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In Performance: the Playground's improved improv

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Doug Diefenbach will probably remember to his dying breath the day his ImprovOlympic team, Cinco de Bob, was dismembered. "We really enjoyed playing together," he says. "And it seemed at several points like we were just taking off." Still, the powers that be at ImprovOlympic didn't agree, and Cinco de Bob was broken up, its members sprinkled among several other ImprovOlympic teams. "That broke my heart."

At ImprovOlympic, the booming school of Second City-style improvisation, this is standard procedure: teams of improvisers are continually being created, shaped, taken apart. New players, fresh from the introductory classes, are added to teams. Players who burn out or can't cut it are dropped. Players are switched from team to team as Del Close, Charna Halpern, and others at ImprovOlympic search for the onstage chemistry that produces a first-rate troupe like Blue Velveeta or the Family.

"Every eight weeks they come out with the new performance schedule," explains one alumnus, "and you don't know if the team you're on is going to be on the schedule. Or even if your name is going to be on that schedule. You could be put on a whole new team." Or you could be dumped.

Some find this process exhilarating. Some don't. Diefenbach belongs in the second camp: "I don't think this is the kind of environment where people can do their best work." After the demise of Cinco de Bob in January he began E-mailing like-minded performers, and together they began to sketch out a more nurturing improv environment, one that encouraged creativity, discouraged snap judgments and politicking, and allowed improvisers to take more risks. According to Diefenbach, they wanted "to create a happy environment to play and watch," where they were "not worried about impressing anyone," where they could just "have fun and do the best possible show."

In early May Diefenbach and company founded the Playground, an improv co-op performing every Thursday night at the Cue Club. The co-op functions as a loose confederation, pooling the talent and resources of its nine troupes while respecting their autonomy and guaranteeing each of them two spots on the monthly performance schedule.

"We called ourselves the Playground," Diefenbach explains, "because it was simple and it carried the spirit of what we wanted: adults being kids, make-believe, give-and-take. Go, freedom. That's the Playground." After two months the co-op has grown so popular that it's added a second night to its schedule and invited three more troupes to join the lineup.

The Playground performs at 8:00 on Thursdays and Fridays at the Cue Club, 2833 N. Sheffield. Tickets are $5. Call 773-883-5389. --Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Doug Diefenbach photo by Randy Tunnell.

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