3 CA Improv Festivals That Survived the Pandemic
Not long after the pandemic, students started asking me if I knew of any show opportunities. Although the comedy scene looks somewhat normal now, in the first few months after society reopened, there was almost nowhere for a team to perform. Now comedy shows are more available, but festivals, specifically improv festivals, are hard to find. Many that I really loved (like the San Diego Improv Fest), died with the panny. I've actually spent a fair amount of time searching which festivals made it and which didn't. R.I.P. Phoenix Improv Festival! On a happier note, here are three in California I recommend.
1. ImprovCity Fest
Location: Tustin, CA
Dates: March 2- 5, 2023
Application: Invitation only (for now)
Accessibility: Street level access, no stage ramp
The first festival on my list is a brand new one! It popped up this year, and is only a 40-minute drive from LA. My team MAX (pictured left) played. It was a really good performance space - elevated stage with a low ceiling and tightly packed crowds. Our house was standing room only with great energy from the crowd. Juan Velasco, an improv titan in his own right and a former iO West performer, is the one who asked MAX to play. We shared a performance block with Juan and Jason Shotts (One Shot), and Craig and Carla Cackowski (Orange Tuxedo). We were blown away by the quality of the lineup. To be fair I think it would be hard to replicate the kind of experience we had, considering the connections we shared with everyone, but I would definitely recommend trying.
As far as accessibility goes, there is no ramp to the stage, which sucks. I remember having floor level bathroom access, but I can't remember if the bathroom itself would be considered ADA approved. Hopefully they fix the ramp issue for next year. You'll definitely want to give this festival a try! ImprovCity Fest: improvcityonline.com.
2. Orange County Improv Fest
Location: Santa Ana, CA
Dates: June 15 - 17, 2023
Application fee: $25
Accessibility: Street level access, accessible restrooms, no stage ramp. Inquire about accessibility in workshop spaces.
This is one of my favorite newer festivals. First, it's not that far from LA. Second, the whole thing takes place inside a movie theater. That's why our team photo (above) has "Godzilla" in the background. The festival tech projects a huge logo of your team name on the movie screen behind you while you play, which just feels badass. One of my former students, Eric Vue, co-directs this festival, so I'm clearly biased in his favor. Both Eric and Bridget (the other director) are organized, responsive, and prompt, so the whole thing runs smoothly.
The other aspect I like is the location. There are multiple free parking garages within walking distance, which eliminates one of the most annoying parts of going to any sort of downtown area. The theater itself is surrounded by cool-guy restaurants (I felt underdressed), wine bars (still underdressed), over-the-counter-Mexican places (hell yeah), and a German sausage and beer bar on the corner (nom nom). Last year my team hit up a Mexican restaurant called El Mercado. We found spicy crickets on the menu, so we had to order them! One by one, we each ate one and took pictures to prove it. My only complaint was that they were served cold, which was a choice we found weird as hell.
To the best of my knowledge, the festival's stage also does not have a ramp, which stinks. It's possible that it could have been located behind the stage (where I never went). You'll want to ask the organizers about this. If they say that indeed there is no ramp, request one for next year so improv is more accessible! Yay! OCIF: improvcollective.fun/ocif
3. SF Sketchfest
Location: San Francisco, CA
Dates: Jan. 19 - Feb. 4, 2024
Application fee: Maybe $25? (applications are closed now)
Accessibility: Inquire at each venue
Full disclosure: I have never played this festival. But I want to! And my very good friends have played it more than once, and they all have had nothing but great things to say. They report that everything is well organized and professionally run, which isn't always the case at comedy festivals (surprise surprise). I also hear party scene is on point, if that's your jam. Just picture a bunch of comedians hanging out in a cool city for days on end, scouring for good food and bars to hit up at night.
My friends also said the houses for their shows ranged from decent to standing room only, which sounds great to me. As far as I understand, Sketchfest goes out of their way to cast a diverse assembly of teams and performers, which I love (and should be standard practice in my opinion). It might be expensive to find a place to crash, but it's San Francisco, so you can't reasonably expect anything else. As far as accessibility, the festival is held at various theaters across the city. You'll have to call ahead to ask if a particular stage has a ramp and accessible bathrooms. Overall, the only things I've heard about this festival are that it's a real rager and very worth doing - as long as you've saved up a little cash for a place to stay. SF Sketchfest: sfsketchfest.com