My story as an improvisor

I moved to Chicago in the spring of 1991 with the hope of becoming a professional actor. Although I had little training at the time, I had performed in a few plays in college and I had done a little improv too. My plan was to study acting, do some shows and apply to MFA programs. That’s not what happened.

I studied acting at a place called Center Theater up on Devon Avenue. They taught a method that was Meisner based. Some of my favorite teachers from that time are still around, teaching for the Artistic Home. It was an exciting and visceral approach to acting, and I learned a lot. Sadly, the actual plays that I was involved with were not as interesting and raw as the training. I had trouble applying what I learned to regular acting. It did seem to help me with my improv though. For almost two decades I’ve tried to figure out ways to take what I learned there and apply it to improv.

I started, like many people at the time, going through the Players Workshop of Second City, a group that was very thinly associated with Second City (the final show at the end of the year was on the Second City mainstage). At the time, Second City didn’t have the A-E program that it does now. So Players Workshop was frequently the program that people did before auditioning for the Second City Conservatory.

Jay Leggett from Blue Velveeta
Jay Leggett from Blue Velveeta
I remember very little of what I learned at Players Workshop, but I met a lot of great people. Some of us created a group and enlisted Jay Leggett to teach us. Jay was from the legendary Harold team Blue Velveeta. They were the house Harold team at ImprovOlympic in the late 80’s. Eventually they broke off and started doing shows independently. Jay was an awesome teacher. He taught me to be patient and realistic in my scenes. He taught us the Harold. He taught us about the game of the scene and how to make connections. It was an excellent introduction to long form.

Jay talked a lot about Del Close in class. He credited Del with most of the ideas we were learning. One night after class, Jay was talking about moving to LA and how perhaps we should start studying at iO. This was probably the spring of 1993. He had heard that Del was sick and that if we wanted to study from him, we better get our ass over there for classes soon. So I went to a few shows and signed up.

This was the era of the Family at Improv Olympic. They had been the house team for at least a few months (maybe closer to a year) when I started taking classes. I had Charna for level 1, like everyone did back then. Then I took a class taught by Miles Stroth and Adam McKay. I think I was in Matt Besser’s first ever class next. And finally I studied with Del for about 6 months.

It was a tremendous experience being a part of Improv Olympic back then. There were some independent long form groups around, but if you were going to do long form improv back then, you did it at iO. I got on a team pretty quickly after level 1. And after a couple of terrible shows with one team I was moved to Frank Booth and stayed with them for four years.

Craig Cackowski
Craig Cackowski
Frank Booth was one of those very rare iO teams that just gelled. We were a bunch of nice people and we worked well together. After a year or so we found ourselves to be one of the top teams. We played every Saturday night. We created a show called Frank Booth in the Blue Velvet Lounge which combined improv and jazz standards sung by our friend Tara Davis. Eventually we broke up in early 1997. Paul Grondy was on that team. He still teaches at iO. Lilly Frances, the owner of LOL Theater was on it too. So was Liz Allen who co-wrote that book with Jimmy Carrane. She won the coach of the year award so many times at iO that it was named after her. We had one, and only one coach the whole time, Craig Cackowski. It was a great bunch. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so supported on stage before or since.

It was while I was on this team that I started coaching and eventually teaching. I talked Charna into letting me establish a touring group called the iO Road Show which I directed and produced. I ran what I think were the first improv auditions at iO for that group. I ran it for a couple more years until I left for New York.

I can’t remember exactly when I started the Improv Resource Center. I think it was in 1995. At first it was a few pages of html and an attached message board. It was through that site that some of the UCB’s students started finding my essays on improv. The UCB contacted me and asked if I would come out and teach a workshop in 1998, which I did. It was my Weird Harold workshop, where I had people do specific kinds of Harolds like musical Harolds, dream Harolds, etc. I loved New York and I began thinking how great it would be to perform and teach there, but I returned to the grind in Chicago at iO.

The next Spring after Del passed away and after the UCB had finished their first season of their Comedy Central show, they contacted me out of the blue. I had just moved in with some friends on Ashland Ave. We were sitting around playing poker. I went to check my email and there was a message from Amy Poehler saying that they’d like me to come out and teach for them. I was so excited. This was exactly what I wanted to do next.

I quit my jobs and my teams in Chicago and headed for New York. It was an amazing time to join the UCB Theater. The only ones teaching for them then were the UCB 4, Armando Diaz and me. They had just opened their first theater on 22nd street. There were probably a core of about 50-100 performers. And the rush of new students was already beginning. I think there were only five or six teams at the start, but things were growing like crazy. I stayed with the UCB for 7 years and taught something like 100 classes for them at every level. I served as their Artistic Director and after that, I ran the training center, hiring teachers, overseeing the curriculum, and scheduling classes.

In 2006, family issues took me away from New York and for the next four years I’d be helping to take care of my parents, first accompanying my father to Arizona and then returning to my home town in Illinois to help take care of my mom. She passed away in 2010, and it was a strange moment in my life. I had not been doing much theater or improv and I wanted very much to return to New York or go to LA.

But I also had this idea that maybe I should go back to Chicago. I wanted very much to start a theater, to build something for myself instead of spending so much energy over the years building other people’s theaters. I felt like Chicago was a better place to start something than New York, and LA just isn’t theater town, so I returned to Chicago and started plugging away. I felt a bit rusty, so I took writing classes at Second City, improv classes at the Annoyance and went through the acting program at Black Box Acting Studio and eventually studied clown and physical theater with Paola Coletta. It was great to be a student again. I learned a lot of new stuff. Most importantly, I remembered what it was like to be a student. It reminded me how important it was to keep your students on their feet working and how crucial it was to not waste time in class. It was good to feel that antsy energy of wanting to do an exercise many times instead of just once, like so often happens in classes.

2012 was a busy year for me. I performed in three plays and a sketch show. In 2013, I’ve refocused on improv and comedy. I’ve been running a variety show called Hump Night. I wanted very much to be teaching improv again, and so I started offering performance classes last year. I’ve done four of them so far.

Looking over this, I feel like there is so much I’ve left out, so many highlights, like creating the show Cage Match which ran at iO for years and runs at both UCBT NY and UCBT LA and later starting the 3 on 3 tournament in New York, an event that has become an annual tradition at Thanksgiving. There was the year I produced a run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for Frank Booth. As far as I know, we performed the first Harolds ever in Scotland.

The Swarm
The Swarm
When I was in New York, I directed a bunch of shows at the UCB Theater. One of the highlights was directing the Swarm in their breakout show: Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain. That’s where we first coined the term monoscene to describe a form with only one scene, but which could be broken down into many smaller scenes via entrances and exits.

Since I’ve been back in Chicago, I’ve enjoyed performing in Mullaney Chain, a show where I invite someone to play and they invite someone else (and so on). Through that show I’ve had the privilege to perform with so many amazing Chicago improvisors. Many of them started long after I left for New York years ago.

So, that’s a little introduction to who I am as an improvisor and a teacher. If you are interested in improv and live in Chicago, I hope you will consider taking a class with me, or joining the improv meetup group I run, or at least dropping by some Wednesday in the fall to see Mullaney Chain at Hump Night. If you don’t live in Chicago, I hope to see you at a festival or maybe I can coach you via Skype.

Also, please invite me to play sometime in your show. If I can do it, I usually say yes.

2 thoughts on “My story as an improvisor”

  1. You forgot about your most important role in establishing New York’s improv culture: Repeatedly beating Chicago in the annual Halo match to determine the improv capital of the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *