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ImprovAcadia: 15 years of fun

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ImprovAcadia performs at their theater, located at 15 Cottage Street in Bar Harbor. ImprovAcadia performs at their theater, located at 15 Cottage Street in Bar Harbor. (photo courtesy ImprovAcadia)

BAR HARBOR - Improvisational comedy is one of the ultimate high-wire acts in the entertainment realm. Watching as a group of quick-thinking, quicker-witted actors strive to generate engaging performances on the fly can be both exhilarating and exhausting when improv is good, it can be very good, but when it’s bad? It’s BAD.

However, when it comes to the work being done by ImprovAcadia, a short-form improv theater just beginning its 15th season at 15 Cottage Street in Bar Harbor, you’ll never have to worry about the latter. This is a group that is inevitably powered by speed and smarts, bringing some of the best improv you’re likely to see anywhere right into our own backyard.

This 15th season kicked off last weekend for Shepard and Fingerhut after a winter spent expanding their offerings into the winter months thanks to a partnership with Penobscot Theatre Company. ImprovAcadia played host to a series of shows at 51 Main Street in downtown Bangor.

“We’re so excited for this new season,” Shepard said. “Especially after the winter shows. It really energized us and brought us back with fresh eyes. We’re really feeling hopeful.”

“We’re really excited about the cast,” added Fingerhut. “Both the returning and new cast members are really great. We’ve got a lot of musical talent joining us, some extraordinary improvisational singers. It’s going to be really fun to showcase them.”

The IA experience in Bangor has opened their eyes to some different possibilities for their MDI summer, according to Shepard.

“We might do some more longform stuff,” she said. “It has to be the right cast, but we’re definitely considering it. We do mostly shortform in the summer, but doing longform this winter reminded me of how much we love doing it. It really impacted our thinking regarding incorporating it.

“I was just so surprised by the reaction to longform this winter,” she continued. “I’m curious to see how it might work. We tried it 14 years ago and the audience was just not into it at all.”

“Really, 99 percent of the audience had just never seen it before,” added Fingerhut. “Longform is a little tougher to understand and engage with.”

Both Shepard and Fingerhut were quick to credit the burgeoning scene in the Bangor area for exposing audiences to different flavors of improv.

“It’s really been exciting to see the scene developing,” said Shepard. “The sense of community is remarkable.”

And now it’s all about the summer, bringing loads of laughter to their jam-packed schedule at their Bar Harbor theater. From now until mid-October, IA is on.

But how did it all begin?

ImprovAcadia: Origins

Shepard and Fingerhut founded ImprovAcadia back in 2004. In the years since, they have built it into one of the preeminent theaters of its kind in the country. With shows running from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October, ImprovAcadia features comedic talent drawn from not just the improv hotbed of Chicago, but from all over the country.

Their connection to the world of improv began long before their work with ImprovAcadia, though the pair arrived at improv by taking some very different paths. Shepard arrived via the stage.

“I come from a pretty strict theater background,” said Shepard. “I’ve been acting since I was 16 - semi-professionally - and I actually started out in avant-garde performance art theater.

“When I moved to Chicago I was planning to pursue theater,” she continued, “And then I was invited to my first long-form show at Improv Olympic and I was kind of like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ I trained in Chicago at IO, the Annoyance and then various classes. My 10 years there, I think for half of it I was in classes concurrent with some performing.”

Meanwhile, Fingerhut’s journey was more musical.

“I’ve been playing piano and making music my entire life, ever since I was a baby,” Fingerhut said. ‘I’ve always been an improviser and composer. There was a fork in the road when I finished my studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. I was going to be a very serious classical composer - which I still am - but I took that fork in the road professionally when I came up here to MDI in 1982, where I worked for a dinner theater, the Deckhouse.

“Then a bunch of theater people from the University of Iowa came to town to do the Unusual Cabaret and I became their composer,” he continued. “We wrote original musicals. I followed them to Chicago to do a project there, and that was where I fell in love with improv. I worked for Theater Sports as their music director, then at Second City as music director there, then at IO; I really loved playing piano for long-form.”

(Working with the University of Iowa group proved fortuitous in ways beyond improv as well, as it was through connections with those people that Jen and Larrance first met in the mid-1990s.)

Fast forward to the year 2000 - Fingerhut returned to MDI for a Deckhouse reunion and brought Shepard with him. Upon spending some time here, the duo noted the dearth of entertainment options in Bar Harbor and decided that they were just the people to do something about it.

“Ever since I worked for that avant-garde performance art theater, which was run by two women who were kind of like my mentors at the time, I always wanted my own theater,” Shepard said. “Then when I got involved in improv, I sort of let go of that, because in Chicago there are so many improv theaters that I couldn’t imagine wading in.”

But as for who actually pulled the trigger and first proposed the notion that would become ImprovAcadia? Well … it’s unclear.

“We don’t know who said it first,” she said. “We argue about who said it - a little.”

“We said it together,” he said.

“Yes, we said it together,” she said with a laugh. “In a true moment of synchronicity.”

“I had always wanted my own business,” she continued. “And we were at the point in Chicago where it was either make the leap from the day job and commit to trying to get into SC or get into a paid position at one of these other theaters but then it became a question of ‘Well, after that then what happens?’ ... or else open our own business.”

It might seem strange since the art form has become more widespread in recent years, but the truth is that Shepard and Fingerhut were among the first to move forward with this sort of model.

“Another part of this decision to come here, besides trying to bring something here,” said Fingerhut, “is that there aren’t a whole lot of professional outlets for improv. Second City is mostly sketch comedy. Most of the big theaters are schools first; they provide students the opportunity to perform. And that’s what it is.”

“We wanted to pay people to do improv,” added Shepard.

“We moved away from that [pay-to-play] model and tried to be a professional theater,” he continued. “We were one of the first, sort of at the vanguard of that whole movement. All of these established Chicago improvisers spreading out and starting their own theaters.”

“It was us and Improv Inferno [an improv theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan],” she said. “We opened the same year.”

Of course, there are plenty of pitfalls when trying to bring a new business to fruition. After four years of planning and saving and begging and borrowing, ImprovAcadia was set to take its inaugural bow in 2004. But no one ever said it was going to be easy.

“Our first night, we did two shows, with 25 people for each show,” she said.

“Which we were very happy about,” interjected Fingerhut.

“The next night, we cancelled the first show because no one showed up,” she said. “The first season was really touch and go; people just didn’t understand what it was. They just didn’t get it. The same thing when we told people when we distributed fliers: people would stare at us like we were aliens. We had one woman say, ‘I really respect you for doing something that is so obviously going to fail.’”

Continuing in a similar vein, Fingerhut added, “We had some realty agents who wouldn’t even show us spaces because they’d say, ‘I won’t be responsible for helping you fail.’”

“So we really had to fight back,” said Shepard. “And not to be corny, but ‘Yes, and’ [Yes, and’ being one of the core tenets of improv] I am going to angrily go ‘Yes, and’ to you until you come and see my theater. So the first season was tough, and then the second season it was better. It got much better in the second, and by the third we felt a bit more secure.

“[But that] first season was terrifying. Truly nail-biting.”

Lessons learned

The first year of any business is going to see its share of struggles. There’s a learning curve for any new endeavor; that curve is rendered all the steeper when you’re trying to do something in a place that has never really seen anything like it. Starting an improv theater is a unique proposition – one that offered some unique obstacles to overcome.

“We made mistakes in learning the business,” said Fingerhut. “We learned how to streamline - our first casts were bigger, because we had the model from Chicago that a team has eight or nine people on it. We found quickly that we could do a really strong show with three to five people, and so that certainly saved us.

“We had never started or run a business,” he continued. “There was a lot we didn’t know. But one thing we did right – a big thing – was that we presented from day one as a polished theater. We pulled together the pieces and managed to get them properly assembled. We might have been struggling behind the scenes, but audiences saw a polished product.”

“It’s like my mom told me,” Shepard said. “She said ‘You’re going to waste a LOT of money that first year. Don’t worry about it.’ What she meant was that we needed to know that it was going to be OK, so we should relax a little.

“Basically, it was just ‘Don’t be an idiot,’” she continued with a laugh. “And we had to own the fact that this was OUR business. It belongs to us and it’s up to us to make it our own. Our decisions are the ones that matter.”

“We had to learn how to handle being the boss,” added Fingerhut. He paused, then laughed.

“Oh – and use semi-gloss paint. Don’t use flat.”

Another thing that changed significantly as IA developed was the assemblage of the cast. That first year, the performers were drawn not from auditions, but the pair’s circle of friends and acquaintances, with some actors spending as many as three exhausting months helping to open the new theater - actors who were (and still are) hugely respected members of the improv community.

It was ultimately a bit too much. Starting in the second year, the cast selection process changed significantly. Contract lengths have been shortened; the two head out into the field every year to audition hopefuls for one of the highly coveted company slots.

“Three month stretches just weren’t the right model,” Fingerhut said. “When we moved to two, three, four-week contracts, the energy and excitement stayed higher.”

Of course, while there’s a constant rotation of cast members on the ImprovAcadia stage, there are two stalwarts. Shepard sees the rare day off, but Fingerhut - who serves as the musical director - is on from the beginning of the season to its end. And when you consider that at the height of the season, the theater offers a dozen shows a week, the numbers really add up – to the tune of some 230 shows in a season.

There’s a joyousness to improv that can’t really be found in any other art form - a sort of structured anarchy. The sparks of spontaneity are constantly flying; the laughs constructed with direct help from the audience. It’s an experience that defies definition, really you just have to see it for yourself.

ImprovAcadia has spent the last decade and a half entertaining the MDI masses. They have become a popular part of the MDI experience. They are smart and savvy and clever and cool. And they always - ALWAYS - leave ‘em laughing.

“Yes, and…” indeed.

(For more information about ImprovAcadia and a complete listing of upcoming performances, visit their website at You can also find them on Facebook. To make reservations, call 288-2503 or send an e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .)


An ImprovAcadia game primer

Here’s a brief look at some of the games ImprovAcadia might play should you take the trip to Bar Harbor and check out one of their shows. These aren’t exhaustive examinations, but rather synopses to give you an idea of what you can expect. Just know that they’re far more involved and far funnier than can be easily summarized.

Larrance’s Choice

This is a favorite game of the ImprovAcadia crew, one that they play just about every time out. The gist is simple: the actors will receive a suggestion from the audience and begin a scene. The scene will play out until musical director Larrance Fingerhut shouts ‘Freeze!’ From there, a song will be sung one in which the last line of dialogue spoken becomes the first line of the song. After the song, the scene will continue until the next ‘Freeze!’ And so on until the scene reaches completion.

Blind Lines

Another favorite, this game is constructed by way of audience suggestions. Some members of the cast leave the room; after they’ve gone, the remaining players solicit lines movie quotes, song lyrics, fortune cookie fortunes, you name it and write all of those lines on slips of paper. They then scatter those slips all over the floor. The actors who left return and are told to play out a scene, finding moments in which they will reach down, take a slip of paper and immediately incorporate that line into the dialogue. The scene continues until all of the lines are used.

Romance Novel

This one involves bringing an audience volunteer onstage; the only requirement is that the volunteer be in a relationship that has been ongoing for two years or more. The volunteer is then questioned about aspects of the relationship how long have they been together, where did they meet, a description of their first date, etc. Armed with those details, the cast then performs their rendition of the relationship.


Improvision is an ImprovAcadia-adjacent entity that takes place a number of times over the course of the summer. Once per month, IA partners with Bar Harbor’s Reel Pizza for a performance. A film is selected and the performers are responsible for generating the dialogue and other sound while it is screened. Yeah – an entire improvised movie. The first one is June 1; the last is Oct. 12. All performances are at 11 p.m.

There are more games, of course. ImprovAcadia might hit you with a shared monologue, an improvised instruction manual or even a bit of made-up Shakespeare. You might even see variations of games that graced the stage at 51 Main over the winter. Really, all you need to know is it’s all coming at you fast and furious and straight from the top of some very talented heads.


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