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Making it up on the spot: The seventh annual C-U Improv Festival

This weekend, Zoo Improv hosts C-U’s seventh improv festival by welcoming improv teams from around the state for a weekend of comedy, workshops, and youth events.

Improv shows start at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights at the SoDo Theatre in downtown Champaign. Both shows feature multiple teams, each of which will perform for approximately 25 minutes. In between sets, audience members can help themselves to snacks and a cash bar.

“The C-U Improv Fest is different from many festivals because there is no admission fee for teams,” said Cara Maurizi, a member of Zoo Improv. “It’s rare for us to turn teams away, although we do request videos in advance so we know what to expect.” The lack of admission fee helps to promote a welcoming atmosphere for teams, who attend the festival to learn from others as much as to show of their art.

The first annual C-U Improv Festival took place with the encouragement of a producer from Chicago Improv Productions. The goal of the festival, said Maurizi, has always been to connect with other teams and highlight the talents of local performers for the rest of the community.

According to Maurizi, improv can be broaded categorized into two types.

“With improv, generally speaking, there is short form and long form,” she said. “Short form usually game-based. There is some kind of parameter, like doing a scene in a certain style, but lots of ideas will enter the performance. With long form, you will probably only get one suggestion from the audience, and then the entire show is woven out of ideas from that suggestion. Long form is more like seeing a play unfold. Everything is related to that first initial idea, and as it expands, you see how the improvisers are able to turn it into a longer story.”

This year’s improv festival will feature both types of improv. Teams include pH, who will send senior members down to do a fast-paced show called “Frenzy”; Smeared Inc., an improvised podcast; and Chicago Improv Productions: The Collage, which plays with a variety of different improv styles and forms. Both night of entertainment will also include performers from C-U and the U of I. “No two shows will be the same,” said Maurizi.

In addition to the Friday and Saturday shows, the improv festival features adult and youth workshops that are open to the public. On Saturday from 1 – 4 p.m., three coaches will offer workshops for performers of all experience levels, followed by a youth workshop from 4 – 5:45. 

The festival workshops help promote an atmosphere of community and learning for performers, said Maurizi.

“The nice thing about the improv community is that everyone is super excited about sharing what they know. One of the great things about the festival is learning from people who have been doing improv for many years. We’re excited to have people of a very high caliber come to town.”

Champaign-Urbana has nurtured a range of performance styles, according to Maurizi. Zoo Improv has the longest history in C-U. “The one downside of Zoo is that we don’t have a coach,” said Maurizi. “We learn by participating in workshops and watching each other. A big motivation for having the festival is to learn and improve what we do.” 

In addition to the annual improv festival, Zoo Improv puts on weekly shows every Friday night and also offers private parties as well as workshops and retreats for local businesses. “The principles of improv involve listening, saying yes, and supporting your colleagues,” said Maurizi. “We love to be utilized in the community by teaching about improv.”

Maurizi noted that the vibrant comedy culture in C-U helps make this community a welcoming place for an improv festival. “C-U Comedy is the group that focuses on standup in town, but they have helped us attracted audiences by promoting our events, just as we promote theirs,” she said. “People have a choice of what to do in this town, and that’s a good thing. This is a wonderful community for the arts because there’s always something going on. And we’re a big enough town that we should have something like this here.”

Check out the full schedule of festival events here.

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