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Indie improv: Chicago teachers go it alone

A few decades ago, when now-storied improv oracles Del Close, Martin de Maat and Don Depollo lorded over Chicago’s still budding improv scene, there were few places at which to formally and intensively study the art form.

The biggest was (and remains) Second City, whose training center currently has an improv student enrollment of a bit over 1300. Josephine Forsberg’s The Players Workshop (originally The Players Workshop of The Second City) began in 1970 and operated for decades. And David Shepherd’s brainchild ImprovOlympic — which later became iO Theater and is soon relocating from Lake View to sprawling new digs on Kingsbury on Chicago’s Near North side, has more than 900. Founded in 1989, the Annoyance Theatre recently moved from Uptown to a greatly expanded space on W. Belmont and has an average enrollment of around 200.

To varying degrees, all of those institutions have grown tremendously, particularly since Chicago’s mid-1990s improv boom. Today, competition to perform on their stages — whether in student shows, on in-house teams or as a permanent cast member — is fiercer than ever.

“When I was at iO in the ’80s, you weren’t even finished with the first level and you were on a team,” says veteran improv instructor and podcaster Jimmy Carrane, who for years taught (as an independent contractor) at iO and Second City before striking out on his own. “That doesn’t happen [anymore].”

Jimmy Carrane at Stage 773 — Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Jimmy Carrane at Stage 773 — Richard A. Chapman/ Chicago Sun-Times

Charna Halpen, co-founder of iO, says it’s rare that her improvisers get on a team before graduating from the theater’s intensive (and, as with Second City’s, not inexpensive) training program. Even after matriculation, doing so is no small feat.

Lately, adding to an improv landscape that came to include ComedySportz, the Playground Theater and many other smaller venues, more independently run boutique schools like Carrane’s have emerged. While their demographics and core philosophies differ somewhat, they offer what Chicago improvisers once took for granted: the opportunity to quickly and frequently perform in front of audiences.

Improv instructor Dina Facklis teaches a class at the Den Theatre. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Improv instructor Dina Facklis teaches a class at the Den Theatre. | Richard A. Chapman/Chicago Sun-Times

“I’ve been in groups where you do thousands of great rehearsals and then you get up onstage and everybody freezes,” says Chicago Improv Den proprietor Dina Facklis.

A longtime member of the iO Theater improv ensemble Virgin Daiquiri, Facklis struck out on her own last spring after many years of teaching at iO and directing Second City touring shows. Although her current classes — geared toward experienced improvisers — are held at the homey Den Theatre on N. Milwaukee, she’s only renting space there.

“I saw a focus moving away from the things that I wanted to focus on,” she says. “Like any improviser, I’m really grateful for the time I spent [at other places]. I toured with Second City. I directed for them. I still perform twice a week at iO. Those are places that I love. But in the training aspect of it, I wanted to take a different approach—something that I thought would be more effective.”

That’s Bill Arnett’s intent as well. Another seasoned improviser and teacher, he moved to Chicago in 1998 after taking a workshop helmed by late improv oracle Del Close in Austin, Texas, and spent several years on staff at the Close cofounded iO Theater. Eventually, though, he began to get “frustrated with using someone else’s syllabus” and decided to craft one of his own. His new and admittedly “itinerant” venture, headquartered for now at the storefront Bughouse Theater on W. Irving Park, starts July 8.

Like Facklis, Arnett plans to keep his class sizes small (around a dozen students) and give everyone ample opportunity to perform in front of audiences.

Improv teacher Bill Arnett is opening up a new improv comedy shop, Chicago Improv Studio, in July. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media   Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

Improv teacher Bill Arnett just opened a new improv comedy shop, Chicago Improv Studio, in July. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

“There are lessons you can only learn onstage,” he says.

Unlike Facklis, he’ll take all comers, from clueless novice to jaded vets — those who may have “gone a long way down a dead-end street” and want to try another tack.

Regarding the proliferation of improv shops around Chicago, Second City training center head Kerry Sheehan says the more, the merrier.

“We love the idea that the other schools are flourishing and that there are other new ones opening in the city, because it just makes Chicago more of a place to study improvisation. So we’re excited about it. We think it’s good for everybody.”

There are numerous challenges, of course, in going solo — particularly in a town where improv has been so successfully institutionalized and commodified by internationally known purveyors with celebrity alums and big marketing budgets — bigger, certainly, than those of comparatively tiny players like Facklis, Arnett and Carrane.

Near-constant self-promotion on their parts, therefore, is key to surviving and thriving. But Carrane — who frequently blogs and posts on Facebook and Twitter about his classes, his podcast and himself — says that’s “a hard hurdle to get over” for many improvisers because they’re used to an ensemble-based “culture” and “have been trained not to stick out.”

“You’ve got to become a brand,” he says, “and you’ve got to stand for something.”

Facklis stands for, among other things, less “me” and more “we.”

“I think we’re getting away from our heritage,” she says. “Improv was such a thing about having a well-balanced group. And now it’s like, ‘How many bright twinkly lights can we put onstage at the same time?’ [But] you don’t need just the bright twinklers. You need the low twinklers.”

Arnett wants to “reevaluate the way we’re building improvisers” by questioning tried-and-true guidelines (such as never denying a fellow performer’s reality) and using more real-life scenarios as the basis for scenes. He’ll also be more vocally critical (as Facklis says she is), urging students to “play well” instead of merely striving to satisfy a pre-conceived set of rules.

“A lot of traditional improv kind of sets people up: Everything’s great! Everything’s wonderful! Hey, pat on the back! Commit! It’s beautiful! And just agree and yes-and and put your fingers in your ears and drive forward,” Arnett says. “Not that that doesn’t lead to a successful show. But it does not lead to all successful shows.”

Perhaps most important, Facklis says, is maintaining an emphasis on process over product. Increasingly, since Chicago became known as a breeding ground for national talent in the late ‘70s, aspirants have moved here with their eyes on a prize — be it “Saturday Night Live” or “The Colbert Report” or any number of prominent comedy outlets that are typically stocked with improv-schooled sketch performers who’ve studied at the city’s best-known comedy colleges.

The chances of making it big, however, are minute. Carrane, Facklis and Arnett know that from personal experience. That also know that as instructors, their star-making powers are severely limited, if non-existent.

“Lorne Michaels isn’t going to knock on my door, asking me, ‘Who should I hire?’” Arnett says of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ boss, who occasionally visits Chicago to scout for talent. “You want to get on the big stage, you’ve still got to go through Second City or iO. That’s not changing.”

Email: mthomas@suntimes.com
Twitter: @MikeTScribe

CHICAGO IMPROV STUDIO
Where: Bughouse Theater, 2054 W. Irving Park
Fee: $250 for Level One (weekly July 8-Aug. 26)
Info: chicagoimprovstudio.com

CHICAGO IMPROV DEN
Where: Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Fee: $260 for Session 3 (July 12-Aug. 18)
Info: thechicagoimprovden.com

JIMMY CARRANE
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Fee: $249 for Intermediate Improv (July 21-Aug. 25)
Info: jimmycarrane.com