Chicago is indisputably the improvisation capital of the world. Famed groups that include Second City and the Upright Citizens Brigade have originated there. The Windy City is also home to the prestigious Chicago Improv Festival, the longest running and largest improv festival in the world.
The weekend of April 5, the Martha’s Vineyard IMPers, selected from a record number of applicants, performed as one of 150 improv teams at the 16th annual festival. The local group earned high praise and an invitation to return to Chicago anytime.
Not bad, considering the nine-member IMPers troupe is made up entirely of young adults — one middle school student, six high schoolers and two college sophomores. Imp was the only teen group invited to appear on one of the festival’s main stages this year.
“It went phenomenally,” said Donna Swift, IMPers founder and director. “Their performance was incredibly well received.”
After the IMPers’ two Chicago shows, Ms. Swift said that one of the festival curators told her the group was fantastic. “They have an amazing handle on improv,” he told Ms. Swift “As soon as I saw the [audition] video, I knew that I wanted them on my stage.” The adult troupe that the IMPers shared the stage with were equally impressed.
“It was really great for the kids just to have this validation that the work is paying off,” said Ms. Swift. “Some of them have been doing this for nine years,”
Ms. Swift, a founding member of the popular adult improv group WIMP, offers a number of after-school and summer improvisation programs through her nonprofit organization, IMP for Kids. “Most of them started taking after-school classes in middle school or younger,” she said of the current troupe members.
The IMPers rehearse once a week and perform a weekly show during July and August.
“They need to make a professional commitment to become part of the troupe that performs in the summer season,” Ms. Swift said. The troupe has taken part in improv festivals in Boston and Providence and performed at Westfield State University in western Massachusetts.
This was not the first time that the IMPers have participated in the Chicago Improv festival. Eight years ago the group was selected as one of the teen apprentice troupes. They had the opportunity to work with a professional coach, take part in workshops and give a final night special performance. Two years later, they returned to Chicago as an apprentice troupe.
From 2010 through 2012, the IMPers participated in the festival’s Teen Comedy Fest which takes place shortly after the main event.
“This group has been doing the teen festival for the last three years,” said Ms. Swift, “The ones in college were also with that second apprentice group. This year we really wanted to take a shot at the main stage.”
Some fundraising initiatives by the troupe members and a generous donation by the Rotary Club of Martha’s Vineyard helped make the IMPers longtime dream a reality.
Clarke University sophomore Ashley Girard has been to Chicago three times. “The teen festival was very interesting. We got a chance to see what other kids our age were doing, but actually being one of the groups there performing on the main stage felt really validating. I feel like all the work I’ve been doing for ten years has amounted to something.”
Della Burke, the other college member of the troupe, was impressed with the talent displayed by the newest IMPers. “The performance went really well,” she said. “It was the first time for two of our members. I was really glad that they got to experience Chicago in such a positive way. We were really well received in Chicago. It really affirms all the work that we’ve done. To be appreciated that way is very gratifying.”
She added, “Improv is really about working together. And we do that very well. We’re all really close.”
Ms. Burke has been studying improv under Ms. Swift since the third grade. “The main stage has been a goal for a really long time,” she said.
Like a number of the older members, Ms. Burke and Ms. Girard have both served as teachers at the IMP summer camp for many years. “When I see kids getting it and see it click, it reminds me of why I love doing this so much,” said Ms. Girard.
For 20 years, Improv has been part of the summer lineup of events on the Vineyard. For many years the adult troupe WIMP entertained audiences on a weekly basis at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. The IMPers took over the regular Wednesday night spot when WIMP disbanded a number of years ago.
This summer, for the first time, the troupe will have a new home and a new performance day. They will be hosting a show every Thursday night through July and August at the Base at Alex’s Place — the teen center performance space at the YMCA. “It’s a great cabaret space,” said Ms. Swift.
As for next year, Ms. Swift said that the troupe hopes to return to the festival. “I had such a great time on the trip. I really enjoyed spending time with them and seeing how far they’ve come. They’re just really neat human beings. They’re really insightful.”
Islanders have an opportunity to see the show that wowed the Chicago crowds.
The IMPers will perform at the Base at Alex’s Place. YMCA building, Vineyard Haven/Edgartown Road on Saturday, April 27 at 8 pm. All ages are welcome. Tickets are $12 at the door or you can purchase tickets for $7 in advance from any IMPer member or by calling Donna Swift at 508-939-9368