Improvisation has become the sriracha of performing arts. People are always finding new places to put it, from moviemaking to corporate-team building. I suppose most of those uses make sense. When you come down to it, improv is just a technique for getting folks to connect to one another as constructively as possible. What process couldn’t use a little of that? But I never understood why anybody would want to build a contest around it. “Yes and . . . ” and “We will crush you” don’t strike me as an easy fit.
So I asked Kevin Mullaney to explain. He runs the Chicago Improv Classic, the latest incarnation of a contest he and Angie McMahon founded four years ago, when they co-owned Under the Gun Theater in Lakeview (Mullaney left in May, due, he told me, to incompatible “levels of optimism”). The 2017 Classic starts January 7 at the Second City, and culminates in finals there on February 18.
Mullaney is no Bernie Sanders; he believes competition “drives people,” and that’s a good thing. Still, the Classic has checks and balances designed into it—runners-up can survive qualifying rounds, a talented member of a losing team can get picked up by a winning one. In the end, though, Mullaney relies on the genius of the marketplace: “The crowd knows good improv when they see it.”
Chicago Improv Classic Qualifying rounds Sat 1/7, 1/14, and 1/21, 8:30 and 10 PM, Second City de Maat Theatre, 230 W. North, third floor; semifinals Sat 1/28, 2/4, and 2/11; finals 2/18, 10 PM, Donny’s Skybox Theatre, 230 W. North, fourth floor, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $13, $11 students.