Mo Phillips-Spotts and Kayla Pulley adapted to Zoomprov over the past year. Credit: Mo Phillips-Spotts courtesy Kayt Free Photograpy (@kaytfreephoto)/Kayla Pullen courtesy Elias Rios (@eliasriosphoto)

What hit harder, the racism or the pandemic?

When the world shut down, theater performances came to a halt. No one was laughing about anything. Improvisers couldn’t perform, and theaters across the city lost big money. Alongside COVID-19, the improv community had a great awakening regarding mistreatment of BIPOC talent. Major theaters retroactively diversified leadership roles, but these actions make me wonder whether they are doing so because they aren’t racist, or because they don’t want to be seen as racist. Who’s to say?

Reopening and closing amid the pandemic

Live comedy in Chicago is synonymous with the Second City. Off the Sedgwick Brown Line stop in Old Town, Second City went through big changes in 2020 when performers demanded the theater correct its racial disparities. In response, the theater quickly and consecutively placed two African Americans into the executive producer role. The Second City has continued efforts to hire BIPOC staff, performers, and leadership. Despite this, now that they’re back for live performances, the theater’s marketing is steered toward one type of audience member. Ticket prices can reach $80 a seat, a steep price to pay to watch a few jokers crack wise. Clearly the bottom line is the dollar sign, and white affluent audience members are preferred.

On the south side in Hyde Park, the Revival has been known for promoting BIPOC talent. While they are still operating at a steady pace, the mission at Revival to cultivate diverse talent has also remained consistent. In regard to talent and audience diversity, Revival owner John Stoops says, “Racial matters have prompted our community to consider who attends and teaches the classes, performs and directs the shows, and staffs the theaters. It’s long overdue. There has always been chatter around the issue, but it has only been chatter. Now, there’s real consideration to make this art form one that engages all Chicagoans who care to engage with it. I can only speak on behalf of a south-side theater that charges $10-$15 for shows and has prioritized diversity from the beginning. We are financially and geographically accessible to people.”

Located off the Belmont Red Line stop in one of Chicago’s largest LGBTQ+ communities, the Annoyance Theatre also works to promote comedy education accessibility. Executive producer Jennifer Estlin states, “We’re making more opportunities for people who may be challenged financially. Because of the pandemic and trying to keep theater alive, I had to get politically involved.”

Estlin is on the board of the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), and an active member of National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Estlin continues, “NIVA and CIVL have been pivotal in saving Chicago’s nightlife, with venues on the verge of extinction. CIVL is also a crucial voice as an advocate for indie venues, compared to big-name producers that aren’t invested in keeping our venues alive.”

Across from the most luxurious Whole Foods in the city rests the remains of iO theater, plagued for years with claims of ignoring racist and sexist conditions (classic double whammy). Longtime owner of iO, Charna Halpern, closed the doors in 2020 before the significant institutional changes demanded by BIPOC performers were made, noting that the closing was the result of the theater struggling to pay property taxes amid the pandemic. (I guess that’s karma.) Anyway, this summer two real estate executives with no experience as comedy producers purchased iO and were rumored to be reaching out to old staff to rehire them. What a vicious cycle.

Just outside of the city, Laugh Out Loud theater in Schaumburg works diligently to hold their community together virtually. Owner Lillie Frances says, “We’re very resilient. We held the LOL cast and crew together by doing giveaways. There were people who were out of work and we gave out $100 in free groceries. Then other people who worked with LOL contacted asking to donate $100. They gave away things people needed and it was amazing to feel we’re going to be OK.”

Some theaters were not able to escape the effects of COVID. ComedySportz, also located off the Belmont Red Line stop, became a nomadic group in winter of 2021, continuing to focus on digital content. They now perform at the Den Theater on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Less fortunate theaters like the Playground were forced to close, and have not been able to make a return.

What’s improv without improvisers?

In the height of the pandemic, improvisers who had spent years making a name for themselves made a swift exodus out of the city. Those who stayed continued to hone their craft through more creative ways. Keeping active in the community, improviser Kayla Pulley adapted to Zoomprov when virtual became the new live stage. 

Pulley recalls, “Zoomprov stressed me out. It was hard if you didn’t have the right setup. It’s an amazing thing that does exist but it was a beast I couldn’t handle. It’s tough because you don’t hear people laughing. At first, I couldn’t do Zoomprov. Maybe the trauma made it hard. In the live stand-up world I feel like a target, because I usually am. Comedians who are underprepared have used me as a Black prop. In Zoom stand-up I felt safe, because that discrimination wasn’t happening to me.”

Another talented performer with a focus on musical improv, Mo Phillips-Spotts faced similar challenges pre-pandemic. 

“I went to a musical theater audition and walking in I was the only Black person,” recalls Phillips-Spotts. “I felt unwanted, like I shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t a good feeling, and didn’t set me up for success. You need diverse voices to have a good show. The fun of the world is meeting diverse people, and seeing how they interact. We’re learning about each other all the time and we just need it. You don’t want to be the only one in the room. Unless you’re the plant in Little Shop of Horrors.”

Phillips-Spotts adds, “I bloomed doing Zoomprov because it was so freeing. I was making choices that I thought the scene needed. Since reopening, I was able to transfer that over into live performance. Before, I was very conscious of audience reactions. I caught myself thinking, ‘Is this funny?’ The best shows were when I didn’t ask those questions.”

The pandemic changed the way improvisers interacted with their audience and gave Pulley and Phillips-Spotts virtual stages to have conversations with their audience. Mick Napier, founder and artistic director of the Annoyance and a longtime improv director and teacher around town, notes concerns regarding the barriers created while teaching virtual classes. 

“If you’re not in the same room with the other performer it’s more difficult to form a relationship,” says Napier. “Object and environment work go out the window. It’s a more presentational medium, with a lot of talking heads. The sketch and improv scene is going to change. We’re going to attempt to evolve more.”

While virtual shows were a real struggle, ultimately the pandemic shifted what performers are required to do. On the technological end, freelance producer Emily Weinstein reflects on transitioning to virtual productions. 

“Everything felt more DIY. Virtual shows took a lot of preparation. Comedic timing is so important, but between learning the tech, testing bandwidth, and getting updates, it could be frustrating. It was a good alternative given what everyone had to work with. We would send performers kits with iPhones, they were recording full-on videos. Performers did their own audio levels, lighting, hair and makeup, wardrobe, and media management.”

Director Emily Barber makes it clear that the most important part of performances are the performers. “In the past, sketch comedy had taken on a unified voice. YouTube was the pre-TikTok where you have an unbiased audience judging material for the characters and people created. Sketch comedy has evolved into something much richer because you’re starting to see different perspectives. The people who are being brave are creating the conversation and audiences are flocking to it. People are afraid to be brave because they are trying to relearn what their bravery was for.”

“We’re living in a TikTok world, social media impacts the way sketch writing is occurring,” says teacher and director Jonald Reyes. “We have these timed videos at one minute, and a lot of the younger improvisers are trying to get laughs in a short time frame while making references to TikTok. If you’re not on top of your TikTok and someone is pitching a scene that has a meme reference or video ‘everyone should know,’ the jokes go over your head. Now we have to do more research to figure out where the joke is coming from. That makes it more difficult for audiences to catch up on.”

Barber says, “There is a renaissance of laughing to keep from crying. As fun as improv and sketch are, the more real you are, the more surprising it can be. One of the greatest challenges is people are afraid to be funny. It’s a combination of our previous political climate, the civil rights movements that have happened, and a lot of self-reflection that is going on with people.”

It’s clear that talent should be cared for. As Barber puts it, “Performers are the ones getting butts in seats.” You can’t have butts in seats without butts on stage, and some theaters in the improv community are proving more dedicated to harboring culturally diverse students, performers, and audience members. 

At the Revival, Stoops has found success pairing teachers throughout the country with classes tailored to their specific focus. Students all over the world are able to take classes like hip-hop improv, slam poetry, and spoken word. They even offered late-night comedy show writing classes with a current late-night writer who knows the intricacies of that space.

Estlin and Napier at the Annoyance are preparing to launch a comprehensive conservatory program to uplift performers. The 24-week program will not only be aimed at training performers in acting, writing, and improv, but also website and portfolio development, making contacts with agents, and resume training. Estlin’s goal is to meet students where they are, while connecting them to their ultimate vision of personal success. In addition to this, the Annoyance will begin presenting shows by seasoned performers. Going back to the way the theater began, they plan to have shows generated by a core group of head writers, or an ensemble.

Second City’s 109th mainstage revue, Together at Last, featured a diverse cast. But ticket prices remain higher than at other sketch and improv theaters.

Future of improv

Between COVID and institutional racism, the future of big-city improv stands at a crossroads. Improvisers want to perform in safe spaces. Audiences all over the world are thirsty to see the diversity of the world represented. I believe the future of improv rests within the walls of proactive theaters who focus on their talent first. Envisioning the future of improv, Pulley says, “We are all fools who like to play games. That’s what improv is. It needs to go back to that. To improvisers—try to make yourself money. You don’t need to go to these late-night shows getting paid in PBRs. I see improv going towards POC voices that weren’t as present before.”

As LOL owner Frances puts it, “What happened in the community was almost like a brush fire. It clears the way for other vegetation to grow. I think we’re going to see in three years’ time a lot of new improv theaters springing up, smaller improv theaters to replace the ones that have closed. That’s ultimately a good thing.”

Laugh Out Loud, the Revival, and the Annoyance continue efforts to bring improv to communities overlooked by major theaters. This pressure could produce a few diamonds. As long as performers continue to challenge the boundaries of improv, and theater heads make the effort to incorporate diverse audiences and casts, Chicago will continue to be the comedy mecca of the world.