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Green Gravel Comedy Festival

When you hear Toledo, many things cross your mind: Corporal Klinger and his devotion to the Mud Hens.  Ohio. The decades-long run by the now-departed Connxtions Comedy Club, or maybe the current reign of The Funny Bone. It would, however, be hard pressed to find someone hear “Toledo” and respond, “Do you mean the one in Iowa?”

The founders of the Green Gravel Comedy Festival hope to put a change to that. With three members having strong ties to the Hawkeye state, a miniature town in the middle of Iowa was chosen to play host to a new type of comedy festival.

Rooftop’s Nathan Timmel—a fella participating in the Bomb Shelter Showcase that weekend—fired off an email full of questions, and the kindly Lee Keeler (Festival President) sent back answers.

NT: I apologize for the first question, because I’m sure it’s the one you’re getting the most, but: Why Toledo? I mean, I see all the Iowa connections in the organizers biographies, but those are for Iowa City (college town) and Des Moines (capital; largest city). So… Toledo?

LK:  That’s a great question! We’ve been getting that from day one. I am from Sioux City originally, and growing up there was always this belief that a person usually had go into a city to experience a comedy show. We’d like to turn that on its head. This is our opportunity to curate a completely fantastic experience in a charming little town and have something we can completely call our own. Those cities that we’re from have built comedy scenes that are amazing, but we aim to add on to that culture and bring some attention back to small-town Iowa. Geographically, it’s smack-dab in the middle of the greatest populations of young adults in Iowa: Ames, Iowa City, Des Moines and more. Our greatest inspiration has been the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio, which has been happening for a few years at a rural opera house and has brought in acts like Wilco, John Prine, Cat Power, etc.

NT:  Over the course of the 3-days, how many shows do you plan on producing? Will there be multiple shows at any given time, giving people the option to see Improv, stand-up comedy, or the recording (or broadcasting) of a Podcast?

LK:  At this point, we’re looking at something between 15-20 shows throughout the weekend. We are modelling much of scheduling around that of the Limestone Comedy Fest in Indiana (they’ve been amazing mentors, by the way), which usually staggers the appearances of their headliners and the type of comedy to see so everybody has a chance to see a little bit of everything. So if you can’t see Jackie Kashian at the big opera house on Friday night, she’ll be doing a five dollar podcast taping the next afternoon in the Legion Hall.

NT:  Define “Alternative Comedy Festival” for people who may not know exactly what you’re presenting.

LK:  We want the “alternative” to be in the DNA of every aspect of Green Gravel. Staff/performers will be staying in heated cabins at this great camp on the edge of town with crazy fire pits that’s next to a casino. In that sense, just coming to Green Gravel is meant to be kind of a retreat from the usual “club and motel” rut that performers deal with all the time. As I mentioned before, we want the audience to leave their cities and re-examine what it means to have fun in a small town. In terms of content, we are going to be giving priority to oddball/unique performers that might not have the political know-how to break into some of the existing comedic institutions in the region. We also want tickets to be affordable; our festival is bringing in top talent and will be charging low prices to see them.

NT:  Your website says you’ll be offering workshops; are you looking for people interested in getting into comedy/Improv, performers looking to brush up their skills, or both?

LK:  The festival will feature classes for both novices and experience performers. They will have an opportunity to learn from some of the best instructors in comedy, including a sketch workshop being taught by Kids in the Hall alum Kevin McDonald! We’re going to be hosting a free Q&A with Kevin so anybody who is curious about the process of comedy can be inspired. There’s also going to be a free class on the history/evolution of stand-up via Mat Alano-Martin. We want Iowa performers and kids to be given the chance to empower themselves with this information so they can go back home and strengthen the comedy scenes within their communities. I’m pretty tired of running into kids from the midwest that have moved out to LA and are taking classes at UCB among a zillion other kids. We need to keep those people in Iowa and grow something there.

NT:  You just added your third venue; how many venues do you think you’d like to have running for the festival?

LK:  The Wieting Theater will feature some of the larger crowds, we will also have a venue for smaller performances, and a venue for podcasts and classes. We have some overflow venues in mind depending on the amount of submissions.

NT: Your promotional video has some pretty heavy hitters in it—Marc Maron, Jimmy Pardo; any of them making the trek into the heartland?

LK:  We’re still a new thing, so it’s hard to get performers of that magnitude right out of the gate. The fest is going to have multiple headliners that will be very well-known to those that follow alternative comedy and sketch comedy. We have already announced that Jackie Kashian, who hosts The Dork Forest podcast, will be making the trip from LA. We will also have some of Chicago’s very finest up-and-comers: Junior Stopka, Mike Lebovitz and Martin Morrow. Also Mat Alano-Martin is coming in from Indiana, he’s amazing. We’re also proud to take this opportunity to announce that Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall will also be a headliner!

You can submit your stand-up, podcasts, sketch or improv comedy troupe using the Green Gravel Facebook Page.