When it comes to improv, Chicago is Mecca. But despite decades as an incubator for modern improvisation and an axis for the art form, it wasn't until 1998 that the improv community began showcasing itself during an annual Chicago Improv Festival.
Fifteen years later, the festival -- running Monday through Sunday, April 1-7 -- is a major event with more than 700 performers and 20 city and suburban venues. It also attracts big-name talent, including Scott Adsit, Kay Cannon and John Lutz of NBC's "30 Rock" and Lucas Neff of Fox's "Raising Hope," as well as Rob Belushi of Spike TV's "The Joe Schmo Show" and the son of Wheaton native Jim Belushi.
Watching improv is like watching sports, says Jonathan Pitts, executive director of the 16th Annual Chicago Improv Festival, "You don't know what's going to happen, but you know something is going to happen."
And Pitts is largely responsible for making the festival happen. He came up with the idea for the event -- the largest and longest-running festival of its kind -- back in the '90s. He reached out to actress/comedian Frances Callier, a fellow Second City alum, and together they convinced Chicago's leading improv companies at the time -- The Second City, Annoyance Theatre, ComedySportz and iO -- that the idea had merit.
With the heavyweights on board, the Chicago Improv Festival debuted in 1998 at the Annoyance Theatre. Thirty ensembles participated, including one from Canada, which gave organizers the international credit they desired. That year the festival consisted of seven shows plus a jam session, Pitts said. The event spanned six days and attracted about 3,000 people.
Interest grew. So did attendance, which topped 10,000 several years ago and has remained steady at about 6,500, Pitts said.
Among the 20 venues participating this year is Schaumburg's Laugh Out Loud, which has hosted festival performances for several years, said owner Lillian Frances, adding that their inclusion confirms LOL as a full member of the area's improv community.
A 10-year veteran of Second City and a 20-year veteran of Chicago improv, Frances serves as CIF's curator for short-form improvisation, one of nine artistic categories.
As it has in years past, LOL will host national and international groups doing short-form improv that somehow manages to transcend language barriers.
"Everybody brings their own spin to improv. We had a Turkish group that spoke no English and the audience went nuts for it," Frances said.
This year, LOL will welcome a group of high school students from Long Island as well as other performers.
Those students will be among 765 performers from eight countries scheduled to perform this year, which Pitts describes as "record setting all the way around." Among the performers are several suburban improvisers making their first appearances at the festival.
Newcomers include members of Glen Ellyn's Sea Beast Puppet Company, which performs Saturday, April 6, at Chemically Imbalanced in Chicago. The company's improvised shadow puppet performance was developed by co-founder Kat Pleviak last summer at the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference.
"People thought I was crazy," said Pleviak, describing "The Shadow Puppet Conspiracy" as "a short form, Mad Lib style" of improvisation. Basically, a storyteller spins a tale based on audience suggestions while two teams of puppeteers create shadow puppets on the fly that are then projected onto a screen.
"It was the most fun and the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Pleviak said.
It's probably a safe bet that even savvy Chicago-area audiences may not be aware of some of the less common styles of improv. To that end, organizers established separate categories for each style and put shows that fall into the same category in the same venue, making it easier for fans to navigate the weeklong festival. Among the choices are experimental, music, puppetry and long-form improvisation.
"Improvisation itself is an ever-changing art form. How can you do a festival that isn't changing?" Pitts said.
"Part of this year's goal is to take what the audience is used to and show it in a different light," he said.
Stacked Music fits the bill. An all-female musical improv group, it's comprised of Jenna Steege, Erin Goldsmith, Stacey Smith and Katie Yore. They met two years ago at a musical improv class at iO and decided to give four-part-harmony improv a try.
Improv groups were a "dime a dozen and every one was fighting for attention," said Steege, of Crystal Lake. "We thought, 'there's something missing.'"
Since forming Stacked Music, they've performed at comedy festivals around the nation.
Their 20-minute Friday, April 5, set at Chicago's pH Productions begins with an opening number based on an audience suggestion, which is followed by scenes and songs.
"We let the suggestion guide us to different worlds, different characters and different scenes that are thematically related but which don't have a linear plot," Steege explains.
"Katie is good at setting the chorus. Erin is good at rhyming. We all have our strengths," she said.
The same can be said about The Tokens, whose name derives from the racial makeup of its members: Amy Haeussler, a Bartlett native whose background is Polish and German; first generation Nigerian Ronke Soyode, who was raised in England and Chicago; and Natasha Bhamia, whose family hails from India and the Philippines.
They take The Playground Theater stage in Chicago Thursday, April 4. Most of their improvisations have to do with examining racial stereotypes, Haeussler says.
"We try to play with the fact that each of us can be seen as a token stereotype," she said. "We're not afraid to talk about it."
The group recently began working on a scripted show, Haeussler says, but they have no plans to give up improvisation.
Improvisers and their audiences establish a kind of camaraderie that doesn't happen in other types of performance, she says.
"You're going on this journey ... What's being created is being created right then," she said, "and it's never going to happen again."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.