Theater News

A Mania for Extemporania

The Chicago Improv Fest turns unscripted acting into funny fun on the fly.

For more than 40 years, Chicago has been the home to the world’s greatest comedians. Not the hackneyed, stand-up variety that has long since worn out its welcome (or at least a variety of development deals), but true, comedic improvisational actors. In fact, the Windy City improv community has long been influencing every aspect of modern comedy, whether on stage, on screen, or virtually any medium.

The Chicago Improv Fest, running from April 25 through April 30 and now in its third year, seeks to unite the diverse improv-based theaters found in Chicago. First and foremost, there’s the legendary Second City, which begat all of the other improv theaters (in some manner, shape, or form), and which utilizes off-the-cuff scene work to generate scripted material. Each Second City show also has a “third act” in which the cast (and sometimes the guests) improvise via games or long scenes. While the trend in recent years has been away from games and more toward long-form work, Second City straddles both worlds. It is easily the most successful and recognizable of all the Chicago improv companies.

Another group, The ImprovOlympic, offers long-form improvisation in a style called “Harold.” Performed by a seasoned improv ensemble, these shows require a single suggestion to create a 30- to 45-minute improv teeming with interweaving scenes and games. Even here, the Second City connection persists: Del Close, a founding member of Second City, co-founded ImprovOlympic to “further improvisation as an art form.”

Finally, Annoyance Theater’s style of improv, while rarely if ever annoying, has been called both “all-out” and “no-holds-barred” by their loyalist and critical supporters. The group’s improv musical, Co-Ed Prison Sluts, is a good example of their pleasantly “annoying” gamesmanship.

Together, these three theaters form the linchpin of the Chicago improv community. In addition, they form a training forum where scores of improv-hungry students can learn, share technique, and converge. Though each school offers a different philosophy on the teaching of improv, the basic goal–comedy–is the same.

As an event, the Chicago Improv Fest might be thought of as similar to the Chicago Blues Fest or even the renowned Taste of Chicago. By offering to the public just a sampling of the comedy cornucopia available in the Windy City, the hope is that more and more people will pay a visit to the various improv companies found around town. This year, the CIF is dedicated to the Second City, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Recent Second City veterans and Saturday Night Live members Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch (the head writer and a featured player, respectively) will reprise their critically acclaimed sketch show while other SNL/SC alums will appear in improvised shows (creative consultant Adam McKay and cast member Horatio Sanz are scheduled to perform). In addition, the Upright Citizens Brigade–ImprovOlympic alumni–is scheduled to perform its Manhattan-based sketch comedy show as well.

The fact that so many people are returning for a third year to the scene of their improv training–regardless of whether they hail from Chicago or not–is truly a testament to the strong affection that these skillful and specific performers have for their craft. Indeed, many will teach the rest of their own improv troupe back home about what they have seen and learned. Still others will return home, save their money, and then return to Chicago just to join in the movement that John Belushi once called “better than sex.”

To the uninitiated, improvisation can be viewed as so many things. Depending upon whom you ask, it’s either a very new American art form or a very bad theatrical game. Frankly, most improvisational artists believe that it can be, and often is, both. Perhaps that’s the beauty as well as the pitfall of this particular art. But many people, attracted to the quickness and to sheer wit of good improvisation, end up falling in love with the possibility of creating a new improvised play every night. For this reason, artists and audience alike should be thankful that the Chicago improv world finally has a showcase.

For more information on the Chicago Improv Fest, call 312-862-5082.