A Short History of Mad Cowford, the Cool Indie Improv

July 16, 2014 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville's improv group, Mad Cowford is one of the most unique and when you get right down to it, innovative, nomadic performing groups in the country. Indefinably wacky, sometimes very poignantly profound, and doggedly engaged in the community, this hardy group of entertainers has been around for 14 years (in one form or another) and are still going strong. Join us after the jump for details on one of the best, least recognized things in Jacksonville.

Have you been to a Mad Cowford Show lately?

Downtown Jacksonville has seen some serious crowds over the past couples months with events like One Spark, the Jazz Festival, the U.S. Men's National Team's final soccer match before the World Cup, and the Florida Country Superfest. Jaxsons Night Market is breathing some life into downtown every third Thursday, joining the good fight that Art Walk has been waging for weeknight nightlife. But head downtown on a regular Friday or Saturday and you will see it has been transformed back into its calm, collected self. It’s quiet. Surprisingly quiet. Eerily quiet after the frenzy of One Spark. Over on Bay Street it’s a little less quiet, but still nothing like the clamor of One Spark Afterdark.

It’s the usual weekend scene: smokers, stoic in the face of the humidity or light rain, gather loosely around the open doors of Underbelly listening to great live music; bars further down the street (Mark’s, Dive, and TSI) are just starting to welcome the first trickle of the night’s revelers, and a few lonely travelers quietly walk the space between. But look a little closer and you might be surprised what else you find.

Emanating from beyond the neon-lit windows of Northstar Substation (aka “The Pizza Bar”) is uproarious laughter. Patrons are clapping, hollering seemingly random words and phrases, booing (or is it mooing?), and laughing some more. What you are hearing is Jacksonville’s Home for Improv Comedy: Mad Cowford

Improv, you say, that strange not-quite-theatre, not-quite-stand-up thing that is the common background of many of the great comic actors of the past half century, from Bill Murray and Gilda Radner to Will Ferrell and Tina Fey and almost every SNL performer between and since, to Wayne Brady and the Stevphen’s Colbert and Carell? That thing?

Yea, that thing. We’ve got it here in spades. I bet you didn’t know Jacksonville is home to a thriving, high-quality improvisational comedy troupe. It is, and if you haven’t figured out what to do this  (or any other) weekend, you need to go check it out. Mad Cowford plays twice-weekly shows out of Northstar on Bay Street downtown. The shows are raucous, interactive, and laugh-out-loud funny. They are also easily the best entertainment value in town at $5 for a 90-minute show.

Now, Jacksonville’s own Mad Cowford is about to hit the big leagues. Theatre Jacksonville, the Little Theatre in San Marco, is opening their stage to Mad Cowford for a one-night-only special engagement. On Saturday July 19 at 8pm, Mad Cowford celebrates eight years of comedy in Jacksonville by presenting “Mad Cowford: Way off Broadway.” It will be a comedy revue of improvised, musical, and sketch comedy. Tickets and information on the show can be found at the Theatre Jacksoville box office (http://theatre-jax.ticketleap.com/mad-cowford-way-off-broadwaya-comedy-revue/details)

In anticipation of this special show, we offer you a walk down the memory lane of Improvisational Comedy in Jacksonville:

Mad Cowford in Hemming Park

Improv Jacksonville in theatre on Monroe Street

Improv Jacksonville at their new space at the Landing, (2005)

Mad Cowford is the spiritual successor of ImprovJacksonville (IJ). In the wake of the latter’s financial struggles and eventual dissolution, a handful of former IJ improvisers and students resolved, over beers at the London Bridge Pub (now Burro Bar), to carry on improv in Jacksonville. But, broke, homeless, and without a name, this improv phoenix had to start small. They reached out to Metro Jacksonville proprietor and devil’s advocate extraordinaire Stephen Dare. Stephen had earlier hosted IJ at The Loft at 47 West Duval Street (now rubble under the Downtown Library) and Boomtown Theatre and Cafe on Main Street in Springfield. So it was natural when, in June 2006, the similarly straightforwardly-named JAXimprov held their inaugural show at the downtown iteration of Boomtown: Boomtown Subterrannea. http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/062306/lif_3573145.shtml.

Madcowforders at Boomtown in Hemming Park

They performed here for about a year on Fridays and Art Walk Wednesdays until Boomtown was bought out by the Dalton Agency and shuttered for good. During this Boom time, JAXimprov was rechristened Mad Cowford and started holding rehearsals and workshops in a Loft on Bay Street above Nicky G’s Pizza. The name was meant to poke fun at the history and temperament of the city that we love. The loft location, however, would prove quite fateful.

A few months after the closure of Boomtown, Mad Cowford started performing at 9th and Main in Springfield, where they were reunited with Mr. Dare for a short time. After his departure from 9th and Main, the venue went through several management changes in short succession, eventually culminating in this extraordinary episode as recollected by Johnny Kalinowski, the Director of Mad Cowford:

One Friday night in mid-2008, on the night of a student show no less, we arrive at 9th and Main to discover the doors locked and the lights off. A sign in the window stated there was a JEA power outage, but every other building in the area was lit. A number of students and audience members were treated to an impromptu set of improv games in the dark outside a closed Springfield business. 9th and Main never reopened.

Mad Cowford at Gainesville Improv Festival

After what was arguably the best outdoor student improv show ever held in Springfield, the troupe was once again homeless. After several sweaty summer special engagement shows in the under-air-conditioned loft (now home to Mr. Mince Productions), the pizza joint below was bought by Kris Kiger and renamed. Lured downstairs by the pizza and beer, the improvisers became regulars at the new downtown establishment and were eventually booked for a Friday night show in November 2008. Mad Cowford packed the place for that first show and the rest, as is often said, was history. The troupe has been performing there on Fridays ever since, eventually expanding to Saturdays and Art Walk Wednesdays in 2011. Mad Cowford has spawned several sub-groups and house teams, including "Beastwood" and "Ethel MerMan" who specialize in long form improvisation, and "More Cowbell" which creates an entire improvised musical based upon a single suggestion

Today, Mad Cowford is 27 members strong. Several players and alumni have cut their teeth with The University of Florida’s Theatre Strike Force, whose members have gone on to perform improv and comedy all over the country. Alumni of Mad Cowford are performing regular shows in Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and more on stages as hallowed as iO, UCB, and Second City. Mad Cowford has played in festivals around Florida and hosted troupes from Orlando (OffSides Improv), South Florida (ARACKA), Yale (The Purple Crayon of Yale), Chicago (Stacked), and Gainesville (Theatre Strike Force). They’ve even found some time to enter the 48 Hour Film Project, with their 2008 entry "Silent Movie: The Musical" taking home several awards, including the Best of Jacksonville grand prize. Their 2013 entry, "One and Change" was a short musical entirely composed, recorded, shot, and edited in the alotted 48 Hours.  "One and Change" won awards for music, cinematography, audience choice, and took Third Place overall.

The troupe has held the Comedy for Critters show (to benefit the ASPCA and First Coast No More Homeless Pets) eight years running. They have also done benefit shows for Hurricane Relief, Relay for Life, Tornado Relief, and the "Get Carded" organ transplant program, as well as hosting workshops for the Joe Berg Society.

They hold workshops every three months throughout the year with seven sessions that cover various improvisation skills ranging from beginner improv to performance, long form, and advanced concepts. The troupe also conducts corporate training and private workshops and is available for shows at private parties and outside venues.

Shows are Fridays, Saturdays, and Art Walk Wednesdays, 8:15 pm at Northstar “The Pizza Bar” (119 E Bay Street Downtown).

So, have you been to a Mad Cowford Show lately?
What are you waiting for?

More information on the troupe can be found:
 HYPERLINK "http://madcowford.com/" http://madcowford.com/
 HYPERLINK "https://www.facebook.com/MadCowfordImprov" https://www.facebook.com/MadCowfordImprov

and Mad Cowford: Way Off Broadway:
 HYPERLINK "https://www.facebook.com/events/798731236803878/" https://www.facebook.com/events/798731236803878/