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Whose Improv Is It Anyway? Beyond Second City

Whose Improv Is It Anyway? Beyond Second City

Amy E. Seham
Copyright Date: 2001
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    Whose Improv Is It Anyway? Beyond Second City
    Book Description:

    On both sides of the stage improv-comedy's popularity has increased exponentially throughout the 1980s and '90s and into the new millennium. Presto! An original song is created out of thin air. With nothing but a suggestion from the audience, daring young improvisers working without a net or a script create hilarious characters, sketches, and songs. Thrilled by the danger, the immediacy, and the virtuosity of improv-comedy, spectators laugh and cheer.

    American improv-comedy burst onto the scene in the 1950s with Chicago's the Compass Players (best known for the brilliant comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and the Second City, which launched the careers of many popular comedians, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Mike Myers. Chicago continues to be a mecca for young performers who travel from faraway places to study improv. At the same time, the techniques of Chicago improv have infiltrated classrooms, workshops, rehearsals, and comedy clubs across North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Improv's influence is increasingly evident in contemporary films and in interactive entertainment on the internet.

    Drawing on the experiences of working improvisers,Whose Improv Is It Anyway?provides a never-before-published account of developments beyond Second City's mainstream approach to the genre. This fascinating history chronicles the origins of "the Harold," a sophisticated new "long-form" style of improv developed in the '80s at ImprovOlympic, and details the importance and pitfalls of ComedySports. Here also is a backstage glimpse at the Annoyance Theatre, best known on the national scene for its production ofThe Real Live Brady Bunch. Readers will get the scoop on the recent work of players who, feeling excluded by early improv's "white guys in ties," created such independent groups as the Free Associates and the African American troupe Oui Be Negroes.

    There is far more to the art of improv than may be suggested by the sketches on Saturday Night Live or the games onWhose Line Is It Anyway?This history, an insider's look at the evolution of improv-comedy in Chicago, reveals the struggles, the laughter, and the ideals of mutual support, freedom, and openness that have inspired many performers. It explores the power games, the gender inequities, and the racial tensions that can emerge in improvised performance, and it shares the techniques and strategies veteran players use to combat these problems. Improv art is revealed to be an art of compromise, a fragile negotiation between the poles of process and product. The result, as shown here, can be exciting, shimmering, magical, and not exclusively the property of any troupe or actor.

    Amy E. Seham is an assistant professor of theater and dance at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. In Connecticut she has served as artistic director of Performance Studio in New Haven and of Free Shakespeare on the Green in New Haven and Stamford.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-759-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-2)

    The term “improvisation” has many meanings and uses in the world of art and philosophy. Chicago-style improv-comedy, orimprov, however, refers to the specific form of improvised comedy that originated with the Compass Players and the Second City comedy theatre in the 1950s and continues to be performed by troupes throughout the world.¹ Chicago-style improv-comedy is a form of unscripted performance that uses audience suggestions to initiate or shape scenes or plays created spontaneously and cooperatively according to agreed-upon rules or game structures, in the presence of an audience—frequently resulting in comedy. It is usually performed by small groups...

  6. CHAPTER 1 the first-wave paradigm
    (pp. 3-30)

    In 1995, one of theChicago Reader’srecommended theatre selections was a bitterly funny show at the tiny Factory Theatre entitledSecond City Didn’t Want Us or Is There a Part in the Touring Company for My Girlfriend?Developed through improvisation and modeled on a Second City comedy revue with sketches and songs, the show spoofed Second City’s “improv doctrine,” teaching styles, and institutional practices and parodied the sexism, racism, and homophobia encountered there. Amidst the jokes, this independent company accused Chicago’s biggest and best-known comedy factory of manipulating idealistic young improv students through favoritism, hypocrisy, and both economic and...

  7. INTERLUDE: the second wave
    (pp. 31-38)

    Even as their numbers increased, many improvisers involved in the first wave began to believe that Second City had lost sight of the most important ideals of improv: spontaneity and community. By the late ’70s that comedy institution appeared to be minimizing the improv sets, creating pat revue sketches, and catering more and more to tourist audiences. Group feeling continued to erode as Second City actors moved through the company on their way to jobs in television, and scores of hopefuls on the fringes of the first wave jockeyed for each open position in the troupe. Second-wave founders, by contrast,...

  8. CHAPTER 2 ImprovOlympic: the truth about improv
    (pp. 39-78)

    Since its inception in 1981, ImprovOlympic has become a powerful and often controversial force in Chicago’s improv-comedy community. The company first defined itself in opposition to Second City, which used an improvisational process primarily as a means of developing a comedyproduct. For ImprovOlympic, the processwasthe product.

    ImprovOlympic offered what they claimed was a purer and more open form of improvised performance, where immediate and unplanned creation was free from the middleman of director, playwright, or censor (internal or external). Perhaps more important, ImprovOlympic promised the chance to belong, to be one of “us,” to student players who...

  9. CHAPTER 3 ComedySportz: play’s the thing
    (pp. 79-112)

    On page two of his three-hundred-page manual for team managers, Comedy-Sportz founder Dick Chudnow defines his creation: “ComedySportz is a sport. It is a competition for laughs” (2). In fact, this second-wave company is a highly popular vehicle of improv-comedy and a national business that licenses ComedySportz teams in more than twenty cities throughout the United States. Like ImprovOlympic, ComedySportz marked a return to “live” improv instead of improv-based revues and saw itself as an alternative to Second City and to Johnstone’s Theatresports models. It also implemented distinctive structural innovations—both institutionally and artistically—that set it apart from either...

  10. INTERLUDE: the third wave
    (pp. 113-122)

    Like much late ’80s and ’90s culture, third-wave improv coalesced not as a radical break from the past, but as a recombination and reinterpretation of ideas from many decades of improv technique and theory. Rather than developing revolutionary artistic ideas, the third wave realigned the structures, goals, and membership of their new companies.

    First- and second-wave theatres remained powerfully active throughout this period, but many third-wave players had come to believe that early improv’s all-encompassing ideals of spontaneity and community did not, in fact, include them. Unwilling to give up the pleasures of improv, they sought to redefine its workings...

  11. CHAPTER 4 The Annoyance Theatre: carnival of misfit toys
    (pp. 123-164)

    In 1993, the six-year-old Annoyance Theatre company added several new productions to its repertory of original, improv-based comedies and musicals. One of these,Dumbass Leaves the Carnival, seemed, despite its title, to be more serious than the others. In fact, it appeared to be a rather dark allegory of the Annoyance troupe’s own artistic and financial struggles. This theatrical fable, directed by Annoyance founder Mick Napier, begins with a troupe of carnival performers and freaks who perform joyfully together with such disregard of money that they allow greenbacks to drift unnoticed across the stage. Into their midst comes the evil...

  12. CHAPTER 5 The Free Associates: the rules of the game
    (pp. 165-187)

    The Free Associates specializes in highly structured long-form improvisation and first made a modest name for itself on the Chicago improv scene with parodies of Tennessee Williams plays—billed asCast on a Hot Tin Roof. The company was founded in 1991 by a gay man, Mark Gagné, with early support from two straight women, Liz Cloud and Lynda Shadrake. From the beginning, they produced, directed, and cast their projects with an eye toward creating more opportunities for women improvisers and a less sexist and less heterosexist working environment than they had found in the second-wave improv companies of ComedySportz...

  13. CHAPTER 6 improv in black and white
    (pp. 188-213)

    African American influence on mainstream popular culture has been undeniable—and increasing—for more than a century. In practical terms, by the late ’80s and ’90s, African American expression, such as rap music, had been popularized through the medium of MTV, packaged, and sold to a global market. As an improvisation-based form, rap was not subsumed and appropriated by white performers the way much rock ’n’ roll had been.¹ At the same time, comedy programming on network television and comedy films began to feature more black performers. It is in this context that Second City began to question its viability...

  14. conclusion
    (pp. 214-228)

    As the millennium drew to an end, the improv world was again in flux. Nationwide awareness of improv had grown rapidly throughout the ’90s, fostered by touring companies, regional teams, festivals, the internet, college and university troupes, television programs, and films. Increasing numbers of corporations and businesses began hiring improv consultants to help facilitate group work, creativity, and positive thinking. Eager students poured into Chicago in seasonal floods, but an increasing number of veterans were flowing out again, looking for ways to use their skills in less improv-saturated, more lucrative arenas. Chicago became a hub for the improv diaspora. Comedy-Sportz...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 229-238)
  16. Works Cited
    (pp. 239-246)
  17. Index
    (pp. 247-258)