After settling into his then-new job as professor of acting and improv at LSU, Brett Duggan was performing and seeing improv shows around Baton Rouge.
It was late 2019, and Duggan thought to himself, "This city has got to be the last place in the world that doesn't have an improv festival."
Duggan started bringing up the idea with people inside and outside the theater world. The reactions gave him hope for the city and for possibly hosting an event.
"Instead of 'What's that?' or 'Why are you doing that?,' everybody asked, 'How can I help?'" Duggan said.
Though the first Baton Rouge Improv Fest was put in motion in early 2020, the pandemic put the event on hold, giving Duggan time to think but also to put together a seriously big event, larger than he ever imagined.
The festival starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday with an opening night welcoming party at The Radio Bar on Government Street. Live-streamed performances start at 8 p.m.
The festival will continue through Sunday, with free performances from Louisiana, national and global improv teams. These performances will be available to stream through the festival's website and Vimeo pages. A few shows will hosted live at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library's River Center branch downtown. The event also includes workshops running Thursday to Sunday that range from $5 to $20. A full schedule of events is available at batonrougeimprovfest.com.
"We're basically running a live television channel for five days," Duggan said, laughing.
When he told the LSU Improv Club the scope of the festival, "I could see their eyes get big," he said.
However, the full-time professor/improv and acting coach said that for every perceived difficulty in organizing the event, he's found people willing to help at each step of the way. Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, and performing across the globe, such a response gave Duggan the confidence that he and the festival board could pull off the event.
"Baton Rouge is the most 'yes and' place," he said, comparing the city to the improv technique that builds on whatever idea is presented. In addition to local support, Duggan also got a hand from colleagues he knew while performing and teaching at Second City's Hollywood location, among others.
"I thought that I would invite a few groups. I started emailing people I knew, and everyone said yes."
The improv legends booked for this debut festival include Susan Messing and Rachael Mason with The Boys, a New York-based LatinX group named Chucho, London's They Don't Know the Half of It, the Los Angeles-based ComedySportz team, Chicago's Ratas de Dos Patas, and a special performance from Michael Gellman and David Razowsky.
Quite the lineup for a festival that Duggan described as "literally being improvised into being." One important choice he and the festival board made during the event's rollout, however, was allowing viewers to make a donation so that he can give the actors what he calls an "improv stimulus check."
"[Improv and acting] isn't these performers' hobby; it's their life's passion," Duggan said. "I want to move us back into a world where artists can make a living, doing what they do. What they do is heal people, bring people together, uplift communities and bring joy. That is a valued service."
Already, he and the festival board are looking to next year when, hopefully, more of the performers will be able to visit the most "yes and" city for in-person shows.
"We want to immediately start working on next year, flying in people and having them in small theaters around the city," Duggan said. "The entire event will be flipped, and we will stream shows across the world, rather than have performers stream shows to us."
BATON ROUGE IMPROV FEST
Featuring workshops and performances from improv groups in a hybrid live and streaming event
WHERE: Shows will be streamed virtually. A few shows throughout the festival will host small, live performances at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library's River Center branch.
COST: Performances are free. Donations are suggested. Workshops range from $5-$20.