Teens play for laughs at improv fest

A group of about 75 aspiring improv actors will show off their skills beginning tonight at the 2nd annual Teen Comedy Festival at the South Shore Cultural Center.

The event features improv teams from Chicago high schools as well as an Illinois All-State team.

Originally a sidelight of the Chicago Improv Festival, The Teen Comedy Festival grew into its own event last year because it needed a bigger venue.

Emily Dugan, the festival's co-founder and artistic director, is the artistic director of the school of the arts and the director of outreach at the Beverly Arts Center.

As a teen, Dugan says she loved theatrical festivals, and later wondered why there was no improv festival for teens.

She contacted Jonathan Pitts, executive director of the Chicago Improv Festival, who'd been wondering the same thing. Last year, the Chicago Park District also became a partner.

The festival's evening performances follow a day of workshops where participants hone their skills at "Creating the Comic Sketch," "Radical Improv," "Instant Character," and "Stand-Up Comedy 101."

Short-form improv develops around a premise much like a party game where a host might have to guess which of his guests is pretending to be Elvis - or a bowl of Jello.

Long-form improv uses prompts from audience members to  develop a series of seemingly unrelated short scenes that grow into a short play.

Improv instructor David Stuart of Improv Playhouse, says the teens are surprisingly savvy and smart. "One doesn't expect a certain level of information to come from fourteen to seventeen-year-olds," he said.

Stuart says the stereotypical "class clown" doesn't always last.  "At least fifty percent of members of the ensemble are inherently shy," he says.

About half of the participants typically have some kind of theater background, according to Pitts. The group includes teens from different parts of Chicago who "might not speak to each other on the street" in other circumstances, but at the festival, he says, they cooperate to make a "joyous event, a joyous celebration."

And while they may be savvy about world issues, Dugan says, they're just "naïve enough" to hit sensitive topics like race in brilliant moments where adults might fear to tread.

Jason Raymer, 17, who will be a senior at Warren Township High School in Gurnee, hopes to follow in his father's footsteps as an actor.

When Raymer, who has trained at the Piven Theatre Workshop, was accepted into the Improv Playhouse Teen Ensemble along with a friend three years ago, they were the only freshman on a team of close-knit seniors.

The positive support from the team, coaches, parents and peers taught him to be relaxed making people laugh, he says.

"It taught me how to be goofy, to look like a complete idiot, so when you're on-stage you can be that character."

A key to successful improv, he says, is supporting your partner.  "Don't leave your partner hanging," he says.

Though the students perform on teams, the event is not a competition. "It's not a sport," says Mike Cullen, 17, who will be a senior this fall at Marist High School.

"It's about making the scene good."

The teens perform at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight and Saturday at the South Shore Cultural Center at 7059 South Shore Drive. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.