SITCOM: Improv meets TV in latest UT productions "Once again, the U of C has reinvented improv," said fourth-year College student John Bourdeaux, referring to both the University's tradition of comedic innovation and Sitcom, University Theater's current Mainstage production. The show, created by Bourdeaux and graduate student Dan Goldstein, premieres at 8 p.m. tonight in the Reynolds Club first-floor theater.
Sitcom is the unlikely marriage of improvisational theater and the situation comedies of television. Like most improvisational theater, the show is driven by audience suggestions; like most sitcoms, it is structured so that it satisfies the viewer with a complete story.
"We're basically improvising an original sitcom series every night -- including commercials and theme music and timing," Bourdeaux explained. "As far as we know, no one has attempted to do this before."
Goldstein and Bourdeaux follow the lead of such influential comedians as Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Paul Sills, who began the Compass Players at the University in the 1940s. Sills, Bernard Sahlins (A.B.'43) and Howard Alk continued the tradition in 1956 when they established The Second City, an offspring of their experience here.
The roots for Sitcom were formed last winter, when Goldstein, a graduate student in Psychology, took the Practicum in Artificial Intelligence course taught by Kristian Hammond, Associate Professor in Computer Science.
"The assignment for the class was to come up with a project that would be immediately appealing at a cocktail party," Goldstein explained. "My undergraduate work was in computer science and comparative literature, which prompted me to think about the theoretical side of literary studies, especially structuralist analysis. In college I was into drawing connections between story grammars and formal grammars of the kind I studied in theoretical computer science.
"As I was thinking about story formats for Hammond's course -- and watching a little TV -- I kept thinking about the predictability and structure of sitcoms. They follow very specific rules: They're always 30 minutes long, they always include commercials at precise plot points, and they always conclude with a nice, neat resolution. I decided to make a sitcom plot engine that would generate, analyze and predict the outcomes of sitcom plots. I watched and took notes on hundreds of sitcoms and read the plot summaries of even more. I ended up with a representational language for characterizing sitcom plots and used it as the backbone for my computer program, which I named 'Structuralist Gilligan.'
"Then, because I've been in Off-Off-Campus [UT's student improvisational comedy troupe] for two years and always think about improv," Goldstein said, "it wasn't long before I made the connection between improv and story structures. I call it 'Structure School Improvisation.' "
Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to Goldstein at that time, Hammond himself is an improvisational comedian. He was a member of Free Associates, a comedy troupe based in Chicago, and he performed downtown in the long-running series Cast on a Hot Tin Roof. Hammond has strongly encouraged the project and will lead a post-show discussion of Sitcom on Thursday, Oct. 20.
"I think what Dan and John are doing is a terrific venture in long-form improvisation," Hammond said. "If you have structure, improvisation flows easily and makes sense. The stronger the structure, the freer you actually become because you don't have to worry about where the plot line is going -- you're free to respond to the energy on stage."
As Goldstein and Bourdeaux discovered, the template of situation comedy serves Structure School Improvisation well because it is so limited. "Basically, there are four elements to any given plot and only about 15 types of plots in all," Goldstein said. "In every sitcom the status quo is upset, the characters try to re-establish it, and in the end they always do. Perhaps it's this swing back from a tangled situation to harmony that keeps people around the world watching sitcoms day after day."
At about the same time that Goldstein was developing Structure School Improvisation, Bourdeaux was reading an article by Sherwood Schwartz, creator of "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch," about the formulaic nature of sitcoms.
"The thing that typifies Dan and me as collaborators is that we realize things at about the same time," Bourdeaux said. "When we started talking about improv and sitcoms, we knew simultaneously that we had a good idea."
The two began talking about it within the University Theater community, and the idea met with unbridled enthusiasm. Bourdeaux and Goldstein wrote a proposal to produce Sitcom as a UT Mainstage production this fall and began casting the show after spring quarter. The ensemble includes Bourdeaux and Goldstein, College students Nick Green, John McCorry, Jim Ortlieb, Emily Pollock, Abby Sher and Andre Pluess, and recent graduates Josh Sinton and Ben Sussman.
"Last summer was spent getting used to and learning to trust one another," Sinton said. "We watched innumerable sitcoms and studied the structure. We learned the vocabulary for plot lines and began to synchronize our thinking about how they develop. We videotaped ourselves rehearsing and compared what we did to real shows. I have to say, I feel like I've really absorbed sitcoms."
Everyone agrees that the bond established among the cast members during many hours of watching and discussing television together and three months of rehearsing an average of eight hours a week is crucial to the success of their performances.
"Our mutual understanding and trust for one another hold us together," Sinton said. "This is a group of people who really know each other well, and who really like one another. We are all really good friends. Regardless of the number of rehearsals, this team of people just gels."
The relationship among the players is significant in improvisation because the cast depends on a sort of telepathy to make the production work. "A Structure School cast is as much a group of writers as a group of improvisers," Goldstein said. "We've spent endless hours working together to develop specific plot-writing skills and a good understanding of what a story is made of. We have to be very cooperative, willing to sacrifice our own ideas to build on someone else's. We've learned scene reading -- a sense of ESP almost -- which tells us what kind of a story is at hand and how such a story could unfold."
As calculating as that seems, the genre is still improvisation. "We have simply acquired a grammar for making nice stories out of scenes -- we do not write stories in advance," Goldstein said. "Just as English speakers use their vocabulary and grammar to improvise speech, we use our own story vocabulary and story grammar to improvise stories. Once you have a vocabulary and grammar, you can create a vast number of sentences."
Cast members also tend to equate the evolution of one of their episodes with an evening of improvisational jazz.
"Before they start, jazz musicians usually know a lot about the structure of what will happen," Goldstein said. "For example, they might know how long each player will take the lead, the exact places where they will return to the written melody, and when and how the song will come to a close. If they want to make changes in midsong, they know how to send each other signals to communicate their intentions. When a good, tight ensemble improvises, audience members know it is improvisation, but they aren't necessarily conscious of that as they listen."
Successful improvisation in theater, Bourdeaux said, springs from what he calls "Improv Nirvana."
"You have to go on stage with your mind blank," he explained. "All you've thought about is maybe a character. You accept all the information that's given and then you build on it. There's no telling exactly what's going to happen, except that the structure is second nature so you follow it without worrying about it. You're only thinking half a second ahead -- it's hard for people to understand that it's not even a whole second ahead. You have to open your imagination and accept the ideas of the other cast members fully and integrate them into your imagination. It's perfect cooperation. Improv Nirvana is when your imagination is open and you receive ideas. If everyone in the cast is in perfect cooperation, experiencing Improv Nirvana, they reach a collective imagination, and the show just works."
Sitcom, which includes a new pilot and episode each night, will run at University Theater Thursdays through Saturdays, Oct. 13 through 15 and Oct. 20 through 22. All performances will begin at 8 p.m. in the Reynolds Club first-floor theater. Tickets, available at the door, are $6, $5 with a UCID or for senior citizens. In honor of Homecoming, athletes wearing varsity jackets will receive $1 off the price of admission on Thursday, Oct. 13, and Friday, Oct. 14.
-- Carmen Marti