Wednesday night the Athenaeum Theatre hosted the Blue Wave Rave, a free improv show featuring cast members from iO, the Second City, and the Annoyance Theatre and put together by Indivisible Chicago, a coalition of 12 chapters around the city that was created after the 2016 election.
“I spent almost ten years as the CEO of the League of Chicago Theatres, so I know lots of theater folks,” says Marj Halperin, the cofounder of the Blue Beginning chapter that meets at the Hideout. She was one of the main organizers of the Blue Wave Rave. “Also, I have this political life where I’ve managed campaigns and been a volunteer.” Halperin got the idea to combine canvassing with improv after attending an event put on by Swing Left, another group that organizes progressives.
“Swing Left had a small event for Sean Casten, and then I saw onstage T.J. Shanoff, the longtime music director for Second City, who I knew. So after the show I went up and said hello to him and thanked him for doing this, and he said, ‘I just want to do as much as I can.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s do a second event.'”
“I have never been involved in politics,” says Shanoff, a director, producer, and musician from Chicago. “I’ve always had an interest in politics, and the last couple of years it has increased to almost a desperate interest because of how distraught I’ve been [since the 2016 election]. Ranting on social media and complaining to people who feel the same was getting me nowhere.”
So when Mark Burns of Second City Works, an offshoot of Second City that focuses on events, content, and professional development, reached out to him to direct and play piano for Swing Left, he jumped at the chance. “Literally the least you can do is vote. The second-least thing you can do is encourage voting. Time is limited, but if I can inspire others, it feels great. Putting together a show seemed like something I could do, and when Marj reached out to me, I reached out to Mark, because it had gone so well before.” Shanoff and Burns coproduced Wednesday’s event, and Shanoff played piano.
Indivisible Chicago is generally focused on canvassing. According to Halperin, it’s the most powerful method of building support for candidates. “There are a lot of ways to support candidates—phone banking, text banking, postcards. But honestly, knocking on a door and talking to a voter is the most effective field tool that we have.”
Leading up to the Blue Wave Rave, Halperin had worked with Shanoff within her Blue Beginning chapter to organize training for canvassers using improv actors. “I was telling T.J. what we were doing with canvassing, and then I stopped and said, ‘Wait! Improv actors are like the best canvassers ever! You know how to talk to people, you know how to keep a positive conversation, the whole “yes, and” thing that Second City is known for, you need to be out there canvassing.’
“People will say, ‘Yeah, but I can’t canvass.’ They’re afraid or unsure of what it would be. We needed to demystify it and provide a training,” Halperin says. Improv actors turned out to be the perfect people to be those trainers.
“You don’t persuade someone to join where you’re at [when canvassing], you collab,” says Shanoff. “Everything in improv is rooted in listening and agreement. Improv isn’t persuasion [either].” This is how improv actors can help canvassers. “Even the mere act of knocking on a door is jarring,” he says. But if canvassers follow the teachings of improv actors, who are trained to meet their partners halfway, it’s not as intimidating.
Halperin sees the natural connections between politics and art in a bigger sense too. “When monumental things happen in this country, we look to artists to help us understand them and interpret them and accept them. That’s what theater does. Improv does it in some particularly creative ways here in Chicago, and I just think it’s a perfect fit for those of us struggling to understand our world.”
With a goal of activating 1,000 volunteers for canvassing, the Blue Wave Rave started off with a casual soiree outside the actual theater, with beverages available for purchase as well as five volunteer tables set up, one for each of the five races that Indivisible Chicago is focusing on. “There’s [Sean] Casten in Illinois six, there’s [Lauren] Underwood in Illinois 14, there’s Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, who is running for the seat vacated by Paul Ryan,” says Halperin. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in working for that seat. In Indiana we’re supporting their coordinated campaign but focusing especially on Joe Donnelly, who’s an incumbent Democratic senator who’s been targeted with a lot of Koch brothers money, so we’re sending people to help keep Joe in place in the Senate. And we’re working on the Illinois statewide ballot: Pritzker-Stratton, Raoul, Mendoza, and Frerichs.”
Everyone received a canvassing sign-up sheet with a schedule on it upon entering the building, but once the theater doors opened and everyone sat down, Halperin got onstage and pushed the audience to actually fill them out and sign up for a weekend before the show started. She also reminded the audience not to forget about the March to the Polls on October 13, organized by Women’s March Chicago. The actual show consisted of ten interactive bits in which the cast did different things like coming up with skits based on interviews with volunteers from the audience or making up scenarios using audience suggestions. There was also an American Sign Language interpreter onstage for those who were hard of hearing.
“Theater—and I want to say Chicago-style theater in particular—is about putting it all out there, having the direct spotlight on difficult conversations, highlighting challenging content,” says Halperin. The Blue Wave Rave certainly did that. The show was full of jokes alluding to ongoing political scandals and Fox News. There was even a scripted segment in which iO cast member Abby McEnany discussed gender presentation and how passing as a man while still identifying as a woman has led to several uncomfortable (to say the least) incidents.
Indivisible Chicago has never done an event this big. “In March we did a summit that was sort of a kickoff to the election year to energize our network of people. We brought in speakers to motivate [our network], we got people focused on different projects, one of them being Take Back the House. That was the beginning of a larger effort that we’ve been working on all year to mobilize our folks behind progressive candidates throughout the region.”
Halperin has already begun to see the effects of this year’s work. “We have hundreds of volunteers working every weekend for these progressive candidates who, many of which, have never canvassed or volunteered before.” Halperin also talked about “remobilizing” people who haven’t canvassed in a while.
“We’re organized at the grassroots. The Tea Party did it . . . and we know it made a difference, but they’ve died out, and now we’re stepping up on the left,” says Halperin. “The impact on this fall election remains to be seen, but I guarantee you, it will be seen.”