A cheery group has gathered outside the door of the Improv Institute on Belmont near Western. It’s Fun Night, and for $5 these people, most of them actors on a busman’s holiday, get a chance to improvise together and receive a gentle critique from Tom Hanigan, one of the stars of the institute’s resident company. While they’re waiting for him to arrive, they shake hands. In a few minutes they’ll be humiliating themselves and each other, so it’s best to get acquainted. Conversation turns to sitcoms. A tall, lanky, red-cheeked man in his early 20s plants himself in the middle of the group and does his Lurch impression. Some people laugh, but the guy next to me is worried. He’s never been to Fun Night before, but he’s a serious student of improv and knows the rules. Lurch, he senses, will break a lot of rules.

Fun Night is to improvisation what open-mike night is to stand-up: a chance for anyone with the guts to get onstage and give it a try. You don’t need to be a professional actor to take part–a familiarity with the basics of improv will do. Those at the institute on the night I attend are a mix of veterans and beginners. A few rush the stage at every chance, others volunteer only rarely. Some are hip college kids in town for the summer, and one looks like a candidate for Dentu-Creme. Most, though, are day-jobbers age 20 to 40 with an itch for the stage. They did a little acting in school, took a class here and there, or just think they can do it.

“My challenge on Fun Night is to get all these strangers to act as an ensemble,” says Hanigan, a onetime member of Second City. “Everyone who comes brings some talent, but if they can’t work together it’s going to be a long night. Most of the people have some improv experience but aren’t yet at the level of professional performers. The scenes work because everyone here is learning. Some of us in the performance ensemble used to take part but–and I hate to say this–it gummed up the works. It was too demoralizing for the others to have someone up there who was so much more experienced. It’s like watching a high school football game. If the teams are evenly matched you can have a great game, but if you throw in a pro running back the whole thing goes to hell. Of course, if you get someone who just won’t follow the rules of improv or doesn’t know them, the night can fall apart, too. Luckily that rarely happens.”

Though most people think of improvisation as comedy, one of its most important rules, according to Hanigan, is: no jokes. “Jokes stop the action. Funny situations build on characters, so it’s better to have a good character than good lines. The one type of person who can really mess up a class is a stand-up comic who thinks he’s here to do shtick. When shtick happens there is nothing to respond to.”

Hanigan divides the evening up into different segments to allow everyone an equal chance. The first game is scene tag, intended to warm the actors up. Three pairs of actors are assigned identities. On this night the first is an exorcist and client, the second a farmer and bank repossessor, and the third an air conditioner repairman and office manager. While one pair improvises a scene, the other two pairs listen for a line of dialogue that will fit their characters. When they hear one, they clap, take the stage, and begin with the line the previous team ended with. When the exorcist’s client tells her healer, “You have such a gentle touch,” the office manager claps and begins a scene, suggestively telling the air conditioner repairman, busy with his screwdriver, the same thing. It’s a quick game with lots of entrances and exits, the theater equivalent of wind sprints.

The medium-distance event is the three-person scene, in which the actors are assigned nothing but a setting and have to adopt characters and improvise a drama in ten minutes. The first, set in a sky box, builds quickly into an inheritance dispute between two snooty socialites and their very lowbrow son. The actors also work in a poisoning subplot and a baseball-bat fetish. The crowd is delighted and amazed. During the critique, one of the actors watching asks, “How did you all key into what was going on? You seemed to have the same realizations at the same time.” “It just happened,” answers one of the three. “I don’t know how.” The next scene, set in an eyeglass shop, fares worse. It starts out promisingly with an optician struggling to fit a man with a nervous tic but falls apart when the Lurch impersonator enters as a loony English colonel, oblivious to the other characters.

“You can tell right away when a scene is going to click or bomb,” Hanigan reflects later. “The sky-box scene took off right away because everyone was listening and concentrating, but the eyeglass scene died because one guy wanted all the attention and did not let anything happen.” Hanigan partly blames himself. “When nothing sparks, I tend to let the scenes linger too long, hoping something will catch, but it rarely does.”

The final game, a marathon event called a montage, is a free-form exercise where a large group, perhaps ten actors, combine and recombine to create a free-flowing series of scenes around a given theme. To work well, the scenes should fade seamlessly in and out. Tonight the theme is the 70s. The game clicks immediately, with bits on sit-ins, streaking, Jonestown, Star Wars, disco, Kent State, the Sex Pistols, and American hostages in Iran. All agree it was smart and funny and had good characters and situations. The Lurch guy, who sat this one out, likes it so much that during the critique he mimics the impressions the others have just done of Chewbacca and John Travolta–broadly, loudly, but not amusingly. Hanigan shakes his head. “Will somebody please tell him to be quiet?” he pleads, a tad more than half seriously.

Hanigan says everyone is welcome to join Fun Night. He especially encourages writers, actors, and wannabes. Those without prior theater experience are urged to come and watch a few times before taking the stage, and that urging goes double for stand-up comics. Fun Night is every Wednesday from 8 to 10:30 at the Improv Institute, 2319 W. Belmont; the fee is $5. For more information call 929-2323.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.