Atlas Improv to Open Madison's First Improv Festival, 4/16

Madison's Best Comedy Group 2014, and the city's only improv troupe with a dedicated stage, will host a four-day improv and comedy festival next week.

Atlas Improv Co. will present the Endurance Improv Fest at its unique space on East Washington Avenue April 16-19.

After 11 years and more than 2,000 one-of-a-kind shows, the pleasure of improvising hasn't lost its allure. At the end of each show, there's still a positive feeling.

"I feel proud. Proud to know that I've done something that, as fleeting as it is, there's something that's connected to me, either implicitly or because I did it," Atlas Artistic Director Kristina Martinez said.

The Endurance kicks off on Thursday, April 16, with a sketch comedy show at 9:30 p.m. Friday will offer special shows at 8 and 10 p.m. with guest performers. The grand finale will start at 4 p.m. Saturday and end at 3 a.m. Sunday, April 19, after an 11-hour improv marathon. All the events are free and will take place at the company's custom-built theater at 609 E. Washington Ave.

The Endurance celebrates the art of improv and sketch comedy. Madison's first improv festival will coincide with the 11th anniversary since Atlas was founded in 2004. The Endurance builds off Atlas's successful 2014 improv marathon called PhatCamp. Marketing Manager Dan Deming-Henes said the Endurance gives a new name and expanded focus to the event.

"It stands for how long Atlas has been a part of the Madison community, the feat of improvising for 11 hours straight, and the enduring desire for good characters and storytelling," Deming-Henes said.

Improv is unscripted theatre that uses suggestions from the audience to create games and scenes. A variety of comedy and improvisational groups from around the Midwest are invited to take part in The Endurance, which will include multiple performances of sketch, short-form and long-form improv.

"We love improv and performing, whether we're doing it or others are," longtime Atlas member Jess Schuknecht said. "We're excited to have the chance to watch what our improv brethren can do."

Company Business Manager Ben Taylor said last year's PhatCamp recognized Atlas's decade as an artistic entity in Madison and the troupe's three years since it planted roots in the Willy Street neighborhood. It was also about building community.

"This year, The Endurance is going to focus more on growing that community," Taylor said. "We want to invite other improv companies from around the city and around the Midwest to come be a part of the celebration, and to know that our doors as Madison's improv theatre are open to collaboration and exploration."

Schuknecht, who has been performing improv for 19 years, said he's still in awe of what the company has accomplished since its humble, enterprising beginning.

"Any group that's been around for 11 years must be doing something right," Schuknecht said. "If you told me 11 years ago when Atlas formed that in 2015 we would have a beautiful theater, be teaching workshops every day there's not shows in the space, be a gold winner in local polls, I would have told you we were aiming for nothing less. Still, it's a reward from a journey that saw us rehearsing in the basement of a Planned Parenthood. It's a reward from doing shows in part of a coffee shop where we had to set up and tear down lights and sound equipment for every night of shows. It's a testament to all the work and devotion and love this company was formed on, and carries through to today."

Among Atlas's many new ventures in the past year are the creation of three guided indie teams, in which those who have excelled through classes are coached by Atlas players and perform as part of the company's shows. Atlas has a successful monthly series called Atlas Unplugged that instantly turns true stories from the audience into improvised sketch comedy. The company is also writing sketches and putting together shows of original written material.

"Atlas' significance has grown over the years from being a Saturday night source for TheatreSports to being Madison's home to regular longer formats commonly performed in Chicago or New York," Taylor said. "It has also grown exponentially as a center for artistic discovery and skill building in the community."

Atlas Improv Co. was named Madison's Best Comedy Group 2014 by Madison Magazine.

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