DSI Comedy Theater runs on the maxim "Yes, and?" This algorithm keeps improv moving, as players build on each other's scenarios.
It also keeps DSI's NC Comedy Arts Festival, now in its 15th year, in a steady state of growth. Through small, perseverant steps, what began as a "college improv keg party," as founder Zach Ward puts it, has become a national model for comedy festivals, drawing big names such as Maria Bamford (see story on this page) and Emo Philips.
"When I did the first one, I didn't dream we'd do a second one," Ward says. "It's sort of surreal, but after 15 years, it's kind of just what you do."
Formerly known as the Dirty South Improv Festival, the festival gave birth to DSI's school and theater space. In DSIF's second year, a college student asked Ward how he could learn to do what he'd just seen on stage.
"I told him we'd be teaching classes in March, which I'd had no intention of doing," Ward says. That snap decision paid off. "Now we have a comedy school that's taught almost 4,000 students since 2002, and a great number of them have gone on to L.A. or New York or Chicago. Their bios say that they're from UCB or iO, but really, they trained at DSI, and they're getting their contacts to play on their home stages."
DSI occupied ice-cream shops, bookstores and music venues until 2006, when it finally got its own space, an 84-seat loading dock on the back of Carr Mill Mall—which it swiftly outgrew. "With the 2010 festival, the visitors bureau said we'd increased the population of Carrboro by four percent," Ward says. "Hula hoop sales must have been through the roof."
After moving into a three-story theater in downtown Chapel Hill last year, DSI can serve as a mainstage on equal footing with partners such as Local 506, The ArtsCenter and the Cat's Cradle Back Room. This seems overdue for a festival that has, by some accounts, launched so many others.
"Festivals up and down the East Coast are essentially inspired by the format and structure of our festival," Ward says. "When we started, there were maybe three or four improv fests in the country, and now there are like 50. North Carolina became the standard."
Other comedy presenters agree. Justin Lukasewicz, producer of the Tucson Improv Movement, was a performer and teacher at DSI Comedy Theater before moving to Arizona. "Improv wasn't happening the way I wanted [in Tucson], so I started working to bring the DSI atmosphere here," he says. "Zach has been influential in helping to develop our comedy theater, and in two years, the Tucson Improv Movement went from a small performing and teaching group to a theater and school with a 30-person company."
Harrison Brookie started attending NCCAF 10 years ago with his college improv company, and then performed and taught at DSI while living in the Triangle for a few years. Upon returning to Greenville, South Carolina, he founded Alchemy Comedy Theater and the New South Comedy Festival on DSI's model of a performance company with a theater organizing a festival.
"There are amazing things going on in comedy in the Southeast, and it's safe to say that DSI and NCCAF deserve a lot of credit," Brookie says. "They've been the hub for college and professional improv in the Southeast. The style and structure of my organizations are direct descendants of them."
As the festival celebrates its 15th anniversary—with plenty of good shows left through Feb. 15; see Eric Tullis' story about a comedy beatboxer and Craig D. Lindsey's picks on page 19—its institutional status looks solid. But you can count on Ward to keep building it, year by year, with one simple question: "Yes, and?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Yes, and?"