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Saturday, October 07, 2017

Hitting the Limits

From the Vault Dept.: What a disappointing review! When I wrote it, I was heavily involved in improv performance myself, so I’m sure I considered myself all too much of an expert. I give you my Chicago City Limits review first, from a performance in 1996; what follows it is the advance I wrote the week before, while still filled with eager anticipation.


Improvisational theater groups don’t work with scripts. They take to the stage armed with techniques of turning audience suggestions into fast-paced, funny skits. Chicago City Limits, a Manhattan fixture for almost 20 years, brought a fairly successful evening of improv to the Egg last Saturday, presenting a pair of shows geared toward younger and older audiences, respectively.

I didn’t see the afternoon kids show, but the group that took to the stage that evening was revved to a good energy level. The small theater was sold out, and the audience quickly warmed to the idea that they were expected to call out words and phrases.

The two-act show mixed set pieces with improvised sketches and songs; the first audience suggestion, “cub scout,” was turned into the theme of a blues sung by each member of the company in turn. To make it even tougher on themselves, they finished by passing the song around, phrase by phrase, still maintaining a sense of scansion and rhyme.

We learned how romance fares when it’s put through a succession of different styles as lovers worked out their problems a la Tennessee Williams, Moliere, Dostoyevsky and Woody Allen – with the audience also suggesting plot twists.

And these people are quick. As “Jeopardy” contestants, they made up questions to audience-shouted answers; in the category “Careers,” someone shouted “Sylvester Stallone!” Without missing a beat, Sean M. Conroy deadpanned, “Who does not belong in this category?”

Several set pieces were interspersed among the improvised routines, and generally lacked the punch of the good improv moments. The first half ended with a suite of songs taking aim at the political scene; that kind of humor has a very short half-life, and a couple of the songs had therefore expired, but the finale, “Superparamilitaryparanoidmilitia” (sung to the tune of a “Mary Poppins” song) was put together well.

The second half of the show had none of the sparkle of the first. An opening routine by the pianist fizzled; the actors got off  to a good start singing an Italianate love song using the suggested phrase “Victoria’s Secret,” but bogged themselves down in technical problems thereafter: a man in a dentist’s chair, for example, ignored the instruments placed (in pantomime) in his mouth, destroying the theatrical reality of the bit, and a storytelling sequence in contrasting styles (film noir, Harold Pinter, William Shatner and Sam Shepard) never got around to the suggested story until the very end.

The group is good, no question about it, but they’ve gotten lazy in their pursuit of laughs. With a review of some of the improv basics and a better sense of working as a team, they’ll be unstoppably brilliant.

Chicago City Limits
Lewis A. Swyer Theater at the Egg
March 3, 1996

Metroland Magazine, 7 March 1996


THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE – shared by almost all who brave their way onstage – finds you facing an audience with no lines memorized and no idea what you’re supposed to do. It’s the worst possible situation for an actor. Yet it’s precisely what members of Chicago City Limits do, and have been doing for over 15 years.

When the group performs at the Egg (at 3 PM and 8 PM Saturday), they’ll take to the stage and field suggestions from the audience. And then they’ll make up scenes on the spot. It’s called improvisational theater, and it’s becoming more and more popular as audiences thrill to the spectacle talented actors walking a theatrical tightrope with hilarious results.

The afternoon show will be geared toward kids. The evening show is for adults. What’s the difference between them? I talked to company member Sean M. Conroy, who says that little is done ahead of time to differentiate the shows. “It’s easy to fit the show to the audience because we’re so audience-dependent. The form we use for both is similar, but the shows themselves will be very different.”

Chicago City Limits shows mix pure improv with set pieces, which are sketches usually born in improvisation that are allowed to evolve into something almost scripted. “We’ll be doing some set pieces for both shows,” says Conroy, “and the rest is improvised. For the second show, there’ll be a lot more politically-related pieces. And it’ll be targeted for an adult audience.”

Although audience suggestions fuel the improvised pieces, there actually are rules used by the actors to make the scenes work well. Top of the list: never deny your partner (also called “agree and amplify.”) Whatever your scene partner suggests, you have to go along with it. This actually contributes to the freedom of the scene. Don’t ask your partner questions--they can strangle a scene. Above all, trust your partner. That’s why it’s important to practice and work as a company.

Founded in Chicago by George Todisco and a group of actors working with the renowned Second City, Chicago City Limits moved to Manhattan in 1979 and established its own theater there a year later. As one of the country’s finest improv troupes, membership is highly competitive – so Conroy was thrilled to be invited to join three years ago.

“In high school and college I acted in lots of plays and musicals,” he says. “I also started writing a lot of sketch comedy in college. I came to New York with vague notions of being an actor. Looking through the trade papers one day, I saw an ad for an improv comedy group and auditioned. They invited me to join, and I stayed with Falling Rock Zone for three years before starting my own group, Out There. And that’s who I was with when some people with Chicago City Limits saw me.”

Improvisational groups have been springing up around the country lately, bringing their particular brand of games and sketches to the clubs and theaters that used to be mainstays of standup comics. Conroy has a theory about that: “These things go in cycles. In the 80s, you had the standup era, until standup comedy got all over the TV channels. Now I think people are looking for alternatives, and improv is one of them. You can find it on TV now, but that’s nothing like the energy you get from a live show.”

Best of all for the improv actor, the skills learned in that context help with all other types of acting job. “We teach classes at our theater,” Conroy explains, “and a lot of actors who aren’t even looking to get into improv are attending. For myself, I’ve gotten a lot of work through the exposure with this company, and find I’m using a lot of the skills I’ve developed with them.”

Tickets for the 3 PM performance are $10. For the 8 PM show, tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for seniors. For more info, call the Egg box office.

Metroland Magazine, 29 February 1996

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