Improv in Chicago

Ok, one other thing. I get a handful of emails/myspace messages from people new to Chicago or thinking of moving out here and pursuing improv. I have sort of a set response that I’ve ended up copying and pasting into a lot of emails, so I figured I’d post it here. It’s pretty subjective, but it’s my honest advice. Enjoy!

Second City, where I perform on the mainstage, does primarily sketch shows, but all the scenes are created through improv. Plus we do improv “sets” after the shows. The classes in the training center teach both improv and writing a Second City-style revue. You don’t have to go through the training center to audition for the touring company (which is the first rung on the performing ladder there); I did, but only the conservatory program (levels 1-5), which you audition for. There also a more basic year’s worth of classes (levels A-E), but it’s for people who have no idea what improv is. Bottom line, you can live a happy improv life in Chicago without taking classes at Second City.

IO is very much like UCB in New York/LA (the folks who started UCB came from IO and modeled their training center and performances after the program there). If you want to perform at IO, you have to take classes there, but it’s a good place to take classes. There are 6 levels of classes which culminate in a performace class; at some point, usually after you complete the last level, you’ll be placed on what they call a team, and you’ll perform once every week or two, doing a Harold or some similar long form. It may sound like a drag to go through all those classes, but IO classes are pretty valuable. But my biggest piece of advice would be to start at IO as soon as you move here, if you do. (And, if it helps, that’s the advice Rachel Dratch gave to me over 10 years ago.)

The other big place to take classes is the Annoyance. The main guy there is Mick Napier, who has directed a lot at Second City, usually runs their auditions, and is basically worshipped by everyone in Chicago. I took 2 classes there and I probably got the most out of them than any other, mainly because they focus a lot on you as an individual.

All of these classes meet once a week for 3 hours. IO does have a summer intensive program where you go through the whole program in – I believe – 6 weeks. Don’t quote me on that, but I think you do a level a week. But then of course you’re pretty much there all day for 6 weeks.

One of the great things about taking classes is meeting other improvisors. Chicago is wonderful because it’s pretty easy to get a group of people together, start an improv or sketch group, rent out a theatre, and put on a show. Places like IO and another place called the Playground rent out spaces just about every night of the week at almost any time. I do shows 6 nights a week at Second City, but I head over to IO at 10:30 on Sunday nights to do a 2-person improv show, and there’s always an audience.

As far as sketch, there aren’t many places that actually teach it. Second City has a writing program which I’ve heard good things about. It may actually be better then their improv program, just because it’s smaller. And like I said, the latter part of the conservatory program there focuses on writing a show, which you perform for 8 weeks in your final level. IO offers lots of electives which often include writing. Lots of improv groups here will branch out and do sketch shows too – they kind of go hand-in-hand here, at least to some extent. I think that stems from Second City’s tradition of creating written material through improv.

If I were to try to sell you on Chicago over New York or LA, I would say that the big difference about Chicago is that performers here care about improv itself, as opposed to improv as career step. That’s a generalization, and not to say that people aren’t trying to get hired by Second City and on to SNL or whatever, but people here seem to genuinely care about improv and the work they’re doing. And it’s an easy city to live in, for the most part. And we have lots of talent and casting agents here, and lots of people book commercials, pilots, movies, etc. There’s plenty of work to be had.

All that being said, patience is key. I auditioned for Second City 6 times before I got hired for the touring company, and 3 years after that I was put on the mainstage. 400-600 people a year audition for Second City, 0-7 of whom are hired. But there are other ways to make a living through improv – there are lots of corporate workshops to teach and other money-making gigs. You do have to be creative at times, it’s true. But what people discover here is that they find terrific, sometimes better, opportunities while waiting for Second City to come knocking.

Oh yeah, I forgot ComedySportz. It’s short form improv and lots of fun. They treat their performers very well and lots of people make a living just working for them. I think these days you have to go through their training center to audition for them, which is 4 8-week sessions. Sorry I don’t know more about that one.

I hope this helps shed a little light on the scene here. Good luck!

  • geomop

    Great post and thank you. I discovered your page because I enjoy those Sonic spots so much I had to find out who you guys were. You’re “crantastic!” (I promise, never again).

    I’ve often thought of coming to Chicago for a while and really appreciate the advise.