When venerable comedy institutions in Chicago get shout-outs, ComedySportz tends not to top the list, not with Second City and the now-gone iO hogging so many of the famous alums. As Reader critic Jack Helbig wrote back in 2003, "Improv purists tend to put ComedySportz at the bottom of the food chain"—probably because of their crowd-pleasing emphasis on fast-paced competitive games, à la Whose Line Is It Anyway.
But for nearly 35 years, this improv performance and training institution (which actually started out in Milwaukee before branching out to Chicago) has been as much a part of the local comedy theater fabric as those heavy hitters. Indeed, for seven years it even occupied a (now-gone) space on North Halsted that had previously housed David Mamet's St. Nicholas Players, then Steppenwolf, and (briefly) the late Touchstone/Organic company.
When they moved on ahead of the wrecking ball from 2851 N. Halsted, ComedySportz ended up at 929 W. Belmont, formerly the home of Ann Sather Swedish restaurant (famous for cinnamon buns approximately the size of your head). The company took over the upstairs space in 2007, while Ann Sather moved just a couple doors east.
In a Facebook post on February 3, ComedySportz Chicago announced that they were leaving their longtime Belmont Avenue venue. "Throughout the pandemic we held out hope that we could outlast this horrible virus and kept our lease going out of that driving optimism. We have now reached a point where we need to focus on our future and what CSz Theater Chicago's next evolution will be," the post read in part.
But as artistic director Jason Geis and executive director and producer Renee Ross make clear, this isn't the end of the road for the company by a long shot. And digital streaming will be a big part of that evolution.
ComedySportz, like Second City and iO, operates on a for-profit model, so during the shutdown, they haven’t had access to foundation grants and other sources of funding that nonprofit theaters have. Says Ross, "As a for-profit business, we operated much like any other. We have programs that generate our income and so forth, and we have our expenses. Of course, when COVID happened, all of those programs are reliant, for the most part, or were reliant for the most part, on being in person. We have a huge group sales department, for example, and you cannot have groups in COVID." And though the company has a bar, Ross notes, "With theater bars, it's tricky. You would think you could do curbside pick-up or any of those things that were happening during COVID, but it's not really feasible for a theater bar."
She adds, "We were lucky because our lease was ending in December. So plenty of people were not so lucky. It timed out pretty well for us. It was just a difficult choice that we had to make in order to save on those obvious brick-and-mortar expenses. When you're not able to use the space, it's pretty expensive to keep it operational." Ross declines to say how much of the company's operating budget went toward rent.
Geis says, "We always had the intention of reopening. We jumped on digital very quickly and got our shows up in March. But it was always the intention that was a placeholder until we could reopen. But the more success we were seeing in the digital space, too, helped make the decision. As we got closer to having to renew the lease, it was a real conversation about 'Do we keep this albatross, throwing money into a furnace? Or do we invest more into the digital space and really try to build up our digital content and let that sort of heal us for a while until we can get back to a theater space?’ Because there's no answers to when people can reopen. 'Oh, maybe summer!' Cool, well that's still six months away. 'Maybe the end of the year.' Too many maybes for us."
ComedySportz online continues its competitive improv tradition of two teams, plus a referee, going head-to-head (which may be more literal in the age of Zoom) with a series of games streaming live via Twitch. That flagship show (performed every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:30 PM CST) is "rated E for everyone," but there are also more adult offerings on hand. (ComedySportz is, after all, where a long-running show called The Hot Karl made its home for 15 years.) On Thursdays, for example, the company streams the R-rated Among USz, inspired by the popular online multiplayer killer-in-space game. The online performance offerings are free, but the company also offers corporate training and virtual classes for budding improvisers that provide a steady cash stream.
"What we've laid out for the whole year is a digital-first plan, where pretty much everything is going to be fostered online, whether it's performance, corporate, training. And we are doing all those things—we're creating our virtual training center where people can train. We're rewriting curriculum to make it conducive to being in a Zoom room and activating what you can do in that capacity," says Geis. He also notes that going digital has expanded their reach for corporate opportunities. "There are plenty of corporations who have multiple offices in multiple cities, or they work remote, and this is the perfect way to pull people together for corporate training, and by the way, we've been doing it and learning how to do it. We're the experts in it."
And though they're happy to reopen in person again once there's a final all-clear on COVID, Ross says, "We have not just created new programming to tide us over during the pandemic, we have entirely redesigned our business model to evolve and innovate with the changing times. Digital-first isn't a momentary strategy, it's a long-term strategy."
Raven takes flight with new-play program
Though their season is on hold until at least fall of 2021, Raven Theatre hasn't been in hibernation. Last week, the Edgewater company announced their inaugural new-play commissioning program, funded by board member Stephen Johnson. The $25,000 grant is designed to provide support for three commissions over the next three years.The first recipient is writer-actor-director Tyla Abercrumbie, who is also a member of TimeLine Theatre's ensemble. Abercrumbie's play Relentless was supposed to premiere at TimeLine last May, but COVID got in the way. She's also well known for her stage work locally and nationally and her many television appearances, including as Nina on Showtime's The Chi. Though there is no word yet on what she'll do for Raven, Abercrumbie's been performing a solo autobiographical show, Naked & Raw, for the past several years; her latest installment, Naked & Raw 3 (The Takers and the Tooken), is in the works. v