at the Wrigleyside


at the Improvisation

A couple years ago Del Close and Charna Halpern were forced for legal reasons to change the name of their organization from the ImprovOlympic to ImprovOlympia. The change of one letter may seem trivial, but it wasn’t.

The name ImprovOlympic always seemed rather grandiose, as if Halpern (who founded the group ten years ago with David Shepherd) really believed that their weekly public competitions attracted the finest amateur improvisation teams from around the world. Actually, for the most part their shows included teams created by Halpern and Shepherd (and later by Halpern and Close) almost entirely from current and former students in their improvisation workshops.

Even as a student and performer at the ImprovOlympic six years ago I was bothered by this contradiction. I was convinced that it accounted for Halpern’s insistence on structuring each show as an often deadly serious competition between three teams, usually a house team and two lesser challenger teams.

The nightly rating of each team’s performance (often by the most capricious criteria) and declaring a winner, which suggested these victories meant something (which in a way they did, since losing teams were often broken up) ran counter to Close’s more nurturing, Zen-like message that process was more important than product, that you were more likely to hit the target if your ego wasn’t on the line. (At the time, Halpern’s message was more often: hit the target, dammit, or I’ll replace you with someone who can.)

ImprovOlympia, with its reference to the place where the ancient games were played, seems at once more relaxed and more to the point–in part because it takes the emphasis off competing. (As if Viola Spolin ever dreamed it was possible to win, or worse still lose, playing her theater games.) Halpern and Close have also almost completely removed the competitive element from the show–teams are no longer assigned points based on their performance, and no winner is declared at the end of the evening.

Halpern still creates a more polished house team, but its role is closer to that of upperclassmen in a high school–something to aspire to. Of course experience is not always an asset in improvisation. Last Friday night the less-experienced team, Corky’s Callback, delivered the freshest and most spontaneous “Harold”–Close’s trademark long-form improvisation.

I’d forgotten how liberating it is to watch young performers create scenes out of nothing. “O! for a Muse of fire,” one of the improvisers cried out as their Harold, based on the theme “radiator knocking,” sputtered to a close in a group scene that seemed beside the point. It was an ignominious end, but the previous scene had been very funny and had, for a time at least, seemed touched by fire.

In contrast, the house team, the Victim’s Family, was much more polished–and much more conservative. Using the theme “cold weather,” this all-male team slowly drifted into a series of silly sci-fi scenes, two of which had essentially the same structure: creatures from another world invade a mundane location, reveal their true reptilian selves, and scare the locals. Though entertaining, these scenes lacked the excitement that usually accompanies the discovery of new comic territory and felt more like the repetition in another form of material explored (better, perhaps) in other improvisations.

Were they playing it safe for the critic? I have no idea. But because they stumbled into some minor errors, including variations on the cardinal sin of denying the reality of the scene, I suspect that something was keeping them from doing their best work.

The real charm of ImprovOlympia’s show is watching young energetic improvisers joyfully putting Close’s spin on the Spolin games. Which may explain why the most entertaining segment of the show turned out to be a glorified party game in which the audience was invited to assign character traits to eight improvisers and a player who had left the room had to guess each quirk or foible based entirely on the other players’ behavior. It may also explain why ImprovOlympia is better off with a name that emphasizes not the zero-sum aspects of professional theater–“I win; you lose”–but the fact that Halpern and Close have created a safe place for beginning improvisers to gain experience.

Nothing made me more aware of the ideal performing conditions improvisers have at ImprovOlympia than seeing the pure hell Blue Velveeta goes through trying to entertain the jaded, dumb, drunk, and disorderly crowd at the Improv. Trained at the ImprovOlympia, and for a time one of Halpern’s house teams, Blue Velveeta flew the coop a while ago.

Without a doubt, Jay Leggett, Brian Blondell, and Brian McCann have the intelligence, wit, and stamina to perform great improv. The three work as a tight team. They support each other, never step on each other’s lines, never deny their partners, never roll their eyes when someone makes a silly or hasty decision. All three are lightning fast, and though their act has a high professional shine, their improvisations still seem, well, improvised. (I was especially impressed with the way Leggett was able to create song lyrics out of thin air.)

All they need is a hip, intelligent audience. The night I saw them, they got an audience that wanted nothing but sex jokes and a chance to heckle a bad performance. During a bit in which McCann and Leggett, playing a retro-60s folk act called the Sandals, asked for a topic on which to improvise a protest song, the best suggestion they got was “penile implants.” The song they created was funny. But I couldn’t help being disappointed that on the weekend before a primary no one in the audience seemed interested in the opportunity for political satire.

This crowd lived for the chance to shout “You suck! You really suck!” whenever suggestions were culled from the audience. Eventually Blue Velveeta dived to the level of the audience. Leggett imitated a man sticking his hand up a cow’s rectum (and then licked his fingers). McCann improvised lyrics rhyming “Mickey,” as in mouse, with “dickey.”

About halfway through the show Leggett snapped and turned on a drunk woman in the front row who kept shouting “masturbation!” whenever he asked for an audience suggestion. “What about masturbation?” he snarled at her, and then informed the rest of us, “This lady needs a mop, it’s so wet on the floor around her! Oh, she’s looking down! Don’t want to talk about it now, do you?”

It was not one of the finer moments in the show, but it was entirely deserved. Unfortunately, nearly everyone in the room would have had to be similarly dressed down before these three guys could have shown more than a small fraction of their wit.