Chicago Improv Festival

Now in its second year and running through April 11, this annual celebration of the art of improvisational comedy brings together members of the international improv scene for performances and workshops. Featured out-of-towners this year include the formerly Chicago-based Upright Citizens Brigade; Minneapolis’s Brave New Workshop in a return visit; New York’s Burn Manhattan; Montreal’s On the Spot; Amsterdam’s Boom Chicago; and LA’s leading improv ensemble, the Groundlings. The home team, meanwhile, includes current and former members of the Second City, ImprovOlympic, the Annoyance Theatre, the Playground, the Black Comedy Underground, Sheila, and the Zeitgeist Theater, among others. There’ll also be a tribute to improv guru Del Close, to whose memory producers Frances Callier and Jonathan Pitts have fittingly dedicated the festival.

Performances take place at two Wrigleyville venues: main-stage shows at the Annoyance Theatre, 3747 N. Clark, and second-stage events at ImprovOlympic, 3541 N. Clark. Call 773-782-4720 for performance information and reservations, or purchase tickets on-line at Tickets for performances range from $10 to $20; shows start at 8 PM every night, with additional shows at 10:30 PM and midnight on Friday and Saturday.

In addition to performances, an “improv education extravaganza” April 9 through 11 features workshops and a bus tour of significant sites in the history of Chicago improv (“from Mike Nichols to Mike Myers,” says a brochure). Workshop leaders and speakers include director-teachers Sheldon Patinkin, Josephine Raciti Forsberg, Charna Halpern, Susan Messing, Mick Napier, Shira Piven, Martin de Maat, Mark Gagne, and Michael Gellman, Second City producer Kelly Leonard, screenwriter Denise De Clue, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. The cost of the educational-activities package is $150; interested persons should call 773-862-5082.

Listed below is the performance schedule for April 8 through 11.


Celebrity Improv Jam, Free Associates, and Factory Theater

Tim O’Malley hosts the “Celebrity Improv Jam,” an improv set featuring local veterans Aaron Freeman, Will Clinger, Rose Abdoo, Matt Dwyer, and Holly Wortel, plus special guests to be announced. The Free Associates present Chancing at Lunacy: The Completely Improvised Irish Country Play, their spoof of Irish playwright Brian Friel; Reader critic Lawrence Bommer calls the show “an antidote to the gorgeous blarney” of Irish theater, adding: “The . . . improv doesn’t always rise above the more stupid audience suggestions. . . . But the style, accents, metaphorical overkill, and lyrical gush [are] beyond reproach.” And the Factory Theater presents The Factory All-Stars Late Night Fiasco, with Factory actors playing roles from White Trash Wedding and a Funeral, Alive, and other Factory shows. Annoyance Theatre, 8 PM. $15.

Scott Adsit, Mick Napier, and Dave Pasquesi

This trio of Second City alumni team up for what a press release gingerly calls an “unpredictable performance.” Annoyance Theatre, 10:30 PM. $10.


On the Spot, Boom Chicago, and The Bobroom

Two Canadian companies–Montreal’s On the Spot and Toronto’s Bobroom–make their Chicago debuts. And Boom Chicago members Jill Benjamin and Seth Meyers perform Pick-ups and Hiccups, a comic revue about male-female relationships. “The show’s scripted portions are impressively well rehearsed and tight. [But the team’s] improv sequences are so rigidly structured that they don’t give the pair much room to maneuver,” says Reader critic Nick Green. Annoyance Theatre, 8 PM. $20.

Improv ‘Til Dawn

Chicago’s Zeitgeist Theater hosts 18 improv troupes from around the country. Participating ensembles include Arizona State University’s Barren Mind Improv, the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Players, Indiana University’s Full Frontal, and Toronto’s all-female G.T.O.’s troupe, as well as Chicago’s Black Sheep, Salsation, and Stir-Friday Night! ImprovOlympic, 8 PM to 2 AM. $5.

Brave New Workshop and Musical! the Musical

Minnesota politics inspired the title of Brave New Workshop’s revue Jesse Goes to Hollywood, or Lost on the Ventura Highway; the Minneapolis comedy troupe performs selections from that show here. The long-running Chicago show Musical! the Musical combines elements of long-form improv and the Broadway musical to create a totally improvised two-act musical on a subject suggested by the audience. Nancy Howland Walker directs. “Walker’s ensemble has a sharp ear for the cliches of the genre, [and] the possibilities for a tuneful good time are almost limitless,” says Reader critic Mary Shen Barnidge. Annoyance Theatre, 10:30 PM. $20.

A Tribute to Del Close

This salute to the noted teacher-director, who died last month, features the Lindbergh Babies improv team as well as a performance of the ImprovOlympic shows Slam Dunk, described as “a quest for the mysterious religious cult that lives among us,” and The Holy Fools, which depicts the on- and offstage antics of a gang of poets in a saloon. Annoyance Theatre, midnight. $10.


Second City National Touring Company, ImprovOlympic, and Annoyance Theatre

The Second City’s traveling troupe performs songs and sketches from the company’s archives. ImprovOlympic presents The Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement & Hootenanny, its long-running program of comic improvisation featuring veterans of Lois Kaz, Jazz Freddy, Second City, the Family, and other troupes; Reader critic Jack Helbig calls the show “inspired and entertaining pure improv.” And the Annoyance Theatre presents The Screw Puppies, a program of experiments in long-form improvisation. Annoyance Theatre, 8 PM. $20.

Ralph Fiennes Is…Ralph Fiennes, Schadenfreude, and Sheila

MTV writer Matt Price’s Ralph Fiennes Is…Ralph Fiennes is a “pseudo-one-man show” in which Price has to fill in for Ralph Fiennes when the film actor doesn’t show up for his own autobiographical solo performance. Schadenfreude features skits, music, and monologues. And Hyde Park’s improv team Sheila creates a one-act play with the audience’s involvement. ImprovOlympic, 8:30 PM. $10.

Upright Citizens Brigade and Black Comedy Underground

The Upright Citizens Brigade, now star of its own show on cable TV’s Comedy Central, returns to Chicago with a program of new comic sketches. The Black Comedy Underground, which declares itself “the only all African-American professional improv-based ensemble in the nation,” performs its improv-developed play Kill Whitey, about a group of aspiring screenwriters deserted by their teacher. “Chicago has long needed a group like the Black Comedy Underground. Not just because the improv comedy scene, still dominated by white males, could use shaking up but because there’s so much potential comic material in African-American life, and only African-Americans can mine this territory without coming off as patronizing or racist or both. The strongest moments in [this] show are those that do just that. . . . But, sadly, long stretches of Kill Whitey fail to live up to the show’s promising premise. [The] overarching story . . . needs more structure and focus, [and] the quality of the performances varies widely, from fresh and inspired to flat and uninteresting,” said Reader critic Jack Helbig when he reviewed the show’s recent run at Second City. Annoyance Theatre, 10:30 PM. $20.

Amateur Show-offs, Playground All-Stars, and J.T.S. Brown

The Amateur Show-offs perform “adults-only comedy.” The Playground All-Stars, consisting of performers from the Playground collective’s member ensembles, play “short, funny, and fast games.” And J.T.S. Brown is a program of long-form improvisation directed by Craig Cackowski. ImprovOlympic, 11 PM. $10.

Upright Citizens Brigade

The troupe follows its 10:30 PM sketch revue with a late-night improvised set. Annoyance Theatre, midnight. $15.


The Groundlings, Burn Manhattan, and Zeitgeist Theater

The Los Angeles-based Groundlings make their Chicago debut as the festival’s closing-night headliner. Burn Manhattan, led by former Chicago director Shira Piven and featuring alumni of Bang Bang and the Second City, presents an unstructured program of “spontaneous theatre.” (See regular theater listings for information on the group’s Chicago appearances outside the auspices of the festival.) And the Zeitgeist Theater, best known for its long-running Flanagan’s Wake (see regular theater listings), performs improv games and songs. Annoyance Theatre, 8 PM. $15.


Robert Dassie, Rich Talarico, and Stephanie Weir perform a long-form improvisation inspired by the stylings of a traditional jazz session. ImprovOlympic, 11:15 PM. $10.