Talking with Chicago Improv Festival’s Jonathan Pitts about stars, laughs, and the divine right to play

How about a healthcare plan for the spirit? Appointments are available all this week! Low co-pays ($5-$25). High pay-off in laughs and other transcendent benefits. This plan is open to everyone and it’s called the Chicago Improv Festival. The Festival runs Monday, March 27-Sunday, April 2.

Jonathan Pitts created the Festival with Frances Callier in 1998 and has served as executive producer since its inception. This year he steps down, but under his auspices it has become the biggest improv festival in the world. This year the Festival hosts 193 of the best acts from Chicago, twenty-three other U.S. cities, Canada, Germany, Holland and India.

Jonathan PItts
Jonathan PItts

Jonathan points out that improv provides laughter, connection, “aliveness,” and permission for adults to play, all necessary ingredients for a healthy and fulfilling life. These uplifting essentials too often go missing from adulthood, especially these days. Accordingly, the Festival’s 2017 theme is “No Ban on Fun! Everyone Welcome! With Liberty and Laughter for All!” I hope someone will shout it from the theater rooftops, in this case the Athenaeum Theatre, Stage 773 and Second City where this year’s shows take place.

In honor of the Festival’s twentieth anniversary and Jonathan’s last year as executive producer, Frances Callier, who previously left Chicago for L.A., will perform with her improv partner Angela Shelton. They are the duo Frangela and appear regularly on NBC’s The Today Show, Dateline, CNN, Fox and NPR.

Check out the Festival’s entire line-up here. Just a few of the eye-catching, biggest names in improv scheduled to appear: Susan Messing, Rachael Mason, Jimmy Carrane, TJ Jagodowski, 3Peat, Katie Rich, Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Rob Belushi (How I Met Your Mother), Dan Harmon (Harmontown, Community), Jon Barinholtz (Superstore), Kevin Dorff (Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Antoine McKay (Empire), Bassprov, and several shows with Rachel Dratch as the special guest.

Some of the many rising stars: Aspertypicals (graduates of Second City’s class for adults with autism), Debbie Downer (about being sons and caretakers), Valid Hysteria (groundbreaking Chicago women) and Improv Bangalore, the first group from India to perform at the Festival.

Jonathan described another Festival highlight, “it’s been amazing to see over these twenty years how many more female improvisers there are and how many more improvisers of color. Twenty years ago, improv groups were generally something like seven guys and one woman. In this year’s Festival, we have at least seven all-female groups, not including the female duos. There are groups that are minority-focused and groups of all combinations. It’s great to see the demographic of the improvisers changing. It has become more inclusive for everybody.”

Jonathan will continue to produce the Chicago Podcast Festival and the College Improv Tournament, and to teach improv around the world. He will stay on as the artistic director of the Chicago Improv Festival.

He kindly took time out in the hectic week before the Festival to talk about the Festival and sustaining the human spirit.


Teme: What was the moment you knew you had to create the Chicago Improv Festival?

Jonathan: I fell in love with festivals as a production intern for the International Theater Festival of Chicago. I saw how people from around the world created theater and how great it was to connect with them.

I later became the theater and performance curator at Chicago’s Around the Coyote and for the children’s festival, Magic City, which is where I met Frances Callier. One day, I was walking out of a meeting and was immediately struck by the question of why Chicago did not have an improv festival. It’s the birthplace and Mecca of improv.

I reached out to Frances and she said that she’d wanted to do a festival for years, but no one would ever work on it with her, so we joined forces. We created a one-year plan, a three-year plan and a five-year plan in case she wanted to move to L.A. She thought she might only be around the first three years, which is exactly what happened. She moved to L.A. and I’ve been running it ever since.

Teme: And how did you decide now is the time step down from running the Festival and move on to other projects?

Jonathan: I was ready to let go after year fifteen. I felt I’ve done everything I can do. I have fulfilled my obligations and been of service to the community artistically, so I’m ready to let it go to somebody else. But I’m an only child and that year my mom got sick. She had a massive stroke and so I spent the next two years overseeing her health and then she passed away.

And then it was a year working on her estate and a year working on rehabbing her house and by the time the house was on the market it was year nineteen, so I thought why not stick around for one more year?

Teme: I’m so sorry to hear about your Mom.

Jonathan: Thank you, but I was glad to be able to be around. I was planning on moving from Chicago at that point, but I’m glad I was able to spend those years spending time with her and helping her as best I could.

Teme: What are some highlights of the Festival’s first twenty years?

Jonathan: I knew we were going to be big in year three when we had five hundred people on a Tuesday night to see Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey perform together.

Another highlight was the year after 9/11. I brought in an improv group from Tel Aviv. I wanted the audience and improvisers to see a group that deals with terrorism, violence and bombs going off every day and how they deal with it. I wanted it to be an example of how we will have to deal with it moving forward. Some of their show was in Hebrew and some in English and it felt really, really important.

The awards we’ve given to the pioneers of this art form have also been very meaningful. We had a reunion of the Second City cast from 1979. The purpose was to give a lifetime achievement award to Fred Kaz, who was a legendary piano player for Second City. That cast came back and performed for 1,000 people. Fred got a standing ovation and he cried on stage. To be able to do something meaningful like that was amazing as well.

Teme: What would you like people to know about this year’s feature acts?

Jonathan: One of many exciting acts is Dan Harmon, the award-winning creator of Community, who will record his podcast Harmontown. You may say, “But how is a live podcast improvised?” The answer is it’s totally unscripted. They are making their show up on the spot talking to each other and to the audience. It’s another way of improvising, but one that also involves technology.

Any show with Scott Adsit (30 Rock) is going to be amazing. He’s one of the all-time favorite improvisers.

Another great show is Frangela with Frances Callier. We co-created the Festival and I love that she will be here for year twenty just like she was here in year one.

Bassprov is a show we’ve done several times throughout the years. It has its own special guest. One year it was Fred Willard. We gave him a lifetime achievement award and he filled a venue of 1,000 people. It’s really nice that in my last year we have Bassprov performing with Rachel Dratch. It’s a nice way to go out.

Teme: Which acts might people not know yet, but are going to be delighted to discover?

Jonathan: One of the nights is Showcase Chicago featuring some of the best shows from other Chicago venues. Here’s a great combination: in our “alternative genre” category we have Improvised Marvel and Improvised Jane Austin. So there will be one show with Victorian costumes and one with superhero costumes.

Teme: I have to ask you, who is the group called “Justin Trudeau Will Save Us All”?

Jonathan: They’re a group of Canadian expats who live in Chicago and are gathering to do this show. They all are Second City Toronto alumni.

Teme: Speaking of improvisers from other countries, how does improv vary around the world?

Jonathan: Improv tends to be more narrative and story-focused in other countries. Different parts of the U.S. have also developed their own regional approaches. Some places, like San Francisco, focus more on drama styles of improv. Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and L.A. focus more on finding the game of the scene.

In Chicago, the main focus is the “Harold.” It’s a montage long-form, where one idea is twisted, moved around, changed and adapted in many different ways without paying a lot of attention to a narrative arc. It’s often slow and patient scene-work with an emphasis on relationships.

Chicago’s style of improvisation is recognized around the country and around the world similar, I’d say, to the way we’re known for deep dish pizza.

Teme: In Rick Kogan’s wonderful recent Tribune article about you, you mentioned how playing and connecting are important in improv and in life. How will attending the Chicago Improv Festival bring more connection and play into the audience’s lives?

Jonathan: Well, an improv show isn’t the same without an audience. The audience is like an extra team member in the show. The audience becomes part of the playing by observing, witnessing and responding.

The improvisation creates an aliveness. There are two possible audience reactions to that aliveness: either respond to it or detach from it. Most audiences end up responding to it. That response is connection and in that connection is play.

Teme: It sounds so spiritually restorative.

Jonathan: Right, and that’s part of the reason the tagline for this year’s festival is: “No ban on fun. Liberty and laughter for all.”

Teme: Very badly needed right now!

Jonathan: Right? Because people still have the right to play.

Teme: How did you know that playing and connecting are important? A lot of people reach adulthood and believe we’re supposed to get grimmer and more serious. I know I veered off in that over-serious direction. How did you know there was a better option?

Jonathan: Well, as a kid I loved to play. I had a grandfather who I grew up with who hated that I loved to play. He was a lawyer with a degree from the University of Chicago and he would say, “Play, play, play. Life is more than play!”

When I started taking classes at Second City and started doing improv, I saw these adults who created this theater and who were pioneers in this work. They were adults who are the same age I am now and they were still playing.

It showed me that keeping up playing is a choice. That’s when I realized; to play is a divine right of being human. It’s how we learn. How we connect. Part of what I really appreciated about the people who were my improv teachers is I saw that adults didn’t have to stop playing. I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of people don’t go back to play until they become grandparents. Grandchildren give them permission.

Teme: That’s so true. It’s about that permission. Is that the flaw in “adult” thinking? That once we have these responsibilities, permission to play is over. Now it’s time for mortgages and bills and being very, very sober.

Jonathan: When taking on other responsibilities, it’s easy to forget that you still have the responsibility of self-care and part of that is the responsibility to play.

You’ll always have other responsibilities, but you still have that responsibility to play. The nice thing is that as an adult, you can give yourself permission to play. It can’t be taken away. It’s back in your hands.

Teme: How would you recommend people put play back in their lives?

Jonathan: I would say find whatever is creative to you. Play doesn’t have to be theatrical play. I’ve seen that there tends to be more joy in families where everyone plays music. They’re different people because of it. You can play through music, you can play through dance, you can play through theater, you can play through writing, you can play through painting. Find a way to express something inside of yourself and engage with that expression.

Teme: So it’s never too late.

Jonathan: No, it isn’t.

Teme: What are the benefits of play to the human spirit?

Jonathan: It’s the equivalent of exercise. What exercise does for the body, play does for the spirit.


The Chicago Improv Festival is Monday, March 27-Sunday, April 2. Tickets are $5-$25. Complete schedule and tickets here.



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