The Coachella Valley has an abundance of theater arts—but most of the valley’s groups and organizations focus on drama and musicals, and improv has always been underrepresented.
Enter the Coachella Valley Improv and Comedy Festival, a local event that celebrates laughs and the other sides of theater arts. This year’s festival is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 23 and 24, at the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City.
“It began in 2014, when I was the artistic coordinator for the Indio Performing Arts Center,” said Jeanette Knight, the director of the Coachella Valley Improv and Comedy Festival. “I have had a passion and love for improv for quite some time, and I just looked at that facility and thought, ‘This is just ideal for an improv festival.’ So we did the first one there, and it was amazing; it was just wonderful. Unfortunately, the board hired a new executive director who wasn’t supportive, and so at that point, the Hi-Desert Cultural Center heard about the festival, and reached out and told me that they would like to have it up there. So for three wonderful years, we were up at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center.”
It was Knight’s relationship with Ron Celona, the founding artistic director of CVRep, that led to the move to Cathedral City. She said she’s known Celona since she was the education program manager at the McCallum Theatre a while ago.
“When I saw him move into the new facility there, I said, ‘Ron, I would really love to have the festival here.’ He said, ‘Great,’ and so we scheduled it for May of 2020—and we all know what happened then,” Knight said. “The festival got canceled once, and this is the second rescheduling, and we’re on for Oct. 23 and 24. Everyone has to be fully vaccinated if they’re attending or performing, and we’re good to go.”
The festival, during which the audiences vote for their favorite acts, is the product of a tremendous amount of work by Knight and her team.
“The submissions began November of 2019, and with the required postponements because of the mandates and COVID and all, we just kept extending the submission deadline, so we’ve received more submissions than ever before,” said Knight. “People from all over the country submit to be a part of the daytime showcase performance on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday is improv and sketch groups, and Sunday is standup comics. We got 232 submissions—that’s more than we’ve ever gotten before.
“I have a volunteer selection committee of industry professionals who view these submitted videos and give them a score, and then the top-scoring acts are invited to come and perform in the theater on those days. It was way, way more competitive this year. We have a total of seven groups performing on Saturday, and nine standup comics on Sunday. It’s really going to be the cream of the crop. Some really, really talented people will be performing in those daytime slots, as well as the evening.”
The festival also features both workshops and performances by previous festival winners and industry professionals.
“The winners of the last festival are headlining Saturday night, and they’re an improv duo called redDoor,” Knight said. “They are also teaching an improv workshop Saturday morning. Also on Saturday morning is a workshop by the winner of the standup category last festival, Jason Stuart, who’s a hilarious standup comic, and is also performing Sunday night. He’s teaching a workshop Saturday morning called ‘The Business of Show Business’ where he’ll work individually with everyone in the workshop and give them advice and feedback on their pictures, resumes, bios and social media.
“On Sunday morning, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., we have a workshop taught by Mary Gallagher, and it’s called ‘Getting on Late Night TV with Mary Gallagher.’ She was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2018, and she’s going to share what helped her really get serious about booking a Late Night set. She had taken a bit of a hiatus from stand up while raising her daughter, and she had this as a goal—and went after it. She describes it as ‘sharing tips for connecting emotionally with material and standing up for yourself.’”
Another stand-out on the bill is “friend-of-the-festival” Tom Dreesen, who will appear on Saturday night with a show called “Still Standing.”
“He is in his 80s, and he’s celebrating 50 years in show business,” Knight said. “He is a standup comic who used to open for Frank Sinatra for 13 years. What he’ll be doing is really just telling stories from his life, about how he rose from being a shoeshine boy on the South Side of Chicago to being Frank Sinatra’s opening act. That’s going to be a fun and inspiring evening.”
When she’s not organizing the festival, Knight is an educator at the Idyllwild Arts Academy.
“I love not only improv, but theater in general, and I think the reasons I love these things … are the same reasons I love educating, and it’s that human connection—really connecting with other humans on an authentic level,” Knight said. “I think that’s what makes it a festival more than just having a bunch of performances. I think having opportunities for people to get in and have hands-on experience, and try it out for themselves if they’ve never done it, really makes it a festival rather than just a bunch of shows.”
Knight said she’s intent on making the Coachella Valley Improv and Comedy Festival accessible.
“We’ve tried to keep the tickets really affordable, because I’ve always called improv ‘theater for the people,’” said Knight. “We wanted to keep the tickets affordable so that anyone can attend who has an interest in this. The tickets are starting at just $20, and those are for the showcases that happen on Saturday and Sunday. Those are going to be really fun. If people are on a budget, and they can’t afford much, just get a ticket to one of those, because you’re going to be seeing the best up-and-coming talent from across the nation for $20. If you can afford it, buy the whole festival pass, because it’s all good. It’s all going to be a can’t-miss situation, in my opinion.”
While the much-delayed festival required a lot from Knight and her team, she said she’s looking forward to an immense payoff.
“It’s a lot of work leading up to it, but it is a labor of love,” Knight said. “It’s normally three days, but we cut it down to two days because of COVID, and we’re trying to save on the budget and make it more concise. When it happens, and when everybody’s gathered, because the people that tend to go into these fields tend to be nice people, it’s a couple of days of heaven. It’s really like living in a utopia. It’s how life should be all the time.”
The Coachella Valley Improv and Comedy Festival will take place Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 23 and 24, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets start at $20 for individual shows and workshops; a full festival pass is $120; audience members must have proof of full vaccination. For tickets or more information, visit cvrep.org.