Chicago and improv is just like ketchup and chips. Pointless having one without the other! When I arrived in Chicago I was eager to check out shows pronto to see what was going on. Four hours after getting off the plane I was making my way to iO Theatre!

Improv aside, Chicago is a fantastic city. So much to do and see, people are very friendly and of course the pizza is divine! Beer of course is excellent, and depending when you go, you will be able to sample some of the seasonal beers. (I recommend Sam Adams Seasonal or any of the Goose Island brews!) Christmas in particular is a great time to be in Chicago as the city dons a sheet of Christmas lights and cheer. Of course, you have to hope you don’t get stuck in a blizzard too.

But anyway, lets talk improv and some select shows that really inspired me.

Whirled News Tonight

Whirled News Tonight

Only off the plane and I was on my way to iO to catch “Whirled News Tonight“, which is the longest running improv show in Chicago. The show is the brain child of Jason Chin (remember Jason?) During the show the cast improvise a number of scenes inspired by news articles selected by the audience before the show begins. The show’s tag, “The news is real, everything else is improvised”, sums it up best.

What plays out in front of you in nothing short of highly entertaining improvisation. Not one scene felt weak or lacking, each were strong enough to stand alone as a sketch. When an improvised scene looks like a rehearsed sketch, isn’t that a goal?

The performers were very natural and relaxed and brought what I can only call an engaging confidence to the stage. One thing that stands out immediately is the absence odd ball characters or ‘crutches’ in scenes. There were no scenes with aliens, monsters or ghosts. Every character was grounded and each performer displayed a patience in a scene to find the scenes purpose, or the game of the scene and of course the scene end. Each performer gelled with one another, the troupe knew each other well. And with a name like Padraic Connelly in the cast, there was a bit of Irish there too!

The Armando Diaz Experience

Armando Diaz Experience

For this show you get to see an Armando played out by some veterans of improv including Jason Chin himself. The monologist for this show was the infamous TJ Jagodowski (more on TJ later) While I didn’t know most of the performers I recognised Joe Bill and had seen some of the performers in bits and bobs over the Internet.

The atmosphere for the show is interesting. (It seems like every show in iO is full or sold out which adds to it). You immediately notice the friendship between performers. I wondered at first if this would be a bad thing, would we be indulged in a series of in jokes or high jinx?

TJ’s monologues were natural almost poetic, and highly engaging. He can really warm a room. As the performers took over they very quickly made the audience feel like part of their ‘gang’, as if you are in on the joke. I guess this comes down to a combination of their friendships and experience but it is an atmosphere and vibe that I had never experienced before in their performing world. Each of the performers was highly attentive despite their side stage laughter when their co-stars were performing. The use of reincorporation with jokes was delicately and effectively used. Similar to Whirled News Tonight, there were n crutches on display here, no whacky or oddball characters. It was very grounded. One particular thing that stood out was their almost ‘6th sense’ when it came to bringing a new character to a scene. It really highlighted the when and how to introducing new characters to a scene.

TJ & Dave
Tj & Dave
And now for what is the pièce de résistance for me, ,TJ & Dave. TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi have been performing as a duo since 2002 and its easy to see why their show has been such a popular attraction no matter where they perform. They play every Wednesday in iO and sell out well in advance.

Their show is essentially a 60 minute improvised play with just the two of them and not even a suggestion from the audience to get them started! Their show literally comes from nothing. What happens is the first few minutes of the show is amazing to witness. We witness the emergence of the first 2 characters, their location and what they are doing. Both performers demonstrate great patience and skill in just allowing it to develop. It’s a slow burning but engaging. We learn as the performers learn. However you can see under it all what’s happening. Both performers are watching and listening to each other intensively, trying to pick upon clues as to who and where they are. It’s such a pleasure to watch the drama and comedy unfold. As the show progresses, as does the pace and energy and the performers slips seamlessly into the different characters. The audience is literally eating out their hands! You’d be forgiven for thinking it was rehearsed!

Its worth checking out TJ & Dave’s documentary, “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up” which gives some inspiring insight into how they do it and their relationship.

So what next?
I realise my choice selections above are all iO centric, that’s not to say I’m snubbing Second City or any of the other theatres. I have not yet been to Annoyance Theatre and I’ve only seen one show in Second City, “We’re All In This Room Together“; a highly polished sketch show which was devised through improv. While the show was excellent my preference is always live improv and there were no pure improv shows in Second City (that I was aware of) in December) I did get to hang around with some of the cast afterward though and heard their stories about life in Chicago and the improv world. But what goes on tour.. etc.

I did also hook up with Marshall Stern and Nancy Howland Walker, the brains behind Zenprov. Unfortunately they didn’t have workshops scheduled in December but are still committing to coming to Dublin in August ’13 for a weekend workshop!


So if you’re planning a trip to Chicago and improv is your thing, then go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

As for me, I have some excited shows in the pipe in 2013. “Duty Free” make their debut on January 26th in Drogheda before heading to ImproFestUK in London to perform on March 1st. My “Neil+1” show is also performing at ImproFestUK too on March 3rd. Exciting stuff!

Impro Fest UK

Love Improv, Love Chicago!
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