Juggling Balls, Wrangling Cats, and a sense of Belonging. Tony Rielage on the Dramatic Improv Festival in Chicago

I first heard of the Dramatic Improv Festival in Chicago when Tony Rielage, the artistic director of Theatre Momentum, invited me and Alex to perform Between Us there. I mean, who doesn’t want to go to Chicago to explore dramatic improv?! So here’s Tony to tell us all about the festival.


Where? Pendulum Space and Laugh Out Loud Theater in the North Center neighbourhood of Chicago.

When? 11th September – 13th September.   

Shows? 30-40 performances across three nights, including The 5 Hour Project, which will develop, rehearse, and perform two brand new improv shows on Saturday.

Workshops? Last year workshops on intimacy, physics in improv, emotion and vulnerability, and Meisner technique were stand-outs.

Jams? A mixer on Friday night for all performers and teachers. An open jam on Saturday at midnight. Plus an after-party every night at Laugh Out Loud and Goldie’s Pub.


Rachel: It’s fairly unusual to focus solely on dramatic improv. What do you hope to achieve with your festival?

 Tony: We’re a niche market, for sure. That’s actually part of what started this all off. Back in 2018, I started a group on Facebook- Dramatic Improv Worldwide, and it took off. We have over 600 members so far. That clued us in that there is a desire for this sort of work, that there are other actors and improvisors who want to explore dramatic work. So, this festival is all about connecting with those sorts of people. Connecting different theatres, connecting students with instructors who can teach them a unique perspective, and connecting artists with novel approaches to improvisation.

 The Dramatic Improv Festival is really dedicated to bringing the best of dramatic and narrative improvisation into one location. It’s a nice long weekend of cross-pollination, education, and performance. It’s a fairly unique event, I’d say. This is an entire festival dedicated the art of improvisation as seen through the lens of drama. Our first year was a ton of work, but a ton of fun, so here we are again!

 Rachel: Congratulations! What kinds of workshops and performances are you looking to book this year?

 Tony: We had wonderful workshops in our first year, and we hope to continue that tradition this year. I’m planning to teach “Improv as Writing”. I actually teach an entire eight-class level of it at our training center, so this will be a highly-abbreviated version of that. We have a couple great high-profile improv teachers penciled in right now- Michael Gellman (Second City, Toronto) and Jimmy Carrane (Art of Slow Comedy, Chicago) are on deck. We’ll post about everyone else when all the teachers are finalized.

 As for shows, if last year is any indication (and we’ve already invited back some groups who we loved), the performances will run the gamut. We had several intimate two-person shows,  improvised genre plays, improvised Shakespeare, and a narrative piece that interweaves three one acts on the same stage at the same time – that’s one of Theatre Momentum’s shows! As far as I’m concerned, the main focus is, as always, honesty, vulnerability, and bravery. These are the tenets that we feel make dramatic improv really work and that’s what we look for in performances we invite to the festival.

 Rachel: What’s the best thing about your festival?

 Tony: The people, without a doubt. From the first day of the festival to the last goodbye, it was terrific to meet so many people who do the kind of work we do. For sure, it’s an emotional rollercoaster to put on a festival, but meeting so many wonderful people and getting their insights into dramatic improv from their own parts of the world, that’s what makes it worth doing. Frankly, it’s uplifting to see that there are so many different groups in the world doing their own style of dramatic improv, even if they don’t always call it that. Working in the improv (comedy) mecca of the world, it’s nice to see we’re not the only dramatic ones out here!

 Rachel: How do you manage the boring admin and organisation stuff?

 Tony: It’s like wrangling cats, which I’m sure any festival director will tell you. But I’ve got a dedicated team that really makes things work. It’s about a dozen people, supplemented by volunteer staff and interns, and they handle the prep work and day-to-day of keeping the festival going. There’s a lot of spreadsheets, more meetings than I can count, and my Managing Director, Allison Asher, who helps keep everyone organized and in line. Having that many helping hands makes it look smooth on the outside, even if it’s chaotic inside. Last year, we heard so many people telling us how smooth the festival was going, and every so often, the production team members would just meet in the office and silently scream about the latest fire we had to put out. We’ve learned a lot, so this year should be smooth on the inside as well as the outside! 

 Rachel: What’s challenging about running an improv festival?

 Tony: There’s so many balls to juggle, but when you run a venue, classes, and shows like we do, you’re used to some parts of it. Still, advertising is, as always, the biggest ball. It’s great to get a ton of performers invested, to get students coming out for shows and classes, but the real big thing is getting the local community involved. We’re stepping up our efforts this year even more than last year, so we can avoid some pitfalls from last year.

 Beyond that is just the complex scheduling of every moment of the festival and trying like crazy to not overload any single person with too much work.

 That doesn’t count for me, though. I don’t get overloaded. Never, not me, no way, no how. I worked as Production Manager for the Chicago Improv Festival (2006) and have stage managed/tech directed a ton of shows, so a lot of the putting-out-fires stuff is second nature. That just means I scream on the inside, on my own time. I think the rest of the production team has learned to do that, too, so I make it my job to help them internally scream a little less.

 Rachel: So how are you tackling the advertising challenge this year?

 Tony: Interviews like this one! We also have a mailing list, social media, the League of Chicago Theatres, a number of social groups we’re involved in, and the usual carpeting the city with posters and postcards. We’re pitching shows to the local media, and advertising on public transit, in other local festivals, and cross-promoting with other theaters. A ton of it is word of mouth, really. People who visited the festival last year are already out there talking up the experience, so we hope we’ll see more of them and their friends this year. 

 Rachel: What do you get out of running an improv festival?

 Tony: A sense of belonging. Dramatic improv is a unique style, and while it’s truly rewarding to perform, sometimes you wonder if anyone else is doing the same sort of thing. When we invited all these other groups here and saw that, hey, they’re also doing this kind of work, it’s kinda good for the spirit, you know? When we saw how many groups and teachers came out last year, we were surprised at how many styles touched on what we do every day. We’re not alone in the world, and that’s awesome to see.

 Rachel: What can improvisers get at your improv festival that they can’t get anywhere else?

 Tony: Well, I don’t want to disparage other festivals, but… There are other festivals that do narrative work, definitely. There are other festivals that welcome dramatic improv. But we are the only festival that focuses entirely on a dramatic style. The depth, humanity, honesty, and vulnerability that come with dramatic improv is something you can only find here. At other festivals, it’s a part. Here it’s part and parcel. We want to see every facet of theatre represented, not just raw comedy – not that there’s anything wrong with that! The styles we have seen have opened our eyes to so many possibilities we didn’t know before, and they have done the same for our festival-goers.

 We hope that improvisors will take a chance and step away from the tradition of “improv (that is only) comedy”. Try something unique. We’ll be waiting. See you in September!


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