We Love Arts: The 2011 Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament

Photo courtesy Washington Improv Theatre

In a month where the words “seeds”, “upsets”, and “winners” are tossed around like a Rebecca Black music video, I found myself in room where several players were gearing up for their own big game in another big tournament.

No I’m not talking about the College Basketball Invitational. I’m talking about Washington Improv Theatre’s Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament, otherwise known as FIST.

Starting back on March 10th WIT kicked off their 5th annual tournament where teams of Improvisers face off against each other for the ultimate title. Over the course of 31 days, 47 teams made up of 141 performers will face-off in head-to-head matches as well as several “grand slam” matches where four teams compete.

Each match consists of a 12-minute performance from each team. The improv will be fast and furious and won’t be like what you may know from the days of “Whose Line Is It Anyways”. The rules forbid short games, making teams opt for longer forms of improv.

After the each team performs the audience votes for the winner, who then moves one step closer to the FIST title. While the votes are tallied the audience enjoys a performance from one WIT’s six house troops. It makes for a night of comedy that’s guaranteed to be something you’ve never seen before.

The passion behind the tourney starts with Commissioners Justus Hammond and Maggie Dempsey who were brimming with enthusiasm when I talked to them on the tourney’s opening weekend. They are FIST veterans and are excited to be running the festival of Improv, despite not being able to perform.

“It’s like asking people to prom,” Hammond said when describing the months leading up to the tourney. Local performers who decide to compete spend a lot of time putting together the right team of Improvers.

And they take the competition seriously.

“If Topher and I were on stage together- I would be trying to seriously cause him some comedy harm,” jokes Dempsey.

Of course finding the right team isn’t always about assembling the three funniest people together.

“I don’t necessarily find who I think will win, but those I think would be the most fun to play with,” says WIT managing director and reigning FIST champion Topher Bellavia. For him Improv has been a life changer for him. Struggling with his life as a Capitol Hill staffer and suffering with a bi-polar condition, he ran across WIT from an ad in the Metro Weekly.

“Improv saved my life. I really learned to trust people again and get a handle on my emotions,” Bellavia admits.

Improv also become a passion among the FIST teams themselves. By day they are teachers, lawyers, and software designers. By night they find their escape through making others laugh.

“It’s almost like an addiction- that feeling to make someone laugh,” says performer Will Groom.

“It’s like an outlet,” adds team member Melanie Gart, “I need that outlet to dump all that extra energy, it’s such a fun high.”

The team has been performing together for about a year and prepared for the tournament through regular practices in the lobby of Melanie’s Condo. A practice space that turned into an impromptu venue during an ill-timed open house.

So if your bracket is broken or you are a Pittsburgh fan, find comfort in knowing you now have an alternative to the Madness in March. Shows are cheap (just $10 a ticket), funny, and will have you more involved than watching a Gus Johnson buzzer beater.

Ya I said it, it’s not like you made that winning three-pointer, you just watched it on TV.

WIT Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament
Running through April 16th
Source Theatre
1835 14th St NW
Washington DC 20009

Patrick has been blogging since before it was called blogging. At We Love DC Patrick covers local Theatre, and whatever catches his eye. Patrick’s blog stories, rants, and opinions have been featured in The Washington City Paper, Washington Post Express, CNN, Newschannel 8 Washington, and NBC Washington. See why Patrick loves DC.

You can e-mail him at ppho [at] welovedc.com

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