Laugh Out Loud in-person: Schaumburg comedy club resumes improv hybrid
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, owner Lillie Frances and the ensemble members thought Laugh Out Loud theater would close for a couple of weeks. A couple of months, tops.
Initially, improviser and instructor Tony Lentino welcomed the time off.
"It was kind of a nice break," said the Schaumburg native. "We were doing three nights a week plus teaching classes. Having a couple of weekends off wasn't a big deal for us. It was nice to kick back."
The break lasted more than a few weekends, but now it's over. Beginning this week, Laugh Out Loud resumes in-person performances one weekend a month as part of its show "20,000 Laughs Under the Sea."
"People need to laugh," said Frances, who initially decided against producing digital shows although instructors continued to teach storytelling, stand-up and sketch-writing classes online.
Improv in particular is a communal experience that works best when performers and audiences share the same space, Frances said.
"There is something really electric when you're all in the same room," she continued. "There is something cathartic about sitting in a theater with a bunch of people, laughing."
Last year, as the pandemic worsened, LOL cast members kept their skills sharp by rehearsing online. The rehearsals helped ensemble members stay in touch and it helped restore a sense of normalcy, said Lentino, despite frequent interruptions from kids and pets.
"Being improvisers we just made that part of what we were doing," said the nine-year ensemble member. "We just kept going, that's been our attitude throughout this whole thing."
It's an attitude the roughly 30-member ensemble seems to share. By September, Frances and company had reconfigured the theater to accommodate distancing and established safety protocols for a possible reopening. Reopen they did with "20,000 Laughs," a nautical-centered improv hybrid that opened in mid-September and ran six weeks before rising coronavirus positivity rates forced it to close.
Meanwhile, Frances changed her mind about online improv. A virtual New Year's Eve show attracted 130 viewers and inspired a monthly online show.
"20,000 Laughs" is a hybrid featuring four improvisers: three on stage and one on Zoom. The 60-minute improvised show is built on the premise that improvisers and audience members are under water.
"We have to wear masks because we're pretending we're under water," explained Frances. "Fifteen minutes in, the audience is cheering."
Coronavirus health and safety precautions are built into the production. Lentino is among 12 LOL performers who elected to perform in-person. Those who didn't, including 13-year member Shelby Burton, Zoom in as "captain" of the crew.
Burton says the biggest challenge of performing virtually is the inability to feel the audience's energy.
"Comedians just feed off an audience," she said. "As improvisers we take that in because they're part of the show."
The delay on Zoom means Burton doesn't immediately hear the audience laugh. That forces her to be hyper vigilant and listen even more intently than she would if she were performing in-person.
"It makes you become a more patient performer, a performer who's more actively listening," she said.
Ultimately, the show provides the kind of human interaction many people have been missing, Lentino said, with laughter as an added benefit.
For Burton, being on stage (figuratively speaking) in this hybrid format means reclaiming what she's missed for the better part of a year.
"I'm excited to have that part of my life back," said Burton, who's been doing improv since she was 18. "I'm 41. The only other time I haven't improvised for this long was when I was six to nine months pregnant."
"I'm ready to have it back," she said.
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"20,000 Laughs Under the Sea"
Where: Laugh Out Loud Theater, 601 N. Martingale Road, Schaumburg, (847) 240-0386 or laughoutloudtheater.com
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 26-27
COVID-19 guidelines: Advance, cashless ticket purchases only. Masks must be worn at all times. Temperature checks required upon entry. Six-foot distancing required. Food and beverages not available. See laughoutloudtheater.com.