Phoenix Improv Festival 12 hits Herberger Theater Center in Downtown Phoenix

Phoenix Improv Festival 12 is in full swing, as the 3-day comedy fest kicked off last night at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. The festival features troupes from around the country, as well as a bevy of local improvisers, and I love it because everything is completely made up and based off audience suggestions.

MuChuChu2Local troupe Apollo 12 kicked things off on a high note, with memorable scenes that included cast members writing wishful letters to God. Apollo 12 is one of the Valley’s longest-running improv troupes, and member Bill Binder is part of the reason longform improv theater The Torch Theater exists in central Phoenix — get to know more about him and the Valley improv scene here, and check out Apollo 12 here.

Next up was Pawn Takes Queen, a three-person troupe with some lady power (which is always nice to see) from Cedar City, Utah. This troupe was the highlight of the night for me. They took the suggestion of “burgers” and weaved a 25-minute scene of three friends whose latest burger business venture is a failure.

Pawn Takes Queen1Their set stood out to me because they created rich characters with really strong relationships. It had the most honesty within the scenes I saw all night, and I loved watching the characters involved. Learn more about the troupe here.

Comrade was up next, from Burbank, Calif. This was my first time seeing these guys, and they were fun to watch. I thought the lady in their group really stood out because she added really funny dialogue and touches to the scenes, and I always love to see strong females on stage.

Comrade improvThe group had one main storyline that went off on several tangents throughout their show, and I thought the format was interesting because of all the callbacks. The group did a good job of bringing back earlier elements into later scenes, which is impressive. Learn more about them here.

Local troupe MuChuChu, whose members both have Arizona roots, was up next. This two-person group created strong characters in a Harold format. Two storylines were introduced, and then characters and themes were brought back throughout the show before everything was tied together. It’s hard enough for a four-person troupe to do a Harold, but this twosome did a stellar job.

MuChuChu improvClosing out the show was HawkinStroth, from Hollywood, Calif. I saw them last year, too, when they used the word “retard” heavily throughout their set, and last night’s show of theirs was a little disappointing because I felt there was a lot of arguing between their characters and not enough accepting of factors that were introduced. One of the main tenets of improv is to agree to whatever is going on in the scene and work with it, not deny it — it was odd to see a veteran duo have so many moments of denial last night.

HawkinStroth improvRegardless, I’m guessing they’ll be back for future PIF’s, so find out more about them here.

The Phoenix Improv Festival continues tonight at 7 p.m. at the Herberger. Sunday, April 21, from 2 p.m. to about 6:30 p.m., there is an all-Arizona showcase, so you can see all the great improv troupes from all over the state who are currently performing. I’ve been a live improv fan for 7 years now, and if you still haven’t checked it out yourself, I suggest you head to the Herberger this weekend pronto. Check out more about my love for improv here, and leave a comment with your favorite improv experience.

7 Minutes in Hell, Ghostfest bring spooky energy to Downtown Phoenix

Happy early Halloween! I celebrated already this weekend with some cool theater events in downtown Phoenix, including my first-ever Ghostfest at The Torch Theatre and 7 Minutes in Hell at Space 55, one of my favorite variety shows in the Valley.

7 minutes in hell at Space 55First up this past Saturday night was 7 Minutes in Hell, where every performer in the show got 7 minutes to do whatever the heck he or she wanted, with no prior auditions. Obviously, this could make for a hit-or-miss show, but every single 7 Minutes show I’ve seen (and participated in) has had high-quality performers who put a lot of passion into their performances. This week, we got to take in everything from Halloween-themed haikus to a fake game show to some musical performances. The next 7 Minutes show is 7 Minutes Under the Mistletoe, which I’m sure will be highly entertaining, as well. Check out more pics from the show below, and see all of Space 55’s upcoming shows here.
7 minutes in hell at Space 55

7 minutes in hell at Space 55

Next, I headed over to The Torch Theatre for the improv community’s second annual Ghostfest. This 30-hour improv marathon featured 15-minute shows from a variety of performers, and the line-up included a diverse offering of improv formats.

ghostfest the torch theatreThe most interesting show I saw was a Bane-from-Batman-themed performance, where characters such as Bane Austen, Bane Fonda and Bane Goodall came on-stage for a debate. It was highly bizarre but highly entertaining.

The Torch always has something fun coming up. My Level 5 improv classmates have a show there this Friday at 10:30 p.m. For tickets, go here.

Phoenix Improv Festival brings national acts to Herberger Theater

I headed back to the Herberger Theater last night to see night two of the Phoenix Improv Festival. Unlike Friday’s showcase of all local acts, last night’s sets featured improv pros from around the country. There were five impressive troupes showing off a diverse array of improv styles — find a break-down of the show below.


What If?-
 This troupe came all the way from Minnesota to perform what seemed to me to be a type of deconstruction — where they took two characters and presented several scenes that developed the characters’ relationship of house buyer and real estate agent. It was evident the duo had a lot of chemistry because they played off each other well without missing a beat, and their scenes had me laughing throughout. If you’re ever in the Minneapolis area, check them out here.

Midnight Society- This five-guy group from Austin, Texas was a highlight of the night for me, as all the troupe members acted as different characters within the same setting — a funeral home. The troupe players picked strong choices for their characters, and the scenes they did all together were gems to watch because each person distinguished himself with quirky features. I’ve seen a few troupes from Austin come through the Valley, and if I’m ever there, the improv scene is one not to be missed. Learn more about Midnight Society here.

King Ten- People in the audience last night were really lucky to see King Ten, out of the prestigious Improv Olympic West based in Los Angeles. This five-person group has been performing the Harold improv format for 10 years together, where they integrate group scenes into vignettes that feature recurring characters. They brought a lot of physicality into their set, including hoisting up members on each other’s shoulders, and they were a treat to watch. The IO West is regarded as one of the best places to see improv in the Southwest — check it out if you’re in LA, and check out King Ten here.

Who Cares?- I really liked this young troupe from Chicago, who met as students at the amazing The Second City. They took audience suggestions but then did whatever they wanted with them, adding rich character details out loud before acting out scenes. It was a unique form I haven’t seen too much of, and I liked the chemistry of the two-guys-and-a-girl combo. All three members were excellent actors, and they brought a ton of energy to the stage. Chicago improv is phenomenal, and Who Cares? is worth seeing if you go.

Hawkinstroth- Hawkinstroth had the granddaddy of improvisers to perform at this year’s PIF — Miles Stroth. Stroth is a collaborator of the late Del Close, one of the best improv teachers and writer of the classic improv book, Truth in Comedy (if improv interests you in the least, read it.) Stroth and his partner Jeff Hawkins weave in and out of characters quickly through a myriad of intertwined scenes, and it’s obvious the guys are veterans — their presentation is always confident and relaxed. Some of their scenes involved the heavy use of the word “retard,” which I thought was an easy way out to garner a cheap laugh, but usually the duo is on point with their material. The guys also perform at the IO West.

Improv is a great way to challenge yourself, even if you don’t consider yourself an actor or lover of the stage. Taking improv classes can help you be a better presenter at work or even give you more confidence to talk to people at networking events. It’s also a lot of fun to try to push yourself to act silly and crazy and on your toes. If you’re interested in classes, I’d recommend The Torch Theatre in downtown Phoenix and Jester’z in Scottsdale. The instructors are all caring and encouraging and will work with you to play up your strengths — they’re great!

Phoenix Improv Festival spices up Herberger Theater

The 11th Annual Phoenix Improv Festival kicked off last night at the Herberger Theater, showing a packed house some of the best improv the Valley has to offer in both short-form and long-form formats.

There were a few acts I’d never seen before, and here’s a run-down of the talent on display from the first night.

National Comedy Theatre- This group out of Mesa is similar to the traditional short-form you might be used to from the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The group takes lots of audience suggestions to put into games, including one they performed last night where they threw lines of dialogue all over the stage, and improvisers had to pick them up and integrate them into scenes. They’re family-friendly and have a good variety of games that create consistent laughs. For more info on them, go here.

Judd- Billed as “four red-headed girls and Xchel” (the male musician in the group), Judd features made-up-on-the-spot songs brought together by guitar melodies. The ladies all sang in perfect harmony together, then broke into different factions making more music that tied together their scenes and incorporated the audience suggestion. Musical improv groups can be hit-or-miss because of the singing talents of the performers, but all the women in Judd had stellar voices and great comedic timing. Learn more about them here.

Umlautilde- Umlautilde is a duo of two veteran improvisers, both of who teach at The Torch Theatre. Their set last night consisted of one 20-minute scene, with two strong characters navigating a complicated relationship. This was a more dramatic kind of improv that relied on strong character development and plot rather than cheap jokes, so it’s more high-brow improv but just as meaningful. Learn more here.

Mail Order Bride- I’ve been a fan of the all-female Mail Order Bride for about the past 6 years. All of the women in the group are super-talented, and their chemistry is undeniable since they’ve been performing together for so long. They had great characters during their set at PIF, including an unforgettable pot-smoking dad, and this is one group that you are always guaranteed to laugh at. Check them out here.

Chaos Comedy- Chaos Comedy had some interesting long-form improv to serve up, where the players wove in and out of scenes as the same characters but in different times. Sometimes they’d travel backwards or fast-forward during scenes, which I really liked because it’s challenging to think back or ahead in scenes on the spot. They also had strong characters, which I appreciated, and they also brought a little edge to the stage. To learn more, go here.

Unicorn Warpath- Unicorn Warpath was a seven-person group that performed an improv form called The Harold, which includes whole-group collaboration and character growth. It’s a challenging but really fun way to do improv, since you get to see the characters mature throughout the set, and it can also become sort of silly during the group scenes, which is neat. I appreciated the group’s enthusiasm and willingness to be fearless during their set. Check them out here.

Los Subtitulos- This was probably my favorite group of the night, and they were one I’d never seen. As evident by the name, this group performed their set in both Spanish and English, which I think is a brilliant idea considering how many Spanish-speakers we have in Arizona — they’d be a great troupe to represent us in national venues for other festivals. Also, I can speak and understand Spanish on a basic level, and I understood most of what was said during the show — it wasn’t too fast or complicated, which I loved! You won’t just laugh with this group — you’ll also learn some new palabras, which I think is such a cool concept. To learn more, go here.

The Foundation- This hodgepodge of improvisers consists of instructors of The Torch Theatre, the collective that puts on the Phoenix Improv Festival and has their own theater in downtown Phoenix where they teach and perform. This group is the best of the best when it comes to longform Phoenix improvisers, and their set was predictably hysterical.

It’s great the Phoenix Improv Festival is still going strong, and I can’t wait to go back tonight to check it out. The show tonight starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $15 each — a steal for how much great improv you’ll see. Tonight’s show also features all national acts, so come check it out! And if you’re inspired to learn some improv yourself, tomorrow Phoenix Improv Festival is hosting free workshops. For more info on all of this, go here.

The Torch Theatre has its own downtown Phoenix space for longform improv

Downtown Phoenix has something really amazing, something that makes it stand out in the national comedy scene. It’s called The Torch Theatre, and it’s the only space dedicated to long-form improv in Arizona. The theater just opened this year, and it’s wonderful to see this venue created by such a talented group of improvisers. The space is used to host classes and weekly shows, and the group behind it also puts on the annual Phoenix Improv Festival, which brings in prominent comedians from around the country.

I went to the theater last Saturday for the weekly Cagematch competition, where a challenger team takes on the champion from the previous week. The teams can perform any format they want, from one long scene with a single suggestion to short-form games throughout the show. You never know what you’re going to get, and that’s part of the fun. Audience members determine which team makes it onto the next week.

This was just one of three shows that night, and every Friday and Saturday, there is a ton of programming to choose from. Tickets generally range from $5-$10, and the full schedule can be found here. It’s fun to check out a lot of different types performances, and it’s a great way to get immersed in downtown Phoenix culture.

‘A Bloody Mary Christmas’ at Space 55 a naughty holiday musical

Watching a musical about three old ladies who live in Sun City might not seem like fun, but in A Bloody Mary Christmas, it’s hysterical.

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The hour-long play, written by, directed by and starring local improvisers and actors, focuses on three elderly friends who live together in a condo in a community for older folks. They’re potty mouthed drinkers who are gearing up for Christmas by spiking their punch bowl with bottles of vodka, and they just found out they’ll be kicked out of their home on Christmas Eve if they don’t scrounge together $1,800 to pay off their remiss HOA fees.

These ladies are played by much younger gals, who, thanks to excellent costumes and make-up, transform into delightfully funny crotchety old woman. One wears a shower cap and the other two have padding in the butt and stomach areas. They were really as much fun to watch as they were to listen to.

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And the acting by the cast, which also includes a male HOA representative who finds love with one of the ladies, was also wonderful. All four of the actors created rich, distinct characters that you could really become invested in. And how amusing is it that the lady in the shower cap was the most sexually active one?

Everyone should go see A Bloody Mary Christmas because it really stands out among all the traditional holiday theater fare you could be seeing this season. It’s naughty, has a whole lot of heart and makes you thankful for friendship–something everyone can use this time of year!

The show runs at Space 55 in downtown Phoenix December 3, 4, 10, 11 and 17 at 8 p.m., as well as December 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15, or $12 if you bring a can of food to be donated to St. Mary’s Food Bank. Find more info on their Facebook page here.

Moira Sushi serves up tasty sushi in downtown Phoenix

It’s hard not to like sushi when it looks just like a dragon.

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Seriously, look at how cute that frickin’ meal is.

That comes courtesy of Moira Sushi in downtown Phoenix, a hip little spot with a sushi bar and an array of other Japanese specialties, including shrimp tempura and edamame.

Moira has some of the best miso soup ($6) I’ve ever had, and this time, I also tried their seaweed salad ($5). I wasn’t as big of a fan of this–it was really soggy, not crunchy like I like it, and I had to add some dressing to give it more flavor. It’s an extremely  filling appetizer, though.

For the main course, I like the generously portioned vegetarian roll ($7)–and my sushi chef even hooked me up with extra avocado!

The atmosphere at Moira is cool–dim blue lighting and candles. The wire chairs are pretty uncomfortable, and in such a pretty setting, I wish they were more cushioned.

After dinner, my pal and I headed to Space 55 for some longform improv in the PIMMP tournament. It’s modeled after March Madness, and we saw four teams battle it out to move on to the semi-finals next Friday (Space 55, 9 p.m., $10).

I was really impressed that all four teams did a great job and were consistently funny throughout their sets–it was difficult to vote for my favorites.

The show is a great precursor to the Phoenix Improv Festival, April 15-17 at the Herberger Theater. For more info, log on to www.thetorchtheatre.com.

Valley Fever Improv starts something new

As NFL mania continues, I’m reminded of last weekend, when I watched the heartbreaking Cardinals game at Turf Accountant in downtown Phoenix.

This was my first time eating at the sports bar, and I was pretty satisfied with the food I tried–a salad with ranch, cheese quesadillas and fried mushrooms. The portions could have been bigger, though, and the service was lacking–only two servers were running around the entire restaurant, which is pretty unacceptable to me. It’s a pretty cool bar, though–just leave extra time if you’re going there to eat.

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After the horrible loss, I went to downtown Chandler to see Valley Fever Improv, a troupe that’s less than a year old but is already selling out 50-seat audiences.

I enjoyed Valley Fever mostly because the troupe really tried to evenly put on both a longform and shortform show, which I really appreciated because the program included a great variety of improv.

I knew a few of the performers from other troupes in the Valley, so there are definitely some strong seasoned veterans who carried the show well.

The set-up was a little awkward, since the show is held in the art gallery Art on Boston, and there’s no stage. It’s not too bad, though, because the surroundings are great conversation starters and would add to a  cool date night.

Valley Fever performs next on January 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for kids.

Hanny’s brings Manhattan cool to Phoenix

If anyone ever says to me that downtown Phoenix doesn’t have cool bars, I’ll send them to Hanny’s.

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The sister restaurant to AZ 88 is chic and totally has a Manhattan vibe, with its minimalist, modern decor and live music. I went there last night before stopping by Space 55 for some Cagematch improv.

The spot is comprised of several stories, with the main restaurant and bar on the middle floors. This time of year, there’s a giant Christmas tree in the entrance, and it’s a gorgeous piece of art by installation artist Janice Leonard. You’ll also see her trees at AZ 88.

We sat at the bar, where my pal Peter was working. Request him–he’s great.

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I had a Pimm’s Cup, one of the bar’s specialties,

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and a mojito.

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The drinks are smaller portions than you might be used to, but that’s how Hanny’s does all their cocktails.

We shared a Bar Plate ($8.50), which is great if you love prosciutto, since there’s a ton of it. It also comes with bread, cheese, olives and nuts–perfect to pair cocktails with.

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My side salad ($4.50) was OK, but I wish the place served ranch dressing. I wasn’t super-crazy about the Dijon vinaigrette.

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And despite how much I love the cool vibe of Hanny’s, the regular menu is so disappointing. If you don’t like sandwiches, you’re stuck with a salad or flat bread pizza. We ordered one with olives  ($12), and while I loved the cheese, it tasted more like a cracker than pizza.

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The pizzas are just mediocre–I could make a better one myself, and I don’t even cook. I would love if Hannny’s expanded its menu or made thick-crust pizzas. Maybe if it had more to offer food-wise, the restaurant would become more popular.

I absolutely love the tiramisu ($7) at Hanny’s, though,

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and the great music by the DJ’s distracted from the so-so food. I really appreciate the live music and think Hanny’s has great potential to become a bustling bar.

Jester’Z improv brings the funny to Scottsdale

The improv scene in the Valley is something I really love, so much that I even got into taking classes and eventually became part of the Jester’Z improv troupe in Scottsdale.

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This week, I went back to Jester’Z to check out my pal, who had a class show. He’s only in the first level class, but I was so impressed with how well everyone did and am excited to see the growth at their final class show. They’re definitely on the way to becoming great performers and may even make it into the regular troupe.

Jester’Z has shows every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $12, and that gets you a 1 1/2 hour show where audience members give suggestions that the troupe takes and turns into short comedic scenes.

Jester’Z is extremely consistent with its shows, providing a steady stream of laughter on any given night. Many of the improvisers are also actors in other media, such as film and television, and the troupe is extremely professional.

Having been a part of it, I know how hard the actors work and how seriously they take the troupe, and I highly recommend Jester’Z as a fun night out. For more info, log on to www.jesterzimprov.com.