Texts take the stage at I-House with iO Theater

Using audience-generated text messages at their muse, Chicago’s improv group iO Theater will be at the International House on Wednesday to perform Text Theater.

By Ben Sigrist

Have you ever texted someone on the other side of the room? Someone sitting right next to you? For those of us addicted to texting or deathly afraid of public speaking but convinced of our brilliance (a good deal of U of C students by reputation), the acclaimed iO Theater has devised Text Theater. Coming to the I-House tomorrow, this free event will probably be the first theatrical performance you attend that encourages texting during the show.

If you have ever attended the iO or watched an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you know that audience suggestions are an important source of the spontaneity that is at the heart of improvisational comedy. So if the audience tells an actress that she is a taxidermist in New Zealand who is about to reunite with her long-lost twin sister, she has to immediately begin creating the scene along with her co-actors. In Text Theater, sponsored by U.S. Cellular, the cell phone will be stealing the role of Drew Carey in Whose Line?, transmitting the audience suggestions to the actors via that great time-waster, the evolutionary ancestor of our beloved Facebook—the text message.

Charna Halpern, a local improv icon and the equivalent of a personal trainer to many of the iO's iconic comedians, described Text Theater as a project in its early stages. “This is a pilot program,” she said. Discussing how exactly cell phones would contribute to the show, she added, “Before, we had a person [in the audience] tell [us] ‘my girlfriend is mad at me.’ Now we can [actually] talk to your girlfriend.”

But texting will not be simply a replacement for audience members shouting at the top of their lungs. Rather, the inclusion of cell phones in the act adds a new dimension of material for the actors to draw from. “We’re going to create a musical on the phone, maybe for an angry girlfriend,” Halpern said, providing another example of how the actors will utilize the cell phone in different ways throughout the show.

According to Halpern, the show at the U of C will be a mix of both short and longform improv. While shortform improv involves a series of short scenes in rapid succession—the bread and butter of Whose Line?—longform improv is typically much more complex. Although longform also depends on a series of improvised scenes, the actors must eventually weave these scenes together into a coherent plot. With wildly different series of events arising in each scene, watching a session of longform improv coalesce into a story with a beginning, middle, and end can seem quite miraculous.

The iO has a long history of innovation in longform improv. Halpern and fellow iO icon Del Close developed and popularized new methods of improvisational acting over several years with longform as their primary focus. Improvised Shakespeare, one of iO’s current projects performed every Friday night, exemplifies the kind of creativity the theater is famous for. Taking a suggested title from the audience, the actors improvise an entirely new play in true Shakespearian fashion, complete with Elizabethan colloquialisms. Featuring both inside jokes for avid Shakespeare fans and the type of raunchy humor the Bard himself favored, Improvised Shakespeare is an excellent sampling of what skilled actors can do when they are thinking on their feet.

To showcase their skills before the performance, the actors of Text Theater will be on the Quad between 12:45 and 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday, providing their comedic services free of charge to U of C students. If you do have that aforementioned angry girlfriend or boyfriend, you might consider paying them a visit and having a professional comedian lighten the tension with a joke over the phone. Or you can sit back and watch the actors have a little fun with your classmates. Either way, you’re almost sure to get a laugh.