July 9, 2008

A History: Roving Imp

For awhile, there was a lot of talk about someone opening up an improv dedicated theater in town. In swooped John Robison, the owner of Roving Imp for over a year now. We asked him about Roving Imp's history and here is what he had to say.

"In most respects, the creation story of the Roving Imp is unspectacular and unimportant. Boiled down, the whole story is “I was tired of scrounging for space and being hassled by the man, so I bought a theater.” As with most things, however, if you dig down, there’s more just beneath the surface story.

I’ve written before about the community theater group I created just out of high school, the Better Than Fair Players. This group was together for eight years, performing all over Bonner Springs, Basehor, and Shawnee, in churches, schools, rec centers, and even outside. Toward the middle and end, we were doing five shows a year without an official permanent home. Each show was another negotiation for space. Each rehearsal represented another day of completely setting up the stage from scratch, rehearsing, and then completely breaking everything down and loading props back in cars and stowing sets in an out-of-the-way place. It was during this four-or-more-times weekly exercise in frustration that the seeds were planted. Yes, like 50% of all actors, I got the completely original idea, “We should have a theater of our own.”

Unlike most, however, I began to do some research, and I began to look for an appropriate space. After about a year of looking, I found a place I really liked. I put an offer on the building… and it fell through for various reasons which may or may not have to do with the fact that the seller had just emerged from prison. After another six weeks, I found another place. It wasn’t as ideal, but I thought I could probably make it work. I put in an offer, but the deal fell through, as it had problems with sewers… mainly the fact that it wasn’t connected to any.

At that point, my personal life sort of imploded for awhile, and to say that the theater search took a backseat would be a gross understatement. My main focus in life at that point was to try to save my marriage (which didn’t work, by the way). After that little disintegration occurred, I decided to expand my horizons by doing some shows in the big city of Kansas City for awhile. It had been eight years, after all, since I had done a show for someone else… I’d been directing my own shows since I was 19 years old, and I thought it might be a good idea to go learn from other directors.

I did a couple shows, and quickly found out that those other directors should really be learning from ME. The directors I worked with were great people, but did not live up to my own standards. I wanted specific feedback and a consistent, coherent vision for a show. This is not too much to ask, but I didn’t get it. (This is not uncommon, from what I have heard, unless you work with certain specific directors.)

Though this foray into “big city theater” was disappointing in certain ways, it really opened up my world in other ways. First, it got me known as a person that knew what he was doing. I quickly got hired to direct shows in town, and found that my directing skills transferred very well from the small town to the big(ger). Second, it introduced me to the world of improv.

I had done improv before. I had even taught improv before. However, I had never before been plugged in to the “world” of improv. I had always before been the one that had known the most about improv in the room (which was not much, FYI). But when Full Frontal Comedy took a chance on me (due completely, I think, to a funky made up dance I came up with in a show), I found a group of really talented, funny people that I didn’t teach and that I wasn’t responsible for. I learned a lot from that group, and made a lot of great friends that I have to this day.

At about the same time I found FFC, I also went back to school to get my master’s degree. The combination of FFC, a very special moment in an entrepreneurship class, and a pivotal conversation with my (new) wife’s sister resparked this idea in my head: I can open a theater now. Not only that: I MUST open a theater.

I quickly mapped out the pros, cons, and things I would need to do before it would be possible. The main thing I needed: a true pedigree from a respected place of improv. So I signed up for classes at i.o. in Chicago. i.o. has the style of improv that is most like the style I like best. Yes, Second City is better known, but has the philosophy that improv should be used as a tool, whereas i.o. founder Del Close always maintained that improv is an artform by itself.

Chicago was fantastic. It helped me in ways that I could never have imagined. I am now a completely different kind of improviser than before I went: a good one. I consider the majority of scenes I do now to be successful… because now I have the experience to recognize why things go awry. Maybe that’s a different post.

Anyway… now I had the experience, knowhow, and the credentials. Now for the hard part… making the theater happen.

To be continued…"

Stay tuned for next part soon to come.

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