Think traditional improv lacks substance? Lend your ears to the Improvised Shakespeare Company, a Chicago-based troupe creating smart, in-the-moment, Shakespeare-inspired narratives based off an audience-suggested title. And with Elizabethan drama, history and rhyming fairies aplenty, the more attention paid in English Lit, the harder the comedy hits.
In addition to three weekly shows at its home, iO Chicago Theater, ISC tours roughly 100 days a year. To accommodate the demand, the trained roster currently numbers 19. During a tour that includes the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and San Francisco's Outside Lands, veterans Blaine Swen, Joey Bland, Ross Bryant, Greg Hess and Thomas Middleditch will perform at Elephant Stages’ Lillian Theatre on Aug. 12 and 13.
Middleditch now leads the cast of Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley. A full-fledged member since ISC’s 2005 inception, he joins dates as his shooting schedule permits.
“It’s one of my favorite improv shows ever,” he enthuses. “When done properly, you engage in the actual story of it. With this particular right mix of guys, we all fully embrace it. We all try really hard to make it a good show and we’re all very aware of all the things that need to happen. For lack of a better term, we all give a shit… every member of the group wants it to be the best possible show.”
Achieving cohesion on multiple levels demands members collaborate far beyond improv’s golden “Yes, and…” rule of open-mindedness. Expertise in advancing narrative structure, elevating scene partners, setting aside individual goals in order to support progression as a whole and heightening emotional reactions remains paramount, says creator and founder Swen.
Though performing or at least studying Shakespeare in college or high school provides an obvious advantage for an ISC performer, the troupe prides itself in members' ongoing immersion. Rehearsals include Elizabethan vocabulary quizzes and rhyming challenges. Participants collectively view Shakespearian plays and films. With Loyola University professors, they work their way through discussing the entire Shakespearean canon. (Early on, they even tackled one book of Plato's The Republic per week.) Pre-show, members spend 45 minutes warming up with language refreshers and what Middleditch refers to as a “super crazy” version of standard improv game Zip Zap Zop “with, like, 50 additional rules.”
The mental exercises have intrigued no less than Shakespearian actor Sir Patrick Stewart, a surprise guest star twice in New York and once in Chicago.
“We don’t tell anybody until the lights come up and he’s standing there,” says Swen. “It’s so fun to see the audience struggle with processing bewilderment and joy at the same time. They cheer when the lights come up, then as they start to see him standing there there’s this brief gasp of silence, and then screaming.”
Though he’s technically the only guest they’ve ever had, Swen adds, ISC could be open to including others in the future. “But Patrick Stewart sets a pretty high standard for special guests.”
While Middleditch envisions a long-term, Off-Broadway run in New York City some day, for now, ISC enjoys making it up as they go along. “Improv is always seen as something that’s funny, but worth a $5 ticket, $10 at most,” he says. “I think ISC is one of those shows that is worth a real ticket price. It’s hard-hitting and great and different every time.”
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