Phoenix Improv Festival Founder Mack Duncan Talks About Improv, Memorable Performances, and this Weekend's Fest

Categories: Events, Interviews
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Jacqueline Hanna
Jacque Arend, Todd Porter, and Adrienne Sanford from Light Rail Pirates improv troupe perform at last year's Phoenix Improv Festival.
Let's say you're doing an improvisational skit with a friend, and the audience gives you three words you have to somehow incorporate: platypus, anger, and shoes. What do you do with that?

A lot of people may be intimidated by the idea of improvisation, and Mack Duncan, member of The Torch Theatre and founder of the Phoenix Improv Festival, understands. Duncan, along with several local improv troupes, will perform his spontaneous craft at the Phoenix Improv Festival Thursday, April 14 through Saturday, April 16, at the Herberger Theater Center.

We recently talked with Duncan about how to do improv, his most memorable shows, and the Phoenix Improv Festival.

What are the keys to doing good improv?

The biggest thing is listening. A lot of people look at improv shows and think they can't do it. They'll say, "I can't think that fast." But it's not about thinking quickly, it's about listening and seeing what your improv partners are doing and knowing where you are in the scene. I'd also say a key is being able to accept what's given to you as a gift -- whatever idea's offered in a show, any suggestions from the audience, that's a gift.

Any tips for people who may get stuck or speechless, mid-improv?
Some people do solo pieces, but there's usually another person there. So if you're trapped and not sure what to do next, you can always look to them. But again, if you're paying attention, you won't get stuck.

What are some of the most memorable performances you've done?

Last year, I did three shows in one night, and all were different. One was an ensemble show, one was a two-person show with puppets, and then I did a solo show. I ended up exercising every improv muscle. By the time I got to the solo show, I'd already done all the zany, weird things, so I ended up doing a darker show. I experienced every emotion.

What sort of improv will we see at the festival?
All kinds. For the past five or six years, groups from all over the country ask to participate, so we get everything from everywhere. There are two-person shows, there are shows with eight to ten people, and there's game-style, short form improv like in Who's Line Is It Anyway? We also have long form, more theatrical improv, improv musicals, and things with puppets -- like Avenue Q, but without the songs. Even if you've seen improv before, you're going to see something new at the festival.

The Phoenix Improv Festival, featuring Galapagos, Light Rail Pirates, National Comedy Theatre, Mail Order Bride, and more, takes place Thursday, April 14, through Saturday, April 16 at Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street. Tickets cost $10 to $15. Call 480-389-4852 or visit for more information.

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Steve Bass
Amy Carpenter, Michelle Edwards, and Stacey Reed from improv troupe Mail Order Bride perform at last year's Phoenix Improv Festival.

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