Countdown Improv, Tampa Fringe festivals put down roots in Ybor City

It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday night in Ybor City. 

The archway lights are on along Seventh Avenue. The sidewalks are filling up. The sound of laughter and conversation from bars and restaurants carries through the air, along with music from passing cars. 

A few blocks away, at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City campus, an escaped monkey trained to kill as a government assassin is on a rampage at the Performing Arts Building’s Mainstage Theatre. Well, sort of. The annual Countdown Improv Festival is in town and the act Crossed Wires- Madison, Wisconsin-based improv duo Steve Wyeth and Amanda Rogers- are creating and acting out a movie called “Going Bananas” on the spot.

The Countdown Festival started in 2017, the same year that the Tampa International Fringe Festival, a new addition to a fringe festival circuit that stretches across the globe, debuted in Ybor. Over the years, both events gradually established their presence in Ybor City’s revived arts scene, adding acts and attracting larger audiences, surviving the disruption of the COVID pandemic and setting down roots in Ybor. 

Earlier this year, Tampa Fringe opened The Fringe Theatre, a black box venue described as a sandbox for performance experimentation, at the Ybor Kress Building. Tampa Fringe has also announced a new event for performers and artists from the Tampa Bay area. The Whinge! Festival will debut at the Kress Building in December. 

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Countdown Improv Festival and a trio of business partners plan to open a new comedy venue, The Commodore, on the western outskirts of Ybor in the fall. The 2,250-square-foot building at Nebraska Avenue and Seventh Avenue formerly housed The Eight Ball billiards hall.

Countdown finds a home in Ybor

In 2017, Brooklyn New York-based improv performers Kelly Buttermore and Justin Peters launched the Countdown festival in a single theater at the HCC Ybor campus. The duo, who perform as From Justin to Kelly, a reference to an infamous 2003 movie starring early American Idol stars Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, first envisioned Countdown as a traveling festival that would move from city to city each year. Then they fell in love with Ybor.

“We were struck by the vibrancy of the neighborhood,” Buttermore says. “It’s kind of hard to encapsulate Ybor into a single definition. It’s an exciting neighborhood. It’s one of the only truly walkable neighborhoods in Tampa. You really get the flavor for it walking down Seventh Avenue and exploring the areas around it. There is so much excitement around there. It feels kind of improvisational to me as a neighborhood in and of itself as it rediscovers itself through its own growth. Fringe is setting down roots here. The Kress Building, there’s so much exciting stuff going on with the different artists and venues there. It feels like a resurgence of a lot of the stuff that was happening before my time in Ybor in the 80s and 90s. And it feels like, having started in 2017, we arrived at the forefront of this, which is so cool. Because as our festival has grown, and we've brought in a lot of out-of-town acts, those out-of-town acts want to come back. They’ve gotten to know Ybor and the area and explore a little bit more.”

An early Saturday night crowd fills the Stage Theatre in the HCC Ybor City campus' Performing Arts Building during the 2023 Countdown Improv Festival.The seventh annual Countdown festival hit town August 9th through 12th with simultaneous performances in three theaters at the HCC Ybor campus. Seventy-seven acts from around the country and an estimated crowd of approximately 500 turned out. Performers came to Tampa from cities like Chicago, Pittsburg, Houston, Baltimore, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and  Atlanta.

There were Countdown festival regulars such as Da’ Boyz, a high-energy duo from West Palm Beach whose performance included a first-time boat captain trying to pilot the Staten Island Ferry while the siren song of the Statue of Liberty tempts him to crash the vessel. 

From closer to home, there’s Riverview improv performer and festival mainstay Kevin Michalski. His “Cowboy Kevin” character is a stand-up comedian in a cowboy hat, duster and boots nervously shuffling through the cue cards on which he’s written his one-liners.

Improv veterans Wisenheimer, a trio from Des Moines, Iowa, made their Countdown debut on the Saturday night of the festival. After asking the audience for a Florida town or city with a unique or unusual name, Wisenheimer’s performance took the crowd on a trip to a fictional but vivid version of Wimauma.

Buttermore says the eccentric vibe that drew the Countdown festival to Ybor was on full display that Saturday night. While the improv performances were going on at HCC, the Tabernacle of Oddities, a celebration of weird and bizarre Florida, was in full swing a short walk away at the historic Cuban Club.Improv veterans Wisenheimer made their Countdown Improv Festival debut this year.

“I think that’s so cool,” she says. “It shows that Ybor still has a raw and experimental nature to it that makes it hospitable to trying different things and welcoming different forms of art.”

Bringing the Fringe to Ybor

Tampa natives Will Glenn and Trish Parry spent years touring fringe festivals around the world with their sketch comedy performance “A Brief History of Beer.”

As they traveled, they discussed the hypothetical scenario of launching a Fringe event in Tampa. Then, after a conversation with their friend David Jenkins, the co-founder and artistic director of Tampa’s Jobsite Theatre, Glenn and Parry decided to make their idea a reality.  From there, Glenn says Ybor was a natural fit.

“For me, Ybor City is emblematic of Tampa, he says. “Maybe because I grew up here. It felt like a really good fit for the atmosphere we wanted to cultivate with Fringe. I don't know if carefree is the right word, but irreverent, innovative. People willing to take a risk with a performance piece, whether that be the artist or the audience. People willing to try something new. All of that felt very Ybor City to me. And Ybor also is, to me, so significant to the cultural genesis of this town. It has such a rich history and still maintains the architectural and cultural hallmarks of its early days. “We’re really committed to putting down roots in Ybor, trying to honor that rich history while also adding to its rich range of arts and entertainment offerings.”

In 2017, the Tampa Fringe started as a weekend event at HCC and several other venues, including a yoga studio, scattered around Ybor. Today, the festival has grown to a 10-day event that spans two weekends at various venues around Ybor. 

Glenn says the Tampa event keeps with the freewheeling spirit of fringe festivals across the globe and the original 1947 event in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Anything that can happen live in front of an audience, you will see,” he says. 

That means musical theater, Shakespeare, performance art, storytellers, dance, opera, DIY sci-fi, a Brazilian magician and much more. Like the Countdown festival, local organizations such as the the City of Tampa’s Ybor City Community Development Corporation, the Hillsborough Arts Council and the nonprofit Gobioff Foundation have provided financial support to help keep the event going and growing.

“The community had been really supportive of this,” Glenn says. “It was definitely something Trish and I and our touring artists were passionate about. But I wasn’t sure Tampa would embrace it the way it did. I can’t tell you how incredible that response has been, both on a financial support level and people just wanting to check it out and see what we’re up to.”

For the first two years of the festival, Glenn and Parry lived in New York City, traveling to Tampa for the festival. As the festival grew, Glenn moved back to Tampa in late 2018 and Parry followed a year or two later. 

When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, the Fringe Festival pivoted to a virtual format that still showcased Ybor.   

“It was a 3-D virtual reality Ybor City that audience members could walk through on their computer like a video game and the performances were in the different rooms,” Glenn says.

In 2021, the festival returned to in-person performances. But a surge in COVID cases that year brought it to what Glenn describes as its “lowest ebb” in terms of audience, revenue and spirits.

“Actually, for just a minute, I wondered if we were going to be able to carry on with the festival,” he says. “But Trish’s optimism and certainty never wavered. When we came back in 2022, my faith was totally renewed. The audience knocked my socks off. The artists came back like nothing ever happened. They were enthusiastic, talented and creative.”

Looking ahead

The Fringe Theatre opened on the third floor of the Kress Building in May, during this year’s festival. The theater, which seats up to 40, has emerged as a popular venue for open mic storytelling nights as well as local and out-of-town productions. New York-based performer Carter Ford brought his solo show about growing up biracial, “Lessons of an incomplete black boy,” to the venue. Tampa News Force Live, a news satire, performs at the theater on the fourth Wednesday of each month. 

Glenn says the Whinge! Festival scheduled for December will include performances in that theater space and other areas of the Kress Building. Unlike the Fringe, which requires that performers are chosen randomly, the Whinge! will feature a curated selection of performers, including popular acts from past Fringe festivals. With the new festival event, the new theater venue and the growing arts hub at the Kress, Glenn says the future is bright.

“We’re very excited about what’s in store for us this year and in the years to come,” he says.

Countdown Improv Festival co-founders Justin Peters and Kelly Buttermore and three business partners are opening an improv and comedy venue called the Commodore on the western outskirts of Ybor City later this year.Buttermore, with the Countdown Improv Festival, says their comedy venue, the Commodore, will feature improv, along with sketch, stand-up and experimental comedy. It will also host improv classes and workshops. 

“We are really excited about that,” she says. “It has been really cool to watch our audiences for the festival grow and change over the last seven years. Those first couple of years it was people who already knew about improv and their friends and families. Now, it’s grown to bring in new people and it will only continue to grow once we go year-round with the Commodore. I would submit there are a lot of people in Tampa who would love this if they have an opportunity to go see it.”

For more information, go to Tampa Fringe and Countdown Improv Festival
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.