Post-Pandemic Improv

James Dugan


July 17, 2021

If there is one question that I have been asked more than anything else over the past 14 months it’s this:

James, how can we know that you are wearing pants on this zoom call?

But a close second to that question is:

What is Chicago improv going to be like after the pandemic?

I hear it from friends, from teammates, from former students, from family members (although my family members also ask “Do you think this is a good use of your time? Didn’t you say a friend of yours had a job they could set you up with?”). With the exception of online shows and zoom-prov, improv has been at a standstill since March of 2020. While almost every other industry has found a way to adapt to this new landscape, live entertainment was left in a nearly impossible position. Our theaters sit empty, our stages remain dark, our chicken tenders lay cold and uneaten. But now as we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and our stages are beginning to open up again, the future of Chicago improv, while still fuzzy, is starting to take focus.

The closing of IO leaves a pretty big vacuum. Whatever your feelings about that place, the people in charge of it, or the dogs that ran loose in its halls, we can all admit that the closing of IO is going to have a massive impact on the scene. IO was a huge training center, performance space, and absolute magnet of talent. People came from all over the world to learn at IO and to be in a place with improv history in its walls. With literally hundreds of performers on its roster as well as independent teams and long running shows, there wasn’t another place that offered as many performance opportunities the way that IO did.

Another big change: Second City was sold to a private equity company. There’s been a ton of turnover at the corner of North and Wells recently, from the firing of the nightstaff all the way up to the vacant offices on producer’s row. There’s a new owner and we just don’t know yet what direction they are going to take Second City in. They could bring back all the same people, they could start from scratch and bring in all new people, they could burn the place down (again) and build an esports arena and part of the Tourco audition could be showing off your Fortnite skills. We really don’t know what is going to happen there, but Second City is already back and doing a modified version of their sketch comedy show. There’s no singing allowed and crowd work is extremely limited, but there is SOMETHING happening there. Since a show never really closes at Second City and scenes are just swapped out gradually until a new show takes shape, this theater is uniquely positioned for the first time in their history to shake up the 60 year old tradition and try something brand new. We’ll see if that happens. 

And let’s not forget that Comedysportz has given up their physical space. While the short-form behemoth has thrived in their new online format (in fact, Comedysportz has probably adapted their style to suit the pandemic better than any other theater), their longtime home on Belmont got the biggest brown bag foul possible. Comedysportz at this point has said that they are now a digital first company, and will continue to do their online version of the show even after the pandemic is over. Short-form is much more easily adapted to the online format, and streaming allows for a much wider audience, an audience that couldn’t be reached before. My prediction: Online improv is here to stay, and Comedysportz might have staked the earliest claim to knowing how to do it WELL. 

But! It’s not all closures and sell-offs! Even in the midst of Covid, new theaters have emerged. Stepping Stone, Lantern Comedy Collective, The Trident Network, all of these companies have been born out of the Mad Max chaos of this last year. They don’t have the burden of a physical space at this point, and are free to adapt to the new landscape in whatever way they want. There’s the smaller indie theaters like CIC and Logan Square Improv that have weathered the storm and sit ready to throw their doors open once it's safe.  Already, outdoor shows are starting to crop up in backyards, garages, parks, and that strange structure outside of CVS that isn’t quite a gazebo but couldn’t possibly be called a bandstand. The community is starting to come back together, hungry to perform and get back on stage.

The thing that has given me hope through the entire pandemic is just how resilient improv is as an artform. Since it is the most simple to produce, improv would naturally be the first form of theater to return after the pandemic. There’s no costumes to sew, there’s no scripts to memorize, no contracts to work out. Even though live improv evaporated over the course of a single weekend last March, it can come back just as quickly. And I can’t wait to see all of your solo shows.

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