Lo, the many reasons why I love Improvised Shakespeare Company
A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak at the Chicago Improv Festival awards on behalf of Improvised Shakespeare Company, a Chicago ensemble I’ve been following for years. I gladly accepted. These guys are great. Here are my remarks about this brilliant troupe, playing at iO Chicago every Friday night, 8pm and 10:30pm.
My deep appreciation for Improvised Shakespeare Company started with a typo. It was the final night of the 2009 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, and Improvised Shakespeare was slated to perform at Theatre St. Catherine, as it had done every night for the last week.
Problem was, the daily schedule handed out to Just For Laughs attendees didn’t say Theatre St. Catherine, but rather some other theater many miles away—or, as they adorably call them in Canada, “kilometers.”
The men of Improvised Shakespeare might not have known. The 60 person theater was, as it had been every night, sold out. But the typo was the first thing I had seen when I woke up that morning, and now standing in the back of the theater, I witnessed the repercussions first-hand.
Every five minutes over the course of the hour and a half show, one or two frustrated people—many of them industry executives—would hop out of cabs in a hurry and rush to the door only to be turned away. They cursed their luck, and that blasted typo, slinking away dejected as they surveyed their other options, none of which had the deafening buzz of the Bard’s boys.
Buzz is nothing new for Improvised Shakespeare Company, though when I started as the Comedy Editor of Time Out Chicago nearly four years ago, that buzz was quieter, like a dyslexic bee. It certainly wasn’t a priority of mine when it came time to cross shows off my bucket list. It was a bunch of dudes wearing homemade tunics, saying the word “lo” a lot, and—get this—the boys play girl parts, just like in Shakespeare’s day. What a nifty…little…gimmick, I remember thinking
In a shameful decision that ranks up there with my regrettable high school fashion choice of wearing gloves with short sleeve shirts, it took me an entire year to finally check out Improvised Shakespeare Company, to say nothing of the two years I lived in town prior to that.
But that first show changed everything. This wasn’t casual “thee”-ifying, “thou”-ifying and crossdressing, but a rich, textured homage to William Shakespeare. The story was entrenched in the timeless Shakespearean themes of love, loss, betrayal, envy, and hope. Characters worked together, listened to one another, were playful and serious, tragic and strong. Occasionally there were ghosts, or sprites, or ridiculous tangents and sidequests, but by the end, it all made sense. These guys were experts at making sure it did.
I attended a rehearsal, and was delighted to find that having finished reading all of Shakespeare’s plays as a group, Blaine Swen was leading a discussion on the nature of beauty as defined by Plato’s Republic. It wasn’t really important to the show, but it was really important. Those high brow references have to come from somewhere, as those Sarah Palin jabs come from the group’s fondness for pop culture and politics. This was some of the best improv I had ever seen, period, and the rehearsal validated it all. Shakespeare was merely the framing device, not the crutch, and the sentiment behind his immortal words made Improvised Shakespeare’s shows all the more compelling.
Over the next few years, I checked back in to Improvised Shakespeare Company every once in a while. I was seeing a lot of shows all across town—some were great, some were not, most were somewhere in the middle. Improvised Shakespeare Company became my comedy comfort food, a reminder that with a little elbow grease and stick-to-it-iveness, wonderful things were possible. If I ever had a few hours free on a Friday night, I’d be upstairs in the Del Close Theater. And I wasn’t the only one. Audiences from the hoitiest of toities to the blackout-iest of Wrigleyville drunks were discovering that iO, in fact, wasn’t a stand-up club, and before long they were joining the ranks of fancylad disciples.
Improvised Shakespeare must have sensed this growing power in the force, because its shows rose to the occasion by taking risks. They did tiny shows, shows with the entire 12-person ensemble, shorter shows, longer shows, shows in New York City and shows like the one I saw in Montreal. Actors started playing even more characters, stories started spanning multiple locations and themes. As the group’s ambitions grew, the resolution at the end was even more satisfying and hilarious.
It sounds like a cop-out to say you have to see the show to believe it, but I genuinely don’t think I am doing this complex show justice, nor did I think so back then. So I took it upon myself to bring as many people over to the Bard’s side as I could. Friday night would roll around, and I was asked what shows people should take their out of town relatives and friends to. Without fail I always respond Improvised Shakespeare Company. If they had other plans, I’d suggest they move their plans to another night so they can go see Improvised Shakespeare Company. If not, their loss.
Plus, as luck would have it, I found myself at the last two Second City Mainstage openings seated next to prominent members of the Jeff Committee, including the chair of the awards. Both times I asked them why the Jeff Awards don’t honor more comedy shows, and was told that they can’t include improv shows because it changes every night, so they can’t in good conscience recognize something that might very well suck when they’re not around. Also, as they were quick to point out, they see a lot of theater.
I assured them both that they’d never seen anything like Improvised Shakespeare, that consistency and danger work together when you’re dealing with masters of the craft, and invited them to come see the show with me one night. The latest woman blew me off to my face; the chairwoman, at least, had the courtesy to do it later via her business card.
The definition of “obsessed” is technically to be influenced or controlled by a powerful force. Knowing that, to say I was obsessed with Improvised Shakespeare Company is no hyperbole. This show took any number of complex themes and distilled them to the purest elements of satire, slapstick, wit and emotion. The more Blaine and company worked to hone their improv chops, the more my obsession grew.
Which brings me to Montreal in the summer of 2009, standing in the back of Theatre St. Catherine watching as Improvised Shakespeare Company nailed it yet again, with the unfortunate people put off by the typo roaming the streets and knowing exactly what they were missing. I was there for the third time in four days during a trip that was, unfortunately, not that much fun. I had an all-access pass to the Just For Laughs festival and had seen some pretty good shows, but they had all felt so sterile—this was an industry showcase, so jokes had been rehearsed, refined and retooled to the point of, just, nothing.
That final night, in fact, I had left a legendarily small Louis CK show in the middle of his set. The man’s obviously funny, but he just wasn’t doing it for me. I needed my comfort food, a little taste of home amidst the industry acid wash, a reminder of the power of the ensemble, of the classics, of unpredictability, of improv comedy. The rest of Montreal was schmoozing, but here, in Theatre St. Catherine, I was remembering what was truly important.