Picture this: You get up on stage with no costume, no props and no script. You ask for an audience suggestion, and that drunken guy in the back of the room, nursing his sixth beer, yells out "chicken wings!" Or maybe an astute Sarah Palin look-alike in the front row screams out "lipstick!" Regardless of the audience suggestion, you and your team of two, four, seven, eight or sometimes even 10 other improvisers create a variety of scenes on the fly using only this ridiculous word or phrase as the backbone.
Sound crazy? Well, it kinda is, but that's how you play the improv game. At the 2010 Chicago Improv Festival, you'll be able to catch teams of improvisers from around the world do at times hilarious, at other times dramatic, but always guaranteed strange, scenes that begin with a mere suggestion. Don't believe me? Stop by the festival to see these teams blow your fuckin' mind, as they say in the improv world.
1, 2, 3...Fag!
Tuesday, April 20 at IO Theater, 8 p.m.; $12
Don't be fooled by the name: this ain't some Boystown bar brawl. Energetic Chicago improvisers John Hartman, Kellen Alexander and Seth Dodson bring together strong character work and a wacky, campy sense of humor. These boys are adept at interjecting humor into gender, proving that boys will not always — in fact, probably never — be boys. At their weekly Friday evening show a few weeks ago, the players created a bizarre scene about a closeted gay dad leaving his boy-obsessed teenage daughter and her dud of a little brother at home while he went on a "men's retreat" in Ohio. Watching Hartman, Alexander and Dodson brings you to a whole new understanding of queerness and comedy. And sometimes, they bring in a "hag," changing the name of this show to "1, 2, Fag and Hag!" Seriously, move over John Waters.
Messing with a Friend [with special guest Tim Meadows]
Thursday, April 22 at Annoyance Theatre and Bar, 10:30 p.m.; $20
The winner of this year's Chicago Improv Festival "Improviser of the Year" (awards will be given out on Wednesday at Second City ETC), Chicago legend Susan Messing brings her renowned long-form improv show, Messing with a Friend, to the festival. In each show, she plays with one, and sometimes two, improvisers from her "special circle of friends." An inspiration to improvisers everywhere, especially women, Messing's show is a must-see - especially with SNL-alum Meadows in tow.
Friday, April 23 at Playground Theater, 10:30 p.m.; $10
This seven-member, all-female long-form improv team focuses on scene work and tons of physicality. Maybe you've seen them at Second City? Or IO? Perhaps in another major city like New York — you know, the "other" comedy town? Wherever these ladies perform, their uniquely charming groupwork around topics like "how do you have sex on your wedding night?" gets laughs.
Boom Chicago All-Stars
Friday, April 23 at Laugh Out Loud Theater, 9:30 p.m.; $18
Saturday, April 24 at Donny's Skybox Studio, 7 p.m.; $15
Note: Boom Chicago has reportedly been having trouble getting to Chicago due to the Icelandic volcano eruption. Keep an eye on the CIF blog for news about these and other shows.
Originally from Chicago, the members of this improv team have worked out of Amsterdam since 1993. Why Amsterdam, you ask? The founder chalks it up to a self-described great "stoner" idea they had: move there and start a troupe. Did they think it would work? Maybe. Did it work? Yes. All their shows are in English but, naturally, two-thirds of their audience is Dutch. And they've taken their shows online, too, so that American audiences can still see what they're up to. Since landing in the Netherlands, they've grown to become one of the best-known and loved improv-sketch comedy theatres in Europe. Here's to brilliant, pot-induced ideas!
Bearded Men Improv Saturday, April 24 at Athenaeum Theatre, 9 p.m.; $15
Okay, so not every improv troupe asks for a suggestion, but one thing is for certain: No one has a script. The Bearded Men are known for their Granny skit, where they hit the stage clad in your grandma's clothes: a pastel pink shirt and top, or a mint green polyester skirt-and-blouse attire, and improvise conversation about cookies, specifically Fig Newtons. In a Hot Pocket second, you'll forget that they ever called themselves bearded men. The Bearded Men are visiting from Moorhead, Minnesota.