Improv is Not a Theater, It's Improvisers
Last night, one of my improv teams said goodbye to a longtime member who is moving away from Chicago. Even though we have been exclusively performing online for a year and a half, his move will be accompanied by a changed schedule and a re-focusing of priorities, so it still made sense for him to step away. As we all said our goodbyes after our show, everyone kept saying things like "this place" or even "this building" when referring to the group we are a part of. I found this interesting, given that our ensemble does not actually have a physical space right now. This way of speaking made me think about a quote said by two of the hottest men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Idris Elba and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarock - "Asgard is not a place, it's a people."
[Spoiler alert for a movie from 2017] at the end of Thor: Ragnarok the physical place called Asgard has been destroyed. In fact, Thor had to actively arrange its destruction in order to save his people. And he is ultimately comfortable doing this because he is reminded by Idris Elba's character that Asgard is its people. The place is secondary, or even irrelevant. It is the people who make it Asgard.
This week, a New York Times article came out with the headline Chicago Improv Was Dead. Can New Leaders Revive It? I admittedly did not read it because it was behind a paywall, but the implication of the headline is that because the two biggest improv theaters in the city were struggling or closed, that meant improv was dead. Here's the thing though: Improv is not a theater, it's improvisers.
Improvisers have been here the whole time. Some have been performing online (and crushing it). Some have been becoming Tik Tok stars. Some wrote television pilots or filmed web series. Some have been hibernating as we weather this incredibly traumatic time. Whatever they've been doing, they didn't cease to exist because a particular stage went away. And I would posit that the removal of the most influential spaces freed many people. Freed them from the illusion that performing six nights a week was going to get them on SNL. Freed them from the notion that they had to step on their peers to succeed. Freed them from the feeling that if they weren't accepted by The Big Two, that they weren't good enough. And most importantly, freed them from the misconception that those spaces were the only ones that mattered -- or that any space could define a person's worth or talent.
I think it's absolutely wonderful that over the course of the last few months many smaller or brand new theaters in Chicago have taken a more central position in the community. And I sincerely hope that they do change the culture and remove some of the toxicity that had become foundational to the Chicago improv community. But they are not reviving anything. They are working to take the existing community and reform it into something better than it was before. And I really hope that we never get to a place again where a theater defines the community, because improv is not a theater, it's improvisers.
[Spoiler alert for a movie from 2019] Over the course of the entirety of the MCU, Thor has proven time and again that he isn't a good leader. He's strong. He's got powers. He's "worthy" enough to wield his hammer. But he constantly looks down on his fellow Avengers. He chooses conflict over diplomacy. And he ultimately lets his arrogance lead to the (temporary) death of half of the world's people. And when that happens, he gives up. He retreats and tries to absolve himself of responsibility. However, by the end of Avengers: Endgame he sees that he is not, nor should he be the leader of his people. So he relinquishes his position to someone with the passion and capability (who also happens to be a queer Black woman!) trusting that she won't make his mistakes over. If only this had been done willingly in the Chicago improv community.
My sincere hope is that the folks in the improv community who have inherited leadership roles, either by chance or by choice, wield them with humility and keep in mind the mistakes of the past. And most importantly, I hope they remember that their theater should never be the center of the universe. Because Improv is not a theater, it's improvisers.