Cleveland’s evolving improv comedy scene is rich in history and full of talent but less cohesive than those of Chicago and other cities
Story by Bob Abelman and Zach Bartz | Photography by Michael C. Butz
Few performance arts require less than improvisational theater.
There’s no need for a script or score. There’s no need for staging. There is no need for a stage.
All that is required is an audience prompt (“Can someone shout out the name of an exotic location?”), maybe a bentwood chair or two in a performance space and a corps of quick-witted performers with a unique skill set. They must possess an all-consuming penchant for creative risk-taking, no fear of failing, and the ability to devise and deliver free-association comedy so ephemeral that it will be witnessed once and never again.
Improv, as an art form, has roots that date back to 16th century commedia dell’arte, ties to 19th century vaudeville, burlesque and cabaret, and a shared bloodline with modern day stand-up and sketch comedy.
But while stand-up and sketch comedy are preconceived, well-rehearsed and delivered to appear spontaneous, improv consists of extemporaneous discoveries, acted-on impulses and blind trust in fellow players.
Stand-up and sketch comedy are based on a set routine of jokes, stories and short scripted vignettes. Improv is in-the-moment ingenuity – and there is nothing routine about it.
The Comedy Hall of Fame and Hollywood’s Friars Club memorialize the Grand Masters of stand-up and sketch comedy. Improv artists? Not so much.
‘Cleveland form’ conception
In Cleveland, clubs featuring stand-up comedians and sketch comedy troupes became popular in the 1980s, inspired largely by the proliferation of cable comedy shows like “An Evening at the Improv” on the then-new Arts & Entertainment (A&E) network.
Hilarities, now on East Fourth Street in the heart of downtown Cleveland, opened in Cuyahoga Falls in 1985. The Improv, currently situated on the west bank of the Flats and which – ironically – offers no improv, opened in 1989.
The emergence of Cleveland’s improvisational theater scene – like the art form itself – was more fleeting, nomadic and in the moment, with some moments more formidable than others.
“Yet it gave birth to a style of performance art that is distinctively its own, referred to as the ‘Cleveland Form,’” says Jeff Blanchard, an early improv pioneer and founder of Cleveland’s longest running improvisational comedy troupe, Something Dada.
Improv typically comes in two shapes and sizes. Short-form – particularly popular in New York City – has the audience coming up with a suggestion to be acted upon as its own little three- or four-minute piece. An improv evening of short-form consists of a series of prompts and responses, improv games and perhaps improv competitions among the players.
Long-form was developed in Chicago and allows the performers to add structures that tie together multiple scenes so an entire show can unfold from an initial prompt.
The style of improv that developed in Cleveland in the 1980s was the result of New York-based improv performer Marc Moritz moving back to Cleveland to start a troupe called Giant Portions.
“There was really no one doing improv here,” he recalls. “It was a vacuum.”
At auditions, Moritz found just a handful of improv performers, who had received their training in Chicago, and professional actors who had no improv training whatsoever.
The amalgamated “Cleveland Form” incorporated the intelligence and spontaneity of New York’s short-form familiar to Moritz, the storytelling structure of Chicago’s long-form familiar to some of the company’s members and a very prominent theatrical sensibility common to everyone in the troupe.
“Music was an integral part of the structure of the work,” says Mike Bloom, who served as musical director/accompanist for Giant Portions. “Each scene was made up of beats, harmonies between and among the actors, and occasionally, dissonances. Improv, at its core, is very musical.”
“One of our dilemmas early on was finding a rehearsal space,” recalls Giant Portions alum Tom Fahey. “I remember us using the free clinic after hours for a while. Our first gig was at Temple Emanu El (in Orange).”
“We played anywhere that would have us,” adds fellow improv artist Larry Bucklan, “and soon built quite a loyal following, playing to full houses.”
Second fiddle to Chicago’s Second City
The popularity of contemporary improv as a performing art can be traced to 1955 when Paul Sills, a few University of Chicago classmates and David Shepherd formed an innovative, improv-based cabaret theater troupe called Compass Theatre.
Sills was the son of director Viola Spolin, who created pioneering improvisational techniques to help actors maintain focus, increase mental agility and access to emotion, stay in the moment and really listen to their fellow actors. Shepherd was an East Coast avant-garde theater performer who was hitchhiking to Cleveland but decided to stay in the car until Chicago.
In 1959, members of Compass Theatre became interested in creating a company devoted exclusively to satirical sketch comedy and improvisation. They formed The Second City, named after the title of a self-deprecating article about Chicago by J. Liebling that appeared in The New Yorker. Second City went on to become the world’s premier comedy club, short-form improv and sketch comedy theater and school of improvisation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Second City attempted to capitalize on the fame of notable alumni who launched NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” – namely Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner – by franchising its product. A satellite Second City troupe and training center that offered classes in its trademark improv and performance styles opened for business in Toronto. Another opened in Los Angeles and additional franchises started popping up across the country.
Because of mismanagement, the commercialization of what made Second City so edgy and innovative, and the increased offering of scripted scenes over improv, the franchises quickly closed in Detroit, New York, Las Vegas, on the Santa Monica Pier, and in 2002, on East 14th Street in downtown Cleveland.
“There was a small wave of Cleveland improv with Giant Portions, and on its heels, Something Dada, which operated in the basement of the Bradley Building in the Warehouse District,” recalls comedian/improv artist Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, who was trained at Chicago’s Second City and Annoyance Theater and currently hosts a monthly talk/improv show at Bar Louie in downtown Cleveland. “But I think Second City coming to Cleveland was when improv began to gain steam.”
Fred Gloor, a Giant Portions alum, agrees: “For a while, Second City’s arrival really ramped up the scene” as additional troupes such as Comicaze Improv, SPOT and Title TBD! – an improv troupe that presented an hour-long musical based on an audience suggestion – started to surface.
“When Second City Cleveland closed up shop and left town two years after arriving, several local people who had hoped to go on to ‘Saturday Night Live’ were eventually absorbed into our group, says Bob Ellis, an original member of Something Dada. “Cleveland improv was made much stronger by the trained players Second City left in its wake.”
But many local improv troupes quickly disbanded as an increasingly popular downtown theater scene thinned out improv audiences and made it difficult to find performance venues.
“Many artists – including (former Giant Portions members) Tom Fahey, Ken Armour, Sheila Heyman and I – left town and found work at the Comedy Warehouse nightclub at Disney World (which closed along with much of Downtown Disney’s Pleasure Island in 2008),” recalls Larry Bucklan. “Others went to Chicago.”
Today’s improv scene
Chicago improv is experiencing its largest and most innovative boom yet. The powerhouse institutions have all added stages and expanded their training centers, and much like these theaters, comedy collectives are continuing to spin off and create their own spaces.
The Revival has brought improv back to Hyde Park, the birthplace of The Compass. Chemically Imbalanced and The Crowd have both created their own communities and access to workshops and stage time. And troupes are challenging what constitutes a performance space by using tech and etiquette to transform garages, museums, lofts, and even spaces at The iO Theater, Annoyance and The Second City Training Center into viable stages.
“We’re obviously far behind Chicago, where the opportunities to perform and train are plentiful and there are larger audiences,” says James Catullo, a founding member of Crooked River Comedy, one of Cleveland’s newest improv troupes, and coordinator of This Improvised Life, a monthly performance at the Happy Dog at The Euclid Tavern in Cleveland. “And we’re behind places like Pittsburgh and Detroit that have multiple dedicated theaters and more vibrant, diverse scenes.”
Crooked River Comedy artistic director Patrick French, who spent 15 years in Boston, describes its comedy scene as “very established, focusing on experimental, highly artistic performance.”
“Cities like Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Austin (Texas) also have thriving improv scenes,” suggests Tracy Cubbal, whose PG-13-oriented Point of No Return troupe has been operating out of the Quirk Cultural Center in Cuyahoga Falls for the past 16 years.
But there is also a thriving alt-comedy scene in Cleveland, comprised mostly of nomadic independent improv artists who do pop-up performances throughout the area.
“Cleveland has a nice little improv scene,” observes Gloor, “with quite a few talented people doing the work.”
Angry Ladies of Improv: Denise Abboud, Brenna MC, Marjorie Preston and Katie White-Sonby started working together in 2010 after a few successful female-only sets at the weekly Cleveland Improv Jam. The troupe debuted at the Big Dog Theater in Cleveland Heights and has played at the Oberlin College Improv Conference, Columbus Unscripted Improv Festival and Cleveland Public Theater’s Pandemonium fundraiser and works regularly at La Maison Palette Cafe in Lakewood. Their long-form performances explore a single suggestion in a 25-minute set and is inspired by Chicago’s pH productions, The Annoyance Theatre and The Second City.
Asking for a Friend: Asking for a Friend opens its shows with a reading from one of its members’ real childhood diaries and performs a long-form set based on the diary entry. The troupe’s formation sounds as if it came out of one of those diary entries. Lindsey Brenkus and Lisa Perrin were performing in one troupe while Carolyn Chan and Rissa Joyce were part of another. “Lisa and Lindsey approached us after a show to tell us that they enjoyed our performance,” says Joyce, “but they got so nervous they ran away before we could respond to the compliment. We were so impressed with them that we were deliberately organizing shows we thought they might attend in the hope of approaching them to form a troupe.” They frequently perform at the Magalen art space in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.
Casually Late Stampede: Operating out of the Mayfield Village Civic Center, Casually Late Stampede offers high-energy short-form that often brings audience members on stage to heighten the show’s atmosphere and risk factor. The current troupe consists of Lindsey Brenkus, Sam Dee, Mike Frye, Erin Mchugh, Joe Quinn, Scott Shepard and Kyle Wertz.
Rare Form: The company was put together by the late Jimmy Green, a former Something Dada member, and started performing together in 2014. The troupe consists of 16 members who rotate through performances typically taking place at the Mayfield Village Civic Center and the Hofbrauhaus House’s Hermit Club in downtown Cleveland. “We are determined to revive Cleveland’s passion for improv,” says member Nick Smith, “by performing fast-paced short-form for nonstop 90-minute sets.”
Something Dada: Something Dada formed in October of 1994, taking its name from the witty and absurd Dada art movement of the early 1900s. Since its beginnings, Something Dada has challenged the concepts of theater and comedy to present an eclectic and furiously paced “in your face” improv experience that is structured completely on audience suggestions. The troupe operates out of the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.
If this new wave of improv is to survive and keep the amalgamated “Cleveland Form” alive, local artists will need to once again follow the lead of the Windy City and build a strong sense of community.
This means partnering and sharing space with museums, galleries and music venues, finding a way into music showcases and stand-up shows, and finding audiences where they gather – breweries and coffee shops – rather than relying on audiences finding them.
And it includes having independent improv troupes shortening their sets and inviting a variety of other improv artists to join in on an evening’s comedy lineup.
Creative risk-taking defines the art form. Now it can work as a viable business model. cv
Zach Bartz is an improvisational performer, teacher and producer in Chicago and the co-founder of Shithole, an improv comedy collective.
Learn more about some of Northeast Ohio’s improv troupes.
- Angry Ladies of Improv: For updates about future shows and more, visit facebook.com/AngryLadiesofImprov.
- Asking for a Friend: For updates about future shows and more, visit facebook.com/AskingForAFriendImprov.
- Casually Late Stampede: For updates about future shows and more, visit facebook.com/casuallylatestampede.
- Crooked River Comedy: “This Improvised Life” is an improv/storytelling show that features Crooked River Comedy members and takes place the third Wednesday of the month at Happy Dog at The Euclid Tavern, 11625 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. For more, visit facebook.com/crooked.river.comedy.
- Point of No Return: Upcoming performances scheduled for Aug. 18, Sept. 1, Sept. 15, Oct. 6, Oct. 20, Nov. 3, Dec. 1 and Dec. 15 at Quirk Cultural Center, 1201 Grant Ave., Cuyahoga Falls. For more, visit pnrimprov.org.
- Rare Form: For updates about future performances and more, visit rareformimprov.com.
- Something Dada: Upcoming performances are scheduled for Aug. 4,
Aug. 18 and Aug. 25 at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood. For updates and more, visit facebook.com/SomethingDada.
Lead Image: From left, Kyle Wertz, Joe Quinn, Sam Dee, Erin McHugh, Scott Shepard and Mike Frye perform as part of Casually Late Stampede at Mahall’s in Lakewood.