CHICAGO -- Among Chicago's major contributions to world culture -- Al Capone, Michael Jordan, urban blues, deep-dish pizza -- perhaps none has had a greater impact than improvisational comedy. Chicago may not have invented improv, but it was in Chicago that its energy was harnessed, its principles formalized, taught, and exploited for both pleasure and profit. It's no coincidence that New York boasts an improv group called Chicago City Limits.
The ninth annual celebration of Chicago's gift to comedy, the Chicago Improv Festival, rears its laughing head April 24-30. Billed as "the funniest week in Chicago," the multivenue festival will offer dozens of groups and solo performers from Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands, Norway, and every region of the United States. Their names alone tell you that this is improv: Cherry Bomb (New York City), Die-Nasty! (Edmonton, Canada), Full Frontal Nudity (Columbus, Ohio), Hurricanes Are Funny (Austin, Texas), Let Them Ho's Fight (Chicago), Loose Screws' Screwbuki (Honolulu), Oslo Improvisasjonsteater (Oslo, Norway), Whirled News Tonight (Chicago), and more.
Most of the players are unknowns outside their hometowns, but the festival will also present performances by such stars of The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, and the standup circuit as Horatio Sanz, Keegan-Michael Key, Emo Philips, Dan Bakkedahl, Nicole Randall Johnson, and Adrianne Frost.
Initially a for-profit company, the Chicago Improv Festival was reorganized three years ago as a nonprofit. Co-founder and executive director Jonathan Pitts explains, "I knew after year six, when we lost money, that it had to be a nonprofit. We couldn't make a year's worth of money in a one-week festival as a for-profit business."
This year Pitts has divided functions he previously handled himself, with Don Hall hired as producer and Mark Sutton as artistic director. Sutton has imposed an overall theme for the first time, "Improv as Theatre": "We will give special attention to improv's role in the theatre process," says the festival's website (www.chicagoimprovfestival.org), "as well as work highlighting the art form's use as a writing tool, teaching medium, and performance avenue."
The festival offers performances in six categories: main stage (in a 950-seat theatre), showcase (ensemble improvisation), sketch (scripted ensemble shows), duo (two-person improv or sketch), solo (one-person improv or sketch), and fringe (unusual improvised or partially scripted shows). The categories were formalized three years ago when the festival adopted a juried format and invited performers to apply. Submissions are accepted between mid-November and mid-January and should include a tape or DVD and a full media package. There is a $35 submission fee.
For this year's festival, a 13-person jury was divided into teams of two for each of the six categories (an extra judge assisted in adjudicating the showcase category). True to the festival's theme, one judge in each pair had a theatre background, while the other had an improv background. "We had 194 submissions this year, more than we've ever had before," notes Pitts. In all, 63 solo artists, duos, and companies were invited to participate. Invitees must pay their own travel and housing expenses, but they're provided with a venue and promotion in Chicago.
Most performances take place at the Athenaeum Theatre, which offers a mainstage, four studios of 50-90 seats, and a 50-seat lounge. But there are free daytime performances at the Chicago Cultural Center as well. The festival is also participating in the city's concurrent Bodies of Work: The Chicago Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, offering an April 26 evening of deaf improv featuring the Los Angeles troupe Ice Worm in Whose Sign Is It Anyway? and Austin, Texas, solo artist Terry Galloway performing Mean Little Deaf Queer.