Gorilla Theater: Comedians Must Be Punished–Chicago’s Best Improv Comedy Competition

Low Sodium Entertainment

at the ImprovOlympic

Grimm: The Completely Improvised Fairy Tale!

Low Sodium Entertainment

at Live Bait Theater

By Jack Helbig

Back in the mid-80s, Del Close and Charna Halpern still had grand dreams of turning improv into a new national sport, with franchises in every major city. Borrowing a page from the grand dame of improv, Viola Spolin, Close used to remind his students at every opportunity that theater games were the building blocks of improvisation. You didn’t have to worry about acting technique or being funny or creating an interesting scene–all you had to do was “find the game,” then play it with all the energy, commitment, and joy you could muster.

In a way he was right, which is why a show like Gorilla Theater, with the meager premise that improvisers are competing for not-so-valuable prizes, turns out to be a hoot and Grimm, with a much more intellectually respectable premise–trained improvisers plumb the depths of their souls to create a fully improvised fairy tale–turns out to be grim indeed.

From its inception in the 30s, when Spolin and others used improv as a kind of art therapy for the poor and disadvantaged, improv has been a hybrid form, half theater, half party game. But in the early 90s a generation of eager, talented improvisers downplayed the party-game side, setting out to prove that pure improv could be an art in itself. In those heady days, improvisers attempted to create fully functioning one-acts using only a suggestion or two from the audience. But the key word is “attempted.” Though many of these completely improvised plays were interesting, especially to members of the improv cult, they often left the uninitiated cold.

Now, after almost a decade of wandering the desert looking for the Holy Grail of long-form improv, a number of improv companies have returned to their roots in party games. The most recent example is Low Sodium Entertainment’s Gorilla Theater: Comedians Must Be Punished–Chicago’s Best Improv Comedy Competition, first developed and franchised by Canadian improv guru Keith Johnstone. A silly, loose show, it doesn’t even take its basic premise very seriously: instead of competing improv teams, Gorilla Theater gives us three competing directors, who also perform, and one ensemble. Each director gets several cracks at the ensemble, calling out which improv game they’ll play next; the audience judges, shouting out “banana” if the scene was entertaining and “forfeit” if it wasn’t. Actors in the ensemble rotate into directors’ roles week by week.

The evening starts out seriously enough with the game-show ritual of explaining the rules and the scoring process: each time a director wins, he gets a banana; each time he loses, he performs some humiliating but funny task, like kicking himself in the rear or singing show tunes unaccompanied at the end of the show until the auditorium empties out.

But as the show progresses, this structure falls apart. The boundaries between teams, always flimsy in such competitions, disappear entirely. The night I saw the show, Aaron Daniel Haber did his best work not directing but improvising, thereby aiding rival director Abbey Hoover. The boundary between performer and audience also falls, as audience members are constantly invited to comment on the action and sometimes even to join the performers onstage. Before the end of the evening, a giddy Dionysian energy reigns. Funny bits seem hilarious, and even the silliest bits get laughs if they’re performed playfully. One person is eventually named the winner, but no one really cares.

Which is how it should be. If the Gorilla Theater guys were as anal about maintaining a competition as, say, the folks who run the NBA or the NFL, then much of the sweet, anarchistic charm of improv would be lost. Close and Halpern learned this a long time ago, which is why they long ago abandoned the dream of a national improv league. Even the folks at ComedySportz–a highly structured improv competition with the only whistle-toting referee I’ve seen onstage–have loosened up a little recently, depending less on their arbitrary scoring system to keep an audience’s attention and more on the actors’ infectious playfulness.

Whether you consider Gorilla Theater to be “Chicago’s best improv comedy competition,” as the subtitle humbly submits, may depend on whether you have friends or family in the ensemble. Certainly the ComedySportz folks work much harder to clue in nonmembers of the improv cult. They also have a much more doctrinaire approach to the games, thus avoiding the weird hybrids Gorilla’s directors come up with. For a time, these three even seemed more interested in competing to create the strangest game than in giving their players something they could work with. On the night I attended, the clear winner of the bizarre-game award was Joe D’lulio, who actually forced his improvisers to stick their heads in a tub of water, allowing them to emerge only when they had to deliver a line. The directors’ improvised games tended to undermine specific performances but enhance the evening’s ambience.

To be honest, however, I’d rather not make comparisons. Because they really do contradict the noncompetitive spirit of improv games. No one really wins at the Spolin sport. As soon as you start worrying about whether you have, you’re not really playing anymore.

Something similar holds true for fully improvised fairy tales, a form that really can’t be forced. As Robert Bly, Bruno Bettelheim, and others have explained at length, fairy tales have achieved their mythic resonance through centuries of oral storytelling, which filters the tales as it were, washing out whatever is specific to a time or place and concentrating on what’s most archetypal. To expect a group of actors to create a story out of thin air and have it be as rich as the Grimm brothers’ “Iron John” is unreasonable. Though improv guru Paul Sills thought of combining improv with fairy tales, the result was story theater, in which existing tales are performed by actors trained in Spolin games.

Still, you can’t blame the folks at Low Sodium–which uses a completely different ensemble in this show–for attempting two coherent fairy tales in little more than an hour. You can blame them, however, for stumbling, making many basic improv mistakes. Performers argued onstage, contradicted each other’s realities, and denied the reality of a scene to pursue something less interesting. One performer even took it upon himself to begin narrating the second of the fairy tales, a role he adopted when he felt a scene was going on too long.

The irony was that the second fairy tale actually began with a more interesting premise–three daughters under the thumb of a dictatorial mother yearn for the love of a prince to free them. Unfortunately, the men in the company completely missed the possibilities inherent in the first scene of the tale, creating a very jokey second scene at court that touched on none of the issues raised in the first. Cut back to the women–and an even more heartfelt exploration of the girls’ dilemma. Cut back to the court for more tomfoolery. Cut back to– well, you get the idea. The one chance the company had to create something as rich as a fairy tale, and the Peter Pan members of the ensemble freaked out.

The first improvisation–about a lonely princess who finds a worthy prince–was less of a failure, but only because it remained safely in the half-campy world of bad children’s theater.