With untold hours on the iO stage, four Second City revues, seven “Saturday Night Live” seasons and a new sitcom to her credit, Rachel Dratch is one of the most experienced performers in this week’s Chicago Improv Festival. And one of the most anxious.
CHICAGO IMPROV FESTIVAL
When: Through April 2
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont; Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport, and other venues
“I haven’t improvised in so long that I’m very nervous,” Dratch said over the weekend, admitting that she’s likely rusty after several years of concentrating on scripted work and parenting her son Eli, now 6.
“I always tell people the more you improvise, the more you lose the fear. By the time you’re doing it every single night, the fear isn’t part of it anymore and you just get really freed up in your mind. But now that I don’t do it very often, the fear is very much back,” she said with a laugh. “The fear doesn’t leave you forever!”
That’s quite a contrast from the way she spent the ’90s, darting from stage to stage in Chicago, improvising whenever she could and watching others improvise whenever she couldn’t. Even when she moved to New York for “SNL,” where she created memorable characters including the bleak-minded Debbie Downer and the outspoken Boston teen Denise, Dratch would sit in on unscripted shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
Now, at age 51, “I just don’t have that same, like, burning need to go improvise,” she said. “But whenever I do, I’m like, ‘That was so fun. Why don’t I do that more often?’ I can’t believe how much a part of my life it was, and it’s kind of dwindled down a little bit.”
For her Chicago Improv Festival debut, Dratch is scheduled for three gigs:
— She’ll improvise with Scott Adsit, a teammate in three of her Second City shows, at 10 p.m. Saturday at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. “I’m a little more like, broad comedy is my go-to,” Dratch said, “and he’s a little more like, ‘This could be a play.’ Sometimes that combo can be great. I hope so!”
— She’ll be the guest at a 5 p.m. Sunday taping of “Improv Nerd,” the podcast hosted by Jimmy Carrane. That’s at Second City e.t.c., 1616 N. Wells.
— And at 8 p.m. Sunday, also at Stage 773, Dratch will join in the long-running “Bassprov,” a conversational improv show set on a fishing boat.
“I don’t even know what it is,” she confessed. “I just said OK.” She is at least friendly with its Chicago-based stars, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton.
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Return visits to Chicago are rare for Dratch these days, but when she does get back she has a go-to destination: the River North tapas joint Cafe Iberico, a favorite hangout during her Second City days.
“We had Monday nights off, so I always used to go there with my group of friends, the Second City lady gang,” she said. “They just have really good food, good vibe, pitchers of sangria. That was my jam.”
She’s now based in New York and bringing up Eli, whose origin as a surprise pregnancy was the subject of Dratch’s 2012 memoir “Girl Walks Into a Bar.” She and the boy’s father, John Wahl, aren’t married but are “basically co-parents,” she said, deliberately staying vague about where the relationship stands.
“We still do some family trips together,” she added as Wahl was overheard trying to tame Eli in the background.
The book also dealt frankly with Dratch’s struggles to find work after leaving “SNL.” Since then, she said, that issue “just kind of burned off and died away,” and she now keeps busy with TV guest spots and stage work. Last summer she co-starred with Daniel Radcliffe in “Privacy” at New York’s Public Theatre.
Her next regular gig is on ABC’s “Imaginary Mary,” premiering at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on WLS-Channel 7. She plays the title role, an imaginary friend dreamed up by a little girl who suddenly returns to advise her as an adult (Jenna Elfman). Mary is a fuzzy little animated creature, and Dratch provides her bubbly voice.
“She’s kind of like combo cheerleader/guru,” she said. “Sometimes her advice is really good and sometimes she misses it.”
After each episode is shot in Vancouver, Dratch adds her contributions from a recording studio in New York. Video is shot for reference as she acts, and there’s time for the animators to adjust Mary’s moves according to Dratch’s gestures and expressions. “So,” she said, “there might be some Dratchian elements there.”