explaining long form to short form players but coaching young long form players to be better by pulling from my decade of experience as a player. “Harold fixing” became a common request from the theaters that would hire me.

Today the information asymmetry is gone. There’s not much I know that you can’t also know (I even wrote a book about what I know!). Having Chicago on your resume no longer means that  you have extra knowledge that could only be obtained by studying there. As a tidal wave of graduates leave the massive institutions of Chicago, any informational advantage the city had is gone.


“I’m not sure what they can teach me?”


I’ve been teaching the iO Summer Intensive for the last decade. It’s a five-week improv summer camp held every year at iO Chicago and is something I keenly look forward to as a chance to meet and work with improvisers from around the world. Back ten years ago, at the old building, there were three concurrent sections of Summer Intensive students. Each had 14 or so people made up mostly of improvisers from around the U.S.. One section was dubbed the international group because it had five Canadians mixed in with the Americans. Last years iO Summer Intensive, with 10 sections, was made up of 50% international (non-North American) students.


This shift from 10% (Canadians) to 50% foreign students happened gradually and with one interesting trend: the first batch of internationals came primarily from Canada but after a few years their attendance dwindled and was replaced by Australians and Britons. Now most of the internationals are from continental Europe (Poles, Finns, and Bulgarians) with a trickle of Asians (Korean and Chinese). This trend, I believe, is driven by first proximity (Canada) and then common language (Australia and U.K.) but it doesn’t explain why they eventually quit coming in large numbers. Is it related to the fact that Americans have also quit coming in large numbers?


Despite improv having never been more popular in the U.S., fewer, by percentage, are traveling to improv Mecca to take classes. Even setting aside New York and L.A. that have strong communities of their own anchored by U.C.B., Americans just aren’t coming to Summer Intensive like they used to. The simplest answer is that they don’t need to. Every community now (including Des Moines) has it’s own iO/UCB/Second City trained expert and after several years of iO intensives, so does every theater in Canada, Australia and the U.K. That performer I taught 10 years ago in Brighton who asked about where scene ideas come from in a monolog? He now runs his own improv theater in London. The world is catching up. They have the information and now they have the expertise. (Will anyone from Poland, Finland, or Bulgaria be there this year?)

You can’t blame anyone for this. This is the natural flow of ideas and expertise. No one screwed up or should have acted differently; these are the innocent factors I mentioned earlier. It’s time for the sinister one: Now that I have the stature to headline festivals and teach master-class level workshops it should be easy to negotiate bookings. But it isn’t. As my “prestige” has grown I have had a more and more difficult time arranging workshops around the country. Sure, each town has it’s own guru now and there are countless resources available online but shouldn’t my expertise and experience arouse people interest?  It’s almost as though “Big Improv” did something to put a bad taste in peoples mouths.


“It costs how much?”


Imagine you come across a person in a desert dying of thirst. You have an extra bottle of water and since you are a generous person you give it them, besides it only cost you $1.50.  They gulp it down only pausing long enough to say, “Thank you. I would have paid you $100 for this water. Or more. I would have paid anything!” This is an extreme example but it illustrates the notion that between two people an items cost and an items value can vary significantly.


Graduation shows at iO Chicago give all students an 8-week post-class run to show off what they have learned. One group they really want to show off to is the Harold Commission which asks the stronger performers to join teams and perform regularly at the theater. This is a highly prestigious honor considering barely 5% of grads make the cut. About 10 or 11 years ago and enterprising grad class had the smart idea of asking a talented and established player to coach them during their grad shows 8-week run. This coach would be paid by the players, and hopefully the extra rehearsals might get a few more of them over the hump and onto an iO team. That’s at least what all of the students told themselves. What’s the cost of hiring a coach compared to the value of being put on a team? Soon, every grad class was hiring an outside coach.


Over the next few years the fees charged by coaches ballooned. It went from $5 a head for whoever was at rehearsal to $5 per class member whether they came to rehearsal or not (or even wanted to rehearse). Then $5 became $10. And finally this deal:  $10 per student paid in full before the 8 weeks start. One classes was asked to front $1,600 before even having one rehearsal. This is a perfect example of cost vs. value at work. Coaches began charging not what their time actually costs but what the students valued it for. The privilege of being on a team at a renowned theater had become that bottle of water in the desert and some coaches had no qualms about charging $100 for it.


(iO Management starting getting complaints from the students who valued the coaching far less but felt dragged along by their classmates. The solution, draconian but effective, was to ban grad classes from hiring outside coaches.)


This instructor cost inflation has happened exactly the same way with festival workshops. Back in 1996 at Improvstock,  the cost of workshops was rolled into registration for the festival. Today a festival workshop might cost $75 on top of whatever costs players have to travel to and attend the festival, which explains why locals are more likely to attend. A survey from The San Francisco Improv Fest asked prospective attendees what they felt was a fair price for workshops. 43% responded, “Under $50”. Another 22% said, “Under $55”. Despite $75 being a common workshop price point only a third of players see that as a fair price. People still take these workshops, you may only need 14 people willing to drop the money to fill it,  but it generates ill will among the majority of improvisers.


 In speaking with theater owners I’ve heard horror stories about the kinds of demands that premiere teachers are asking for to come and teach. They told me about teachers requiring doubly-expensive direct flights, asking for thousands of dollars up front, deciding upon arrival that their hotel wasn’t good enough, and even only agreeing to do one, 3-hour workshop over a weekend forcing the theater to jack up the price to pay for the instructors flight and hotel.


Festival producers get it from teachers and headlining acts. The last festival I taught at included a social event obligation clause implying that in the past the “honored guests” didn’t even hang around to chat with anyone; they’re either on stage, in the classroom, or at the hotel. Another producer told me how they paid out nearly $2,000 to a headline team that only brought half their group, none of whom were the prominent members.  Another fest organizer said they are routinely quoted touring company rates in the $5,000 range. To players and producers the whole process begins to feel like a naked cash grab.


When I travel around the U.S. teaching workshops, my negotiations with theaters have taken on an adversarial energy.  The producers have a subtext that says, “If you’re going to make a ton of money on this, we better too. ” Traditionally, the workshop take is split between the instructor and the theater. In the last 15 years the split has gone from 90/10 in the teachers favor, to 75/25, 50/50 and most recently to 40/60 in the theaters favor. Recently I was planning a workshop series and told the theater that I’d like to keep the student price no more than $40, preferably lower. I was told no, that the theater wouldn’t make enough money to justify it. Not, we won’t cover our expenses but we won’t make enough profit. Once producers and festival organizers see there is money to be made, they want to make it, too.


The geese that lay the golden eggs


Improviser everywhere dream of getting on to the Big Stage but there is another dream that most would be completely satisfied with if it came true. That dream is being able to financially support themselves solely with improv. As I coached, taught, and did more corporate training my day job went to part-time and eventually not at all. It took eight years but I became improv-self sufficient. But just barely. I had to live on a shoestring budget. A few more dollars here and there and I’d feel safe. Maybe on that next out of town workshop I could raise my prices $5. I bet that festival could cover a larger cut of my expenses if I asked.


This is the first golden egg-laying goose that I feel is a prime motivator in the price escalation; it’s a the thing we chase that we believe will solve all of our problems. An improviser being able to support themselves without a straight job is a powerful motivator, perhaps valued beyond it’s cost. This, I believe is behind one side of the instructor price inflation. The other factor, another golden goose, lives in the hearts of the players. It is best explained with an example of the third golden-egg laying goose, the one that producers pursue.

Back in the early 2000’s the iO Theater was looking to expand it’s palate of classes and launched an elective program. Cut from your team? Take the scene skills elective. Always wanted to work with Awesome Teacher X? Take their personal elective. Always confused by Harold openings? Take the Harold Opening elective. It failed before it even got off the ground. A few yeas later they were re-launched with some premiere teams as anchors. Again they failed.


iO didn’t give up, after all, figuring out a way to get graduates to start paying for classes again is an improv theaters golden egg-laying goose. As a few workshops began to stick (the sketch writing and musical electives are still running today) I began to notice some similarities. The popular electives and workshops all had one of three things: 1) They included a performance. 2) They were taught by someone famous, but they had to be beyond improv famous. 3) They promised some level of exposure to the entertainment industry. While no one ever said or even believed that their workshop would burst open the doors to Hollywood, players see these things; a show, meeting a hero, and getting industry feedback, as directly contributing to their career aspirations. They were very willing to pay for that. Just taking a class because it might help their improv was not considered.


Success in comedy is a players golden egg-laying goose. It is there bottle of water in the desert. For theaters, it is the notion of being able to get students to continue their paid training despite “graduating”. A teacher sees the possibility of a full-time improv career as their goal. These are the three golden egg-laying geese. Acquiring them means the struggle is over. Sadly, when these pursuits mix, we get a situation ripe for exploitation.


The net result of this goose chasing is the continual escalation in prices for festivals and traveling workshops until, after hitting some theoretical maximum,  festivals and out of town workshops will cease to exist.  The process will leave a trail of disillusioned players that will quit improv, adversarial theaters always in danger of going under, and festivals that collapse into insolvency. The message being sent is this: “You’re not allowed to do that thing you love to do, at least not very well and without official approval, unless you’re willing to pay for it.”


This is not a opinion piece on the horrors of capitalism and I’m not trying to say that an expert in their field doesn’t deserve more money for sharing their expertise. I’m saying that the motivations of those involved create work to create an accelerated spiral leading to exploitation. Back in 1996, at Improvstock, my college troupe, didn’t go to only to watch shows and take workshops. We went to find validation and acceptance into the greater community. Being priced out of a festival means young players lose out a more than just a trip out of town to do a show.


It’s worth noting that in the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs, the family who owns it comes to believe the goose must be full of gold on the inside. They kill it and cut it open only to find regular goose bits inside.


What to do about it


The truth of our situation is this: the money that makes improv go is classes. Having been on the inside I can say this: ticket and bar sales can barely keep the lights on. The source of that revenue is the student. What makes a person quit college to move to Chicago, take a job below their ability, weather the sideways glances from family members, and spend all of their disposable income on improv classes? They found something they love doing. Players: this world exists because of you, not the other way around. Producer: be glad the students are here. Instructors: respect their dignity.


-Advice for players
I’ve been on the inside of this for a while and I can tell you with confidence that the really expensive workshop is only fractionally more useful, if at all, than the modestly priced “no-name” workshop. There is a psychological effect at play when you pay a lot of money for something you tend to appreciate it more. Do fall into that trap!


It is truly fun and exciting to work with a big name in our biz. You are more than welcome to pay for that honor but be honest with yourself: they do not have the secret recipe to success or, quite possibly, any insight into their own success. You are paying to satisfy that very real human sensation of being fascinated by our heroes.


All those big name players you want to take a class from, at one time weren’t big name players. Is it risky to take a workshop from an unknown quantity? At $75 yes, but not so much at $25.


That big name, at the end of the day, is just another improviser trying to figure it out like you. Please learn from them but don’t expect, or let them promise, any epiphanies.


-Advice for theater and festival producers
When booking headliners realize that big names in the improv world will not sell more tickets to the general public; you need beyond improv famous to do that and that’s expensive. The people in your community that already love or are curious about improv will come out and see whomever you bring in. If you have to contractually require that a headlining team bring all it’s members and not spend every free moment in the hotel then what value are the adding to the festival as a whole?


A much safer bet are the younger, hungry teams that are cheap to book, excited to be there and will play their tails off. Same goes with workshop instructors. An instructor in the 95th percentile of talent cost twice as much as an instructor in the 90th percentile. Is that extra chunk of talent worth it?


Should big names be able to ask for more? Yes. Should their workshops cost more? Definitely. But it should never drag down the festival or force difficult financial decisions. For the good of the fest could that money be spent better elsewhere, perhaps on social events?


-Advice for instructors
With every workshop or festival you teach at you are either making a withdrawal from or a deposit to the Bank of Improv. That producer whose offer you declined because they couldn’t swing the rental car takes it out on everyone that comes behind you. Conversely, every after-party you go to demonstrates your love for the work and gives others permission to love it too.


Consider sliding scales when negotiating fees. Every community is different in what they can afford. $50 in San Francisco is equivalent to $30 in Atlanta.


Finally,  the world is catching up. Your students are quickly becoming your peers. Dump the pretension. Improv will be just fine without you.