Chicago has The Second City, New York has the Upright Citizens Brigade and now Ann Arbor is launching its own improvisational dynasty thanks to a thriving bond between the comedy club Improv Inferno and the student improv groups at the University.
With its stacked bar and relatively small size, Improv Inferno could be mistaken for any trendy comedy club, but it’s actually a theater that has become the hub for a growing community of improvisers, both professional and student, in Ann Arbor. Since it opened last fall, Dan Izzo, an alum of Chicago’s The Second City, wanted to bring Improv Inferno to Ann Arbor because it offered a market less saturated and competitive than bigger cities.
“Everybody in Chicago and New York is trying to use improv to become famous (and) are less willing to help each other out,” he said. “In Ann Arbor, (improvisers) realize we’re trying to build a community (and) not trying to screw each other over to be the next person to be on ‘Mad TV’ or ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Though the publicity is better in big cities such as Chicago, the cooperation and genuine relationships between improvisers in the community has been key to the thriving improv scene. It’s something unique to this city and key to Ann Arbor’s thriving improv community, according to Izzo. He added that Improv Inferno has played a large role in building this nurturing community. In addition to opening its doors to professional groups, the theater has also staged performances from student groups like ComCo and Witt’s End – who previously played mostly college audiences.
“Inferno has given groups a chance to (perform) and learn from them,” said ComCo member and Music junior Zac LeMieux.
The relationship between Inferno and student groups has proved mutually beneficial.
“Students have been extremely helpful with getting us up and running,” Izzo said. “We’ve been trying a lot more activities for them to get involved.”
Because of the convenient nature of the improv scene, Ann Arbor has also become a ripe environment for fledgling improv talent.
“It’s a close-knit community,” LeMieux said. “People help you out – (if you) come to our show, we’ll (go) to your show.”
Even more promising is the fact that groups performing outside Improv Inferno have still been successful. Last month, the troupe Beer Money performed at Ann Arbor’s Comedy Showcase. Images of Identity, an all-black improv group, also found success outside Inferno. Despite a relatively low profile, Images has created a solid fan base within the University.
“It provides a place for the community to come together, laugh and enjoy one another,” said Images member and LSA senior Ronnie Johnson. Though their performances feature improvised spoofs on politics, the group also parodies topical themes like pop culture and college-student life.
“Our purpose is to bring laughter through comedy to the average hardworking Michigan student,” said Images member and LSA junior Katrina Johnson. “Images is a form of release and venting that serves the community.”
The relatively small size of Ann Arbor has also been beneficial to the thriving scene, according to John Hartman, a music senior.
“In Ann Arbor there’s a nice small community,” he said. “I think that’s the reason it’s doing so well. It’s a small community (and) there’s not thousands of improv shows.”
Despite its size, Ann Arbor boasts an assortment of different improv flavors. ComCo would be the equivalent of vanilla – a traditional staple among University’s improv groups. It’s the oldest comedy group at the University and performs the classical short-form style of improv.
Short form usually involves traditional unscripted skits with audience participation and games similar to those performed on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” For audiences looking for something different, Witt’s End is a little riskier – they perform the new and increasingly popular long-form style of improv.
“I think (long form) is (another) reason why the improv scene is flourishing – because it’s a new kind of improv people haven’t seen before,” said Hartman.
The outcome of the cooperative relationship among improvisers remains to be seen. Every Wednesday night this month, Improv Inferno will stage College Improv Night with Witt’s End members Hartman and Mikala Bierman. The first show last Wednesday was a hit for the theater. “(Improv Inferno) was certainly pleased,” Hartman said.
“We had a fairly large crowd there, and the largest one I’ve ever seen on a Wednesday.”
With the growing popularity of improv in Ann Arbor, it would be natural to expect growing tension and competition. But Izzo is hopeful about the future of Ann Arbor’s improv community.
“The scene is starting to blossom and develop,” Izzo said. “It’s easy to think that there’s competition, but really what’s good for one of us is good for all of us.”