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The ‘how’ of funny Essay

It’s Wednesday night at Chicago’s most venerable coffeehouse, the No Exit. An improv group called Bang Bang has been playing here late on Wednesdays. They’re supposed to be hot. They’re supposed to be good. They’re supposed to have an interesting approach. The Chicago Tribune ran a friendly piece about them in the Sunday arts section.

Which makes what I’m seeing now that much more puzzling. There may be times when these Bang Bang people really are all the things they’re supposed to be, but not tonight. They’re terrible tonight. More than terrible: They seem utterly and completely clueless. I can’t imagine how they might even get to good from where they are tonight.

At least one company member appears to understand. “Let’s see some more boring fucking Bang Bang work,” he yells from the back of the room. “Let’s see some asshole get up there and take me to the moon.”

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An interesting statement–not only because you don’t often see a performer acknowledge failure (or cuss out his fellow players, for that matter) while the performance is still in progress, but also because it suggests something of what that performer expected from the performance in the first place. This Bang Bang guy wanted nothing less than transportation to the moon. You may say the comment was just hyperbole. Based on what I know about the new wave of improvisation in Chicago, I’d say it was dead serious.

Because Chicago’s new wave improvisers are themselves dead serious. After more than three decades during which audiences and entertainers alike came to think of improv as another word for skit-style comedy a la “Saturday Night Live,” a younger bunch of artists has begun to emerge here with a very different–and much larger–sense of what the form can be and do. These improvisers aren’t afraid of a laugh, but they haven’t fetishized it as the one goal of their onstage existence, either. For them, improvisation isn’t simply a means to a punchline; it’s a kind of walking meditation, a process of discovery…a way to get at and disclose everything they didn’t know they had in them–funny and otherwise. As Jim Dennen, a director associated with some of the best and boldest new wave shows, says, “We truly have somehow happened upon a way of working where it’s not pure anxiety and pure product-orientation. Instead, it’s a growing organism, and it lives.”

And, Bang Bang’s bad night notwithstanding, an astounding amount of this living work is strong enough and astute enough and daring enough to have set up a sympathetic vibration through every echelon of Chicago’s improv community.

Of course, there’s a good deal of old wave in the new one. So much, in fact, that the phenomenon might more accurately be called the New Throwback. In many respects young artists like Dennen are reverting to ideals, if not necessarily to specific practices, pursued by their improvisatory forefathers and mothers during that brief moment before the ascendance of the punchline and the short skit.

Contemporary professional improvisation was invented in Chicago in 1955, when David Shepherd met Viola Spolin’s oldest boy, Paul Sills. An old-money leftist with blood ties to the Vanderbilts, Shepherd cherished a vision of a popular theatre based on the commedia dell’arte: physically and creatively agile theatre that would turn the latest headlines into hot, fresh plays for the masses. All he lacked toward the realization of this vision was a method.

Sills had literally grown up with the solution to Shepherd’s problem. His mother had devised a series of improvisational games in the course of her work with young people, as a drama supervisor for the WPA Recreational Project in Chicago, and had even begun to use those games in developing shows devoted to the issues of the day. The caption under a 1940 news photo of a Spolin-directed amateur production reads, “Today’s news is tomorrow’s play.”

Spolin’s games gave Shepherd the technical means he needed to start his commedia revival. He and Sills rounded the Compass Players, recruiting University of Chicago students like Mike Nichols along with campus hangers-on like Elaine May. Company members trained with the games, just as Spolin’s young people had, in order to heighten their rapport and to release their creativity, both as individuals and as a group.

But the result was very different from what Shepherd expected. There were no proletarian masques. Instead, the Compass Players found an audience among college-educated Hyde Park lefties like themselves. And where Shepherd had planned to imitate the commedia practice of building full-length plays from scenarios–bare scene-by-scene outlines that players could fill out onstage, improvisationally–he found that audiences and players alike considered the full-length format too cumbersome. They preferred the short comic skits the players would perform before and after the scenarios, based on audience suggestions or current news stories.

The Chicago Compass folded in 1957, but the short skit format survived: Sills, Howard Alk and Bernard Sahlins picked it up two years later and made it the centerpiece of their new cabaret, the Second City.

You could certainly say that the rest is history. Second City has become a long-lived success, not just in a business sense but as a cultural and theatrical phenomenon–continuing to define the how and what of funny in America through its influence on movies, television and the stage.

And consistently throughout the years, the ‘how’ of funny at Second City has been represented by the brief, improv-based skit. A major promoter of the short skit strategy was Sahlins, who assumed primary control of Second City in the ’60s and maintained it through 1984. “I never thought improvisation was a form,” Sahlins says now. “Essentially, improvisation for me is a tool, like mime, used to arrive at material in the absence of a writer. And in the absence of a writer you can only arrive at certain kinds of material: short things, things without subtext, and so forth.”

Sahlins’s attitude effectively put the kibosh on the idea of trying out alternative approaches. Put the kibosh, really, on the whole idea of artistic ambition where improv was concerned. Kelly Leonard, the current associate producer of Second City says Sahlins was “the king of improv, as leader of Second City,” but that Sahlins’s unwillingness to experiment with the form sent a message discouraging further development of improv.

Even as Second City was busy sanctifying the short skit comedy revue, however, others continued to play with some of the more esoteric possibilities suggested by the Compass experience. Sills left Second City early on to experiment with Story Theatre, among other forms; Shepherd still turns up from time to time with a new dream.

But perhaps the experimentalist with the most powerful direct influence on Chicago’s new wave has been Del Close, a veteran of the St. Louis Compass ensemble who functioned as a “crazy uncle” at Second City off and on for years.

Close couldn’t be more fundamentally at odds with the former king of improv. Where Sahlins sees improvisation as nothing more than writing by other means, Close sees it as “a doorway into something.” Where Sahlins looks for the irony in a scene, Close claims to look for the transcendent. And where Sahlins finds nothing to justify an extended improvisation, Close envisions “complex, multi-character theatre pieces.”

There came a point, Close says, when he told himself, “Alright, let’s just pretend that the whole Second City thing never happened, and we could go back to the days of the Compass Players. Now if we wanted to face some of the same problems that the Compass decided to face back in its day, how would it be different and how would it be the same?”

One of the central problems Close decided to face was the one the Compass never solved: how to improvise evening-length scenarios. Close’s answer was “Harold,” a long-form improvisation that evades the difficulties of linear plotting with “a lot of cinematic cutting hack and forth.”

For the last decade, Close has taught Harold in partnership with Charna Halpern at what it now called the ImprovOlympia. Most of the new wave has percolated through his workshops at one time or another–among them, members of the Annoyance Theatre, who have been known to resort to week-long improvisatory lock-ins in pursuit of a show; and members of Jazz Freddy, who prove the validity of long-form improvisation over and over again by performing consistently brilliant Harold-style sets in which themes, references, characters, jokes and shreds of plot breathe in and out of one another, tagging each other, reconstituting themselves, and forming structures within structures within larger and smaller structures.

Though Jim Dennen has never studied with Close, the two find many points of affinity. “I see what his ambition is,” Close says. “It is to basically rescue improvisation from improv. To rescue improvisation from the notion that it has to be funny in a cabaret sort of way.”

A former philosophy major for whom every verbal exchange seems to trigger a crisis of meaning, Dennen has made a guru’s reputation by directing productions like The Filmdome, an elaborate theatre game whose almost occult rules were meant paradoxically to free the participants. “I’m hoping that things will proliferate,” he says of the new wave approach. “I hope that the community will once again embrace improvisation as real theatre. I think improvisation is the essence of theatre–I think scripted theatre is worthwhile, but it’s an abstraction of the true form of theatre. Improvisation is the center of theatre: watching players onstage be. Simply be.”

To some extent, Dennen’s already gotten his wish. Even Second City has begun what might be called a de-Sahlinsization process in recent years. In addition to running a training center that emphasizes the physicality of improvisation, the landmark cabaret has begun to hire off so many of the new wave players that a new fear has sprung up: the fear of co-option by absorption.

“That’s been a big criticism of me,” says associate producer Leonard, “that people are afraid that I’m too in love with them. These guys have a fresh approach to the work and I want them to infuse Second City with that approach. What I think they’ll do is bring some life to the Second City form, and challenge it and hopefully change it at times. We have to stop thinking in terms of A then B then C, which is exactly the way it has been done for so long: Well, we have to do it like this because that’s the way we do it. No. We don’t. We can do it differently.”

Does all this constitute a renaissance for the art Chicago created nearly 40 years ago? “We’re in the midst of a real, you know, a real something,” Close concedes. “I generally get everything backwards. Like I don’t drive in L.A. and I had a car in New York. I didn’t go to Woodstock, I went to Altamont. But I’ve also been in a lot of the right places at the right time, and I think that this improvisational foment that’s going on in Chicago at the moment is another one of those.”

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The 'how' of funny Essay
It's Wednesday night at Chicago's most venerable coffeehouse, the No Exit. An improv group called Bang Bang has been playing here late on Wednesdays. They're supposed to be hot. They're supposed to be good. They're supposed to have an interesting approach. The Chicago Tribune ran a friendly piece about them in the Sunday arts section. Which makes what I'm seeing now that much more puzzling. There may be times when these Bang Bang people really are all the thing
2021-07-12 23:57:29
The 'how' of funny Essay
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