Beijing International Interactive Arts Festival

A five-day event comprising improv performances and workshops

BIIAF: Wednesday 20 April to Sunday 24 April 2011
Beijing Improv doesn’t just want to turn our massive metropolis into a community, it wants the whole continent to feel welcome. After three years of free weekly workshops, monthly guffaw-guaranteed shows and the first improv-themed city-wide arts festival, it goes global. The Beijing International Interactive Arts Festival (BIIAF) is a five-day event comprising improv troupes from around Asia performing with their hosts on a number of days, and competing for laughs on Saturday 23. A myriad of Beijing dwellers will also work improvisation into their daily routines, then hold workshops for the rest of us.
For co-founder Jonathan Palley, starting Beijing Improv was a way for theatre types working outside the field to stay connected with their creative side. However, he also sees this self-exploration as the key to the group’s eventual success. ‘While we strive to produce professional-quality productions, our audience knows we’re not there for fame and profit, but to have fun.’ The same goes for the workshops, where he says the goal is not ‘teaching’ but exploring improv with members: ‘This surprises and delights new participants, and it’s the reason we could sell out three years of shows and produce this festival.’

Still, there’s also learning to be done. ‘Improv performances are unscripted and unprepared,’ says Palley, ‘but creating spontaneous scenes and stories requires specific skills that are taught and practised. At the core is teamwork, spontaneity and storytelling, with skills such as characterisation thrown in.’ Workshoppers with quick wits can audition for Beijing Improv’s Mainstage English Group or the new Bilingual Performance Group.

The festival is all about spreading improv far and wide, however, and it is home to a multitude of talent from across Asia. China’s eastern neighbour provides Seoul City Improv (Sat 23, 7pm; Sun 24, 4pm), which has featured over 70 performers in its four years. From the Land of the Rising Sun comes Pirates of Tokyo Bay, now merged with the six-year-old Osaka-based Pirates of the Dotombori (Sat 23, 9pm), a group that seems to have graced every newspaper, radio station and television network in Japan. Circling back west, we have Hong Kong’s People’s Liberation Improv (Fri 22, 7pm; Sun 24, 6pm) – which has been doing monthly performances in Asia’s first home of stand-up since 2007 – coming to Beijing.

Shanghai sends two popular, well-reviewed teams: The People’s Republic of Comedy (Sat 23, 7pm; Sun 24, 6pm) is the product of a divorce from Zmack (Sun 24, 4pm), the city’s longest-running comedy troupe. And finally, just in case you thought BJ Improv was the only off-the-cuff group in the city, check out ImproPekin (Thur 21, 7.15pm) a troupe of French Beijingers performing in their native tongue, and the Fangjia Hutong-based People’s Republic of Improv (Fri 21, 8pm), which works the crowds in Chinese – proof positive that the language of improv, like BIIAF itself, crosses linguistic boundaries.
Time Out’s  best of the fest

For danger

Get thee to a kitchen! Improvised Cooking! gives participants ingredients and one hour to prepare a delicious – or just-about-edible – meal.
At The Hutong Sunday 24, Midday-2pm

For thrills
For New Zealand’s BackLit Productions, dance numbers begin with improvisation – and piles of props. See the company take on consumerism by dancing with appliances or struggling to make haute couture actually wearable.Sun 24, 1.30pm-2.30pm.
For spills
Founded in 2002, Beijing Jugglers is China’s first international juggling community, offering a wide range of performances and free workshops. Saturday 23, midday-1pm; workshops on Sun 24, 11.15am and 12.15pm.
For adventure
Have old clothes and shoes your ayi just won’t touch? Improvise a new wardrobe with artist Stacey Shine’s Arty Improv. Sat 23, 2pm-4pm.
For relaxation
Tired of all that doing? Try sitting for a while with Electric Shadows, Vicky Mohieddeen’s mission to make Chinese cinema more accessible – and affordable. Sun 24, 1pm-3.30pm.
Most useful
Fine artist and photographer Helen Couchman’s Photography Workshop will teach you the basics then send you out on assignment. Later, an improv team will make a comic hash out of it. Sat 23, 2pm-2.30pm and 4pm-4.30pm.

Most nostalgic
Relive your schooldays with the Improvising with Shakespeare Workshop. Learn to have fun using the best of bard.
At The Bookworm wed 21, 8-9.30pm

And the winner is…

As with BJ Improv mainstage shows, all festival proceeds go to Hua Dan, which uses drama therapy to help better the lives of disadvantaged women and kids.
All BIIAF events, unless otherwise stated, are at the Peng Hao Theatre. See listings for address and contact details. Visit for a full line-up and all schedule updates.
  • 4 out of 5 stars