I don’t know how to start writing about my experience taking a week-long improv intensive at the iO Theater in Chicago. I want it to be some form of diary of the week; I want to convey what I learned; I want to nerd out on improv. All of those are difficult to put in a single post.
Let’s begin with generalities: Holy shit, what a week! I was immersed in improv for hours every day. I’d get to the theater around 10:30 a.m., class would go from 11 until 5 p.m. with an hour for lunch, then a handful of us would grab some dinner nearby and head right back to the theater to catch the nightly shows. Five hours of doing improv every day, followed by two to three hours watching it every night. Not to mention, almost every conversation amongst the group outside of class was about class, or shows we’d seen the night before, or improv theory in general — or (as we’re apt to do) riffing and performing for one another.
The group. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was this a Chicago-centric thing? Were these all amateurs? Neither, it turned out. People came from all over the world. Some were more experienced than others, but everyone had done improv before. No one stood out as the best, and we were all able to play well with one another.
I was nervous. Nervous may actually be an understatement — I was scared going into day one. I was in a new city with all new people, and I had very little information as to how the week was going to go. I was jumping off a cliff and figuring it out on the way down — then again, that’s exactly how Del Close described improv itself. Per usual, it was the unknown that was making me nervous. I was calm the moment I said my first “hello.”
Throughout the week, I frequently found myself reflecting on how much I love this art form, a couple times to the point of getting a lump in my throat. Our troupe got very close. I will never forget these 13 other people. Part of that is due to the nature of improv, and specifically the group mentality taught at iO. Part of it, most certainly, is the sheer amount of time we spent together, sharing an experience rooted in laughter and comedy. Before an improviser walks out on stage it is customary for each team member to turn to each other and say, “I’ve got your back.” I’ve come away from the week feeling an overwhelming sense of that.
The coach. I must dedicate a paragraph to Craig Uhlir because he’s one of the biggest characters I’ve ever met. He’s a veteran improviser of over 30 years, having studied with Del Close and Charna Halpern among many, many others. Craig has a thick Chicago accent, and a big mustache that was almost as eccentric as he was. He swore like crazy, but all in positive ways. Lot’s of “fuck yeah!” and “kick ass!” He called us all “knuckleheads” and “dinkles” (whatever the hell that is), and stressed the importance of “not kicking your scene partner in the dick.” I realized a couple days in that he sat in the back of the room muttering direction to the scene taking place — as though he wanted to control every aspect of it, but obviously knowing that is counterproductive. What he was saying, though, was hilarious, so I tried to sit within ear shot of him as much as possible. Pretty much the entire class admitted they were taking a “Craig” character back with them.
The shows. I saw well over a dozen in five days. I’d recap or simply hit highlights, but one of my absolute favorite things about improv is that every show stands alone. Each is a show that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. It’s almost impossible to review, but know that the wealth of talent at that theater is pretty staggering.
People have asked me what I learned. Frankly, having gone all the way through a training center modeled after the iO format, there wasn’t a lot of new information sprung upon me — which isn’t a bad thing at all. It took me a year and a half to get through six levels at Third Coast and this week acted like a super condensed recap and reinforcement. I remembered things I had forgotten; certain theories were stated in new, helpful ways; and I got reps. Lots of reps. If my training in Nashville is like hitting the gym every week, this was military boot camp. My main takeaway though: confidence. I didn’t go in completely doubting myself, but through good scene work and feedback from others, I left assured that I can be really good at this.
But any improviser is only as good as his team. So, thank you to all you improv nerds who made this week-long adventure such a fun, amazing, creative, unforgettable experience! The shows, the scenes, the inside (and outside) jokes, the trips to Whole Foods and the friendships will never be forgotten. You’re all ass-kicking knuckleheads!