Westfield Theatre students visited Chicago April 2-4 and found out why this midwestern big town is known for more than cold wind and deep dish pizza. During a three-day excursion, 40 students learned about improvisational comedy in the city that spawned many of today’s most famous comedians, including Bill Murray and Mike Myers.
In his famous poem, Carl Sandburg calls Chicago the “city of big shoulders,” but underneath its rough brick exterior, America’s “Second City” is home to some of the funniest and most exciting theatre around. Chicago was the training ground of big comedians who cut their teeth in the comedy clubs of the Windy City. In addition to the well-known Second City improv house, Chicago is also home to many other improv clubs, including Comedy Sportz and Improv Olympic. Recently, Westfield High School theatre students took their annual spring trip and viewed shows and attended workshops at both of these venues.
Westfield has a strong tradition of comedy sports with their successful and wildly popular improv club, so this trip was like a pilgrimage to many students. Students took workshops in the afternoon and learned new tactics and skills, and then attended professional performances by many of the workshop teachers. Many students were so happy with the shows they saw and the city itself that they found themselves considering Chicago as a future residence to hone their improvisational skills.
Improv theatre can be broken into two basic types: long form and short form. While both are difficult and based on audience suggestions and the actors’ sense of humor and creativity, they are different art forms. While short form improv consists of short five-minute sketches, long form improv scenes can be the length of an entire play, sometimes running two hours in length. Long form improv was championed in the 1970s by Del Close and Charna Halpern of Improv Olympic, while Comedy Sportz has been a staple in short form improv for years.
Westfield students attended a performance at Comedy Sportz in which two teams faced off in a battle of wits, similar to the television show Who’s Line Is It Anyway, except at Comedy Sportz, the points count. The two talented teams took turns doing short form sketches which were then scored by the audience. Especially funny was a spoof of Spanish soap operas in which somehow by the end of the scene the ground was covered with Godiva chocolates. Scenes like that leave little question as to why improv is so appealing to so many creative minds.
The show at Improv Olympic was called “Whirled News Tonight.” A cast of 10 players randomly pulled headlines from a bulletin board and created scenes around these real life news articles. For more than an hour, the cast bounced from topic to topic, continually amazing our students with their intelligence and wit. An audience favorite was a scene in which NATO became a sorority to which third world countries are pledging and the WTO entered the scene and invited NATO to a beer party at their headquarters. For the current events and political-minded the show surpassed such established news spoofs as The Daily Show and Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.
In addition to improv, our group also saw the classic musical "The Phantom of the Opera," learned more about Commedia del Arte in another workshop, and experienced the sights and sounds of Chicago including Wrigley Field, and the famous El, and Sears Tower.
There are many tales as to why Chicago is called The Windy City. Some say it is because of the actual wind, others say it was a name bestowed on the town by New York after shady dealings between the two cities. However, after the Westfield Theatre Department visited Chicago, many students believed that the wind referred to the countless laughs and guffaws brought on by America’s true first city of comedy.