Thumbs Upstate debuts improv festival

The Syracuse improv group hosted a weekend of spontaneous scenes and laughter Saturday, bringing in groups from Rochester, Buffalo and Albany.

Two men who'd known each other for just a few hours jumped on stage and into the scene. One grabbed the other and pushed him around, pretending that he was an “emotional crayon.” He began sketching his feelings across the stage.

“That’s what it’s all about. Get everyone to meet each other, perform together, and open people’s minds a little bit,” said Joe Blum, co-director of the Thumbs Upstate improv festival.

Photo: Alexandra Spychalsky

This weekend marked the debut of the festival. Improv troupes from Syracuse, Binghamton, Rochester, and more came not only to perform, but also to learn from each other and help grow the upstate improv community.

The festival is the brainchild of two Syracuse-based improvisers, Joe Blum and Ken Keech. Blum and Keech performed improv in large cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, before moving to Syracuse. When they arrived here, they realized the upstate improv scene was fledgling at best.

Blum searched the Internet for troupes, while Keech took a break from the scene, unable to find a group that he could identify with. Keech eventually found his calling, leading an improv club at Fayetteville-Manlius high school, where he was a teacher. They saw the improv scenes in Syracuse, and other upstate cities, growing, but they were still looking for something more.

“You learn by watching other people do it,” said Blum, “but in Syracuse there are only one or two other groups.”

They decided to host a festival to bring improv groups across the state together to build a

community and share their improv knowledge. Blum pitched the idea for the festival at Salt City DISHES, an initiative to help improve Syracuse through artistic endeavors. The Northside Urban Partnership, an urban revitalization collaborative, loved the idea. They suggested the use of the St. Clare Theater for their venue. Thus the Thumbs Upstate improv festival was born.

Friday and Saturday nights the 13 participating improv groups gave individual performances.

Blum and Keech also held workshops throughout the day on Saturday, which gave performers the opportunity to work with new people; a skill Blum says is important to have.

“Everyone comes with their own style, and their own unique approach,” said Blum. The

workshop is for “seeing what else is out there,” he said.

The workshops ranged from short form to long form inprov, to an introduction for people with no improv experience eat all.  Short form is what most people are familiar with. It is the kind of improv done on the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? Performers play games that serve as the catalyst for their jokes. Long form is seen as more artistic, like an “improvised play.”

“In short form, what’s funny about the scene is already set up. In long form, you discover what’s funny about the scene,” said Keech.


Most improvisers have their preferred style, but all are open to watching and supporting fellow improvisers. 

“I know that they’re going to appreciate it a lot more,” said Kayleen Wilkinson, an improv performer. “Some people don’t have a taste for it, because it’s hard to follow sometimes.”

That support is also important within the troupes. Wilkinson, of the Syracuse-based improv group Satan’s Closet, explained that even if you don’t know where the scene is headed, you have to trust that it will come together.

“You never want to deny someone. If they create something you want to let them keep living it,” said Wilkinson. “You trust that they know what they’re creating and wait for everyone to get on the same page.

Blum and Keech hope that the Thumbs Upstate improv festival brings teams together, gets new people involved, and spreads awareness in the community.

Said Keech, “It creates stuff that you don’t just laugh at, but you cheer for."

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