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A FIG Tree Grows in Taipei

Photo Credit: Annie Liu.  Triumphant on the international stage, members of FIG take a post show photo after their performance at the 2023 Manila Improv Festival. 

August 2023 marked the 5th anniversary of Taipei’s first bilingual improv performance group, FIG. Having weathered the COVID pandemic and 5 years of growing joys, the self-dubbed Formosa Improv Group (FIG) 福爾摩沙即興組合 continues to thrive. FIG has expanded in ways that the first group members never imagined in 2018, inside a Louisa Cafe at Da’an metro station. Like a wandering vagabond in search of their next meal, those who were there at the beginning were simply curious about the art form. A mish-mash of improv and language enthusiasts, wanting to use improv as a way to have fun and make new friends.

Whether it was outside of various metro stations, or even with a group of only 3 members inside of someone’s apartment, the “yes, and” spirit of improv led a nucleus of individuals to create FIG. Somewhere between a community group that performs, and a performing group that builds community, FIG has remained true to its roots and values. A learning organization that gives back to the Taipei community, two of their core values are to consistently look for new ways to build bridges and to say yes to new challenges for collaboration–all, for the sake of strengthening the overall improv ecosystem in Taiwan.

Let’s take a look at FIG’s past, present, and future.

The Roots

Many of the members who make up FIG’s core group of mainstage performers never had improv experience prior to joining FIG. In 2018, the Taiwan improv scene itself consisted of fresh soil ripe for planting seeds. The bilingual improv community did not exist at all, and the English improv scene had seen itself come and go in fits and starts with Taipei Improv, Sweet Danger, and Taichung Improv (renamed Skits and Giggles–check them out in Taichung).  Taiwan’s longest-running professional improv group, with their own stage, is the fully Chinese-language group Guts Improv (勇氣即興).

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Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw. Taken during FIG’s opening show at the original Red Room, many of the audience members and community have continued to support and follow the group’s growth and development from 2018.

After arriving in Taipei in 2018, co-founder of FIG, Jeffrey Schwab knew that he wanted to create a sustainable bilingual improv performance group and community. Prior to moving to Taiwan, he had years of bilingual improv experience in Beijing as part of the English-language “Beijing Improv,” and then its bilingual experimental-child, Bilingual Improv Group (BIG). Knowing the power and joy of bilingualism and community in improv, he set about gathering those who were curious and open-minded to experimentation and performance. Many of the original devotees came from Taipei’s Multilingual Café group and the theater community, as the participants were already comfortable with being uncomfortable in other languages, or on stage. Those interested in learning more about improv met once, and then twice a week to play games and learn improv skills. It wasn’t long until a cohesive unit coalesced to form FIG, whose debut show took place in September, 2018. FIG would also continue to dedicate themselves to the community, by providing free bilingual weekly improv workshops.

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Photo Credit: FIG member “Woody” (bottom right corner). One of FIG’s many family portraits. While some members have come and gone, the group continues to evolve with a strong, rotating cast of performers.

Growth and Sustainability

After FIG came together as a group, the growth accelerated and developed relationships with venues such as Oldie Goodie and Red Room (now relocated as Red Room Rendezvous) and settled into a long-term collaboration with the latter.  It wasn’t long before the monthly shows at the Red Room saw packed audiences, and the group’s community workshops were averaging around 20 participants each session. Part of what made and continues to make FIG so sustainable is that leadership in the group is shared amongst all group members in a rotational system. This system ensures that the group leads itself and group members not only develop performance skills, but also crucial leadership and delegation skills.

FIG has also made great efforts to expand on partnerships over the years. Since the pre-COVID days, FIG has consistently collaborated with improvisers passing through Taipei from Asia’s rich improv community. The group developed relationships and learned from mentors and partners coming from Beijing, Shanghai, and Singapore, and later more globally. In 2019, members from FIG joined the Manila Improv Festival, sharing the stage with more than 60 teams. During the same year, FIG began a partnership with the stand-up comedy club, Two Three Comedy, opening with a sold-out show. Currently, FIG holds workshops there every Monday evening, and shows once a month, andalso performs seasonal shows at The Hive, Taipei’s premiere co-working space.

FIG Collaborations

FIG welcomes members from the improv community near and afar to share their talents and lead as guest facilitators for the Monday workshops. Almost 20 non-FIG professionals and artists have led as guest facilitators. During the pandemic FIG also cooperated with the China-based company, The Hutong, to lead online workshops for more than 300 students located all across China. In 2020, members joined a fully online improv festival hosted by Third World Improv. That same year, FIG hosted Taipei’s first improv festival and invited groups such as Ok Improv, Skits and Giggles, and Milu Impro Rehearsal Space to join in shows and lead workshops, as well as hosting online panels with improvisers from Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Manila. More recently, FIG built upon the relationship with Ok Improv to invite one of their members to direct the group in a performance.

Bearing Fruit

As FIG celebrates its 5th anniversary, the group could not be in a better place. With new members joining each year, the talent pool continues to grow. In addition FIG has led private applied improv workshops for schools and organizations. Applied improv combines improv with professional and life skills such as team-building, trust, communication, leadership, listening, embracing failure, and innovation. FIG has cooperated with CET, Rotaract, Taipei European School, Taipei Municipal Binjiang Experimental High School, and Taiwan Next Generation to lead workshops and private shows. FIG’s branches continue to reach towards the sky, and this September the group has once again taken to the international stage to join more than 70 groups for their return to the Manila Improv Festival. The group will return to Taipei bearing fruit, bringing more ideas, professionalism, and connections that can be shared with the Taipei community.

FIG tirelessly seeks more opportunities to grow, learn, and make connections with those who are seeking the “yes, and” spirit that everyone has inside. The group strongly encourages anyone who is curious about trying improv as a challenge to come out and join the Monday workshops or check out one of its shows!

FB: https://www.facebook.com/FormosaImprovGroup

By Jeffrey Schwab
A lifelong improviser with a passion for learning, Jeffrey works as the first Chief Learning Officer with a focus on cross-departmental development and building a learning organization that supports professional growth and a coaching culture.  Originally from Lexington, Virginia, he has lived in Asia for the past 20 years (Japan, China, Taiwan).  He has co-founded bilingual improv groups both in Beijing and Taipei and enjoys new improvised challenges.  Jeffrey is accompanied in Taipei by his wife Mayumi and daughter Luna.  Jeffrey is passionate about micro-adventurism, playing the banjo, and writing during his spare time.  

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