Making It Up as They Go Along

After a Long Hiatus, the Sarasota Improv Festival Returns

The return of the 13th annual festival is good news also for the many improv performers who descend on Sarasota for the weekend.

By Kay Kipling July 10, 2023 Published in the July-August 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Will Naameh, who performs as MC Hammersmith

Will Naameh, who performs as MC Hammersmith

Fans of improv, here’s some good news: For the first time since 2019, way back before the Covid-19 pandemic, Florida Studio Theatre is hosting its popular Sarasota Improv Festival from July 20 to 22.

The return of the festival (the 13th annual) is good news also for the many improv performers who descend on Sarasota for the weekend. Some managed to continue doing improv during the pandemic, albeit online or in other creative ways. But there’s nothing like making on-the-spot comedy for a live audience.

One of the festival’s returning performers, Kaci Beeler, has been making the trip to Sarasota from her home base in Austin, Texas, since 2010. While she was able to continue doing voiceovers for commercials, along with some other paid gigs during Covid, she’s happy to be able to take the stage once more in person here, where she’s worked with longtime festival troupes Available Cupholders and Parallelogramophonograph.

“I’ve been very wowed by the hospitality in Sarasota,” Beeler says. “I’ve done a lot of festivals, in 80 cities, and Sarasota is way up there. They take good care of us, and we don’t have to promote ourselves. They make it easy to focus on performing.”

While Beeler started out thinking she would stick to serious acting, improv quickly took over her professional career. “You cast yourself, you direct yourself, you write your own rules,” she says of the art form. “Nobody’s great at it when they start, but once you find what it’s like to be ‘in the zone,’ it’s pretty addictive. In other types of acting, you need to be very polished, but with improv, it’s an imperfect place to be, a playground. I need that space in my life.”

For Edinburgh-based festival headliner MC Hammersmith (real name: Will Naameh), this will be his first Sarasota improv experience—in fact, his first improv festival in the United States. But, thanks to the collaborative world of improv, he’s heard great things about the Sarasota event from friends North Coast and Baby Wants Candy, who have participated in the festival before.

Hammersmith’s website cheekily proclaims him to be “the world’s leading gangsta rapper to ever emerge from the ghetto of middle-class west London.” He says his love affair with improv started thanks to a “very keen high school drama teacher who taught us improv as a Thursday lunchtime club—extremely rare for a school in the U.K., where, at the time, there was almost zero improv culture.” Over the years since, he’s developed his own brand of improv—solo improvised freestyle rap comedy.

“I’ve always loved hip hop,” he says, “and one of the first improv teams I joined did improvised musicals. It seemed natural to combine the two.” He admits it took a lot of practice (“rhyming, flowing, punchline setups”) to get to a state where he “could continually freestyle rap without stopping.” He takes suggestions from the audience and turns them into completely improvised comedy raps. “It requires constant practice to stay good at it,” he says.

Unlike some in the biz, Hammersmith is a full-time improviser, who, during the pandemic, taught improv classes online and did drive-in gigs during which comedians “stood on top of a truck and did comedy into hundreds of parked cars via Bluetooth.” He says he enjoyed teaching, but adds, “I will never scream at traffic again.” Hammersmith also writes scripted hip hop comedy and has a few viral videos out there, which he jokes have gained him a “following of anonymous 12-year-olds who ritually bully me in the comments on TikTok.”

Kaci Beeler (third from right) in the improv show The Kindness of Strangers.

Another international presence this year will be the Canadian 2-Man No-Show duo of Ken Hall and Isaac Kessler. (Past festivals have drawn talent from Mexico, France and Spain.) And returning for the festival this year are several fan favorites: the aforementioned Available Cupholders and Parallelogramophonograph, as well as Big Bang Improv, Dad’s Garage, North Coast Improv, SAK Comedy Lab and, of course, Florida Studio Theatre’s own team, FST Improv. Making their debuts: From Justin to Kelly, Here: The (Improvised) Musical and Ripley.

The festival always closes with the finale All Play, which sees all of the performers squeezing themselves onto the Gompertz stage for a completely unscripted 60 minutes of fun. As Beeler promises, “It’s going to be a blast.”

Single tickets for individual performances and festival passes for one, two or three nights are available. If you’d like to get in on the act, workshops will also be held Saturday, July 22, for students of all experience levels. For more info, call (941) 366-9000 or visit

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