When the first-ever Portland Improv Comedy Festival kicks off tonight at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, the audience will be an integral part of the action. Unlike stand-up, which relies on a set routine, improv depends on suggestions from the crowd to get the laughs rolling.

“The audience should be prepared to be interactive,” said festival organizer Rachel Flehinger. “They should be prepared to be asked questions and then to answer them.”

But don’t worry. The improv troupes won’t ask you to solve trigonometry problems or answer existential philosophy questions. Instead, they’ll want you to shout out job titles or offer descriptive adjectives for people.

According to Flehinger, who is part of the Running With Scissors group improv troupe (which performs Saturday night) and teaches comedy improv at Acorn Productions, the most interesting answers arise when you shut off your internal censor and return to the child within.

“The best suggestions that Running With Scissors ever got was from a kids’ show we did,” Flehinger said.

When asked to name occupations, one kid shouted out “kumquat farmer,” and the query for personal descriptors elicited the response of “squishy” from another pint-sized participant.

“Kids don’t have a filter,” Flehinger said.

And while it’s good to summon your youthful side, it’s probably best to leave the underage set at home.

“The audience just loves to bring up sex, drugs and bodily fluids,” said Michael Levine, producing director of Acorn Productions. “Improv comedy is pretty much R-rated.”

Acknowledging that most crowds tend to have their collective minds in the gutter, Flehinger said, “It can get dirty.”

Each evening of the festival features three performances with a short intermission between each set. While most of the troupes come from the Greater Portland area, Stranger Than Fiction comes to the festival from New Hampshire, Unexpected Company hails from Rhode Island and Teachers Lounge Mafia travels from Jay, Maine.

Called JAM, the opening act on Friday night features a mash-up of performers from the various groups that’s sure to shake everyone out of their comfort zones.

Levine said Portland’s improv comedy scene has been on a growth spurt in recent years, fueled by a number of local classes that teach this performance art.

“The festival is a great celebration of what’s already happening in the city,” Levine said. “This gives improvisors the chance to talk to each other, watch each other and learn from each other.”

It also gives them the chance to steal from each other.

“We may have to improvise our improv set, in case someone earlier in the night uses the same thing,” said Levine, whose Acorn’s Nut Factory performs last on Friday night. “But we’re improvisors. We ought to be able to improvise.”

With any luck, the audience will do the same. 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]