On-the-spot comedy

Orlando Improv Festival
Sunday-Tuesday, Sept. 19-21 at
Winter Park Playhouse
711 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park
$5-$7 per show

$5-$7 per show

"Mark Baratelli is a mess." At least, that's what he tells me as we sit down for an interview about the Orlando Improv Festival, which he organized. Baratelli has already had a full morning documenting the doings at IDignity, an outreach program that provides the homeless with identification cards so they can apply for government services. It's only been a couple hours since volunteer workers processed nearly 100 participants who showed up at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, but by late afternoon Baratelli will have already edited the video he shot of the event and posted it to his website (www.thedailycity.com).

It's just another day in the life of one of Orlando's most active arts advocates. Based on the diversity of topics on his website, Baratelli's interests might appear impossibly broad, but this week, it all comes back to his first love: improvisational comedy. Last year, Baratelli decided to combine his love of improv and his notion that he "needed a challenge." The result is the Orlando Improv Festival, and Baratelli's overarching aim is to raise Orlando's profile on the national improv scene.

"I know cities of this size support improv festivals every year," he says, citing his experiences in San Francisco, Chicago and Charleston. "We have a lot of improv talent locally," he adds. Baratelli explains that the event he's put together is an opportunity to experience styles of improvisation that we don't often see here. He and his helpers (Denna Eramo, Chris Dinger and Shannon Lauzier) recruited performance troupes from across the country, and applicants were selected based on their YouTube video submissions. The 13 groups that made the cut will perform in 12 shows held on Monday and Tuesday at Winter Park Playhouse; Sunday is reserved for workshops.

Baratelli deliberately sidestepped holding the festival on a weekend for two reasons: to avoid the competition and to make the activities more accessible to local actors who typically work on Saturday and Sunday. Future events may not follow the same format, depending on how it works out. Performances will begin every hour, and considering the reasonable ticket prices ($5-$7 per show) and a lounge with full bar and comfy couches, Baratelli's hope is that guests will hang out, enjoy some cocktails and take in multiple performances. Tickets are sold on a cash-only basis at the door, and Baratelli recommends arriving at least a half-hour before show time. The schedule is posted on the http://orlandoimprovfestival.com website.

The festival is an opportunity to see notable national acts, along with top-quality locals. There are a couple of out-of-town participants that Baratelli is particularly looking forward to bringing to Orlando. "I saw ImprovBoston at the Del Close Marathon held by the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre `in New York City` and they are fantastic. They do intelligent humor, have high energy and are very good performers and actors. I think they are going to be a highlight of our festival," Baratelli says. He's also eager to see the duo of Kaci Beeler and Roy Janik — aka Some Like It Improvised — an offshoot of Parallelogramophono-graph, an active troupe in Austin, Texas.

"They came highly recommended to me," Baratelli says. "They are part of a larger group that's heavily involved in the improv world, and I am eager to pick their brains about … what their role is in developing and participating in a city's improv scene and how we can bring that to Orlando."

Several acts from Atlanta are in the lineup, and the one known as the Arm comprises Taylor Peterson and Andy Coen, who describe their team as "two very poor college kids who would rather perform comedy then eat food." The duo explains their offering as "a one-act play with drama, romance and possibly hilarious murder." Closer to home, Sarasota's Lazy Fairy Improv only has to explain its name to get a grin — "We tried ‘Laissez Faire' but that was too hard to spell." The seven-member Fairy squad asks an audience member to pick a business out of the phone book and crafts a play around it. Marketing specialists they are not, nor do they pick out the companies in advance, but the group does report, "Studies show the sales skyrocket after our shows."

From the local front, the Cast Aways, a group that's risen from the ashes of Pleasure Island's Comedy Warehouse, will perform Island Time, and Jester Theatre reprises its 2010 Fringe hit and weekly SAK Comedy Lab show, Is This Seat Taken? featuring the duo of David Charles and Jay Hopkins. (Hopkins produced the first SAK Fool Fest Comedy and Improv Festival in 2001, which has been dormant for seven years but is coming back Nov. 3-7 under the auspices of the Orlando Film Festival.)

Two years ago, Baratelli was primarily a working actor — the mention of which prompts mock weeping — most notably playing Herod in the national touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar. His first encounter with improv came as a student in Florida State University's musical theater program. After dropping out of school, he found himself contracted at the dismal Anacomical Players sketch comedy show in Epcot's now-defunct Wonders of Life pavilion. "I heard Wayne Brady got hired for it, saw it and quit immediately," he quips. Later he auditioned for SAK Comedy Lab, where he studied under artistic director James Newport, and he also took a couple of classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. In 2006, he debuted his Improv Cabaret at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival and has since bounced around in a variety of creative endeavors.

As his popular website proves, Baratelli is no stranger to risk-taking. Perhaps in a few years the Orlando Improv Festival will grow into a destination event — or perhaps not. That's what improv is all about — throwing yourself out there, seeing what sticks and moving forward.

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