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Under the Gun Theater debuts Improv Classic

Chicago's Under the Gun Theater debuts an improv tournament--with a twist

By Julia Borcherts, RedEyeFor

January 15, 2014

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By its nature, improv is a collaborative form of comedy; partners each need to commit to what the other's doing in order for an unscripted scene to take flight. But how do you enhance the collaborative factor when a competition is involved?

Enter native Chicagoland comedians Angie McMahon (the creator-artistic director of the Snubfest comedy festival and former founding director of Chemically Imbalanced Comedy) and Kevin Mullaney (Chicago Improv Festival artistic director and former founding artistic director for New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater), who formed Under the Gun Theater last July. In addition to launching a weekly improv and variety show at Apollo Studio Theater called Hump Night—yup, it's on Wednesdays—they decided to create a citywide community-building tournament.

In the tournament, 20 two-person teams, selected in a lottery from submissions, compete over four weeks. The first twist is that in addition to the five scheduled teams per night, two additional teams will be selected at random from audience members who put their names in the hat. The audience votes for their two favorite teams of the seven to move forward. The second twist—and here's where the collaborative factor plays out—is that three-person teams are competing in the semi-finals. So the two winning teams must each select a third member from one of that week's losing pairs.

"All of the teams have some stake in you doing well," said McMahon, "because as they move on, they're going to want good players to be able to draft from."

The winning trio from each of two semi-finals nights—and, of the second place semi-finals ensembles, the one that overall gets the most votes—draft a fourth player from a losing semi-finals team to join them in the March 1st finals. The three teams will compete for cash prizes. We chatted with McMahon to find out more.

Under the Gun Improv Classic
Go: 7:30 p.m. Saturday through March 1 at Donny's Skybox Theatre, 1608 N. Wells St.
Tickets: $13; $10 for students. 312-337-3992; undertheguntheater.com

How they met and formed Under the Gun: "Like all good people who like to network, I had friended him on Facebook without ever really knowing who he was. He ended up moving back to Chicago and one day, randomly, he put something on his Facebook page: 'Would anyone be interested in doing a Skype experiment with me? Someone who's around during the day.' And I was home 'cause I had just had my second daughter and I was like, 'I'll Skype experiment with you, whatever that means.' [Laughs.] He had this idea that we'd log onto Skype every day—specifically because we wanted to look each other in the eyes—and tell each other what our daily goal was. And then we would email each other when we completed our goal so that we could keep each other on task. So it was like this weird 'affirmation friendship' that we had started. [Laughs.] We did this every day for at least three months and we just became really close friends."

Why a tournament? "The thing that always attracted me to tournaments is that as a theater geek, I did not do sports [laughs]. But I think that there's naturally something exciting to people about being competitive and being in contests and putting yourself out there on the line and saying, 'I want to win.'"

How they recruited: "People were allowed to sign up through our site. And then on Dec. 18, Kevin and I did a live Google hangout on YouTube of drawing names; 41 teams signed up and we randomly chose 20 of those 41 teams to be in the tournament. There was no video tapes, there was no pre-judgment of talent or who you know."

An element that levels the playing field: "The thing that is difficult about these kind of shows is sometimes it feels like whoever brings the most friends is the one that's going to win, right? But what we built in was, each audience member votes for their top two teams that they liked. So you're not just voting for your friends; you're actually [also] voting for someone who you thought was talented and [you] enjoyed. So, the cream might really rise to the top. But there's also this really fun competitive thing of, 'Who am I going to take?' if you become the one that gets to pick. It's like a reality TV show—who's he going to give the rose to or who are we going to vote off the island? There's just some excitement about that."