Guinness, community and Druids. Neil Curran on Improv Fest Ireland and Improv Utopia Ireland.

I had the best time at Improv Fest Ireland last year, so I couldn’t wait to interview its founder and director, Neil Curran. But whaddya know! He’s also assistant director of Improv Utopia Ireland, the Irish wing of the improv retreats founded by Nick Armstrong in the USA in 2011.

Improv Fest Ireland Factfile:

Where? The Teachers’ Club in the heart of Dublin.

When? 11th-14th November 2020

Workshops? 10-12

Performances? Four to six a night.

Improv Utopia Factfile:

Where? Newgrange, Ireland, which is over 5000 years old. Improv with the Druids!

When? 24th-27th April 2020.

Workshops? Campers take four workshops with four teachers

Performances? Teacher shows and jams giving campers the chance to play with performers from all over the world.

Rachel: Tell us about Improv Fest Ireland and why you created it.

Neil: Improv Fest Ireland takes our love for improv and blends with Irish culture to give participants more than just a festival but an experience! My objectives were two-fold: firstly to give the Irish community a chance to experience the international talent and second to put Ireland, in even a small way, on the improv map of the world.

Rachel: What kind of performances do you book?

Neil: Everything and anything! We are open to all sort of ideas and formats. Programming a festival involves ensuring that there is variety in the schedule with a blend of old favourites and something new. In the past we have seen everything from narrative, to musicals, to short form.

Rachel: And what about the workshops?

Neil: With festivals, variety and diversity is the spice of life. If someone has an interesting pitch for a workshop and it compliments the theme of the festival, then we are open to submissions. In the past we have had everything from BDSM-inspired impro workshops to animal-inspired workshops to workshops that result in performances.

Rachel: What’s the best thing about  Improv Fest Ireland?

Neil: Aside from the improv, the festival venue allows for a great place to hang out, drink some Guinness and all of the great sights of Dublin are within walking distance. For visiting improvisers you really get to experience the “Céad mile fáilte” (100,000 welcomes) that the Irish people prides itself on.

Rachel: And what about Improv Utopia?

Neil: Improv Utopia strives to bring the best improv and team-building training experience in a comfortable and relaxed setting. Community and camaraderie in nature! As a non-profit, profits are reinvested in the improv world through scholarships, festival and theatre support and improv-related endeavors.

We feature some of the top instructors in the industry. It’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself with improv regardless of your experience level. Hanging out with like-minded people, workshops, performances, social activities and networking all under the one roof. It’s improv sleepover camp for adults! 

Rachel: What’s the best thing about Improv Utopia?

Neil: Hands down, Improv Utopia is one of the most amazing community retreats you will experience in Improv. The large mix of participants brings a rich mix of experience and backgrounds which really adds to the culture of Improv Utopia. Variety and diversity are important.

It’s a unique experience taking place in a location older than Stonehenge and older than the pyramids. (In the immortal words of Spinal Tap, “Just who were the Druids and what were they doing there?”). The immersive experience is truly wonderful and as someone who was a participant at the events in the USA before the inception of the Irish Improv Utopia, some of my closest friends emerged from Improv Utopia!

Rachel: Most festival organisers just run one event! How do you manage the boring admin and organisation stuff?

Neil: For both events, there is a team of people working hard behind the scenes to make the magic happen. While a festival runs for a few days, it’s a non-stop process in preparing and organising everything. Everyone involved has a deep love for both improv and creating community.

Rachel: What’s challenging about running improv festivals?

Neil: So many challenges. Funding, support, getting volunteers, egos and everything in between. Ensuring you surround yourself with good people is key to surviving the rough stuff. There are times that the challenges suck the life force out of you so it’s also important as organisers to look after yourself. In Ireland we also have the challenge of having to seek the respect and credibility that improv deserves. In the early years, improv was viewed as the bastard cousin of stand-up comedy, resigned to bars. Comedy isn’t a funded art form in Ireland so it requires out-of-the-box thinking and a hell of a lot of initiative to make things happen while keeping motivated.

Rachel: What kind of advertising do you find works?

Neil: Let’s be honest, unless you have the budget, Facebook and social media is your only friend. In previous years we were lucky enough to manage to get advertising on buses in Dublin for the festival. But aside from that, posters and flyers around the city are very effective.

Rachel: What do you get out of running these events?

Neil: Grey hair! Ah no, despite the challenges and the effort, I am very passionate about improv and the development of community. Improv is my master and I seek to serve her as best I can. Hearing festival participants talk about the fun they had, connections made, friendships formed and feeling inspired by what they experienced is really what it all comes down to. Knowing that even in a small way we are contributing toward the growth of the art.

Rachel: Finally, tell us why we should come to Ireland to do improv.

Neil: Decent Guinness. Seriously, don’t knock it! Guinness doesn’t travel well and in Dublin it’s brewed down the road! Aside from that, visitors often talk about the warmth and welcome of visiting Ireland. The people are friendly and there is a natural lean toward inclusiveness. For even solo improvisers visiting, it not long before they feel like they are part of the furniture!

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