Are You Wasting Your Time in the Chicago Improv Scene?

I don’t mean in how you think I mean it. Nah, I’m talking about how you should be doing more with your time here than what you’re doing now. I’m leaving Chicago for Los Angeles. A lot of people do it. Some more ready for the change than others. Now that I’m in at the end of my time here in Chicago I’ve realized that I wasted a lot of time. Ok, I’ve always known I was wasting time. So, it genuinely means a lot to me if any of you who are in Chicago or are considering moving there really take what I’m saying here to heart.

This entire piece was written on cocktail napkins at The Annoyance Bar. Sitting there like a stoic old man looking at younger folk who have just wrapped a show or finished rehearsal thinking, “they don’t know how good they got it.” After 5 years in Chicago this (The Annoyance) is the place that finally felt like home to me. Where characters are welcome, and being yourself is actually ok. Shows happen a few times a night. Each group is a great bunch of people with the freedom to make their mark on comedy. How could you not be excited to be around that?

I digress. Don’t waste time on the Chicago Improv scene. I’ve written a few notes based on experience both 1st and 2nd hand on how to keep from wasting your own time.

Being so insecure to the point where you rub people the wrong way is a waste of time.

Look, we’re all insecure. Sometimes, though, you get so nervous and so caught up in your own worries of how you’re perceived that you come off, externally, as kind of an asshole. Because you look self-absorbed and needing validation. Just hang. Most of the people you’re surrounded by have the same worries, ticks, and insecurities. Be excited. Be happy to see people and trust that they’re actually happy to see you.

This improv scene is far too indulgent for you to not be doing anything.

Write it and make it. Now. Don’t hold yourself to any other standard other than that you are excited about making your ideas happen. If you write it and put it on I promise people will show up. They’ll indulge you. Most likely, other improvisors and actors will be your audience and they’re smart enough to see what you’re going for even if your ideas aren’t polished. Just do it. People who aren’t as ready as you are either writing or performing a show as you’re reading this. You’ll end up making new friends from putting on a show. You’ll gain confidence. Aaaaand you get better and polish who you are as a writer and performer and THAT is what makes Chicago the best place you can be at this point in your career. I swear, take advantage. Get to work till the work feels like play.

You don’t have as much time as you think.

On average you have about 5 years to make something happen. It’s hard to go that much longer of going out to shows, doing rehearsals, taking classes, being in shows, and hanging out with other improvisors EVERY NIGHT. Put nothing off. Don’t think “Things will be better when-“ Things now are the best they’re gonna be. Life takes over and priorities change out of necessity. These are the days you’ll look back on and wish you’d done something more. That is, unless you can do all you can everyday. Nick Wieme gave it his all everyday and even though he left us too soon, we have some great things to remember him by.

Your ideas are nothing.

I mean that in the literal sense. Don’t talk about ideas unless you’re in a writing session or a rehearsal. Strive to stop saying things like. “I have an idea for a script about…” or “I have an idea for a show where…” Instead, work toward being able to say “I wrote a script about…” or “I have a show opening next week where…”. Be a do-er. Thinkers get nothing done. If you consider yourself the “idea person” in your group, there’s a good chance you’re dead weight. Work on writing down, and fleshing out ideas right away.

Stop wasting your time trying to be what “they” want.

2 years and $4000 later you might find yourself saying “I guess I just wasn’t what they wanted.” Yeah you are what they wanted but you didn’t show them you. Don’t get caught in the mindset of “well Second City wants you to be like this, but you have to be like this if you want to make it on a Harold team” Get rid of that bullshit in your head. Just relax. Be you. Listen, and trust everyone in the room. Everyone sees the world a little different and if you can articulate what you see through your lens, it will take you far. Get your basics down pat, be true to yourself, go with your gut, and show them something original and you will suddenly be what they want.

Thinking you’re owed anything is a waste of time.

Did theatre all through high school and college? Who cares? Grew up being told you’ll be on SNL? We all did. Don’t come in thinking that you hold some secret cards because of your past. I moved here SAG eligible, getting steady work in commercials and in comedy and it still took me 2 years to get an agent. Be ok with sort of starting over. Comedy does not need you. You’ll never know the secret to it. Challenge yourself to a pursuit of it knowing that you’ll never actually know. Comedy doesn’t have payoff waiting for you just because you made effort. Comedy comes from your hours logged. Diligence. It takes time and if you recognize that, it starts to feel like fun instead of work and suddenly you’ll have lots of people wanting to make great shows with you and that’s when the real fun begins.

Save the pot or booze until AFTER your show or rehearsal.

No, getting high doesn’t make you a better player no matter how much you think it does. We all know you’re high, especially your instructor. You know, that person taking notes on you that will be read by other instructors and directors who might consider hiring you. Plus, it makes you awkward to interact with. You get caught in your own head and you tank a scene just because you decided to puff a little beforehand. Come on. You don’t need that stuff…unless its to eat s’mores pop tarts and watch a late night movie. Otherwise, hold off on it.

Being a flake is wasting more time than just your own.

Don’t say you’re going to do something and back out. That video you backed out of doing could have gotten a million hits but you didn’t show up last minute and now it won’t. Those 4 others that showed up to do it now know you’re a flake and won’t to do other projects with you. Be a team player and actually act grateful that someone actually wanted you to be in a creative project that they care very deeply about. They could have gotten someone else. They chose you. Don’t flake. You’ll wish you’d done it later.

Waiting to get cast in a show is a waste of time. Make your own.

 This goes back to the other points I’ve made. Make something that shows off your own unique style of comedy. People will go to see it. People will be impressed by your work. You’ll gain new comedy allies and hone your craft to a level you literally can’t comprehend right now.

Not seeing at least a couple shows a week is a waste.

 Some nights you really have to force yourself to get out and about but I promise you that by the end of the show you’ll be inspired or will have learned something. Either way your own aspirations will benefit from it. Chicago is unlike any city in the world. There are so many theatres in this town so see incredible people putting on shows you couldn’t see anywhere else. Go. See shows. Because when you live anywhere else in the world besides Chicago, you’ll miss this kind of accessibility.

Improv isn’t everything.

 Use improv to write and to polish your acting skills. The better you get at improv, the better become as a writer. Improv can land you on a Harold team or a resident performer at Second City and that is great! But for a long career in this you have to work outside of it. There’s no national chain of improv clubs waiting to hire your independent team. When it comes to getting those big jobs you want like working on a TV show, the producers going to want to know “can they write or act?” “What have they done?” “Have you seen their show?” “Great, where are their samples?”

So yeah. That’s it. Leave your house. When you actually are home, study and write. What makes this town special is being able to create work for the stage, show it, and get better from it. Go have some damn fun, and remember that fun almost always take some annoying effort up front.

Personally this scene has paid off for me even though I didn’t exactly achieve my goals here. That’s the way it works most of the time I guess. I’ve met life-long friends here that I’ll miss and try to talk to everyday. I’ve been a part of shows and classes with people I know are going to move on to change the comedy world for the better. My time here has landed me a couple commercial jobs, I ended up working as a professional writer for the past 5 years, got to be in a pilot for a cable network, and wrote a pilot that got me into NYTVF. So, I didn’t completely waste my time, but I’m leaving here wishing I’d done way more. All I can do though, is learn from it and try to be better from this point forward.

Thank you to everyone that I’ve had a blast with here. Thanks to all the great instructors and mentors who made doing something like giving up everything to move far from home to do comedy feel “right.” Thank you Chicago for tolerating me and 80% of you deserve everything good coming your way.

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