Improv comedy skeptics, who might think the improvisers make it up beforehand, can rest assured that won’t be happening Thursday at the Wilbur Theatre, when former “Saturday Night Live” cast members Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz headline the “Queens of Comedy” show with some Upright Citizens Brigade regulars to kick off the four-day Women in Comedy Festival. The pair are old pals with roots in the Chicago improv scene, but they haven’t seen each other in a while, much less rehearsed anything.
“We’ll probably hit the theater and have a quick discussion backstage,” Lexington native Dratch says by phone. “It’s usually the same kind of thing, long-form [improv]: You get one suggestion from the audience and you just kind of go. There’s not a lot of structure to it.”
This year’s festival features more acts in more venues: Maria Bamford at the Brattle Theatre, stand-up showcases at the Milky Way, the Comedy Studio, Club Passim, and Nick’s Comedy Stop; musical comedy at Ober-on; improv and sketch shows at Improv Asylum; and storytelling at the Charles Playhouse. But “Queens of Comedy” is the tentpole show at the biggest venue. With a capacity of 1,200, the Wilbur has more seats than every venue from last year’s festival combined. It’s the first time the festival has hosted an improv event of this magnitude, a curious notion considering it was cofounded by two women with deep roots in improv, Michelle Barbera and Maria Ciampa.
Barbera came up through improv with a long-defunct Boston group called The Tribe, and says she’s excited to be able to give the form, and some of its more talented purveyors, a prominent platform with the Wilbur show. But she acknowledges that while comedy breeding grounds like the Upright Citizens Brigade and Chicago’s venerable Second City have helped to heighten the visibility of improv, stand-up is the genre people think of first in comedy. “Stand-up is king,” she says. “It’s been that way for the last, what, 50, 60 years?”
Each form gets to the laughs in different ways. Some performers may bend the rules, but in a strict sense, improv, says Barbera, is about creating in the moment. “It’s about sharing this thing that has never happened and will never happen again with the audience,” she says. In contrast, most stand-up comedians usually hone their acts in front of an audience, and even the most “in the moment” comics have often carefully crafted every word the audience hears. “Maria Bamford is a perfect example of that,” says Barbera. “It seems like she’s just telling stories, so conversational, but you know every word is totally planned out.”
Bamford appreciates improv, but usually sticks to stand-up. “I love improv and I wish there were enough hours in the day to take four-hour naps and join an improv troupe, foster-parent, and learn the cumbia, but I am only one comedian,” she jokes. “There are limitless limits I’ve set for myself. Improv is a beautiful art form, and I love to participate as a bumbling novice when asked.”
Dratch, on the other hand, has never performed stand-up. She doesn’t like its solitary nature. “That would be a truly frightening experience,” she says. “I like having other people up there with me.” She admits that improv in a big theater like the Wilbur also scares her. Improv is intimate, and the larger the venue, the greater the challenge to create that intimacy. “When you’re in a big, fancy theater, you sort of expect more high art than you receive in improv. Improv’s so fleeting,” Dratch says.
“The stuff you come up with in improv, it might not even be worthy of being seen again, but the fun of it is that you know it’s being made up right then and there. To me, that’s sort of the magic of it,” she says. “Any time you have a great night of improv and you try to tell someone, oh, we did this scene where this happened, it never sounds funny later.”
Dratch performed at the festival two years ago, and she says she likes the feeling of coming back to her hometown, and being able to step into a group of strange performers. “It appealed to me, being from Boston,” she says. “I played with people I hadn’t even met before. Everyone was really funny. It was fun to have a sort of slapdash group.”
Women are still a minority in comedy, and the festival’s overt mission is to put more funny women in the spotlight. But it has never been exclusionary. Barbera says it welcomes men (she has nicknamed them “manbassadors”), and this year’s fest features shows headlined by Sanz as well as guy comics with Boston roots, such as Myq Kaplan and MC Mr. Napkins. Barbera hopes someday the comedy landscape will have evened out enough that the festival’s brand can be its acronym, WICF, without stressing the “Women” in the name. “It’ll be 50-50, the industry will be 50-50, and there’ll be no need to specifically have a women’s comedy festival,” she says. “But we never wanted to exclude men from the conversation.”
The message has resonated. In five years, the festival has grown from 70 performers at one venue to 330 performers in nine venues, and 14 workshops with industry guests to help comedians of all stripes to navigate the industry. “I think having a very strong point of view helps the festival in the same way a strong point of view helps comedians,” says Barbera.
Dratch doesn’t see the festival as a cause. To her, it works because it’s funny. “I think this is a fun festival that happens to be female-centric,” she says. “But I don’t think there’s a need because we’re not getting our due when we’re in the man’s world. I don’t think that.”
Bamford also says she doesn’t view the event in political terms. She has found it to be warm and welcoming, well-organized and supportive of creativity. “I’m for festivals of any kind,” she says. “Creating things puts people in a better mood.”