It was a big night in many ways when members of Off-Off Campus, UChicago’s student improv group, stepped onstage at the Revival–a brand-new improv comedy venue in Hyde Park–for the group’s first performance of their 30th season. But on this night of firsts, Off-Off and the Revival were actually carrying on the great tradition of improv in Hyde Park and Chicago.
Chicago is known as a bulwark of the improv comedy scene; its renowned theaters such as Second City and iO have brought comedians like Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler to the forefront of comedy. But few are aware of the fact that Hyde Park was actually the birthplace of modern improv.
In 1955, a group called the Compass Players started a makeshift theater on the same site where the Revival now stands. One night, at the request of the bartender, they decided to spontaneously use their improvisational rehearsal games to extend a show–and thus, improvisational theater was born. According to the Revival’s Kickstarter campaign, the Compass Players eventually went their separate ways, with some even founding Second City. The rest, as they say, is history.
In October the story was again brought to life. After months of renovations to transition the storefront from a dialysis center to a performing space, improv and laughter filled the space once more, with members of Off-Off riffing on topics ranging from pro wrestling to the Irish potato famine to America’s Next Top Model.
“Samantha, you can advance to the next round, but you must prove how badly you want it–by taking this piece of paper from my hands,” one member said, impersonating Tyra Banks before running across the stage with the paper, much to the delight of the audience. The stage went dark as the scene changed; transition music blared from the second-floor booth as the viewers sang and clapped along.
This is what Off-Off Campus is all about, explained Dan Ackerman, a fourth-year International Studies major and the group's production manager. “It’s a bunch of people who are serious about putting something good on stage and generally being funny,” he said. “Off-Off is my real major. I feel like I’ve spent more time on it than my actual major…. It’s the defining thing of my college experience.”
“It’s my home here,” said Val Bodurtha, a second-year Classics major and one of the performers that first night. She said she plans on going into comedy in the future.
The six to eight members of each Off-Off “generation” spend about three hours a day, five days a week writing and rehearsing new sketches for their weekly shows. Each member has two quarters of training and two quarters of performing with their generation before graduating to the alumni group where they assist with training the newest generation. Despite their retirement from the performance group, alumni tend to remain heavily involved in supporting and encouraging the newbies.
Val said she definitely felt that support from alumni and the audience during her first performance as a member of Off-Off last spring quarter when her generation—the 29th—readied for their first improv set. “We all came on stage, and everyone was cheering their heads off and screaming, Twen-ty-nine! Twen-ty-nine! And they didn’t even know if we were any good yet,” she said. “It made me feel awesome that I was part of such an amazing group before [I] got on stage, that the audience knew it was going to be quality fun.”
Off-Off used to call the University Church on 57th and Woodlawn home. Now, they are excited to settle into a more professional space at the Revival, where they will be performing their original sketches every Thursday night at 9 p.m. this quarter—just in time for their 30th year celebration this spring.
“It’s a whole new era in Off-Off history,” Val said.