The Improv Institute’s first home, a rented storefront on Belmont west of Western, wasn’t far from the rest of the off-Loop theater community, but it seemed like another world. You never saw anyone walking down the sidewalk, and even cars seemed to avoid this stretch of Belmont. The streetlights were always out, too, which meant that it was perpetually cloaked in sinister shadows. And what went on inside was unlike almost anything going on elsewhere in the city.
The Generic Comedy Company, the improv-comedy troupe that moved in and named the Improv Institute in 1984, included founder and director John Michael Michalski, Kate Kirkpatrick, Pat Musker, Rick Hall, and Jill Talley. They modeled the performance space on Second City’s. There was a bar in back and though there was no table service, patrons were encouraged to take drinks to their seats. The simple stage was essentially bare, with only a few chairs breaking up the space.
The Generic Comedy Company performed a regular revue at their new digs, but before long the place became as well known for its classes as for its shows. There weren’t a lot of places to study improv back then. There was Jo Forsberg’s Players Workshop, Charna Halpern and David Shepherd’s ImprovOlympic, and Second City, taking its first tentative steps toward putting together a training center. The prevailing philosophy of improvisation at the time held that it was a tool, a useful technique through which performers could generate jokes and funny situations that could be polished into permanent sketches.
But a new attitude was developing: the idea that improv could be its own art form, that you could improvise a whole new show every night. The Improv Institute’s Michalski and Del Close, who joined ImprovOlympic in ’84 when Shepherd left, taught the fundamentals of pure improv–be relaxed onstage, tell the truth, allow the comedy to emerge out of your characters, don’t go for the joke, allow the joke to come to you. But the ImprovOlympic was founded to fulfill David Shepherd’s dream of improv as a competitive sport. So while Close said “Relax, don’t work so hard,” Charna Halpern was whipping up the competitive atmosphere.
Under her leadership teams of improvisers vied twice a week at CrossCurrents for the chance to perform in one of three coveted Saturday-night slots. After each team took its turn Halpern would ask the audience to vote by applause on performance in three categories, then she’d assign a number to the applause level. Frequently, the hypercompetitive atmosphere actually interfered with the improvisation. Players who took Close’s teaching to heart, and took their time creating scenes, were frequently thrown off teams “for not being funny enough.”
By contrast, John Michalski practiced what he preached: the gospel of a noncompetitive, egalitarian approach to improvisation. It was Michalski who instituted Fun Night at the Improv Institute: every Wednesday night, for example, anyone who showed up with five dollars in hand could participate in the improvisation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Improv Institute proved to be an excellent training ground. It counts among its trainees the Free Associates, who currently use improv to create a new Tennessee Williams parody every night, and numerous Second Citizens, including Ron West, Rick Hall, Joe Liss, and Kevin Crowley.
The Improv Institute wasn’t above competition, however. It sent a team, Pig Wings, to the ImprovOlympic and won so often that Halpern eventually gave them one of the Saturday-night spots as a permanent gig. Pig Wings–Ross Gottstein, Jack Bronis, Amy Hartl, Brad Sherman, and sometimes Ron West–must have owed their success at least in part to what Michalski taught them: that the harder you work to be funny, the less funny you will be. Ron West, with his Samuel Beckett scowl and penchant for pipe smoking during improvisations, could get a laugh just by clearing his throat at the right moment. And all Ross Gottstein, with his laughing Buddha girth and winning smile, had to do was enter a scene and the audience was ready to laugh. (Gottstein would later earn a bit of local fame as the guy in the Handy Andy ads.) The folks in Pig Wings didn’t care about winning the ImprovOlympic, and their shows at the Improv Institute reflected the same relaxed “we’re just doing this because we enjoy it” quality.
In 1990 the Improv Institute scraped together the funds to buy a new space, a bakery a few blocks east on Belmont. But ironically, as the pure improvisation aesthetic taught by Michalski spread through the improv scene, the Improv Institute itself seemed to recede into the background. Jazz Freddy’s fully improvised one-act comedies and Ed’s recent experiments with improvising serious plays make an evening’s worth of improv games–standard fare at the Improv Institute–seem tame and safe. And the Improv Institute was suffering something of a brain drain, as often happens to shoestring companies. Ron West and Rick Hall were pulled into Second City, and others, including Michalski, were lured to Los Angeles to act or write. By 1992, when Ross Gottstein and Evan Gore left for LA, the group was only a shadow of its former self.
As the Improv Institute declined, the neighborhood around it got better and better. The middle of nowhere became the fringes of “Roscoe Village.” And this neighborhood upswing proved to be the Improv Institute’s final undoing. Last Friday Jack Bronis had the unenviable job of informing his colleagues that this Saturday, September 24, would be the company’s last evening in the space. It seems that Ross Gottstein, who had the majority financial interest in the building (but, according to Bronis, “no longer had a stake in the company”), had decided it was time to sell.
In the improv community reactions to the company’s new gypsy status ranged from “Oh my god!” to “No!” to “Are they selling their chairs?” Bronis, who with Pat Musker runs the day-to-day operations, isn’t certain what the group’s next move will be. He’s negotiating for a space to move their current hit show Flanagan’s Wake into. Bronis admits that there’s talk of a name change, since the company is so strongly identified with the building on Belmont. And maybe, though Bronis didn’t say this, the Improv Institute that pioneered pure improv, the group that taught Chicago improv for improv’s sake, closed a long time ago.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.