Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Geeking Out with...Jonathan Pitts

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]

Mr. Jonathan Pitts
Mostly likely, you will not hear the words “Chicago” and “festival” together without also hearing the name Jonathan Pitts. In 1998, he and Frances Callier (Frangela) founded the Chicago Improv Festival, which Jonathan has been spearheading ever since. As the Executive Director of Chicago Improv Festival Productions, Jonathan also created and runs the College Improv Tournament, The Teen Comedy Fest, and CIF’s education outreach programs. In addition, Jonathan founded Storybox, which is, as he describes it, “an improvised one-act production that combines Story Theater, Noh Theatre, and Viewpoints.” Jonathan also has worked as the guest artist at the Second City Training Company for over eleven years. Jonathan has performed in innumerable improv and theater productions, and for three consecutive years he was named by New City magazine as one of “Chicago Theater’s 50 Leading Characters.” You can't deny Jonathan Pitts has got some mad cred for sure.

PAM VICTOR: When did you know you wanted to be an improviser?

JONATHAN PITTS:  I was in college when I first started taking improv classes. I then turned it into a class project and put together a college ensemble for my college to tour local high schools and to perform for our college. I ended up getting additional credit and a grade for my efforts. I remember standing on the stage after performing for 45 minutes in front of a sold out house on our college campus, and realizing, "This is what I want to do with the rest of my life."

PAM:  Yes! This was in New Mexico?

JONATHAN:  This was in River Grove, IL at Triton College. New Mexico came later.

PAM:  Ah. And did you do improv from then on? Or was your path to Chicago more circuitous?

JONATHAN:  I first began with classes at Second City in Chicago. It was very different back then, as there was no Second City training center, no Second City ETC, no iO, no Annoyance, no ComedySportz, and very few places to learn or play. This also meant that there were far less improvisers around in Chicago too. Back then, if you got into a SC workshop, it would meet twice a week for 13 weeks. Two hours on Thursday and four hours on Saturday. It was more of an apprenticeship style of learning.

As I was drawn more and more to doing improv, I put together groups with friends and we'd do one-off shows wherever we could. This lead to my getting asked to perform with Stone Soup [iO’s first ever house team] in Chicago. We use to play in coffee houses and open mics. They taught me how to do a Collage. Even then, I was only performing about once a month, so it felt more like a football game in its importance instead of another baseball game, one among many. I use to audiotape record my shows, so I could listen to them and dissect them like game tapes to learn what I could from them. I also studied from everyone I could during that time period. And I took notes, lots of notes.

PAM:  What year did you start your studies in Chicago at SC?

JONATHAN:  I took my first class at Second City in early December of 1979. I'm old.

PAM:  I'm old too. That makes two of us.

JONATHAN:  I was 20 when I was taking those first workshops.

PAM:  Who were some memorable teachers from those first years, the people who really inspired you to devote your life to improv?

JONATHAN:  Back then, during the five years that I consider to be my equal to a bachelor's in improvisation, I got to study with (alphabetically) Alan Baranowski, Danny Breen, Del Close, Don DePollo, Michael Gelman, Ed Greenburg, John Michelski, Sheldon Patinkin, Bryne Piven, Jeremy Pollack, Rob Riley, Paul Sills, and David Shepherd. Not a lot of women were teaching improv in Chicago then. There was Josephine Forsburg and Joyce Piven, but I didn't study with them. Charna [Halpern] had gotten started too, but during that time, I was learning David's 10 Improv Olympic Games from David in the early iO days.

PAM:  Oh boy! If you're able to alphabetize your teachers from 30 years ago, I can see how you would be the perfect person to head up the Chicago Festival Productions!

 JONATHAN:  Yes, but I can never remember the names of my current students at the Second City Training Co. It’s one of those age things.

PAM: Ok. We'll skip ahead a decade or two. What lead to your founding of the Chicago Improv Festival with Frances Callier?

JONATHAN: I first learned about festivals by working as a production intern on the International Theatre Festival of Chicago in 1990. After that I worked as a production assistant for the Bolshoi Ballet's national tour of America. A few years passed and I got invited by a friend, David Schien, to become the Theater/Performance Art Curator for the Around the Coyote Arts Festival in Chicago. This lead to my producing and coordinating other theatre-based festivals. I was also working as a teacher and a director for a children's festival called Magic City, which was started by the late Maggie Daley and run by Cheryl Sloane (Joyce Sloane's daughter). Working for Cheryl was one Miss Frances Callier and we got along as co-workers and friends. One day, while working on the Bailiwick Repertory's Director Festival, it occurred to me, "Chicago's a city of festivals, how come there's never been an improv festival here?" So, the next day, I called Frances and asked to co-produce the Chicago Improv Festival with me. Turned out she had been wanting to produce an improv festival for years in Chicago and couldn't get anyone to do so with her. Thus, like peanut butter and chocolate, we joined forces to create and produce the first ever CIF, which took place over one week at the old Annoyance Theater in 1998.

 PAM:  What other big improv festivals were happening at that time?

JONATHAN:  The Big Stinkin' Improv Festival was happening in Austin, Texas, but that was about it. At the time, they were the kings of the hill. There was also the Kansas City Improv Festival as run by Trish Berrong. Those were the big two at the time.

PAM:  Was it hard to get troupes to perform? Or were people just chomping at the bit, waiting for the opportunity?

JONATHAN:  Both. On the one hand, there was a wait and see attitude from a lot of the local groups, but on the other hand every act or ensemble from outside of Chicago that we asked to come play said yes. Back then, it was invite only.

PAM:  Who were some of the stand out troupes from those first years?

JONATHAN:  Well, with the out of town groups we did have to hustle to get them to come to CIF. In the first year, we had some great sets by Annoyance, Brave New Workshop, Jeff Garlin, The Frayed Knots, Slotnick Katz & Lehr, and a special Thursday late night set featuring Scott Adsit, Mick Napier, and Dave Pasquesi.

PAM:  A great festival, even then! In a 2001 interview with Kevin Mullaney of the Improv Resource Center, you said your goal of creating CIF was, “To create a festival that was worthy of the forty plus years history of Chicago improv. A festival that embraced all the different performance styles, and supported all the city's improv institutions.” Does that remain your goal today?

JONATHAN:  In a lot of ways, yes. Over the years, I feel the festival has been a good addition to the history of Chicago improv. We still actively embrace all the different performance styles and we do set a place at the CIF table for all of Chicago's various improv theatres.

PAM:  The international aspect of the festival is incredibly unique and valuable. In a previous Geeking Out with… interview, ImprovBoston’s Artistic Director, Will Luera, said on the subject of the Mexican troupe ImproTOP, “One of the important facts for me about their style is that they were created outside of the American improv system. Many gringos think that improv has to come from Second City, iO, UCB, etc., but they came from outside of that and are kicking ass.”

CIF allows improvisers a rare and wonderful opportunity to observe the simultaneous creation of improv comedy, and obviously do some idea cross-pollination in the process. So thank you for that.

JONATHAN:  My love of international theatre goes back to my time with the International Theatre Festival of Chicago. It's always been important to me that every year CIF has had international improvisers. In year one, it was players from Toronto, Montreal and Amsterdam, and last year it was players from eight other countries. I feel it is so important for us as improv artists to see and share all the different ways there are to work and play. Culture affects communication and consciousness, and they in turn affect improvisational artistic impulses. I've noticed that while the culture of our countries are different, their training and saying yes and, is the same. Watching international improvisers play together is like watching an answer to the tower of Babel.

To play is universally human. How we play is the lens which reflects were we are from and what we have experienced.

PAM:  You get to hang out with – and often house! – a lot of international improvisers.

JONATHAN:   When its CIF time, I've always got international improvisers in my apartment, but after their first night (usually a night or two before the start of CIF), I am usually too busy working on CIF to spend a lot of time hanging out with them. Last year, the night before CIF began, there was a very cool and wonderful spontaneous musical improv jam in my front room as improvisers from France, Mexico, and Turkey were playing together on different musical instruments. I was the only American in my place and I was playing my didgeridoo with them.

PAM:  Thank you for being the first person to mention a didgeridoo in this series!

JONATHAN:  You're welcome and I hope I'm not the last. You can only improvise on a didgeridoo, as there's no set things to play on it. 

PAM:  That is particularly apt then.

JONATHAN:  One year at CIF, I got to play in a didgeridoo duo back stage at with Debra Wilson from MADtv. She was really good.
Jonathan at the CIF offices,
sans didgeridoo

PAM:  Ok, now that's two didgeridoo stories. Nobody can live up to that, Jonathan. Nobody.


PAM:  So from what you've observed, what troupes outside of the U.S.  are taking a particularly innovative direction with improv? Or doing work that intrigues you?

JONATHAN:  I really like almost all of them. Mexico's ImproTOP, Norway's Norsk Sceneskrekk, England's Spontaneity Shop, Japan's Yellow Man Group, New Zealand's Improv Bandits, Israel’s got some cool groups, France's Eux Impro, Patti Stiles’ company in Australia, Germany's Die Gorillas, Turkey's Istanbulimpro, Sweden's Improv & Co. I also like Os Improvavies from Portugal too. There's also a lot of great work being done in Canada too. What I like about all these groups is that they play on their own terms and for their own reasons, not to get hired by SNL.

PAM:  You mentioned the similarities. Do you feel the international troupes work from the same basic "rules"?

JONATHAN:  Some of the groups do follow the same rules as in the USA. Some are more influenced by Keith Johnstone. Some are influenced by clowning and physical theatre. Some a big mixes of some or all of these things.

PAM:  Yet it's still fascinating that the art form can be created simultaneously in so many different countries, but the process and the end product is shockingly similar.

JONATHAN:  Yes, it all comes down to heartfelt moments and dick jokes.

PAM:  Hahah! That should be etched in the entryway to an improv theater, I think.

As the creator and producer of the
College Improv Tournament and the Teen Comedy Festival, what changes are you seeing with young kids coming up in the improv world right now?

JONATHAN:  Well, just like they are processing the world differently because of being online creatures and social media addicts, their improvisation is different too. I just read an article by an author who said that the human species is now profoundly different because of how we process information. If that is true, then what is improvisation except a shared processing of information experienced simultaneously and responded from their own intuitive perspectives? Can you tell I was liberal arts major?

PAM:  Well, the didgeridoo thing threw me off into the musical history realm...but yeah. Who are the college improvisers' influences and what do you think motivates them to do improv?

 JONATHAN:  The college improvisers’ main influences are each other and themselves. Most are college clubs and they are able to hang out with people who become their best friends and college family. It's amazing to see how much these college kids learn from each other. And since very few of them have coaches, a lot of them end up creating their own version of improv. Much like Mick [Napier], Joe [Bill], and Mark [Sutton] and them did back at Indiana University when they created their own improv troupe without ever having seen improv -  a lot of these college kids are following a similar path. Not that they are trying to be the Annoyance; but instead be like the Annoyance, and do their own thing.

Other groups are studying very hard with teachers in their local big cities (Boston, New York, etc.,) and they are learning very quickly to take the best of what they learn and master it.

The average college group has been playing together for 2 to 4 years, and they practice once or twice a week and then perform too. Because they are not trying to be on 4 or 5 teams, like the average improviser does now in Chicago, they put all they have into their teams and it shows.

PAM:  Personally, I think, as a whole, our population is becoming faster-paced, less deep artistically and intellectually, and more interested in instant gratification. There is pressure from the audiences to provide that sort of entertainment, but also improvisers and theaters with that style are having great success. So the pressure to conform is coming from both ends. As an old fuddy-duddy, ‘Get-off-my-lawn-you-kids’ yeller, I’m concerned that the slow, theatrical-styled improv will be lost in the evolution. Are my fears founded, in your opinion? Or do I just need to grab a walker, a pair of adult diapers and start marketing my troupe as The Golden Girls?

JONATHAN:  As things move faster, there will always be people who will want to experience something slower and fuller. Maybe not in the same sized audience, but in the same passion.

Besides, while theaters like UCB have a strong hold on cities like New York and L.A., there are other cities like Austin, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle that have their own scene, their own approach, and their own communities that have a wide range of playing styles. I sometimes think that each city has an improv scene that is a reflection of the city itself.

PAM:  That's pretty cool, isn't it? (Jeepers, it makes me just fall in love with improv all over again. And for some reason, I want to sing a Disney song.)

 JONATHAN:  Well, sing away Disney improv girl! 

PAM:  "It's a small world after all..." (I am SO SORRY to everyone who will read that and will be singing that infernal song for the rest of the week.)

You have a theory that there are the three types of improv (not the usual trio of longform, short form and “shlong” form). Can you tell me what they are please?

JONATHAN:  Yes, I have a theory that there are three kinds of approaches to improvisation, and it helps me to consider them in this fashion far better than the length of time of each improvisation. I know that Joe Bill has a three-tier take on improvisation too, and I've noticed some cross over in our conceptual terminology, so there might be something to both of us coming up with this around the same time.

PAM:  Oooh. I don't think I've heard Joe's three-tier approach theory yet. So I'm thrilled you are telling me yours. First!

JONATHAN:  For me, there's "Improv Comedy," "Improvisational Theater," and "Theatrical Improvisation". The aim of the first is to make an audience laugh, the second is to make an audience think, and the third is to make an audience feel.

PAM:  I love it.

JONATHAN:  To me, it doesn't matter the length of time, if there's costumes, or pre-defined characters, it’s all about the aim and pursuit of the piece that makes up its foundation. When I play with other improvisers in guest sets, I always try to find out what they are aiming for so that I can adjust myself to their approach. Kind of like if I played the violin, I'd play it differently in bluegrass, classical, jazz, rock or rap.

PAM: How do Improvisational Theater and Theatrical Improvisation differ?

JONATHAN: To me the difference between Improvisational Theater and Theatrical Improvisation is the elements that go into it, which of course affects what comes out of it. Some of the Theatrical Improvisation shows include The Doubtful Guests, Centralia, Burn Manhattan, Improsia, my show Storybox, and any show that uses Viewpoints as a major component. Viewpoints is the new dividing line in improvisation. You either love it or hate it, there's not much in-between. Also, some of the work that Jet Eveleth does would fit into this category too.

PAM:  Aside from improv, what do you really geek out on?

JONATHAN:  Chocolate.

PAM:  Ha! Jonathan, you clearly are an innovator and someone who excels at turning ideas into realities. What propels you forward? What keeps gas in your tank, if you know what I mean?

JONATHAN:  Pam, thanks for calling me an innovator, I appreciate that. I love to create. Creating and connecting are my two blisses. There are so many ways to create, which is why I perform, teach, direct, and produce. In Canada and Europe, you can call yourself a creator of theatre and people know what that means. Here in the states, you have to use all the hyphens. I'm an actor/director/ etc. I'm a creator and I create improvisational experiences for myself and others to partake in, and I create them from both sides of the stage.

PAM:  I think I share your blisses. I like chocolate too.

JONATHAN:  Whoo-hoo! We're three for three!
On stage at the Kansas City Improv Festival

PAM:  Yay! Last question: Are there any new ideas percolating in that fertile mind of yours that you’d like to put your energy into?

JONATHAN:  I have considered the possibility of moving away from Chicago to another city to be part of helping grow an improv center that utilizes the newer ideas and approaches of the work onstage and off. I don't know how many new ideas can come into Chicago as things here are pretty set and defined. As an improv artist, it’s up to me to pursue what draws me. I love doing Storybox, and I am proud to see the form grow with me and without me. I also want to visit more countries to interact with international improvisers. I've also had a friend who wants me to write an improv book. I also thought it might be cool to get a doctorate in improvisational studies (even if that sounds like a contradiction in terms).

PAM:  COME TO WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS!!!!!!!!!! We can bliss out on innovation and create the new center of the theatrical improv world!

JONATHAN:  That would be fun! I've thought about if I were to move, putting up a notice on Facebook like a free agent in sports to see who would want me. In my travels over the last two years, I've been asked a lot by my friends if I'd want to move to their city. I felt that was some of the best compliments I've ever gotten. I've said, if I move it would be for community, love, and work. Or at least two of the three. 

PAM:  We have lesbian, Democrats and nice people.

JONATHAN:  I am not going to define which of those three correlate to my three. 

PAM:  You don't have to…and I promise not to tell anyone you're a lesbian.

To enjoy one of the many fruits of Jonathan Pitts’ labor, you absolutely must check this year’s Chicago Improv Festival on April 23-29, 2012. In addition to terrific workshops given by some of the very best in the business, the show roster includes many highly lauded troupes and performers, such as BASSPROV (Chicago), Improvised Shakespeare Co. (Chicago), St. Clair and Morris (L.A.), Magnet Theatre Tour Co. (New York) and many, many more.


Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview Pam. I'd be interested in learning more about the difference between "Improvisational Theater" and "Theatrical Improvisation" as I am not familiar with any of the groups he referenced or the viewpoints style (although from the link you posted it sounds like the Suzuki method that they used to practice at Stage West in the mid-90's would fit into that description).