Windy City Improv in the Big Apple

| 16 Feb 2015 | 11:41

Chicago City Limits returns to its first home in NYC

By Nicole Del Mauro

Upper East Side Paul Zuckerman and Linda Gelman have been married for many years. But tonight, on the corner of east 74th and 1st Ave., underneath Jan Hus Playhouse's stage lights, he is an elderly, gay father in a nursing home and she is his visiting daughter, still bitter over a childhood filled with a doll named "Butch Barbie" and toy trucks.

These improv actors have taken on these roles for the first time only minutes prior, but the art of on-the-spot performance is not new to them. The co-founders of multi award-winning improv company Chicago City Limits are celebrating 35 years of performance by bringing a 5 person show back to Jan Hus Playhouse, one of the company's first homes in New York City.

Originally from New York, Zuckerman was living in Chicago with Gelman and working in advertising. Both were members of The Second City, an improv comedy theater, and formed an improvisation group with four of their fellow group members. After performing in Chicago, they ventured to New York City to explore the comedy culture of a new city and found a home on Theatre Row in 1979. CCL has been in NYC ever since.

"Most of us were from New York, a couple people in the group are from Chicago," Zuckerman said. "Chicago is a great place but New York was home, so when things started to happen here we really felt this was the place to be."

The company moved to Jan Hus Playhouse for the first time in 1981 and performed there until 1994. From there they bounced around the city looking for a good fit on 1st Ave and 61st St. and then the Broadway Comedy Club, but high rent and a bar-like atmosphere didn't suit the group's theatre show. After receiving a call to do a show six months ago, they started performing at Jan Hus again and became the playhouse's resident company.

In addition to their show at Jan Hus, Chicago City Limits has a national touring company performing comedy throughout the country at colleges and regional theaters.

As much as CCL is a source of entertainment, it is an opportunity to enter the world of comedy. The company teaches improvisation workshops to those interested in the craft. In fact, CCL frequently recruits workshop attendees when expanding their cast. Sometimes they hold auditions for shows as well.

And Chicago City Limits doesn't open its doors for aspiring comedians exclusively. The company also offers workshops that focus on bringing improv techniques to people in business. Zuckerman said people who sign up for the class want to work on presentation skills and running meetings.

According to Zuckerman, succeeding in improv is mastering the art of not thinking so hard about what to say next during a performance.

"When you're hanging out on a Saturday night with your buddies, the conversation is fast and furious. The [improv] training is to take that nice, secure place and put it on stage," Zuckerman said.

The performance of the Chicago City Limits cast necessitates this security, for actors are constantly at the mercy of their viewers. During a skit entitled "Storytime," an audience member spits out a story title and four cast members alternate telling bits and pieces of a narrative. In another, three actors compete in a game of Jeopardy as characters chosen by the audience. The cast later launches into a Broadway musical, the subject being an audience member's personal anecdote.

Perhaps the most anxiety-ridden feature is the show's ending act, "Torture the Actor." The audience provides an obscure phrase that the cast must act out in small clues for one unknowing cast member until he or she finally pieces together the exact phrase.

This off-the-cuff, quick-on-your-feet form of entertainment is grasping New Yorkers' attention; companies like Upright Citizen Brigade have had great success. But rather than being a hindrance to CCL, improvisation's popularity creates a helpful distinction of the comedy genre's unique identity. Zuckerman said thriving national success of comedy club The Improvisation years ago widely expanded stand up comedy, but perhaps created a confused association of the two genres.

"I think people just associated [stand up comedy] as what improv is, but it's a very different form," he said.

But Chicago City Limits became a playground for both stand-up comedians and improv actors. Top comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Rita Rudner, Paul Reiser, Brett Butler, Larry Miller and Robin Williams have performed with the company throughout its history.

"A big conduit for stand-ups is to eventually get into some kind of acting. Both Seinfield and Reiser when we knew them had never done any acting work," Zuckerman said. "They were stand-up comedians. but both aspiring."