“Improvisation is a large part of practically everything we do, and everything we create,” says Tom Hall, the artistic director of Brandeis’ first Improv Festival. So what exactly is improv, and what is its importance to Brandeis? How did improv get its start on campus, and how has it changed over the years? What is the Brandeis Improv Festival? Hall takes us behind the scenes of the development of the Improv Festival and the history of improv at Brandeis.
According to Hall, Brandeis has always embraced improv. “Improvisation is a big part of Brandeis history, beginning with Leonard Bernstein, who was a great advocate of jazz and improvisation,” Hall said.
Over the years, Brandeis’ improv community has grown and expanded its presence on campus. “It has changed over the years in the same way that improvisation has changed in society as a whole” said Hall. “More and more people are consciously aware of it when they are working, playing, learning and creating. When the Brandeis Improv Collective first started in 1997, there were five jazz saxophonists in the group. Now it numbers 24 students.”
Seeing as improv has such a big presence on campus, it’s natural that it has become so important to the Brandeis community. “Improvisation is important to Brandeis because it is an important part of being human … in today’s world improvisation is becoming increasingly important, as we are being asked to process, react to and create with larger and larger amounts of constantly changing information that is coming to us faster and faster. Being able to improvise effectively is one of the most important skills of our era,” said Hall.
Hall brought up an important point about improvisation that many people don’t pick up: It is something that we make use of on a daily basis. Improv is prevalent in daily life, whether we are aware of it or not. From being cold-called in class to having an unexpected conversation, we are often put on the spot to respond to a situation. However, we never think of it that way because it’s so natural to us. I personally think that improv is important to Brandeis because it furthers the sense of community on campus; it brings us together.
This is the first year that the festival will take place. Hall’s vision for the Brandeis Improv Festival is a three-day event with all kinds of different events. “What connects them all is that the people involved are masters at what they do, passionately involved in creating, and open to the spontaneous possibilities of every moment,” he explained. It is surprising that an event like this hasn’t been hosted on campus before.
Hall first proposed the idea of an improv show in 2013. He said he had originally discussed the idea with Yu-Hui Chang, the music department chair and Mark Kagan, the senior academic administrator. He had just finished a yearlong video series about spontaneous creativity called ImprovLive 365, and was excited about presenting what he had learned from that project in a festival format. Chang mentioned the idea to Deborah Rosenstein, the concert program manager, who helped prepare a funding proposal. The proposal was then sent to the Brandeis Arts Council in the spring of 2014, who, according to Hall, “were excited about the idea and agreed to fund it for the following year.”
The Brandeis Improv Festival makes its campus debut on March 27. “I would love to see this become an annual Brandeis event, involving more and more students and more and more departments at the University,” stated Hall.