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Hartford Improv Festival Brings Back The Ha-Has For Fifth Year

Five years of steady growth and better organization. How funny is that?

When Hartford comedy group Sea Tea Improv started the Hartford Improv Festival in 2014, the event featured more than two dozen improv comedy teams performing. This year there are more than 50.

This year’s festival has many more events, spread out over three venues, for a wider range of audiences, than in previous years. The special headlining attraction — the hip-hop-styled New York City-based troupe North Coast — performs Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. at Spotlight Theatres on Front Street. The closing Sunday of the festival is much busier than before, with an all-ages family show at 4 p.m. and a short-form show at 8 p.m. as well as the three group shows, all at Sea Tea Comedy Theater, 15 Asylum St.

Most of the festival performances last under an hour and feature three separate teams. There are three of those performances on Thursday and another three on Sunday at Sea Tea Comedy Theater. There are also three on Friday and eight on Saturday at the Spotlight Cinemas space.

The festival also offers two comedy “jams” (also known as “mixers”), at which any of the performers can jump in and take part, regardless of the groups they’re in. These happen Friday at 11 p.m. and Saturday at noon at Spotlight.

Laura Manasewich, the associate artistic director of Sea Tea Comedy Theater says the festival “gives us the opportunity to see what other people are doing.”

“You pick up friends from all over the country, and Canada. Everyone’s in really good spirits. The festival energy is different from a regular weekend [at the Comedy Theater]. Everybody is there for the same thing.”

Manasewich herself will be performing in two of the Hartford teams and running the Friday night jam. She says that the special headlining attraction North Coast performs “at a lot of festivals. They’re smart, fun and high energy. We wanted to bring in a special guest that’s important to improv today.” North Coast improvises original hip-hop songs and musicals (featuring their own resident beatboxer) based on audience suggestions.

An improv comedy team can consist of as few as two people or as many as a dozen. Most have five or six members. Here’s a list of all the groups performing, because it’s fun to read all those funny names in a row.

From Hartford: Albatross, Brain’s Song, Breakup Tattoo, Cloud 9, Dinosaur Police, Golden Ratio, Grantch, Harry Potter and the Brilliant Suggestion, History of the Future, Houseboat, Knucklepuck, Lady Business, Meg(h)an, Off the Lawn, Part Time Lifeguards, Robot Love, Romantic Baby, The Rumour Cauldron, Sea Tea Improv Touring Company, SHED and Winnipeg.

From elsewhere in Connecticut: BOOP!, The Buddy System, Chompin’ at the Bit, Dangerfield, Fairfield of Dreams, Horse Lincoln, and Parachute.

From Massachusetts: Boston’s Unscripted Musical Project, Cuddle Party, Elderberry Jam, Milk Money, Naffy Improv, The Quarry, Raving Jaynes and Rushmore.

From New York City: Carroll & Harris, Ghost Man on 3rd, Horse Girl, Keisha & Andrew, My Privacy, North Coast and RoboPop.

From Canada: After This We’re Going to Tokyo, Flux in a Box and Mess Hall.

From Wakefield, Rhode Island: Bait & Switch and Up in the Attic.

From Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Stranger Than Fiction.

From Burlington, Vermont: The Unmentionables.

From Newark, New Jersey: Improv Technicians.

From Baltimore, Maryland: Local Spot.

From Austin, Texas: Nacho Forte.

Besides the performances, the Hartford Improv Festival holds numerous workshops for anyone interesting in honing their improv skills. The workshops will be at the Sea Tea Improv Studios, 75 Pratt St.: “Shortcut to Shakespeare” 10 a.m. April 7 with Tara McDonough; “Intro to Hip Hop Improv” 11 a.m. April 7 with the North Coast troupe; “Agree, Establish, Now… Play!” with Brian Hines and Brian Quagan 4 p.m. April 7; “Commit the Sh*t Out of It” with Claire Zick at noon on April 8; “Diversity & Representation in Improv” with Benjamin Kuss also at noon on April 8; and “Kid-Prov” for comic prodigies aged 7 to 12, led by Jess Halpin at 12:30 p.m. on April 8.

Julia Pistell, Sea Tea Comedy Theater’s managing director and a co-founder of the Sea Tea company, says that “the mixers [the Friday and Saturday jams] are always awesome. In a mixer, a big pile of comedians from all over the country jump onstage together and play out scenes without ever having even met each other.”

“Hartford Improvisers are world-class, and often add some Hartford flavor to boot,” Pistell says. “One of my favorite sets ever was local favorites Brain's Song doing a scene in the trenches of WWI trying to sell each other life insurance — bringing in all the expertise of the Connecticut insurance industry. It was both really silly and deeply realistic.

“We are consistently told that our community is one of the kindest, most inclusive, yet high-quality improv theaters in the country. We have teams return year after year after year to soak in the Sea Tea sincerity — or maybe just hunker down in Spotlight eating chicken fingers and popcorn while watching improvised rap.”

THE HARTFORD IMPROV FESTIVAL runs April 5 to 8 at several locations in downtown Hartford. Tickets to individual performances are $10. Day passes are $20 for Thursday, $30 for Friday, $70 for Saturday and $30 for Sunday. A four-day pass good for all shows is $135. More information and the full schedule at hartfordimprov.com/.

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