Off-Off-Campus provides creative outlet, comic relief
What does it take to be a member of Off-Off-Campus, University Theater's improvisational comedy troupe?
"Eight pints of blood and your firstborn child," quips third-year College student Gilad Rosner. Other members of the troupe laugh and agree, their lighthearted banter unaffected by the rigorous rehearsal schedule they've kept up since the quarter began.
Nearly every evening for the past five weeks, the Off-Off-Campus crew has met to work on "Winfield, Alabama: The New Home of Alternative Music," its two-hour performance of original comic scenes, improvisational games and music. The show is presented at 9 p.m. Fridays in the second-floor theater of University Church, 5655 S. University Ave.
"Sixty percent of the show will be improvisation," said Dana Allande, a fourth-year College student studying psychology and co-director of "Winfield, Alabama." "We play games based on audience suggestions and turn some of them into extended one-acts. The show also includes scenes that members of the cast have developed and an original musical finale, "Oedipus Rex," with live accompaniment from our pianist, (fourth-year College student) Ben Sussman."
Coordinated under the auspices of University Theater, Off-Off-Campus provides a creative outlet, comic relief and performance opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students, alumni and staff members in the University community. Its members -- 30 at present -- rotate in and out of a quarterly production schedule, acting, writing, directing and presenting improvisational comedy the way it has been presented here for more than 40 years.
Improvisational comedy began at the University in the 1940s when Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Paul Sills organized a comedy troupe that eventually came to be known as the Compass Players. Using theater-improvisation games and a cabaret-style format, the crew drew its sense of humor from its own community, reflecting the problems and circumstances of society through comedy based on real life.
The Compass Players sowed fertile comedy ground at the University, and in 1956, Sills, Compass Players alumnus Bernard Sahlins (A.B.'43) and actor Howard Alk reunited members of the old troupe to found The Second City, Chicago's long-running comedy institution and unofficial training ground for television's "Saturday Night Live" program.
After 30 years of success as artistic director of Second City, Sahlins returned to the University in 1986, when he and Francis Kinahan, faculty director of University Theater and Associate Professor in English Language & Literature until his death last February, established Off-Off-Campus as a subgroup of UT.
In the spring of 1986, auditions were held for the first generation of Off-Off-Campus players, and the 20 students selected began classes with Sahlins the following fall. The first Off-Off-Campus comedy revue was staged in Ida Noyes Hall in April 1987.
Since then, students have presented original comedy revues every quarter of the school year. Auditions to join Off-Off-Campus are held each fall, new members are trained in the winter, and by the spring quarter, the next generation of Off-Off-Campus members takes the stage.
The five actors, one pianist and two co-directors of the current Off-Off-Campus revue have, for the most part, been with the team for three or more productions. According to Allande, Off-Off-Campus cast members are generally asked to make a four-quarter commitment: one quarter of training and three quarters of shows.
"People are encouraged to do three shows in a row because it maximizes the experience. Most members 'retire' after four productions because they've done four shows in a row and it gets pretty overwhelming," Allande said. "But they are always willing to come back and help out with leading classes, directing shows and performing in special projects."
"The commitment that people have," said John Bourdeaux, a history major and Allande's co-director on "Winfield, Alabama," "is a real testament to Off-Off-Campus and to everything that we do here. We put in massive amounts of time, but people keep coming back because of the friendships that we form, and the fun that we have, and the fact that we develop these skills together and then go out and," Bourdeaux pauses, "teach the world to sing."
Any discussion with members of Off-Off-Campus turns into a comedy routine, but cast members are serious when they discuss their personal reasons for sticking with the troupe.
"I feel that I'm sort of doing a community service. I'm helping cheer everyone up," said Marisa Cohen, a third-year student in the General Studies in the Humanities program.
"It is community service in that sense," agreed Jim Spencer, a graduate student in international relations. "It's necessary when going to the University of Chicago to have some kind of fun. Off-Off-Campus is community theater. We provide entertainment. For us, the fun part is the camaraderie of the group."
"You meet great people," said Abby Sher, a third-year student in General Studies in the Humanities. "And you can gain significant training."
Sher says she was attracted to Off-Off-Campus because she is interested in comedy. "Basically I wanted improvisation skills," she said. "I studied theater in high school, but never comedy. I really wanted to try to get a handle on it."
The same is true for Spencer. "I want to act," he said, "and this is the first chance I've had to collect the foundation I need to propel myself to fortune and fame. It's something I always wanted to do."
"Unlike many of my esteemed colleagues," said Rosner, "I did no theater in high school, but coming here and seeing Off-Off-Campus made me want to try out, and now I've found that performance is a drug."
Many of the cast members are drawn into auditioning for Off-Off-Campus after seeing the troupe perform. Born and raised in Hyde Park, Tami Sagher, a fourth-year student in mathematics, attended Off-Off-Campus performances with her parents before she entered the College. "I always knew about Off-Off-Campus, and because I'm a wisecracker, my friends encouraged me to try out," she said. "I never thought I could do it, but it's so great. I love being part of it."
In addition to presenting regular weekly performances, Off-Off-Campus has visited Scotland's renowned Edinburgh Festival three times in the past six years. Performing last August in the Fringe, the venue for alternative and non-equity performance groups at the festival, a seven-member cast and troupe pianist Sussman performed a two-week run of the Off-Off-Campus summer production "Highly Improv-able."
Each fall, Off-Off-Campus performs as part of Orientation Week, entertaining new students while addressing issues such as safer sex, plagiarism and roommate relations. Other projects include joint ventures with student organizations such as ECO and the Giving Tree, performances in the residence halls, and improvisation workshops in area schools as part of UT's educational outreach program.
According to Bill Michel, Managing Director of UT, Off-Off-Campus alumni have begun a company in New York, gone on to write and act for Second City and branched out into such other comedy troupes in Hyde Park as Sheila and Avant-Garfield.
"We all desire world conquest," joked Rosner. "We seek domination through ridicule." But in the meantime, they'll settle for gaining good comic timing and an audience for the current show.
"Winfield, Alabama: The New Home of Alternative Music" will run through Friday, March 4. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased in advance at Reynolds Club Bookstore Branch. For more information, call University Theater at 702-3414.
-- Carmen Marti