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Posts tagged Chicago improv

You hear a lot about “getting reps” in improv. And for most people, reps = stage time. But before you start making a Facebook event for your show, we’d like to focus on a different kind of rep.

What Are We Talking About?

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Once you’ve got a team together, you need to rehearse on a regular basis. Why? Because it’s a helluva lot easier to develop group mind when you know each other, understand your fellow players’ moves, and share a common language. And the only way to do that is to practice.

Finding a good coach is key. Choose someone who shares your group’s goals and needs, or whose approach you want to model. Ask yourselves what you want to achieve as a team. Is improv a hobby? Or do you want to make a dent in the universe? If that sounds too lofty, here are two stories to inspire you.

Jazz Freddy

Chicago’s Jazz Freddy is legendary, and with good reason. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Comedy, including Pete Gardner, Brian Stack, Dave Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Noah Gregoropoulos, Kevin Dorff, Jimmy Carrane, Miriam Tolan, Pat Finn, Chris Reed, Stephanie Howard, Susan McLaughlin and Meredith Zinner.

Photo © ? (If you know, please let me us know so we can credit them)

Photo © ? (If you know, please let us know so we can credit them)

When Jazz Freddy debuted at the Live Bait Theater, they broke the mould with their innovative, patient style of improv and attention to acting skills. It was one of the first long-form shows to be done in a theatre, as opposed to a comedy club or bar. It was also one of the first ensembles to feature almost as many women as men – unheard of in 1992.

As Craig Cackowski recalls, “Everything about it exuded class, from the Ray Charles music that played as the house lights faded to the fact that they were playing on actual sets of regular Live Bait productions,” (a tactic later employed by Stolen House).

Director and cast member Pete Gardner said, “There was a feeling of bringing your A-game, which established a lot of trust. People let go and experimented with forms and structures. Everyone understood that they were playing it straight – truth in comedy – like Del taught. They weren’t playing for jokes.”

The form itself involved a “two back, one forward” concept with two-person scenes, as well as scenes involving large groups of players. Jazz Freddy is credited with the first use of tag-outs in long form, and was among the first to use cross-fade edits.

There were callbacks, relationships, time dashes, and a modified three-scene structure similar to Harold. But as Matt Fotis notes in his book, Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy, Jazz Freddy was “less about format and more focused on content, style, and dedication to craft.”

“Members made the group their top priority, turning down other jobs and rearranging schedules around Jazz Freddy rehearsals, something that has rarely occurred in a form that for 99 percent of improvisers doesn’t pay any money.”

In an interview with Pam Victor, Brian Stack recalled, “One of my favourite memories of Jazz Freddy involved a recurring scene in which two old men were playing chess in a park, and another unrelated recurring scene that took place in a mediaeval castle. At some point late in the show, a reference was made during the ‘castle’ scene to the ‘strange, checkered landscape’ outside. It became clear that the action in the castle was taking place in the rook on the old men’s chessboard. It was one of those totally organic on-stage discoveries that I’ll never forget, and it still reminds me of why I love improv so much.”

Big In Japan

That same dedication to craft was shared by Toronto long-form legends, Big In Japan. Like Jazz Freddy, their line-up boasted future comedy royalty: Alex Tindal, Sarah Hillier, Julie Dumais Osborne, Bob Banks, Sean Tabares, Sean Magee, Kevin Thom, Adam Cawley, James Gangl, and later Ken Hall, Jess Grant, Alexandra Wylie, Paloma Nunez and Molly Davis.

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

While different from Jazz Freddy‘s slow comedy style, Big In Japan carved a name for themselves with memorable, experimental ensemble work that was fluid and highly thematic. It was astounding to see so many hilarious and highly intelligent people on stage at once, all pushing boundaries while supporting one another.

Kevin Thom recalls, “I can’t remember how long we rehearsed before we actually played on stage, but it was a few months anyway. We were rehearsing in the ITC studio on Wellington Street. I remember that we did break down the Harold and work on individual pieces of it for very long stretches. We worked on organic openings for months, different kinds of organic edits for more months, etc.

Sometimes we were forbidden from doing things KPR (Kevin Patrick Robbins, Impatient Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and BIJ’s coach) thought we did too often. Specifically, Sarah was forbidden from doing scenes about cats. We were collectively forbidden from shitting on stage. Whenever KPR wasn’t there, we would do all those things as much as possible.”

Adam Cawley said, “I just remember really wanting to be on BIJ. I wasn’t on the original. I joined when I was prob 20, 21? But I remember looking up to them as a team. Once I joined I felt like I’d joined an all star team. At that time there were amazing improvisers around, but not all of them were interested in the Harold. But BIJ felt like some of the best longform players in the city.”

Two sets that will forever be remembered by those who saw them were for the suggestions “Anarchy” and “Misogyny.” According to Kevin Thom, “I remember the Anarchy set really well. That was at the Diesel Playhouse. We were up in the tech booth messing with the lights and sound, pulling props from backstage, breaking chairs, running through the audience. I think the ITC had to pay for the damages we did that night.”

Sarah Hillier recalls, “I had that moment while playing with Big In Japan, the ‘Oh, this is what improv is’ moment. Where it all connected for me and I will never forget that moment on stage. We broke the organic Harold open with Anarchy and the Misogyny set. We let it take us wherever it was gonna take us and didn’t necessarily do a traditional Harold. I feel like we decided to be a part of the improv and not just play it.”

For the Misogyny set, the male members of Big In Japan wouldn’t let the women on stage. Sarah remembers “being in the audience and yelling at everyone so much and somehow it was still improv, because we all completely gave in to it.”

Sean Tabares: “I wasn’t an original member, but I was close. I do remember spending a lot of time on specific concepts, but I feel that was partly because we were sort of figuring it out all together as we went along. The feeling at the time for me was that these ideas were all pretty new to our community, and any visitor or any time we visited someplace was a wealth of new inspiration.

I remember the early days as a time of learning by watching other out-of-town troupes and trying to figure it out on our feet. That’s why we rehearsed so much. A bit like teaching yourself an instrument but with access to a radio once a month or so. Guest instructors and classes abroad were so huge. The Anarchy show period was the first time I felt we were really doing it. The elusive Harold that only shows itself if the players are in the right mindset. Going beyond the rigid structure that started to seem like a cruel joke. That only after mastering this ‘form’ do you get to do the real Harold which is whatever it wants to be. Oh man, I do love this art form.

I forget the suggestion, but I’m also remembering one where the first scene involved a pig mayor, and each scene that followed took place in the stomach of someone in the scene prior. Russian doll stomachs!

I do know that I’ve never rehearsed with an improv troupe as I have with BIJ. Not just in terms of longevity. Density of rehearsals. Over my time with BIJ, I’ve been blessed to play with the best in the business, and the dedication to rehearsal has to be a factor. No coincidence there.”

Kevin Thom added, “We also did a set on the suggestion of ‘Palindrome’ where we started with one thing, did half a set and then started reversing everything until we ended up at the beginning again.

In general, I remember how much I loved playing with BIJ because of how everyone approached and studied improv as a serious art, giving it the respect it deserves, while still leaving room for the chaos and fun that makes it feel so good.”

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Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

In conclusion, both of these teams were stacked with talent, but they didn’t just focus on how many shows they had booked. Instead, they put in months of rehearsals, sometimes multiple times a week. When they finally did set foot on stage, they were unscripted but incredibly prepared.

We think Del would have been proud.

For further reading on Jazz Freddy, we highly recommend Matt Fotis’s book and Pam Victor’s blog, My Nephew Is A Poodle.

In Part Three, we’ll explore more ways to think outside the black box in terms of format and show location.

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Erik Voss wrote an interesting piece for Splitsider about game of the scene. (You can read the full article here.) Some of the improv community’s most respected performers weighed in, and I agree with their (sometimes differing) viewpoints.

The thing is, I don’t give a fuck anymore.

You see, early in my improv training, “finding the game” was the holy grail. The big cahuna. The mack daddy of all improv wisdom. Or so I thought.

When TJ and Dave taught a workshop in Toronto, I couldn’t wait to ask them about it. David looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “I don’t really think about game when I’m performing.” TJ nodded.

This should have slapped some sense into my feckless, fearmongering brain, but no. I continued to search for The Game and how to recognize it in all its myriad forms.

One of my coaches routinely drilled us on “beating the shit out of the game.” Rehearsal after rehearsal, two people would start a scene, then others would tag in when they found the game. Afterwards, we were critiqued.

Let’s say Player A had a stutter, then someone tagged in and made a game out of forcing him to stutter. If Player A was also an alcoholic, then beating the shit out of stuttering, versus putting him in situations where he’d be tempted to drink, was deemed “less smart.”

While I understood the value in seeing patterns, few things put me in my head like trying to find the game, never mind finding the “right” game.

When I asked Susan Messing about it, she said that there can be many games within a scene; that each player might have their own game, as well as games that they play together.

The more I watched and performed improv, the more I found myself gravitating towards the kind of scenes where game just wasn’t as important as discovery.

Discovery of who the characters are. Discovery of the world they inhabit. The kind of discovery that happens when things are out of the players’ control and in the hands of the comedy gods.

What I learned, eventually, was that game can happen without effort. And that “finding the game” doesn’t always guarantee a great scene.

How many times have you seen improvisers find a game on stage, only to beat it so relentlessly that the scene loses any point, or dissolves into endless repetition?

Playing the game can be fun. It’s a bit like a ping pong match: I do this, then you respond that way. Repeat. But we don’t have to try so hard to find the paddle.

If we just allow scenes to unfold naturally, games will reveal themselves.

If you can, do yourself a favour and go see TJ and Dave, or Messing with a Friend, or Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain, or Razowsky and Clifford, or Joe Bill and Mark Sutton’s Bassprov.

There is game inherent in their shows, but it’s not overt. That’s not to say game-centric shows like Asssscat aren’t awesome. They are. But if you’re struggling to find the game each and every time and it’s affecting your ability to have fun in scenes, give yourself a break. Take a breath and just respond to what’s happening right now.

If you do that, if you focus 100% on your scene partner and just react to what he or she says and does, you won’t have to find the game. The game will find you. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s fine. Because it will still be a way better scene than one where you’re not present because you’re too busy searching for something.

In seven years of doing improv, I can recall my best, or at least my favourite, sets in detail. And I can tell you that none of them involved me methodically thinking about The Game Of The Scene. In fact, what they all had in common was that I wasn’t thinking. I was just having fun.

Those are the kind of sets I want to do now. And that’s why I don’t give a fuck about game of the scene anymore.

One last thing. Someone asked TJ what he thinks about before he goes on stage. He answered:

• Don’t panic.

• Make an emotional choice, a point of view, so you’re safe no matter what.

• Remember how fortunate you are.

It’s really that simple.

Jimmy Carrane is the creator and host of the very cool Improv Nerd podcast, and co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser. 

He was an original member of The Annoyance Theater, Armando at The IO-Chicago, and the legendary longform group-slash-show, Jazz Freddy. We asked him about his career, Chicago, and why he loves improv nerds. 

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

P&C: As someone who’s been improvising for decades, how has improv changed for you since you started, or has it?

JC: Well I started when I was 18, so I’m 48 now.

P&C: Wow.

JC: Yeah. I think it’s changed in terms of…when I started, especially longform was based in Chicago. Now it’s all over the country, all over the world and North America.

You look at New York, you look at LA, and there’s people that’ve started in Chicago. Like you look at the UCB, those people started in Chicago. PIT and The Magnet… those people all started in Chicago. iO now has an outlet on the West Coast, Second City’s out there.

And then there’s teachers that then leave UCB and go teach down in Florida or Oklahoma. It is so spread out, I think that’s the biggest change. Chicago isn’t the only place anymore to do longform improvisation.

P&C: But it’s still the mecca, though. Would you say that’s still the case?

JC: I’ll tell you why Chicago I think is still the mecca. One is, it’s got the history. Certainly going back over 50 years with the Second City. The other thing is, I think, versus New York or Los Angeles, it’s still very accessible to get on stage.

You can do improvisation in front of an audience, and that’s where you really learn, in front of an audience. It’s much more accessible and less competitive than New York or Los Angeles.

P&C: I guess it just depends on what your end goal is.

JC: Well I have to say for me, it certainly has become more… When I started at improv Olympic, this was back in ’84, somewhere in there, ’85, ’86… you knew everyone. There was maybe seven or eight teams at the most, so you knew everybody. There truly was this community.

Now it’s enormous and when people say “I’ve gotta audition for a Harold,” I just think to myself, that wasn’t the case when I was there.

P&C: Improv has become this huge thing, which is good because it means more people are getting paid to teach and even perform. But do you miss the intimacy of the smaller community, or do you think this is a great thing that’s happened?

JC: I think it’s a great thing. I just came back from Detroit for the Detroit Improv Festival, and they just treated me like a king.

I think for someone like me who’s been around for a while and is starting to be known, it’s really cool to take what I’ve learned here the last 30 years, and then go to different cities. ‘Cause there is a connection between improvisers. We all speak the same language when it comes down to it.

P&C: Do you travel a lot?

JC: I’ve started to travel more as the opportunities have come in. I won – which was a total surprise to me – the 2012 INNY Award for Best Workshop with The Art of Slow Comedy. So I’ve gotten some interest there, but my basis is still Chicago.

P&C: Were you born in Chicago?

JC: I was born in Chicago, yeah.

P&C: I read that you said you were “pretty much in denial” that you wanted to do improv for years. Why is that?

JC: I always wanted to be… Really young, I think my first vision was to be a stand-up comedian. And part of me, I’d still like to do it. And then I got into improv, and once I got there – it was at the Players Workshop at the Second City, which I don’t believe is there anymore – but there was just like, a handful of places that were teaching improv back in the ‘80s and that was one of them.

I had been the class clown at school, I had been the funny one in my family, and everything that I had worked to, to that point, was rewarded. And I finally found, like, “I found my people. They understand me.”

P&C: When you say “your people;” your podcast is called Improv Nerd. I didn’t think of improv being associated with nerds as a personality type until I saw an interview with TJ, and he said “Improvisers are nerds,” and I thought, he’s right! Do you find that it’s like this group of people who were outsiders who’ve come together in improv?

JC: Yes. I think, you know, it’s a different breed. And in Chicago, we’re really not actors…we are actors, but in Chicago there’s division between actors and improvisers which I think is very interesting.

And I think that improvisers, y’know, they’re really not stand-ups, they’re really not actors, they’re this hybrid. So I think that there’s this sense that we’re kind of on the outside. And I think if you asked improvisers their background, one is you’d find out most of them come from dysfunctional families. And two is, they probably didn’t feel like they belonged.

And I think for most of us, when we found improvisation or we found a certain theatre that did improvisation, we felt we were home, and we were accepted. In that case, I think yes, we are all nerds, and we are nerds finding ourselves. Improv is a nerd colony, and hopefully that we will reproduce.

P&C: (laughs) It’s great because improv gives you the courage to do things and say things and feel things that you may not in real life. I think in your book you say “It’s not therapy,” but there is that angle to it that it’s like a release when you’re up there.

JC: Well there is a healing quality of improvisation that I started to tap into the last five or six years as I have been in group therapy. It’s so much fun to be in a class where people will…you’ll have an opportunity to help people get over an issue that they’re working on onstage, that they think is only about what they’re doing onstage, when in reality – since improvisation is such a transparent art form – it really has to do with what’s going on in their life.

P&C: For sure. Going back to you on that point, you’ve said that you’re in therapy and that you’ve had a hard time letting go of low self-esteem, because you’re afraid if you do, you’ll lose your comic voice. Do you still have that concern?

JC: No. I’d like to find more joy in improvising, and that’s parallel to my life. I’d like to find more joy in my life. So I’m not worried that I’m not gonna do… I think today for me, where I’m at in terms of therapy is that it’s actually helping me become a better improviser because I’m discovering things about myself.

I’m all for – and this is where I go towards and what I find the most fascinating in improvisation and in comedy in general – is going for the honesty. The things that are revealing; the things that when you get off stage, I’m gonna feel a tremendous amount of shame, or the audience may feel a little uncomfortable and laugh. That’s what I like in comedy, and that’s what I like in improvisation, and there’s also a lot of healing in there.

If you can get onstage, and I’ve done this many times and talked about my sexual abuse, for instance… that becomes very healing for me, and hopefully it becomes healing for the audience. And in the process, hopefully there’s humour to that, which makes it easier for people to deal with. But that’s part of the healing process too; laughter is really important to that process.

P&C: There’s some great lightning-fast shows with lots of sweeps, but then you go and see something like TJ and Dave where it’s so much slower and more about the relationships, and you can see – I don’t know either of them, but you can sense their personalities in the characters they’re portraying – and I think that’s why audiences absolutely love them.

JC: And on top of it they’re both very passionate about improvisation. When I was coming up at the improv Olympic, everybody looked up to Dave Pasquesi. I mean everybody wanted to be Dave Pasquesi.

P&C: (laughs)

JC: It’s interesting; I don’t think it was aired because there was a technical difficulty, but we had Noah Gregoropolous. I don’t know if you know Noah, but he’s very well respected at the improv Olympic. He’s kind of curmudgeonly and has very high standards, very professorial, and Noah said in the interview, the only person he looks for approval from is Dave Pasquesi.

And then TJ to me, he’s like Mozart. I mean, nobody… I’ve played with him, and when there’s a suggestion you can see it in his eyes, he’s already got something. He is amazing; he’s easily one of the best I’ve ever played with, and I truly believe that he is a genius at what he does.

P&C: In the Improv Nerd interview with TJ, you said you and TJ were on a team together?

JC: We were a team called Carl and the Passions at iO here.

P&C: So this is early days of iO?

JC: No, this was later. My relationship with the iO has been on again, off again for years. So this was probably four or five years ago.

P&C: I’m jumping around in my notes right now…you were in Jazz Freddy, and you’ve interviewed some of [the members] on your podcast: Rachel Dratch, Dave Koechner…

JC: Dave Koechner, sure. Kevin Dorff was on that. Brian Stack, who writes for Conan O’Brien.

P&C: Can you describe the improv scene at that time? Jazz Freddy went on to become this very influential group, but who was there at the time that you looked up to?

JC: Well to answer you first question, the scene back then… there wasn’t as many opportunities to perform improvisation. So it was kinda fun because in a way it was like the Wild West. You made your own opportunities, which I think was such a benefit because people took more risks.

So that was kinda the lay of the land. We’d all finished studying at the improv Olympic, so Pete Gardner was the one who really had the idea because he had been with a group called Ed, and he’d learned a lot from a guy named Jimm Dennen and they had done a show at the Remains Theatre. They were probably one of the earliest groups that I can remember that brought longform into a legitimate theatre.

The Remains Theatre was a very big equity house here in Chicago. So we really patterned ourselves after that. We always wanted to do a little more slow and a little more serious scene work, and we wanted to take it into a theatre, and so Ed opened the door for us to do that. And so we put it up I believe on a Monday night, and it’s one of those shows where, quickly it started to sell out, quickly we started to get great reviews, and became this phenomenon.

Then we did another run and that was a huge success. I think we moved it to the weekend, still at Live Bait Theatre. And it’s interesting, even today, improvisers who were behind us, y’know, one or two generations, will say, “Jazz Freddy was a huge influence on us. I got into improv because of Jazz Freddy, it was amazing to see what you guys were doing.” And I think that was really the benefit of those times.

It was a very exciting time here in Chicago in terms of, you had Jazz Freddy, you had Ed, the Annoyance… I was doing the Annoyance Theatre and Jazz Freddy at the same time, and the Annoyance had just begun on their space on Broadway here in Chicago, and The Real Live Brady Bunch and Co-ed Prison Sluts, and all their shows. I mean it was really an exciting time. And Looking Glass Theatre which had David Schwimmer and Joey Slotnick, they were starting up… It was a real kind of Renaissance period in Chicago in terms of theatre and improvisation.

P&C: And how long was Jazz Freddy an entity?

JC: There was a couple runs of it, but I don’t think it was really… maybe, totally? The first run was maybe six weeks and maybe we extended it another six weeks, so maybe that was twelve weeks, and maybe the next run was twelve weeks too. I don’t think it was that long of a run.

P&C: That’s amazing. That is truly a testament to what you were doing.

JC: The other thing, I think this kinda ties in to how improv has changed. When we did Jazz Freddy, we looked at it as, we’re putting up a theatre show. We brought all the discipline and respect that putting up a theatre show [entails].

Which meant – which is unheard of today – saying “Look, you cannot do anything else that’s gonna conflict with this. This is your priority.” Which would never happen today. Today people would be like, “I can’t do it, I’ve got another show at X-Y-Z Theatre. I’ve got another class at Second City. I’ve got my final performance at Annoyance.” But that commitment is what I believe – and certainly the talent that we had – but that commitment made that show.

And the other thing is, I think there’s a plus and a minus for the expansion of improvisation today. In terms of the expansion, those opportunities like Jazz Freddy, those shows that influence generations, I don’t think they’re gonna happen as much, and I’ll tell you why.

[It’s] because there’s so many performance opportunities, and this is mentioned in Improvising Better, the book I co-wrote with Liz Allen. People are so addicted to… I think we called them Stage Junkies. They will run to class, they will run to a show, they will spread themselves way too thin. And in that, they won’t give their art enough space and enough time to create something like Jazz Freddy.

Because everyone’s worried; they wanna make sure they’ve got all their bases covered in case the Next Big Thing comes. Well I can guarantee if you’re playing that way, you’re not gonna find the Next Big Thing. They’re betting against themselves and they don’t know it.

P&C: I think that is universal. You hear “Get as much stage time as you can,” so you think, “Well, if I get can three shows a week, that’s great!” But then you also might be taking classes and to your point, you reach overload and then you’re not really committed to anything.

JC: Right. And here’s the thing: there becomes a ceiling.

When you start out and you’re getting stage time it’s great, because you’re getting experience. But then you’re gonna hit this ceiling where, now it’s about getting quality stage time.

So that’s really an important thing for people to remember.

In Part Two we discuss Improvising Better, the Improv Nerd podcast, how Jimmy’s teaching style has evolved, and pushing past fear to do new projects.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane