The second annual event is part of the city's growing improv scene
Imagine you booked more than 30 comedy teams from all over the U.S. to participate in a multi-day festival. You secured the venue and took off for a trip to Belgium a week before the show. And then you returned to find an orange eviction sticker on the door of your performance space.
That's what happened to Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto last year, as they prepared to host the inaugural Nestival Comedy Arts Festival. “The building was lost because of some poor management on behalf of our landlord,” DeFrancisco said. “It was terrifying.”
Luckily, they were able to find another building — a gutted office space with brick walls and copious amounts of dust and exposed electrical cords — and frantically constructed a pop-up theater. “We couldn't believe we got it done,” DeFrancisco said. “We were like a real punk rock band there for a second, just popping into spaces and making them work.”
This year has proven more stable for DeFrancisco and Rizzutto, professional improvisers who married in 2016. The festival, which started on Wednesday, April 4, and runs through Saturday, April 7, is taking place in the duo's own facility: the Nest Theatre in Franklinton.
“The last one was really well-sold and packed … but now we have a cool place that's actually going to hold people,” DeFrancisco said. “So now it's not as much of a speakeasy.”
Like last year, DeFrancisco and Rizzutto are expecting about 30 teams from 15 cities. While Wednesday night featured shows by local talent, the remainder of the festival will highlight out-of-town performers. There will be a variety of formats, including sketch and long- and short-form improv.
DeFrancisco and Rizzutto will perform their popular two-person improvised musical play, “HERE: The Musical,” on Saturday, April 7. Workshops will also be offered.
“It's been a great sampler platter of what improvisation looks like,” DeFrancisco said. “Columbus is still really warming up and getting excited about improv. It's been here for a while, but it's been in these smaller spots [with] shows once a month.”
That has changed since DeFrancisco and Rizzutto officially opened the Nest, a dedicated training center and performance space for improvisation, last fall.
The longstanding building formerly housed a movie theater (the projection windows are still intact), a Mexican restaurant and a sports bar.
“Someone said that it was run by the mob at some point, so we're hoping to find a stash of cash in the walls,” Rizzutto said.
Today the theater hosts 14 shows, including “HERE: The Musical” and the Columbus arm of the worldwide ComedySportz league of short form improvised comedy. The venue also houses a four-level professional improvisation school, which has served approximately 200 students to date.
“Everyone benefits from improvisational training,” DeFrancisco said. “A lot of the tenets of it are the same things you see in a kindergarten classroom where it's like, ‘Share and play nicely and listen and invest in someone.'”
“It's been really fun,” DeFrancisco added, reflecting on the Nest. “We luckily have been touring for a long time prior … so we saw a lot of improv theaters on the road and tried to splice the best of what we saw together.”
Both she and Rizzutto trained and performed in Chicago before moving to Columbus, where DeFrancisco grew up. They've taken “HERE: The Musical” to 60 cities and 20 countries and will visit Thailand following the Nestival.
“A lot of people that we've met in different cities are now starting to recognize [Columbus] as a place you might train or perform,” DeFrancisco said.
That's good news for residents, who no longer have to pick up and move to Chicago, long seen as the best place to study improvisation.
“We're getting a lot of people who want to improve … but they're getting their doctorate in radiology [at OSU],” Rizzutto said.
“If I was a lawyer in Columbus, I don't know that I could just pick up my life and go train,” DeFrancisco said. “And now they don't have to.”