Big Forker Jim is currently in Chicago for five weeks, where he is undertaking some intensive training at iO, the theatre that is widely considered to have invented the Chicago style of improv. The intensive program at iO brings together over 150 improvisers from around the world to spend five weeks immersed in the improv and comedy world. This blog is the first in a series where he talks about his experiences in Chicago.
I’m staying in an airbnb in Avondale, a district on the north western fringe of inner city Chicago, with former cool story bro monologist and performer Kath. Chicago is hot in July, and my first day walk around the city cures me of my jetlag but leaves me exhausted and a little sunburned. I also stuff my face with some Italian Beef from Portillos, a Chicago institution I’m sure I will visit again before I leave the city. It’s just roast beef on white bread, but in my half awake state it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.
I crash back at home and binge watch the first series of ‘Love’ on Netflix. I’m not totally won over, but Gillian Jacobs, who I’ll see in a premiere screening of Mike Birbiglia’s new movie about improv, ‘Don’t Think Twice’ on Thursday night, is a revelation. I sleep a bunch.
iO and The Harold
The international mob descends on iO all at once, cramming the Del Close Theatre. Apart from Kath, I see a few people I recognise but mostly meet people whose names I try hard to remember but don’t. Eventually Charna Halpern appears with her dog in tow and welcomes us all to iO. There’s a beautiful nervous energy in the room, and you can tell that even the teachers are excited to get underway.
The core of the iO training program is the iO’s signature improv form, The Harold. Developed in the 1960’s, broadly speaking the Harold is a 25-40 minute piece with an opening idea generation game and three rounds of three scenes, with each round separated by a group game. It relies on group mind and establishing strong characters and relationships that can recur throughout the piece.
The Intensive Program
The program itself consists of 5 weeks of instruction that broadly align with the 5 levels of improv teaching taught at iO. Each week’s classes run from 11am-5pm, Mon-Thurs. For the duration of the program, all shows at iO are free to attend. I will be taking advantage of this, and I’ll include a list of any shows I see at iO or elsewhere the bottom of these posts.
After lunch I meet my section, with whom I’ll be improvising and learning for the next five weeks. It’s a great group, a real mix of experience, nationality and background. Aside from me, there are 4 from Switzerland, 1 from Poland, 1 other from Australia (by way of Scotland), 1 from Norway, 2 from England, 1 from South Korea and 5 from various parts of America.
I’m instantly blown away by the skills and fearlessness of everyone in the group, especially those from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Our teacher for the first week is Jessica Rogers, who moved to Chicago in 1999 and has been part of the scene here ever since. As much as this experience is about growing as a performer and learning from Chicago style masters, it’s also a masterclass in teaching, so I’m also paying close attention to the teaching styles I encounter while I’m here. Jessica is a fantastic way to start, as she is primarily a teacher and you can tell her style has been finely honed. By the end of week one I have pages and pages of ideas of things to bring back to Brisbane.
First Week of Classes
I had assumed that the first week of classes would be similar to taking an beginners improv class. I was wrong. At the iO intensive they throw you right into meaningful activities, and your first week of classes culminate in a full run through of a Harold. In week 1!
The main thing that is drilled into me across the week is the emphasis iO’s curriculum puts on relationship. Cool Story Bro, our flagship format at Big Fork Theatre, is what you’d call a premise or game-based format, based on the Upright Citizens’ Brigade Theatre style, where the humour comes from establishing comedic premises from the monologue which are then initiated and played as scenes. At iO, however, the goal of a scene is not to find a comedic premise, but to unlock the potential (comedic or otherwise, but mostly comedic) of the relationship between the characters in the scene.
On Day 2 we do an Armando, the monologue-based form that inspired Cool Story Bro, and it’s rough. I can’t get out of my mindset of finding a premise, and am not playing well. It’s hard work switching off that part of my brain that doing so many Cool Story Bros has ingrained. The key takeaway is to look at the underlying themes of the monologue, and mine the monologue not for jokes but for themes, relationships and connections. A lot of the group also come from more game-based schools, and so it’s fair to say that our group morale was quite low heading into lunch on day 2.
We rebounded, though, and the afternoon of day 2 and all of day 3 are some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a classroom environment. Of particular note is an exercise about character wants that I can’t wait to take back to Brisbane. The rest of week one is spent learning the various parts of The Harold form, from games through to each of the ‘beats’ - but more on that later. The training wheels Harolds we end on are not spectacular, but are recognisably Harolds, are intermittently funny, are self-reflexive in a meaningful way and have solid commitment from the ensemble. It’s a great place to be after just one week with this crew.
Seeing shows and Chicago
So far, I’ve managed to see at least one show a night, and the discovery that an Uber from the theatre to my airbnb averages $5 means I’ll be able to see a lot of late night shows that I otherwise would have thought twice about catching.
Chicago’s comedy and improv theatres appear to be concentrated within a few suburbs on the Northside, so I’ll be looking to see as many shows at other theatres as possible in the coming weeks.
Top 3 things I saw this week
3. Don’t Think Twice: I was lucky enough to snatch up a ticket to the sold out premiere screening of Mike Birbiglia’s new movie, Don’t Think Twice, which is a drama/comedy based around an improv troupe in New York City. I’ll do up a full review later, but the prevailing message of the film, to enjoy the moment you are living in right now, resonated strongly with me. After the movie Mike Birbiglia did a brief Q&A, which was almost not totally ruined by a woman who wouldn't leave the microphone.
2. Molly: Molly was an improvised duo with Susan Messing and Norm Holly, who played a beautifully patient 40 minute show with real emotion and reality, but still an incredible sense of fun and playfulness.
1. The Neo-Futurists present: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: Wow. This is a show where the 5-person ensemble perform 30 two-minute plays in 60 minutes, with the audience selecting the order in which the plays are performed. The plays range from the comedic, to the political, to the intensely dramatic. One of the things that impressed me the most was the sense as an audience member that we were a part of an experience that was happening on this night and this night only. It’s something we try to do at Big Fork Theatre, but the Neo-Futurists are masters of this. From the price being determined by a dice roll, to them ordering a pizza for the audience when the show sells out, everything is designed to remind you that you are part of what is happening. They have sister shows in San Francisco and New York City, and you owe it to yourself to check it out if you’re in any of those cities - it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Improv shows I’ve seen this week
The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny
Harold: Sears Tower/Little Tooties/The Dream
Molly: Susan Messing and Norm Holly
Harold: Water on the Moon/Virgin Daquiri/Carl and the Passions
Whirld News Tonight
Other things I’ve seen this week
Don’t Think Twice
Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blin