The 18th Annual Chicago Improv Festival, being held this month, will bring a dose of diversity to the art form, which is traditionally better known for its famous male performers.
The festival has focused on bringing more diversity into improv since its third year, when founder Jonathan Pitts coordinated with troupes from other countries to perform in Chicago.
This year the festival will feature two all-female troupes, a showcase for LGBT performers and a night honoring an influential Asian-American improv coach who died earlier this year.
“To me, it’s always been important to have an element of diversity,” Pitts said. Improv has the reputation of being predominantly white and male.”
Pitts is even going so far as to host eight of the international performers in his three-bedroom apartment.
“Every year I take on the biggest group and let them stay with me,” Pitts said. “It’s like the set-up for a bad joke. Seven Romanians and a Hawaiian walk into an apartment…”
The festival has had a pride night honoring LGBT performers for many years, which Pitts said is just one part of a broader effort to showcase work by performers from different cultures and communities to appeal to a global audience.
“While art may come from very specific cultural places within each artist, it can be received by everyone,” Pitts said.
Two all-female groups, The Wild Horses and the Katydids, will be performing at the festival. Anne Libera, who has worked at Second City since the late 80s and has directed shows for the festival in the past, said there have always been women in improv, but the percentage today is much greater.
“For years, I was the only female director,” Libera said. “This is what makes, and continues to make, the Chicago Improv Festival really special. It provides people the opportunity to make connections with diverse performers.”
On Wednesday, April 22, there will be a special show in memory of Jason Chin,
who in January died of heart failure at age 46.
Columbia College Chicago students who knew Chin from his work at iO Theatre remember how he did not let his art focus on ethnicity but still represented Asian- American actors well.
“He made such an impact by being Asian American because he didn’t draw too much attention to it,” said Jamie Muen, a sophomore comedy writing major and member of the Columbia College Improv Club.
Joe Janes, a Columbia College theater professor and faculty adviser for the improv club who has participated in the improv festival, said he knew Chin as a superhero nerd.
“He’s infamous for one thing: he created the Star Wars musical,” Janes said of Chin.
“He kept getting these cease-and-desist letters, but the show ran for about a year. He loved his super heroes,” Janes said.
Janes also remembers how talented Chin was.
“He was a super champion of improv,” Janes said. “A very beloved guy.”
The Chicago Improv Festival will be held April 20 – 26 in 14 different theaters around the city and will feature more than 150 acts from 10 different countries.