Earlier this month, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre announced that not only will the annual Del Close Marathon be moving from New York to Los Angeles, as announced last year, but that the festival will also be closed to teams outside L.A. or the UCB community. This was undoubtedly a blow to a growing national scene of improvisers, for whom New York and L.A. remain gathering points and cultural beacons. There’s never been a better time, then, to recognize what’s been going on in improv outside New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Here are just some of the places we find the most exciting.
Between the Philly Improv Theater (a staple in the community for almost fifteen years) and the Good Good Comedy Theatre (a more recent BYOB venue that brings in performers from larger cities as well as showcasing local talent), Philadelphia may well have the most robust improv scene in the Northeast outside of New York. The relationship between the two cities is quickly becoming symbiotic, with talent traveling back and forth from each, in a way that can only be healthy for both.
Hartford has had a blossoming improv community over the last few years, with the Sea Tea Comedy Theater packing audiences into an intimate, scrappy 80-seat house (one that conjures memories of UCB’s Chelsea stage, without the columns) and the Hartford Improv Festival, which fills a movie theater with acts from around the country every April.
Across from an abandoned steel mill straight out of Tim Burton’s Gotham in Bethlehem, Pa., sits SteelStacks, a massive arts complex that’s home to—among other things—regular comedy shows and classes that have made it a scene to watch, according to no less an authority than Chris Gethard. It’s also home to the annual SteelStacks Improv Comedy Festival, already positioning itself to fill the gap left by the exodus of the Del Close Marathon.
Portland is, unsurprisingly, absolutely swimming in improv venues—from fast-growing training hubs like the Kickstand Comedy Space, to the completely women owned and operated Deep End Theater, and many more—all of which come together each year to host the Stumptown Improv Festival, with the Portland Queer Comedy Festival operating every summer as well. With relatively close proximity to Vancouver (another thriving improv city), Portland is keeping the Pacific Northwest in very good hands.
Expanding itself far beyond the high profile of SXSW, Austin has become a go-to destination for practically every artistic medium, and improv is absolutely no exception. Alternative venues like ColdTowne Theater (founded by headlining team the Frank Mills) and the year-old Fallout Theater keep the Austin improv community alive and well. Indeed, all five of the active comedy theaters in Austin gathered for a performance to celebrate Fallout’s one-year anniversary. Plus, the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival brings in more and more acts each year.
Already a city that has regularly attracted popular touring comedians, Denver also has an extremely active improv scene. The Voodoo Comedy Playhouse showcases affordable comedy shows every night in a variety of disciplines, including the monthly improv show with a fantastic name: “Governor Jack Watches You Sleep.” Other theaters include the Bovine Metropolis Theater and the Bug Theatre (which comes with an admirable selection of craft beers). If you’re looking to get out of the city a bit, there are even theaters in the nearby suburb of Westminster that are worth checking out.
The Twin Cities
True to its name, HUGE Theater in Minneapolis is made up of a community of about 1,000 improvisers. Plus, as we’ve written about before, the theater has non-profit status and has been paying performers since 2013. It’s not just creating a great community for the Twin Cities, it’s taking the lead in expanding our expectations for how an improv theater can responsibly serve the artists who make it great. Additionally, for the record, Minneapolis is home to Brave New Workshop, the oldest continuous sketch and comedy theater in the country.
The Baltimore Improv Group (BIG), another non-profit, has taken the next step in offering affordable comedy to its community by hosting 100% free shows every night of the week, in addition to offering classes and launching the Baltimore Improv Festival. Theaters like BIG and all the other venues we’ve mentioned suggest that the understood model for a viable improv theater is far less rigid than we’ve come to believe. It’s, again, a national scene that grows more every year and that deserves to be given a spotlight.
As Atlanta has become the newest cornerstone of the entertainment industry (seriously, look up how many movies and TV shows are filmed in Atlanta), it’s no surprise that the comedy scene there is thriving in general. The iconic Dad’s Garage and Whole World Improv Theatre Co. have been growing consistently since establishing themselves in 1995, placing Atlanta alongside New York and Los Angeles in the historic proliferation of improv as an art form. There are plenty of other theaters to diversify the offerings as well, including the Village Theatre, Highwire Comedy Company, Relapse Comedy Theatre, and the tiny Basement Theatre run by an enigmatic creator known only as “JStar.” You can’t make this stuff up, and yet they do.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @gr8h8m_t3chl3r or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.