A fifth anniversary might not be the grandest of milestones, but it's nothing to laugh at — except in this case.
"It's the largest number of performances we've ever had," said Michael Harris, artistic and executive director of the Baltimore Improv Group, which produces the festival. "We've got eight shows and 24 troupes from D.C. to Boston, plus a strong showing of local improv groups."
For the Improv Group, which has been around since 2004, the annual festival represents a major undertaking.
"It's definitely an accomplishment to reach the fifth anniversary," Harris said. "And it says a lot about our wonderful performers, directors, students, volunteers, families and friends — the whole thing."
It says something, too, about the public.
"Baltimore audiences are very supportive," Harris said. "I think there is an audience for improv, an appetite for comedy that has been growing in Baltimore."
That appetite led to a long-running engagement by the famed Second City improv troupe from Chicago last season at Center Stage, performing a Baltimore-centered show that sold so strongly that it is coming back to that venue next month.
"Second City who?" Harris deadpanned. "Of course their success here was all because of us."
The Baltimore Improv Group got to jam with the Second City guys during that Baltimore run and may do so again during the reprise. Meanwhile, all the focus is on this weekend's festival. Planners expect to build on last year's turnout, which totaled about 600 people over three nights.
"At a typical improv festival, a third or even half of the audience will be other improv performers waiting for their turn to perform," Harris said. "That's not how it is here. Baltimore audiences come out in large numbers."
The age range of those audiences is fairly wide, too.
"Typically, people who come out for improv are in their early 20s to 40s," Harris said. "You don't tend to get a group of 18-year-olds who decide, 'Hey, forget "Transformers," let's go to improv.' But we do get people here in their 60s and 70s, so that's a little different."
The fest opens Thursday with what Harris describes as "a mash-up of dance, improv and body painting" called Skinesthesia, just the sort of off-the-wall activity you might expect at an improv fest. Or maybe not.
The concept of dancing and painted bodies doesn't necessarily leap instantly to mind in context with an improv festival — "I wouldn't say it's sweeping the country," Harris said — but the novelty is just one of the things that gives the Baltimore festival its character.
If you miss Skinesthesia, not to worry — there will be a workshop in collaborative dance and improv this weekend, right after one on Body Painting 101.
"If you ever wanted to draw on someone else's bare body, this is your chance," Harris said.
On Friday night, audiences will get a substantial dose of local talent, including Plan B, billed as "one of the longest-running Baltimore Improv Group troupes and the only one named after birth control."
The late show Friday night will be more for mature audiences. "It's not staggeringly vulgar, but it's more sexual-oriented," Harris said. "There's no limitation on language."
Acts include Hot and Modest, a female duo from Harrisburg, Pa. "They'll interview someone in the audience about their first sexual experience," Harris said. "They don't act it out, necessarily, but that's the stepping-off point."
Sexual issues may well rise up Saturday night, too, when the festival offers what Harris dubs the "marriage show" — a husband-and-wife duo; another duo of performers who are married, but not to each other; and a third man-and-woman team that addresses relationship issues from the perspective of alternate universes.
Saturday's list also includes New York's Nobody's Token, a hit at last year's fest.
"This is an all-African American group, which is not common in improv," Harris said. "Improv is definitely more of a lily-white art form. Their setup is to take a stereotypical African-American sitcom and improvise an episode, complete with commercials."
Rounding out the festival on Sunday is a lineup of acts that will be at least a little closer to general audience fare.
"I'm not saying it's family-friendly; that's probably going too far," Harris said. "But it will have a softer, gentler element."
Harris gets his own moment in the spotlight Sunday with fellow Baltimore improv-er Prescott Gaylord in a duo they call Evan the Loyal.
"Prescott was a gymnast and he usually climbs on me," Harris said. "I am spectacularly fat, so I make a good base for him to climb on. We usually bring people up on the stage and put them in scenes, too."
For a closer, there's Adrift, a Philadelphia troupe that uses as a setup a high school reunion at sea. After a shipwreck, the survivors are stuck in a life raft for days.
Saturday and Sunday will also see several workshops, covering various genres and techniques of improv (as well as the body painting).
"One of things that makes Baltimore special is that there's a lot of people who just want to try improv," Harris said. "In New York, you get people who envision becoming the next John Belushi, minus the drug habit. Here, we mostly get people who want to meet people, or blow off steam after work, or just have fun. They have day jobs, then they come on stage at night, and they're hilarious."
If you go
Baltimore Improv Festival shows are at 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10-$15. Workshops are held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; registration is $30 each. Call 410-276-1651 or go to baltimoreImprovfestival.org or creativealliance.org.