heyjb asked: Any thoughts on Chicago improv compared to New York improv?
My experience with improv in New York and Chicago really boils down to UCB and iO so for the most part, I’m only going to speak to those two schools of thought. Also, I’ve had three years of experience with UCB and have had at least fifteen different teachers there where as I only spent five weeks at iO and only took classes with five teachers (seven if you include workshops) so my thoughts opinion are skewed by time and quantity.
As far as I can tell iO improv tends to focus more on having a compelling scene than a comedic scene. Those scenes tend to be driven by relationships instead of game or an unusual thing. Reacting to each line in the moment is more important than repeating a pattern of behavior. The iO approach tends to focus much more on establishing why two people in a scene care about each other and why the audience should care about them. The comedy comes second.
At the DCM press conference this year Matt Besser made a point of saying that he considers UCB to be a comedy theatre first and an improv theatre second and I think this really translates to the New York/UCB style of improv as a whole. Game is the center of it and patterns of behavior should be repeated, sometimes at the cost of the heart of scene. Maybe this is because New York is a city that creates more comedy for the masses than Chicago (in terms of television and other distributable media) and so getting to the funny as quickly as possible seems to be the priority. The thought process feels, to a certain extent, more like people should improvise as though it were a sketch and in a sketch you wouldn’t have any excuse to let things meander too long.
That division of relationship vs. game is pretty simplistic and not everyone in either city or improv school works that way. You can definitely find game in Chicago shows even if that’s not the intentional goal simply because repetition of patterns is inevitable when creating grounded humans and you can find deep relationships in good New York improv because discovering the relationship between characters gives more information from which to expand your piece and find new opportunities to play your game. My level 1 iO teacher said that UCB-ers tend to watch iO shows and wonder why they are so slow while iO-ers tend to see UCB shows and wonder why they should care. It’s all about finding a balance. I also really like an analogy that Will Hines came up with which was to say that Chicago improv is like jazz. There’s a lot of discovery along the way and it’s very fluid but you’re never entirely sure where it’s going. UCB is like pop. There’s a hook and a melody and it’s satisfying to listen to because you know when the chorus is coming and the variations (heightening) fulfill your expectations.
There’s also the matter of iO being the place where Del Close was really able to teach long form improv for the first time and as a result iO tries to stick very closely to his teachings. UCB and other improv theatres in New York and beyond Chicago are more inclined to evolve Del’s teachings. I don’t think that Del thought he had all of improv figured out by the time he died, so it is extremely important that it does continue to evolve and grow. At the same time, sometimes that evolution just comes from not quite understanding what was meant to be taught like a game of telephone where things are inadvertently altered and not always for the better. I think that iO should be more willing to accept the way that the art form evolves with the time and other schools (not just New York and certainly not just UCB) should be careful to make sure they have a full understanding of what they are trying to say before they say it. It’s all a balance. Improv should change but it should be an intentional change and not due to misunderstandings.
On a side note I think that Chicago has a much healthier approach to learning improv from multiple sources than New York does. In Chicago it seems expected that everyone take classes from every school available. In New York it still seems like you are expected to be loyal to one school only. Even just in the three years since I’ve been taking improv classes, I’ve seen this culture improve in New York but I still think that we could take a page out of the Chicago book and learn to not worry so much about which brand of improv we are studying and realize that everywhere has something different to offer.