Bill Binder - Improviser & Co-Founder of the National Improv Network
April 16, 2015
The Improviser and Co-Founder of the National Improv Network and the Phoenix Improv festival dreams big and shares his experiences with us just in time for the Phoenix Improv Festival - April 16-18th.
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. It’s a city I still love. Having a music teacher for a father and an art teacher for a mother, I spent a lot of time being exposed to arts and entertainment, even if I was far more fluent in math and science in those years.
I participated in band and in the excellent drama department as well as dipping my toes in radio broadcast in high school, because that’s what high school is all about, learning who you are, right?
I went to the Upper Peninsula to study Computer Science, and I loved it. But that’s where I really started to discover the enjoyment I got from performance, just raw amateur public performances of music and theatre.
It was in 1995 when I stumbled across improv for the first time and found it to be a brilliant puzzle to start exploring with my mind.
It wasn’t short form or long form as we know them now. It was more primordial stuff not too far removed from Viola Spolin or Paul Sills.
I spent about half a decade really taking it in and eventually hit a point where my growth kind of plateaued there.
We’re so blessed at how much the improv world embraces growth now, but it was kind of in a complacent place in the late nineties, or maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right places.
All I knew was that my personal growth as a performer at that point kind of needed to go to a place where improv wasn’t defined and set in stone yet.
I moved to Phoenix and found a lot of amazing people who were excited about building an improv community from the ground up.
Founding the Torch Theater
The Phoenix Improv Festival started in 2002 as a chance for the improv groups in town to meet each other and play together and learn from each other.
By 2007, there was a great growth of new performers and groups. Each of those groups was doing well individually, but we decided if we really wanted our community to be exposed to improv as an art form, we needed to come together and be a unified voice within the city.
We decided very early on that a big part of our mission was just sharing what we love, so we built our model around being involved in our community and showing that improv plays a part in our community.
Now there are several improv theatres in town and each one has a different take on improv and comedy and art, but all of those theatres believe in that idea that we aren’t competition for each other; our competition is ignorance of what improv can be, so it’s great to be in a city where theatres spread out over many miles work together.
When did you know you wanted to be involved with improv?
I didn’t seek out improv in 1995. It sort of found me.
My friend Jon suggested I come to meet the director of his improv troupe and she invited me to join. So, I guess you could say I was interested as soon as I started.
It was very freeing and enjoyable. But I don’t think I immediately knew how profoundly it would change me.
It was a few years later, when I was becoming curious about long form and Chuck Charbeneau recommended going to catch a show at ImprovOlympic.
It was Harold Night, and the first couple of teams were so different than anything I’d encountered and I was fascinated by it.
The closing act was Baby Wants Candy, and by the end of the night I knew I would spend the rest of my life pursuing improv.
I think we all make the jokes about “someone at work asked me to perform part of my set” or “my uncle always tells me I can use this in my skits.” We joke, but the truth is, it’s not your co-worker’s or uncle’s fault.
I think for the last 30 years we’ve complained that the public doesn’t know what improv is, or defines it narrowly by a TV show. But we haven’t done anything to change that perception.
I think if we want to be taken seriously as artists, we need to act accordingly. In Phoenix, the improv community has been involved with the arts and been part of our community.
We do what we can to support and promote other art in town, not just improv.
Our theatre is small, but we put a lot of money down to perform our festival at the most beautiful theatre in the state (personal opinion) and I think ten years later, more and more, I live in a town where improv is getting to be known and celebrated as part of the culture.
National Improv Network
To kind of piggyback on that last question, I’ve loved going to festivals for over a decade. And they’re always fun. But I also got very sad after a few years seeing so many young festivals making the same mistakes and learning the same lessons.
And so many of those festivals had a huge opportunity to really make an impact on their city, and they didn’t because it was so isolated.
We have such a young art form and we’re taking baby steps into the world and it just made sense to me that if theatres in a city can work together, so can cities across the country and world.
So, I reached out to a lot of festival organizers and theatre owners and travelling performers I trusted and asked if we could start building conversations and learning from each other.
The big thing we stepped away from those conversations was that we wanted every American to know what excellent improv is and want to see it, and we wanted every performer to have the opportunity to be treated as a professional artist.
So, I worked with Nick and Kate to build a website that I hope can keep those conversations going and hopefully make it easier for the next generation of performers to be able to do this all the time.
Top 5 Moments in Entertainment
Wow. OK, in no particular order
a. In 2002–2004 I drove out from Phoenix to L.A. to go through the training program at iO West. I was blessed to go at a time when I could learn from Paul Vallaincourt, Bob Dassie, Miles Stroth, and Craig Cackowski, and work with some students who are still my great friends. People often say driving out each week was crazy, but it gave me a great six hour buffer before and after each class to really let the lessons resonate.
b. When teaching teens in 2005, I urged them to spend the month of October breaking routines and perceptions by spending time with people in school they normally wouldn’t, learning about a different view on life. I felt this would help them expand their breadth of character work. In exchange, they urged me to spend a month non-ironically living by the philosophy of ninjas (real ninjas, not movie ninjas).
It was a strange request, but one I took seriously. I learned to be more in the moment, both on and off stage. I learned how to listen more deeply; how to focus more intently and how to be more aware of my presence. I recommend learning a little ninja philosophy for all improvisers.
c. The Lifetime Original Movie entry into this list would be the time in the ‘90s when we performed for a group of autistic children who seemed to enjoy the show. One student came up and told us that he really enjoyed the show and thanked us for coming.
We later learned that was the first time he had spoken out loud in four years. Wow!
d. Last year, Galapagos (my troupe) was scheduled to perform at the Alaska State Improv Festival. Through a series of adventures, I ended up being the only one in Juneau on the night of our performance. I’m very thankful that Eric, the producer, had enough trust to let me do a very slow, very emotionally intense solo show about parents dealing with their loneliness and obsolescence on the day their daughter left home.
It’s nice to showcase improv as something that never pursues a laugh.
e. My parents have always been very supportive of all the choices I’ve made in my life. That said, I’m certain they didn’t always understand those choices. When I walked away from a career in computer science to start improv in the desert, it was probably a surprise. Add to that, that the improv was just starting and wasn’t terribly good. But I was lucky enough to do a show with Joe Bill in 2006 that my parents came to see and my mother found me afterwards and said that for the first time she “got” it. That’s a good day right there.
What are your responsibilities as the producer of the Phoenix Improv Festival?
Oh, nothing exotic. Just making sure that as our festival grows and has more people bringing their own unique gifts and genius to the table, and that we’re all going the same direction to build something we can all be proud of.
Details about the Phoenix Improv Festival
It’s this weekend- April 16th-18th. Tickets and info are available at phoeniximprovfestival.com. It may be a bit late for some folks to book a flight. That said…
Additional Information about the Phoenix Improv Festival
We try to make our festival less of an event purely focused on the performances. If there’s a chance for performers and coaches and theatre owners and teachers to all be in the same place, why not take advantage of that?
We have talks and panels and an unconference each year so people from anywhere or any level of experience can come and get something out of it, even if they don’t perform. We hope to extend that in 2016 as well.
So, by all means submit to perform, but I hope folks consider joining us just to grow as a performer.
Too many to count. Sue Stephens, Chuck Charbeneau, Naomi Blakeslee, and everyone who inspired me in Michigan. Bob Dassie, Craig Cackowski, Miles Stroth, Joe Bill, Jill Bernard and every other teacher who has challenged me to not be complacent.
Jose Gonzalez, Mack Duncan & the other founders of The Torch who have more actively pushed me day to day for the last ten years in my own performances. Nick Armstrong and Kate Anderson who helped me build NIN.
There are so many people I’m grateful to.
2015 is The Year of The Teacher on National Improv Network, so we’re gearing up to launch tools to help build a better dialog between teachers and theatres to help make the process of spreading improv knowledge easier.
It’s a very exciting and daunting project.
Where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
In a theatre near you I hope. I’m travelling as much as I can and I love nothing more than visiting venues and learning how they play and learn.
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