Festival of surprises2/18/2015
The walls of the Last Laugh, Persian blue, are decorated with empty picture frames, a light tan. The owner, Josh Chamberlain, quickly turned this into a joke.
“You can fill the frames in any way that works,” he said. “Just like improv.”
In fact, Chamberlain would like to see such spontaneous, interactive comedy everywhere. “That’s what this Festival is about,” he says. “Trying to get the word out and expand the community.”
This weekend the Last Laugh will host visitors from all over the Midwest, from Kansas City to Minneapolis, in what Chamberlain is calling the Des Moines Improv Festival — or, in keeping with the spirit of the thing, “the Big DIF.”
“We’ll have so much variety,” he says. “And then at midnight, we’ll go into an Improv Jam.”
Groups will offer whatever they’ve worked up at home. This runs from extended sketches to minute-long blackouts, from slapstick to bawdy songs. Meantime, they’ll face plenty of surprises. Improv, in fact, depends on those surprises — the suggestions from the audience. As ever, the crew handling music and lights needs to stay sharp, too. They’ve got to pick just the moment to go dark, or just which song to pull off the computer.
“It’ll be a multimedia experience,” says Chamberlain, “and a communal thing. And really, I’d love to make it an every-year occurrence.”
Swapping ideas with others in this brand of comedy goes hand in hand, after all, with Chamberlain’s larger goal. “It’s all about getting better,” he says, “The Festival allows us to see how these other groups stack up against Des Moines.”
Though if you ask him, the home team has nothing to worry about. “The scene here astonishes me. We’ve got people on a par with anyone in Chicago.”
By “Chicago,” of course, he means Second City, the most famous improv organization in the world. Their touring group wrapped up its Des Moines show just last week, and Chamberlain himself has appeared with various SC outfits. Some years ago, he was all over Chicago’s comedy scene, but he found his real calling behind the scenes.
“I started to work in training and in arranging events,” he explains. So when his wife lured him to Des Moines in 2010, he didn’t change careers. He went into business for himself and began developing local talent.
“I couldn’t believe the quality of people we found,” he says. “One of them is the head of the Des Moines Teachers’ Union.”
Then in 2012, with the closing of Billy Joe’s Picture Show, he found a venue. Now Last Laugh has a cast of 25, some of whom have joined together in specialized groups. One has a name in Spanish, “Trabajos de Manos.” Chamberlain cackles over the translation: “Handjobs.”
I doubt even Chicago can top that.
Overheard in the Lobby: Aaron Smith and Tiffany Johnson, from last year’s “Fences,” prove brilliant again in the “The Mountaintop,” about Martin Luther King’s last night alive, at Westminster Presbyterian in Beaverdale. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.