Chicago is the mecca of improv

What Will Happen to Chicago Improv After the Pandemic?

Chicago has a great history of rebuilding itself, going back to The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed 17,450 buildings in a three-mile radius. Out of the ashes, the city came up with a new vision for itself and new style of architecture. It was a Renaissance.

I’m hoping the same will be true after this pandemic.

Yes, we are still in uncertain times, but some day the pandemic will end and we will go back to our normal life, including going out to see improv shows and take classes in person. What it will look like, though, is anyone’s guess. We seem to have more questions than answers. And the one question I think about all the time is when this is all over, will Chicago still be the mecca of improv?

I am sad to say when things get back to normal, probably not.   

Even Before Covid

Chicago’s reign as the improv mecca had been waning, even before Covid came along. In the last two decades, Chicago was not only competing with other strong improv training centers and theaters in New York and Los Angeles, but also in smaller cities, which meant that people didn’t have to move to Chicago anymore to learn Chicago-style improv.

Since the pandemic, major cities have seen record numbers of people leave. People will eventually return to city life, but that won’t be for a while. And when they do, I think Chicago will be at a disadvantage. In New York and L.A., there is more work for actors and writers in TV and film, which are jobs that pay.

If Chicago had a national TV sketch show and a couple of late-night talk shows, that would help sustain our improv community, but we don’t, and for most improvisers in Chicago, there has been a glass ceiling on what they can earn here. That why so many improvisers only stay here a few years and to go to New York or L.A.. If actors are going to live in a city after the pandemic, I see people cutting out the middle step and going directly to either coast.

The Three-Legged Stool

For the longest time, Chicago was a three-legged stool for improv training with Second City, iO-Chicago and The Annoyance. This meant there was lots of accessible stage time and that made Chicago destination for improvisers.

But when Charna Halpern closed the iO last summer, that was a big blow to the city in terms of attracting improvisers from across the country to move here.

What made the Chicago improv community so unique was that all the improv theaters pretty much got along, and cross pollination was widely accepted. Sure, there were egos, but for the most part you could work at multiple theaters and no one gave a shit.

Will Improv Continue on Zoom?

Even before Covid, the improv bubble had burst in Chicago. With fewer and fewer people moving to Chicago to study improv, it was becoming harder for training centers to fill their classes. My friends who teach at the other institutions said enrollment had been down, and I felt it, too, in my classes and workshops.

However, the pandemic ended up bringing a silver lining to the Chicago improv community – Zoom. Once the Chicago institutions starting offering classes on Zoom, people could learn from all of our amazing teachers without having to move here.

When the pandemic is over, people will slowly start to head back to in-person improv classes, but I think online classes will continue to be popular, and though it good for teachers like myself, it will put a dent in the number of aspiring improvisers making the trek to Chicago.

So where does that leave us? 

Will Chicago’s improv community survive this pandemic? Yes, and I think we’ll actually find a way to thrive, just like we did after the fire.

Sure, our pride is hurt, but we still have the some of the most talented and passionate improvisers and teachers in the world.

Improv in this city has been stagnant for a long time. More stage time did not equal better improv shows. Some theaters ran out of things to say or forgot why they were doing it in the first place.

When we get back to normal, we will not have that luxury, and we will be better for it. The improv community will be smaller, but the improvisers will be able to make a bigger impact. This will be a great opportunity for us to take more risks and make something memorable.

We can look at this as exciting time. I time to reinvent ourselves and our city.

I saw this once before, in the late ’80s. Back when, there was just Second City and ImprovOlympic. There was a void, and out of it improvisers created. They created brilliant shows  out of necessity.  The Annoyance came out of that void. Jazz Freddy, Cardiff Giant, Ed, The Factory, Lookinglass Theatre, and Bang Bang Spontaneous Theatre all came out of that void. Look them up.

Those groups rose to occasion and we where all better for it. We did it before we will do it again. Chicago is ready for a new improv Renaissance. Bring it on. All we are waiting for is a vaccine.

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