As the birthplace of modern improv, Chicago boasts a theater scene teeming with off-the-cuff comedy troupes. Laugh at the best of them with this weeklong itinerary of long-standing local improv shows. MONDAY | The Second City Improv All-Stars at UP Comedy Club It makes sense to start the week out at Second City, Chicago’s comedy mecca. Although most of Second City’s shows feature Saturday Night Live–style sketch comedy, Monday nights go off-script for 60 minutes of original goofs from the company’s top players. (230 W. North Ave.; Mondays at 8 p.m.; $17) TUESDAY | Tuesday Night Thing (TNT) at the Annoyance Theatre Venerable improv gurus TJ Jagodowski and Noah Gregoropoulos each lead their own long-form team during this late-night event at the Annoyance Theatre. Grab a drink from the bar and settle in for two 30-minute performances. (851 W, Belmont Ave.; Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.; $8) WEDNESDAY | TJ & Dave at iO Can’t get enough TJ? Catch him with with his comedic other half, Dave Pasquesi, in their critically acclaimed long-form show TJ & Dave. The duo will be christening their very own stage, The Mission Theater, at iO’s newly opened space starting August 13. (1501 N. Kingsbury St.; Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.; $10) THURSDAY | ComedySportz Although the team at ComedySportz Theatre keeps the jokes rated PG for their all-ages audience, there are still plenty of laughs to be had. The group keeps things moving with fast-paced improv games, enacting short scenes based on audience suggestions. (929 W. Belmont Ave.; Thursdays at 8 p.m.; $22) FRIDAY | Baby Wants Candy at the Apollo Theater To date, Baby Wants Candy has produced more than 1,700 original musicals. The players create a new show during each performance based on a title shouted out from the audience. In addition to shows at the Apollo Theater, the crew and their live band also perform at the Annoyance Theatre. (2540 N. Lincoln Ave.; Fridays at 10:30 p.m.; $20) SATURDAY | Comedy Showcase with Rainbow Deli at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy This Saturday showcase is three shows in one. Two of CIC’s house teams open for the Rainbow Deli crew, delivering long-form performances in three distinct improv styles at an intimate theater with a new full bar. (1422 W. Irving Park Rd.; Saturdays at 10:30 p.m.; $10) SUNDAY | Big Yellow Bus at The Playground Theater Big Yellow Bus has been a mainstay at The Playground Theater for 10 years, but the show is always fresh. The rotating cast of players meet only once before performing a long-form show. This ever-changing mix of personalities, combined with an audience chugging BYOB drinks, makes for an evening of unpredictable hilarity. (3209 N. Halsted St.; Sundays at 9:15 p.m.; tickets are pay-what-you-can) Check Groupon first for more Chicago theater, or take to the stage yourself with acting classes in Chicago. Second City Improv All-Stars photo by Clayton Hauck; TJ & Dave photo by Jerry Schulman; ComedySportz photo courtesy of ComedySportz; Playground Theater photo by Stephanie BassosRead More
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“Happy Ishtar,” said Eric Hoff as he sat down to talk about his production of Hit the Wall, now back in Chicago for a third electrifying run. “The festival of fertility and sex.” It’s a fitting way to begin a conversation about Hit the Wall—a raw, riveting piece of theater now back in Chicago for a third time since its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Garage in 2012. Written by Ike Holter and directed by Hoff, the play tells the story of the first night of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, considered by many to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Holter and Hoff’s visceral creation, complete with an onstage bar and a wall-rattling rock band, reveres that legacy. In anticipation of the Chicago Commercial Collective’s remount at the Greenhouse Theater, we spoke with Hoff about the importance of the riots (and of Pride Weekend), and what work still needs to be done. GROUPON: Has anyone who was involved with the riots seen the show? ERIC HOFF: In New York, Martin Boyce and Danny Garvin, both of whom are what I’d call Stonewall veterans…they both attended the opening night, and were also really helpful as consultants on the project. Danny worked with my movement coordinator in New York on specific dances they used to do [at Stonewall, including] The Spider, which looks not unlike the Electric Slide. G: Do you feel like the conversation around the play has changed since the original production? EH: I think the biggest change—or not “change,” but the evolution—in the conversation is primarily related to…trans folk. [The character of] Carson goes by “drag queen” in the play, because back in 1969 “transgender” or “trans woman” wasn’t a commonly used expression or phrase. So for biologically male people who identified as female, “drag queen” was really the term available to them. And [the character] Peg, who is the “Stone Butch”…that was an entire subculture within the queer community that doesn’t exist in the same way that it did back then. So I think it’s really important to note that Ike [Holter] has done a really amazing job of featuring people who live outside of gender norms [as] the torchbearers of this play. G: Is there a moment in the play that’s of particular personal resonance to you? EH: There’s a scene between sisters…[that] is full of content that a lot of us queer folk have heard from our family members. [A character] says things like, “Mom doesn’t want you anymore” and “If you could just hold it in…” For many people who grew up and had to come out, we’ve been there, and we’ve heard those things, and we’ve heard family members say things like, “If you could just not do what you do.” That’s an exact line from the play. “Don’t be you, just conform, just do what we want you to do and everything will be fine.” G: Do you think the play has changed the minds of people with that kind of viewpoint? EH: A lot of people leave and ask, “Are the Stonewall Riots a real thing? Was it really that bad, or was that just for dramatic purposes?” So I think one of the really big things that the play does is, from a historical perspective, [lift] the veil for a lot of people. Most people don’t know that Pride is celebrated on the fourth weekend of June because of the Stonewall Riots. What the riots did [was] galvanize and coalesce a group of people who, prior to that moment, weren’t really a group per se, in part because…The whole point was to not draw attention to yourself. G: Do you think people forget about the historical significance of Pride as they celebrate it? EH: Yes, absolutely. A lot of people think of Pride as a big drunken celebration, and it is, and there’s a good reason for that. I don’t want to disparage people who come to Chicago for Pride, who need an outlet, because that’s a crucial thing—especially if you have to return the next day to a place where you don’t feel like you can be yourself. [However,] it’s important that we remember why we celebrate. G: When you were growing up, did you have a safe space? EH: As a queer person? Not at all. I was a church kid. Then I went to a religious college. I was the only out gay person on my campus for four years. I had good friends on campus who were my people, but even those friends…it took some of [them] a long time to come to terms with me being gay. My family (now) is phenomenal, and everyone is a big ally, a big supporter. But it took awhile. G: Have they seen Hit the Wall? EH: They have. They were all there on opening night. It was kind of insane. At the end of the night, after the curtain call and everything, there’s my entire family. My sisters and my mother…were all in black heels, black tights, black skirts, black sweaters, and they looked like a coven. They were all bawling. And my dad couldn’t speak to me, he was so verklempt—he couldn’t get words out. So it was a pretty powerful thing. G: If people are moved to take action by Hit the Wall, what would you suggest they do? EH: Well, we’ve got a real issue in Chicago with providing safe spaces for our queer youth, primarily for those who don’t come from neighborhoods or homes where they feel comfortable expressing themselves or being who they are. Queerness extends to the poor, queerness extends to people of all different gender expressions and realities, and I think that if people are moved to take action, they should think about…what we as a community need to continue to build. We need to build centers for homeless queer youth in Chicago. We need to find ways to provide education and job resources. [laughs] I feel like I’m getting on my soapbox here, but there are thousands of ways to get involved. For ways to get involved in LGBTQ advocacy, particularly in serving the needs of at-risk and homeless youth, Hoff recommends these organizations: Broadway Youth Center and Center on Halsted (Chicago); Ali Forney Center (New York City); The Trevor Project (national). The remount of Hit the Wall runs at the Greenhouse Theater (2257 N. Lincoln Ave.) through June 29. Click here for tickets ($45–$55) and showtimes. Eric Hoff portrait: Andrew Nawrocki. Hit the Wall photos by Ryan Borque.Read More
When actor John Hoogenakker came to the vaunted theater department of Chicago’s DePaul University, he walked into a program where dedication was rewarded and half-measures were dealt with swiftly. “At that point it had a pretty intense system,” Hoogenakker says. “They would cut half the students after the first year, and then they did that again after the second year.” Hoogenakker survived, leaving with the ability to tackle dark, unhinged, and complex personalities that landed him on stage at Chicago’s Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Writers Theatre. The North Carolina native also left with a deep love for the City of Big Shoulders, one that he put on display for the entire country during a recent stint on NBC’s Chicago Fire. DePaul’s trial by fire prepared him for acting, but had it prepared him for actual fire? Working Side by Side with Chicago Firefighters During his five-episode stint as firehouse snitch Lt. Spellman, Hoogenakker earned the ire of department regulars, animosity which culminated in a heated confrontation between Hoogenakker and…well, everyone else. Despite the on-screen tension, he says the cast and crew—from the principal actors to the extras—are like one big family. And about those “extras”—they’re actually real members of the Chicago Fire Department. “There’s a wonderful sort of camaraderie that’s been formed with actual firefighters in Chicago who have been stepping into these roles from time to time,” Hoogenakker says. Firefighters such as Tony Ferraris (a show regular and squad member in his firehouse) and Steve Chikerotis (who is an icon in local firefighter lore) work on the show to advise actors on what they would actually do when confronted with certain situations. Working with them allowed Hoogenakker to “develop an even more profound respect for the sacrifices that firefighters make every day without even thinking about it. No hesitation whatsoever.” That closeness also translated into invitations to fight fires in real life. Hoogenakker says Jesse Rangel from the firehouse near his home was always excited to have him come by: “These guys were like, ‘Anytime you want to go out, man, anytime, just swing by the firehouse.’” Fighting a Fire on Screen Hoogenakker declined, but even without real-world experience, he still got a taste of the rigors of firefighting. On his first day on the set, Hoogenakker, loaded down with 40 pounds of bunker gear, found himself gripping a fire hose inside a burn room, a structure used to simulate real fire conditions. When the director called action, they “[turned] up the dial and flames [started] pouring out of the wall.” He explains that he “was shooting a line of water down a hallway that was lit up like the Fourth of July.” As a newbie on the show, he didn’t want to be the guy who caused problems, so he kept going even though the heat was starting to get to him. Luckily, “there was an actual fireman behind me who kept trying to pull me back because he saw that I was standing in flames.” He and the entire crew got a break to cool off, but his brush with firefighters’ focus on realism and safety made it “humbling to watch those guys work.” “It was fun,” he says. “And they were kind enough to say to me as I was leaving, ‘Hey, we didn’t kill you,’ so at least I’ve got that going for me.” Digging Deep for Untapped Emotions Even though it doesn’t involve fighting fires, working in Chicago theater also puts actors through their paces. In his latest play, Conor McPherson’s Port Authority, Hoogenakker played Dermot, a “raging alcoholic with clearly a lot of anger issues.” Dermot’s barely contained hostility often boiled over in the audience’s direction, with Hoogenakker shouting from the edge of the stage and letting a range of almost terrifying emotions play across his face as he struggled to maintain his grip on a changing life situation. Hoogenakker says that one of the best notes he got during rehearsals was from director Bill Brown, who said, “Don’t be afraid to be ugly in this role…and really live in that darkness.” By exploring the truthfulness of his darker characters, he helped audience members tap into the shadowy corners of their own psyches. Making Chicago a Center for Film and TV Though some would argue these skills should take him to Hollywood or Broadway, Hoogenakker sees himself primarily as a Chicago actor. He credits the city’s communal atmosphere as the biggest thing separating it from New York and LA. “After about five, six, seven years or so, you kind of have gotten to know pretty much everybody…when you go from theater to theater, it just feels like you’re moving in with this part of your family or going to visit these folks,” he says. If Hoogenakker had his way, there would be “a slight paradigm shift with shows and movies originating in Chicago with production dollars coming from Chicagoans who want to see that happen.” In his world, the great work being done in his adopted city’s playhouses would continue to fuel the surge of locally filmed TV shows like Boss, Sirens, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD. “All these shows are a testament to the strength of the acting community here, and I think the more that we can get in town, the better.” You can relive John Hoogenakker’s appearances on NBC’s Chicago Fire, Starz’s Boss, and ABC’s Mind Games, or catch him in the Goodman Theatre’s revival of The Iceman Cometh in New York in 2015. Photo courtesy of John HoogenakkerRead More