Wednesday, December 26, 2007

State of the Scene: What are KC's top improv stories?

In no particular order, the next few posts will be about my picks for our little community's top stories. (Disclaimer: I make no claims of objectivity.) So here we go...

ComedyCity is up for sale...or is it?
On-again, off-again rumors of ComedyCity's demise should be big news for the rest of us.

After 20 years, KC's most enduring troupe is a mixed bag of successes and surprises. Their mailing list is the envy of every troupe in town. They play more private shows and teach more corporate classes than anyone. They can sell out their black box and their big basement theater. On the other hand, they regularly cancel shows. Their matches have gone from two teams of four to two teams of two with a swing player. And there's no "training center"—just workshops with changing schedules, instructors, formats and pricing. The players on stage are some of the best in the city—and some newbies who barely know the basics.

So what's up? After 20 years, why aren't they selling out every show? Why is it that the Westport Coffeehouse, and not ComedyCity, is the go-to stage for the majority of troupes in town? Why don't they fill their off-nights with multiple improv classes at every level? Why isn't ComedyCity the place to learn improv in KC? 

There are dozens of theories and strongly held opinions about what keeps ComedyCity—or any troupe—from consistently reaching its potential. ComedyCity has done a lot right over the years, but some of their problems are easy traps for any troupe to fall into. A few of my personal theories...with an eye toward universal relevance:

Theory #1: 
The success of groups like Annoyance and iO in Chicago makes it clear that you need two things to make an improv company* work: A compelling vision and a lot of business savvy. Vision allows you to put on shows audiences won't see anywhere else, and to teach classes from a specific point of view. Business savvy ensures everything from casting to production decisions are made with an eye on the bottom line—and the books, paperwork, licenses and receipts are all in line. Without one, the other doesn't matter. (My old company, Lighten Up, had plenty of vision but almost no business savvy.)

Theory #2:
You can't beat 'em—so join 'em. When there were only one or two troupes in town, protecting your turf might have been an OK idea. Years ago—20, 10, even five—improvisers and audiences didn't have many options. If you wanted to see a show any weekend, you went to ComedyCity. Same deal if you wanted stage time.  Now audiences and performers have options. And being at the top of your game may not be enough to keep them. 

So if you've got an empty stage, why not let another troupe bring their audiences into your space—to see your promotional material and buy your beer? If you've got dark nights, why not actively rent it out as rehearsal and class space? If your performers have a chance to learn new tricks and get in rehearsal time by playing with other groups, why not encourage it?

Theory #3: 
The work matters. Complacency is death—especially as the competition get stronger. Audiences are harder to impress. The best players want to grow and be challenged. And the best way to keep audiences and players happy is to focus on the quality of the product. A format won't take care of the laughs. Gimmicks, likable players, comic characters and good timing alone won't always sustain scenes. You have to do good improv. 

Why we should all be a little freaked out:
In KC, ComedyCity is the reason many audiences don't have to have "improv" explained to them. It's why they know the difference between real improv and stand-up. ComedyCity is our single best source of word of mouth marketing for improv. 

And if ComedyCity—with its own space, deep roster, enviable mailing list and long history—doesn't make it, what will the rest of us learn from that?  

COMING UP: 
—KC Improv Festival returns—and the workshops make more than the shows.
—Improv is getting big in small towns.
—Everyone gets a show! Everyone gets a show!
—A high school improv group turns 10.
—City 3 turns two.



*I use "company" and not "troupe" intentionally. A company exists to make money. A troupe exists to do shows.

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