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Beans, bears, bewildering improv: Sketched Out takes Chicago

This fall break I got to live out everyone’s wildest dream: I piled into a large, white van with nine other college comedians and drove through some of America’s flattest, most corn-infested farmlands. 

That’s right, Sketched Out Improv was headed to Chicago. 

Every year, my improv team takes a trip to the Midwest’s largest city to take in the sights, see some professional ‘prov and get to know each other a little better. 

This was my first time making the journey with the team, and I was looking forward to goofing off in the big city with my friends. 

After gliding through the great state of Indiana in the late hours of the night, we pulled into Deerfield, Illinois, the Chicago suburb we’d be staying in and using as our base of operations before launching into the city. We collapsed gratefully onto our respective beds and couches before rising the next morning ready to face the day. 

On Friday we made our first venture into the city. Despite the fact that the cold Chicago rain pelted us from the minute we stepped out the door, we felt it was a good idea to visit the Lincoln Park Zoo. 

While the soggy weather may have driven some of the animals indoors, it didn’t stop Sketched Out. 

Our overcast adventure rewarded us with glimpses of a pair of zebras, a damp polar bear and a gaggle of enthusiastic macaques, among others.

Leaving Lincoln Park in our wake, we delved deeper into the city. Next on the agenda was an improv workshop aimed at bolstering our team’s knowledge of the craft. Although the class was located in what appeared to be an abandoned storefront, complete with rusty chairs and a thick layer of dust, we had a blast. Suffice it to say we’ve got a few new tricks up our sleeves for our next show. 

Rounding out our Friday experience was dinner at Giordano’s pizza — a Chicago staple, complete with a deep dish crust and copious layers of cheese — and an improv show at The Annoyance theater. 

Chicago is considered by many to be the Mecca for improv. Theaters like Second City and iO offer some of the highest caliber improvised comedy the world has to offer. While the show at The Annoyance was good, it was nothing compared to the performance we were treated to the following night. 

After a busy Saturday filled with thrift shopping and photos at Chicago’s famous Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as The Bean, we found ourselves at iO. 

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Over the years, the theater has played host to a comprehensive cast of now-famous names. Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Stephen Colbert and Mike Meyers all number the theater’s well-known alumni. Passion and talent seep from every pore of iO’s foundation, and it makes for some amazing performances.

We were there to see two shows: the Deltones — a group that specializes in musical improv — and Improvised Shakespeare — an improv performance presented almost entirely in the structure and language of William Shakespeare. 

The Deltones were truly impressive. The fact that they could come up with scenes and dialogue set to music they’d never heard before amazed me. 

But the performers of Improvised Shakespeare blew me away. 

Over the course of an hour or so, they built an entire comedic play from the ground up. They received a single suggestion — “why do I smell?” — and created a six scene narrative featuring a pair of star-crossed lovers, an ambitious Venetian duke, five separate ghosts and 37 squirrels. 

Not a single plot line was dropped, and every scene flowed seamlessly into the next. I found myself pleasantly surprised when the show ended, because I could have watched it for hours more. 

Bewildered and exhausted after the show ended, we collapsed onto the subway and made our way back to our accommodations. After another night on the couch, I rose, bid Chicago and its improv goodbye, and settled in for what would be another five-hour van ride across Indiana and back to Oxford. 

Next year’s trip has some big shoes to fill.