Did you say ‘humor,’ Vail Valley? | VailDaily.com

Did you say ‘humor,’ Vail Valley?

Brenda Himelfarb
Vail Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail DailyThe improv group Chicago City Limits returns to the Vail Valley's Vilar Performing Arts Center Sunday.

VAIL, Colorado – Those of you in the Vail Valley who are movie buffs know that the groupies who frequent a showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” are known to get very involved in the “happening.”

They dress up for the occasion and actually participate, in their own way, throughout the two-hour-long screening. For instance, they yell at the screen, otherwise known as “call back,” during certain parts of the film. They might throw rice for the wedding scene, simulate rain with water pistols or throw toilet paper during a segment when a doctor enters a lab.

A more “in-your face,” audience participation, however, takes place at any Chicago City Limits performance, as heavy audience participation drives this show like no other. When asked, all an audience member has to do is call out a word, a place, an event – whatever – and the troupe is off and running.

“Chicago City Limits can best be described as an audience-based-short-form improv,” said Rob Schiffmann, who has been with the company for 15 years. “Everything we improvise comes from the audience. They yell things out and we base everything that we do on their suggestions. People mostly attend an improv show or sketch show and we’re a little bit of both.”

Actually, Chicago City Limits has been at it for 30 years and is New York City’s longest-running show, with its own permanent theater and cast. And, although they can be irreverent, they’re always audience-friendly.

“Improvisation can sometimes be an insular, exclusive art-form, particularly in New York,” explained Schiffmann. “And if you’re not in the know, it’s not necessarily all that fun and entertaining. Chicago City Limits doesn’t want to lock people out. We’ve always been about the audience and trying to create a fun, pleasing, memorable show, while creating excitement and the ‘walking the tightrope,’ vision.”

And that “vision” comes from the audience. It works like this: Say the audience is asked for a “situation,” and someone yells out, “Hiking a mountain with a dog.” One of the actors will start the scene, say, walking through a park and begin talking about his thoughts on life. The other person in the scene has to completely accept that reality and add to it. In improvisation, that is called a “yes, and.” That means the actor is accepting (the idea) and adding information.

“The ‘yes, and’ exercise, is just one of the skills we work on in rehearsal and what I, as a director, work on with the touring company,” Schiffmann said. “We have to learn how to accept and how to see in the moment and just add information and listen actively.

“Improv is all built on the idea of listening and acceptance. That’s nice life skills, as well. And although improv sort of looks scary to the audience, I love the ‘by the seat of your pants’ aspect of it. I love the freedom of it and the ability to attempt to tell a good story, no matter the parameters.”

And, Schiffmann, who also with performs with the New York Company, knows those parameters quite well. He has been performing improv since middle school and is a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, where he studied piano and composition.

“I am the consummate music improviser,” said Schiffmann. ” One of the things we do in the show is an improvised musical based on a story that the audience suggests. Amongst other things, I teach actors how to make up songs on the spot”

However, it’s the resident company that usually writes the sketches. The touring company takes those that are appropriate for its particular performance. Currently the touring groups are presenting shows with catchy titles like “One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State” or “MySpace or Yours?”

So, who knows? Your “shout-out” at Chicago City Limits’ Sunday night performance – be it a phrase, situation, song title – might be the makings of a hilarious, never-to-be-forgotten moment in the show.

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