For the second year in a row, District Improv Festival will be taking place on two stages – Washington Improv Theater, and The Unified Scene Theater. The theaters are just over a mile away from each other, and provide two unique spaces for our upcoming guest to perform in.
We sat down with the powerhouses of The Unified Scene Theater (Kathy Baird Westfall and Shawn Westfall) to understand more about why they have a stage in the first place, what makes the best improv, and why DC is a unique improv community.
DIF: Why did you folks create The Unified Scene Theater?
Kathy – You go first, and I’ll go second.
Shawn – Long story short is, about four years ago, I had no idea that I was going to start a brick and mortar improv space.
I had left my job in advertising, where I was on track to become a creative director. I came back from Burning Man, saying that I need to do something else. I started an improv practice consultancy, and planned to build that for the following years. I sorta had a pie in the sky dream of a space. I was one of those people who had been on the scene for a while, and I thought that someone was going to pick up that weight, and I assumed that it was never going to happen in my lifetime.
We were walking past this space, on our way to a yoga class (we live about a block and a half away from TUS), and Kathy said that this place was for lease, maybe you should check it out. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the whole process. Finally, she convinced me to do it. The space wouldn’t exist except for Kathy. That’s the how of it, but it’s not really the why.
Kathy – The other piece of that is that it would not exist if it wasn’t for Burning Man. Burning Man has a series of principles, all meant to foster creativity in your life. And one of those is immediacy. It means that instead of sitting around thinking, “wouldn’t it be fun to take this class,” you take the class. You do it.
I am more impulsive than Shawn. We had been dating for two weeks before I took him to Burning Man. I thought, “You’re an improviser, you’ll probably like this.” What I didn’t know is that he is pretty logical and methodical in his life. He doesn’t take a lot of risks in life, despite him being a creative genius in the improv scene.
The WHY it started is because we need to give back to the community, and I think that the community needs this. I’ve only been in the scene for six years, and one of the things I noticed, being a new improviser, is that I wanted a home. A place for someone like me who is older and has a kid, and my schedule is jam packed — I wanted a place that was intimate enough for me to learn and grow and have performance opportunities.
We didn’t want to take from the scene, we wanted to add to it and grow it. We were cultivating this new crop of improvisers to go out and spread good in the world.
Shawn – To add and echo on what Kathy said, one of the things in our DNA is being more audience facing, when it comes to improv and performance. One of the things that I have grown impatient with is that we as improvisors continue to talk to audiences in this insular language, like “Harold” and “Armando,” and they don’t give a shit.
Our shows and our theater is a little more genre- and format-focused, on things that are already touchstones out in culture, which is why we have an improvised Shakespeare show, and an improvised musical — because people out there know what those things are.
The Unified Scene Theater has been running for two years now — what surprised you the most about owning and running and operating an improv theater?
Shawn – How FUCKING little we knew.
Kathy – We improvised the whole business.
Shawn –This lovely woman has an MBA from Georgetown.
Kathy – I don’t know shit.
Shawn – I have worked in various spaces including financial and tech, crafting communications for major players. We don’t know dick. We are improvising this, we are making it up as we go along, from moment to moment, day to day, week to week. I think that we have a good brand.
Kathy – That was important to us, with our backgrounds.
Shawn – And I think we have a distinct voice. But the day to day, we are making it up.
Kathy – I had only seen Shawn as a performer and teacher, but now you throw in the administrative part of this theater – it definitely takes away from the fun of improv. We have to clean the toilets and take out the trash. One time we came in and the place was flooded, right after a renovation. Shit happens, and you are not prepared for all of these things.
I think that where I’m not super surprised, but it is super delightful, we have a great little scene here, and it’s growing. We have people these people who come in, never having done improv, and two years later they are performing. And we raised them. These kinds of little things that are happening in terms of cultivating our community.
That’s the other thing. Running a business with someone and being married to them at the same time is tricky territory as well. You learn a lot. We make a good team, but we have to be clear on what our roles are. Both of us are used to be in charge of our own lives.
What do you think makes the DC improv community unique?
Shawn – What I love most about DC improvisers is that they are all fucking smart. Okay, most of them are smart. I’ve meet more intellectually sophisticated, intellectually curious – here – than in any other scene that I’ve been in. We are a bit more on the ball, a little more connected to the daily goings on (because we have to be). Every improviser is a geek about something. We are whip smart about improv.
Kathy – I’ve not lived anywhere else to experience it, but one of the things I have heard is how supportive the DC community is. Every place has its own purpose. When we need to we can come together and have a conversation about diversity and our community. I’m seeing this more now – when I entered six years ago I didn’t feel comfortable, and it was hard to understand how to insert myself. Now I’m seeing a lot more effort for new improvisers to connect on stage and get together and jam
What do you think is the secret sauce to good improv?
Kathy – I have an answer immediately. As someone who has delved into just about every activity, what I find with improv is that people who really do commit to it — not just performing and rehearsing and coaching, but GOING to shows — you see the difference. Not only is it respectful for you to go to shows, it’s a part of your growth.
Shawn – For me, the essence of improv is listening: not even in the way that people think that they listen, listening on steroids. Good improvisers are hyper present, and they have exceptional memories. The ability to remember comes from being an exceptional listener. When a scene goes awry, it’s because the improvisers aren’t listening and treating the offer as the gift it is. I lack a number of skills that I think are beneficial to improv, but listening isn’t one of them. I’m a pretty damn good listener.
That to me is the key to this. If I could reach into my students heads and just make them listeners, instead of talkers — BOOM.
It’s the 2nd year of partnership between District Improv and The Unified Scene Theater – what are you excited about for this year?
Shawn – Nothing. [said in a dramatic voice, followed by immediate laughter]
Kathy – I feel excited because I was invited to be on the selection committee, and that was exciting for me. That was the first time I had watched improv in that way. The talent that I saw was phenomenal. Going through all of that, the process of being a part of the community, voting, gathering together to share our take aways — that was all so organized. Looking at the troupes that are excited about DC was also exciting to me. We want DC to be looked at a favored place for improv.
Seeing troupes that were applying to be in the festival from Canada and New York and Boston and Seattle and Austin — it blew me away. It makes me feel like we are continuing to arrive, and be known and have presence on the nation’s stage.
Shawn – I am going to echo Kathy. I’m excited about the expanded opportunity to have a full run of shows for two days. If the level of fun and hilarity is anything like it was last year, it’s going to be phenomenal. Last year’s shows were emblematic of the kind of fearlessness that you see in improv.
In many ways, I think that where DC is now is analogous to where Chicago was in the 70s, and early 80s — I think we have an inferiority complex that is unfounded. We have this great festival now, we have a couple of great theaters, a bevy of talent, we have a damn good scene here.
A HUGE thank you to Shawn and Kathy Westfall for taking the time to share their story, and for sharing their stage!
Buy your tickets now for the 5th annual #DIFest (Sept 6th-10th) – HERE.
Sign up to volunteer – HERE.
Grow your improv craft – HERE.
Our Mission: Support and grow Washington, D.C.’s long-form improv scene and promote awareness of the District as a premier improv community.
The 2017 festival will be produced in alliance with Washington Improv Theater and The Unified Scene Theater, and will take place Sept. 6-10.