A samurai fighter inched toward me, his sword poised for a gutting or a swift beheading. As quick as a falcon, I swerved and plunged my weapon into his side. He crumbled to the floor, his face scrunched in agony. Yet before I could savor my victory, I was felled by a surprise attack from behind. I hit the ground clutching my wound, my fingers twitching with the last flickers of life.
No one survived that gruesome battle. Contorted bodies littered the floor. A thick stillness coated the air. It was hilarious.
Live from Chicago, it’s drop-in improv at Second City.
For two hours on Sundays and Wednesdays, the legendary ha-ha house invites all levels of comics and cutups to learn the art of improv. The $15 sessions are held in Second City’s complex of performance spaces, lounge areas and classrooms in the Old Town neighborhood. Our unadorned mime-box of a room sat one floor above the new UP Comedy Club, which opened in January and complements the two main stages. Heat rises; hopefully humor does as well.
“It’s about opening yourself up to what’s funny,” said Jessica Mitolo, our instructor and a director with the troupe, “and all the ways in which life is already funny and weird.” Such as pretending that you’re a ruthless samurai warrior in ballet flats.
Second City introduced the classes in 2005 to give students enrolled in its Training Center, the company’s educational arm, additional practice time. The classes soon drew a wider circle of clowns. Our Easter Sunday class of 10, for instance, included both a latent stand-up comedian and a quasi-sociologist who wanted to “see people’s level of cooperation” and “take the temperature of Chicago.” I didn’t know the city had a fever. Ba-da-bum.
“I need to find myself and get up my self-esteem,” said Darius Strickland, the performer making his comeback. “I’m walking away with confirmation that this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Jessica, a hummingbird in a flouncy skirt, had the same effect as a bottle of tequila: With her encouragement, I easily shed my inhibitions and watched my confidence grow, even in the silliest of circumstances. She started the class with a simple exercise, the ABCs. In pairs, we recited the alphabet with our bodies, building the letters with our arms, legs, heads and backs. Hunched over as one-half of an O, I felt as if I were practicing “Sesame Street” yoga, with Abby Cadabby as the master guru.
Jessica stepped up the challenge by regrouping us into quartets, thereby doubling the body parts and the chaos. As I played the role of the crossbarin the F, I imagined assembling a Dream Team of Alphabetizers from Second City’s alumni ranks: Fred Willard, Tina Fey, Dan Aykroyd and, for the bulge in the D, John Candy. (For a list of graduates, from the first class of 1959 to the present, peruse the names and photos that adorn the box office and the lobby.)
Improv weaves together myriad performing arts techniques and crafts, such as acting, physical agility, storytelling and memorization. Each exercise honed a set of skills that would prepare us for the big bang: an improvised skit based on wit, not a script.
“It isn’t jokes; it’s a skill,” Jessica said. “The humor’s in the honesty and relatability.”
The letter game, for example, helped us loosen our limbs and forge a trusting bond with our partners. A fast-paced game of catch that involved finger snaps and shout-outs to other performers sharpened our rhythmic beats and reflexes. The dramatic samurai scene instilled in us a hyper-awareness of our physical powers and mental acuity. With Jessica’s supportive direction — “move slower . . . feel the life leaving your body” — I drifted deep into the moment. I was no longer a carefree visitor tooling around Chicago but an alert warrior slinking through hostile territory, a predator who became prey.
“It’s a moment of acting,” she said of the battle, “ and about what it’s really like when you come back to life.”
Ultimately, improv is about picking up your partner’s silly string, putting new knots and twists in it, then handing it back. This absurdist dance goes on until the thread is tied in a loopy bow and handed to the audience, who had best be keeling over with laughter.
Jessica tossed us a string and watched us work it into an intricate macrame.
I faced a Second City student with a serious expression that masked his parched-dry wit. Without any preparation, we started to fabricate a tale, each of us embellishing the story in a lively verbal volley. We set up the scenario: a spiritual figure (in honor of the holiday) on a quest for an alcoholic beverage. Roaming the neighborhood, he stops by the house of his pal, Mary Magdalene, who gives him — comic pause — a glass of water.
Sufficiently warmed up, we were now ready for the finale. We broke into two groups of five. The audience shouted out orders for our team, which lined up first: a horror tale about a glowworm. We each contributed a line or two to advance the story, stopping only when Jessica yelled “Switch.” Our protagonist, a delinquent bug, had to endure gangs, an after-prom party on the lake, a friendship with a moose, a PSA about staying in school and a murder. The scene ended inside the moose’s nose, with the glowworm getting away with the crime.
The room filled with applause. I soaked up the fleeting moment of success, silently thanking my agent, my family and the glowworm, to whom I owed it all.
After class, Jessica informed us of the evening shows taking place downstairs, including a free improv set. Tempting, but I really wanted to take my show on the road.
Leaving Second City, I set out with the idea of walking into a Chicago bar and asking whether anyone had heard the one about the glowworm, the moose and the amateur improv artist.
1616 N. Wells St., Chicago
Drop-in improv classes are held on Wednesdays 5-7 p.m. and Sundays 6-8 p.m. $15 per class.