April 27, 2010

Off-Off turns on the wit for its 24th season

Two different emperors named Montezuma ruled the Aztecs, a people known for their human sacrifices and possible cannibalism. In a tongue-in-cheek response to such a brutal and horrific character, the 24th generation of Off-Off Campus, the U of C’s improv and sketch comedy group, has titled their spring revue Montezuma, Eat Your Heart Out.

The choice is not surprising given Off-Off’s unusual brand of humor. But why this title in particular? “Somebody thought [it] was funny,” said third-year Peter Damm, director of the current generation. Such is Off-Off’s irreverent philosophy. Off-Off performs at University Church on Friday nights every quarter along with a pre- and after-glow of bands, a cappella, and the performers-in-training. Each show is filled with new sketches, making every performance unique.

Unlike other theater organizations on campus, students who enter Off-Off must commit 15 hours a week to training for two quarters before they can perform.

“Monday might be scene work, Tuesday might be relationships, Wednesday might be object work, and Friday might be group work,” said third-year Ben Mizel, production manager. “We’re trying to cultivate a group mind so that everyone is on the same page. A huge part of improvising is listening and picking up on your partner’s hints and character.”

The classes are taught by former Off-Off members from the likes of the 23rd generation to the very first, formed in 1986 when Bernie Sahlins, a UChicago alum and co-founder of Second City, returned to campus and started the group. Students who participate in Off-Off enter a company instead of a single performance. Consequently, they usually stay involved after their generation’s two seasons by joining the administrative ranks of teachers, directors, and production managers, performing in Off-Off’s winter inter-generational revue, or by doing a mix of things.

All of Off-Off’s sketches are student written. They often get passed around, critiqued, and revised until they lose individual ownership and become the property of the group. “Someone might write a sketch, and it’s performed a year later at their very last show,” said first-year Evan Weiss, a member of the 24th generation. “At the same time someone might write a great sketch on Monday, and it’s performed on Friday; that’s not at all unheard of….My generation will probably write about 200 sketches, all original.”

With the sketches they write, Off-Off isn’t just going for easy laughs.

“The goal isn’t necessarily to please the audience,” continued Weiss. “Instead, it focuses much more on being legitimate, doing good theater, being realistic. So cheap jokes and sitcom-y sorts of things are frowned upon. Beyond that, they’re more interested in scenes built on relationships as opposed to scenes just built on jokes or a single character being weird—the interaction between two people.”

Beyond the overarching aim, each generation has its own particular style. The 24th consists of six actors instead of the usual eight. Weiss figures that this number results in a more intimate, although perhaps less varied, cast. And, of course, each generation has a different sense of humor. According to Mizel, the 24th generation has “an appreciation for non sequiturs. I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of topical humor, although they’re capable of it. They might embrace darker humor than some other generations.”

“It’s really fun to see live comedy because there’s a whole component where the people on stage are really engaged with the audience and the audience with them,” said Damm. “So laughter is sort of a social thing. When you’re laughing, there’s a great energy that comes from it which I think people really enjoy.”