Last year when we were about to open our theater, we needed performers, a lot of performers. We had a slate of shows that we wanted to produce for the opening, but the company was just Angie McMahon and me. We decided to have auditions, but what were going to ask people to audition for? A show? A team? Or an ensemble?
In the past, I’ve been involved in theaters that have been team centric, most notably iO and the UCB Theater in New York. Team centric systems have their pros, but the more I’ve thought about them over the years, the more I’ve become dissatisfied with them. The main problem I have with them is that they are brittle. Teams break easily. People move away or get better gigs. People get on each other’s nerves and feel trapped where they are. Or they get so annoyed with one another that they begin to lobby the powers that be to cut people. If a team fails, then you need to figure out what to do with the performers. Often good ones are lost in the shuffle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve posted a new episode of the IRC Podcast. The guest is Paul Grondy who has been teaching at iO in Chicago since 1997. He teaches students how to do the Harold and so we talk about Harold structure, the principles of group work, being tender and heartfelt, knowing what you know, and group things.
The latest episode of Improv Resource Center Podcast is up. Joe Bill teaches Power Improv workshops in Chicago and around the country. He is one half of BassProv with Mark Sutton and one half of SCRAM with Jill Bernard. He also teaches at iO and has taught at the Annoyance before that.
I first got to know Joe Bill back in the 1990s. He was teacher over at the Annoyance when I was at iO. He coached Georgia Pacific, a very talented team at iO and eventually joined that team. Similarly he joined Inside Vladimir after some of the original members had moved on. I joined not long after that and it was then that we first really got to know each other. It’s always fun talking to him, because he has lots of experience and plenty of passion when it comes to improv.
Episode #8 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded. This week’s guest is Susan Messing. She performs regularly at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, where she teaches level four classes. She created the curriculum for level 2 at iO Theatre and teaches there as well. Among the episodes we discuss are Caligula, Busby Berkeley, and Doublemint Twins.
Episode #5 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded. Tara Defrancisco is a former member of the Second City Touring Company. She performs and teaches for iO Theater and ComedySportz in Chicago. She discusses several exercises she uses in her classes and workshops. We start by talking about "What’s in the Box?" a short form exercise to help people make quick decisions and to yes and those decisions. Next we talk about an exercise where students initiate scenes as if they are expressing an important idea to a real person in their life. Last we discuss a couple of exercises designed to get students to make new and different character choices in their scenes.