Local and visiting theater troupes to converge at Phoenix Improv Festival

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Local improv troupe Mail Order Bride is one of 13 groups scheduled to perform at this weekend's Phoenix Improv Festival, expected to be the biggest in the event's history. (Photo courtesy of Mail Order Bride)

The Phoenix Improv Festival will showcase some of the biggest acts in the country this weekend at the Herberger Theater.

Acts including Mail Order Bride, Phoenix’s very own all-female group, and Los Subtitulos, the only bilingual improv troupe in the Valley, will get together to entertain and educate the crowd.

Improvisational theater comes in two different varieties: short form, a faster-moving, often random series of sketches, such as those seen on TV’s “Whose Line is it Anyway”; and long form, which focuses on telling an entire coherent story and can last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes.

The festival is a celebration of long-form improvisation, so each of the 13 troupes that were invited to participate will have to come up with an original story on the spot.

“We basically don’t plan anything,” said Jacque Arend, a member of Mail Order Bride. “We just rely on the chemistry we’ve developed over time.”

According to Arend, the best way to prepare for a show is to hang out and have fun with the people you’ll be performing with.

“We once sang all the verses of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen before a performance,” Arend said. “It actually helped to loosen up.”

Bri de Ruiz, another member, compares the creation of long-form improv to a science.

“Whatever your brain is primed to before you go on stage can come out in an instant,” she said. “It’s like basic psychology.”

Ruiz said the secret to Mail Order Bride’s success in the last six years is the close friendship they’ve formed.

“We know each other so well offstage that we learn to take little signals from each other all the time.”

Los Subtitulos is an all-male group with a unique theme in all of their work: All their performances are bilingual.

Arturo Ruiz, a founding member of the group, was born in Sonora, Mexico, where he met teammate and fellow co-founder Ernesto Moncada. After making their way to Phoenix, they met Xchel Hernandez, and formed the three-man crew that became Los Subtitulos.

Their work deals primarily with the meeting of two cultures. Ruiz says they enjoy exploring a lot of the stereotypes associated with being Mexican in Arizona. He likes to think of their work as a cross between a telenovela (Latin American soap opera) and a documentary.

All performances include the use of the members’ two languages interchangeably, Ruiz said.

“At any moment, one person with be speaking English and another Spanish, and then we switch,” He said. “At the same time, we watch out for our audience and make sure our stuff is understandable.”

Ruiz compares it to characters from “Star Wars” that speak different languages.

“It’s kind of like you always know what R2-D2 is saying because of the reactions you get from C-3PO.”

Much like the members of Mail Order Bride, Ruiz and his co-performers rely mostly on the element of surprise. This includes heavy participation from the audience, which can be quite random.

Los Subtitulos’ work is mostly comedy, but at times, it contains social issues and messages about what it’s like being a Mexican American.

“At first we were a lot more politically and socially inclined,” Ruiz said. “It was hard not to be, with things like immigration issues and Arizona’s sheriff.”

At this year’s festival, Ruiz said they’ll be focusing less on the controversy and more on the similarities between two cultures, along with the humor that comes from it.

Normally, the Improv Festival focuses on the local workshops here in Arizona, but for its 11th anniversary, the show will take a different direction.

This year’s festival will feature a crossing of the Phoenix improvisational troupes with some of the up-and-coming talent from across the nation.

Because this is expected to be the biggest weekend in the festival’s history, with 13 improv troupes scheduled to perform, organizers decided to split the event into two parts. Tonight’s performances will include Mail Order Bride and Los Subtitulos, along with six other local groups. On Saturday, five groups from five different states will converge to show Phoenix how it’s done in places like Texas and Chicago.

Tickets are $15 for each of the two evenings. Tonight’s performances start at 7 p.m., and Saturday’s will begin at 7:30. Both are expected to last 2-3 hours, with brief intermissions.

Contact the reporter at  gwfranci@asu.edu