A Brief History of WIT
Since 1986, Washington Improv Theater has adapted and evolved in myriad ways. What has not changed is WIT’s passion for sharing the creative collaboration of improv with DC, through performing and teaching. This timeline is a mere sketch of the rich and intricate story of WIT. Some dates are approximate.
Founding 1986 -1997
WIT is founded under the direction of Carole Douglis. The company performs shortform and longform improv around Washington, including a well-attended and well-received improvised Shakespeare performance. Other players include DC playwright Renee Calarco. In 1992 the original WIT company disbands.
In 1995 Douglis, a natural born teacher, starts offering classes at SALSA (the Institute for Policy Studies) and a monthly improv workshop for the Dark Night Play Readers, a community outreach program sponsored by the Universalist National Memorial Church at 16th and S, NW. Associate Pastor Vanessa Southern is instrumental in making this happen. In 1996 Douglis begins conducting weekly training workshops in her home for students she has selected from her other classes, exploring the ideas of Keith Johnstone, Viola Spolin, and Augusto Boal. Mark Chalfant is among this group.
After a year of workshops, Douglis’ students present their first performance, in the basement of the UNMC. The show is game-based shortform improv. The excitement of performing and the response of the audience converts even the most reluctant students into players. The performing company is reborn as a consensus-based collective. Tyler Korba, Kate Wing, Justin Warner, Debra Shifrin, Yvonne Doerre, Erica Mott, Beth Beisel are among these players.
Re-Founding 1998 – 2000
Douglis leaves the group to work overseas, handing over the reins to the ensemble. The group formally reinstates the organization on Nov. 27, 1998. A “consensus-based collective” proves a difficult model for making artistic progress, so WIT hires Second-City alum Catherine Weidner as interim artistic director. WIT hones its stage show and presents performance runs at Logan Circle venues Metro Café, Diversité, at the DC Arts Center and other clubs around the District. WIT attends the Chicago Improv Festival in 1999 where most players see longform improv on stage for the first time. Topher Bellavia, Amy Coddington, Steve Brady, Matt Grabowski, Anita Chupp, Lisa Parson are players at this time.
Expanding 2000 – 2003
After gaining national exposure and instruction at festivals and workshops around the country, the troupe launches an Improv Training Program of its own in 2000, led by Topher Bellavia. The group continues to evolve on- and off-stage, performing at the DC Arts Center and Source Theatre Company, then in the Source building where WIT is headquartered today. Under the artistic direction of Katie Carson, WIT fine-tunes its unique brand of freeform improvisation and further builds its national reputation. Original performances include the longform horror show Scared WITless, the improvised bio-play Citizen Blank, and the signature free-form show Big Bang. In 2003 WIT expands its family to create the shortform troupe, Improv Nation, and the longform group Jackie. Mark Raterman serves as interim artistic director before departing for Chicago.
Making Advances 2004 – 2007
In 2004, Chalfant becomes the company’s first full-time artistic/executive director. WIT enters Flashpoint, a new arts incubator program created by the Cultural Development Corporation. In summer, Tyler Korba directs WIT’s DC Neutrino Video Project, a show that creates a movie live on the street while the audience watches it. In fall, Carson directs POTUS Among Us, a satire of the political process. Company ensembles onesixtyone (formerly WIT Mainstage), Jackie, and Improv Nation perform sporadically throughout the year. WIT’s board of directors is reorganized, recruiting new blood in the form of professionals not otherwise affiliated with the company. Corporate training and performance clients include KPMG, the Hispanic College Fund, and the Congressional Youth Leadership Fund. In 2005, Chalfant directs Tonic: the improvised musical cure for what ails you in spring–WIT’s first crack at an improvised musical. Natasha Rothwell joins WIT’s staff as Operations Manager in charge of WIT’s classes. Enrollment tops 200 for the year. WIT’s classes enrollment tops 400 in 2006. WIT wins Best Use of Genre and Audience Award in the 48-Hour Film Project. Company ensembles Caveat and JINX are formed. In 2007, WIT receives an Upstart grant from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, getting a significant boost in technology infrastructure and marketing. WIT produces iMusical as a part of the Mead Theatre Lab program, under the direction of creator Travis Ploeger. In spring, WIT creates the Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament. Werewolf McButterbone is the first winning team. In summer, Improvapalooza. Both will endure.
Significant Advances 2008 – 2011
In 2008, WIT hires managing director Topher Bellavia as the company’s second full-time staffer. The company remounts POTUS Among Us under Chalfant’s direction. iMusical becomes an official company ensemble of WIT. Polygamy wins FIST. By 2009, WIT’s Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament has grown to feature over 120 improvisers vying for the championship; that honor goes to Not Mad, Disappointed.
In 2010 Murphy McHugh joins the staff as Program Director. FIST has over 130 players. WIT launches its Harold Teams program in April. The Catalogue for Philanthropy selects WIT as “one of the best” DC-area charities for 2010-11. WIT presents iSchool Musical in the Capital Fringe Festival. In 2011 WIT hires Rachel Grossman as managing director. FIST has over 140 players; Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch wins. Harold Night moves to Source. WIT conducts a 2-week series of shows at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. WIT Films’ entry Relative garners Best Film and Best Acting Ensemble awards at 48-Hour Film Project.
Gangbusters Advances 2012 – Present
2012 Melanie Harker joins WIT’s staff as program manager. FIST has over 170 competing players – Pals Are Pals wins the tourney. WIT presents iConfess at Fringe and remounts POTUS Among Us. King Bee is promoted from Harold team to company ensemble.
2013 WIT’s classes program passes 1,100 enrollments. Dan Miller joins WIT’s staff as External Relations Director. Dan Milliken comes aboard as WIT’s Administrator. FIST includes over 200 participants; Thunderball wins. WIT presents storytelling extravaganza Lore during the Capital Fringe Festival. WIT hosts the inaugural District Improv Festival at Source. The Harold Team program expands to four teams.
2014 FIST features 73 teams competing – Barely Runcible wins. WIT hires John Windmueller as its first Organizational Training Manager. WIT company ensembles all present premiere productions for summer series BINGE. WIT receives its second Upstart grant from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities. The Catalogue for Philanthropy selects WIT as “one of the best” DC-area charities for 2014-15. Classes enrollment surpasses 1,100 students. Melanie Harker becomes WIT’s Education Manager. WIT’s free workshops program, Improv for All, expands to deliver Improv in Every Ward. WIT offers its first weekday class and its first satellite class (in Takoma Park). Improvapalooza expands to two weekends. WIT hosts the second annual District Improv Festival at Source.
2015 Jonathan Murphy joins staff as Education Director. Ninth annual Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament has record-breaking audience of over 3,500 fans and Going to the Movies Alone took home the title. WIT@Work reaches over 1,400 participants through 27 workshops. Class enrollment of 1,316 students. Our total audience for performances grew 10 percent over the prior year, to a record 14,500. Harold Night expands to two shows per night and program grows to five Harold teams. WIT debuts The October Issue, directed by Jaci Pulice, as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival; its all-female cast improvised a women’s magazine featuring “cover girl” interview from notable DC women. WIT hosts a residency from Minneapolis’ The Theater of Public Policy. With help from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities’ East of the River grant, we offered three fully-enrolled 8-week Level 1 improv classes at Anacostia Arts Center.
2016 WIT’s board gains 6 new members, bringing it to a record-high of 15. Beverly Crusher wins the 10th annual Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament; a record 4,500 people attend. Free Improv for All workshops reach all eight wards, where attendance doubles from the previous year. WIT presents Summer Camp, which features the improvised slasher movie Die! Die! Die! WIT’s Harold program expands to six teams. Holiday-themed show Seasonal Disorder includes the debut of Citizens’ Watch, a dramatic small town murder mystery show based on the TV series Broadchurch. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities awards WIT a grant from the Heritage Grant Program. For the first time ever, a cohort of students completes the WIT curriculum at Anacostia Arts Center. WIT@Work works with companies in the banking, hospitality, and medical sector, including clients like Goodwill International, Marriott, Brookings, and MedStar. POTUS Among Us sells out every show; WIT’s most interactive production to date, the show Mark Chalfant and Melanie Harker directed. WIT co-presents the fourth annual District Improv Festival, featuring headliner Dummy.
2017 Jordana Mishory becomes WIT’s fourth full-time staff member. The board welcomes 5 new members, each contributing a diverse and impressive skill set to the advancement of WIT’s mission. Class enrollment hits 1,500 with more than half of all classes taught by women. Total audience attendance increases to 23,000, WIT University workshop offerings double, and the Harold program expands to include seven teams. WIT casts increasingly diverse cohorts of players, and in the Spring audition cycle, 41 percent of incoming Harold team members are people of color. Improvapalooza celebrates its 10th anniversary with one-of-a-kind experimental performances for nearly 900 audience members. As well, iMusical reaches its 10th year and members, past and present, celebrate with a one-night-only performance at the GALA Hispanic Theater. With the assistance of a Creative Spark grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, WIT grew its youth programming to include work with DC Public Schools and offer improv workshops at Murch Elementary and Moten Elementary. WIT@Work hits a huge milestone with 2,000 participants for the year.
2018 Raymond Simeon, joins WIT’s staff as a part-time production manager. In his role, he plans, manages, and meets production needs for all WIT shows. The board expands to 20 members. WIT celebrates its 20th anniversary with continued growth and new initiatives. Improv For All workshops reach all 8 wards, Maryland, and Virginia with over 1,000 total attendees. The classes program maintains a record-high, annual enrollment of 1,600 students, and marks one year of the diversity scholarship. In total, 26 individuals receive WIT’s diversity scholarship, 6 of whom successfully completed WIT’s curriculum this year. Harold team audiences reach near 7,000 patrons. WIT produces more than 300 shows with near 21,000 total attendees. In its 9th year, the Harold team program reaches 6,000 audience members. WIT also creates the Featured ensemble program to increase exposure to groups WIT recognizes as doing high-quality work, to groups who feature diverse voices that may be underrepresented on WIT’s stage, and to provide support to these groups while allowing them to maintain their own rehearsals and schedules.
2019 Molly Murchie joins the staff as a Marketing Associate and Donna Steele joins as an education fellow during the Spring. WIT welcomes 8 new board members resulting in the largest board to date with 21 members. The Broken Bones win the 13th annual Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament (FIST) out of 79 teams. Improv For All continues to reach all 8 wards, Maryland, and Virginia with free, two-hour improv workshops. For the first time ever, the number of participants reaches 1,300 between 90 workshops. This includes several Improv For All events that have customized curriculum for specific communities such as teachers, IT professionals, English as a Second Language (ESL), and workshops taught in American Sign Language (ASL). During January 2019’s federal government shutdown, WIT delivers free workshops, catharsis, and connections for furloughed federal employees in a time of anxiety. The spring of 2019 marks a new enrollment record with near 500 students for the term. With a new curriculum implemented, WIT saw a 98% retention rate for level 2 and 4 students going into the spring term. Overall, the classes program expanded from the past year and reaches 1,700 enrollments. WIT@Work training includes over 2,900 participants with 79 corporate clients. Harold night’s ninth anniversary boasts 104 total players, the highest number yet. WIT continues to innovate with a Director’s Series that allows directors to pitch and produce an original show. One production, Starship Odyssey: The Final Mission, explored what it means to be human in a singularly ambitious sci-fi show.
More recent history is best viewed in WIT’s Annual Reports, linked here: