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100-plus improv performers return to Tampa Bay this week for festival

The Countdown Improv Festival is back Aug. 10-13 for its largest event ever.
Bryan Fernando performs at a past Countdown Improv Festival, which returns to Ybor City Aug. 11-13.
Bryan Fernando performs at a past Countdown Improv Festival, which returns to Ybor City Aug. 11-13. [ DAN DEMING-HENES | Courtesy of Countdown Improv Festival ]
Published Aug. 9

Things are about to get a lot funnier in Tampa Bay when the Countdown Improv Festival returns Aug. 10-13.

Now in its sixth year, the festival is larger than ever. Featuring 127 individual performers and 67 separate improv groups from 18 different states, Washington, D.C., Canada and the United Kingdom, this year’s festival also marks the debut of the Countdown Improv Festival Ensemble, composed of eight individual improvisers from across the United States.

The festival kicks off Aug. 10 at The Mar St. Pete (2309 Central Ave.) with shows that will be streamed online to Twitch. The rest of the festival happens at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Performing Arts Building (1411 E 11th Ave.).

The festival’s founders, Justin Peters and Kelly Buttermore, both live in New York City. They started performing together as comedy partners years ago, but in 2014, decided to take their act — called From Justin to Kelly — on the road and created the popup space Countdown Theater.

Kelly Buttermore and Justin Peters are the founders of the Countdown Improv Festival, which returns to the Tampa Bay area Aug. 11-13.
Kelly Buttermore and Justin Peters are the founders of the Countdown Improv Festival, which returns to the Tampa Bay area Aug. 11-13. [ NATHAN PARKER | Courtesy of Countdown Improv Festival ]

“The only thing better than playing to nobody in your home city is playing to nobody all around the world,” Peters quipped.

The idea was to create a festival and take it to various cities each year, but they soon realized how difficult that would be. They were familiar with Tampa, having performed at the now-defunct Tampa Bay Improv Festival in 2015 and 2016. A local contact hooked them up with Keith Arsenault, HCC Ybor’s theater coordinator, and they decided the performing arts building would be the ideal venue.

They debuted Countdown Improv Festival here in 2017. It received a good response, so they decided to keep it here and grow it. The 2022 festival will be the largest one so far.

This year, they have rented out all of the performance spaces at HCC. But with that comes pressure to fill all the seats. Peters said that improv often gets a bad rap because people have one lame experience and tend to write it off.

“I think part of the issue that the art form has in terms of getting more widespread renown (is) no one goes to a concert, and if the concert is bad, walks away saying, ‘Well, I guess I just don’t like music,’” he said. “But if you go to an improv show, and it’s not great, you’ll walk away saying, well, improv isn’t for me. And it’s like, well, no, you just saw a bad one.”

As a community, improv performers are tight-knit. Peters and Buttermore know performers from across America because of their travels. And now, they have many people approaching them about participating.

“We try to strike a good balance of the types of shows that we program and sort of diversity of performers whom we serve as well,” Peters said. “This has in a way become the home for local performers that love this and want to do it and can at least count on there being one weekend every year where they’re going to get a professional experience.”

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There are many local performers on the lineup, as well as things like a solo improvised telenovela and improvised musicals. Long-form improv icon Joe Bill is attending, and there will be workshops in addition to performances.

“It’s going to be fun ... and even if it’s not, it’s air conditioned and it’s August, you can sit inside and there’s parking right nearby,” Peters said. “And maybe you find something that you didn’t even know you liked, and maybe it’ll change your life.”

If you go

Countdown Improv Festival. For nightly passes ($35-$40), more information and the schedule, visit countdownimprovfestival.com.

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