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Improv Receiving a Dedicated Stage in Columbus

Grant Walters Grant Walters Improv Receiving a Dedicated Stage in Columbus
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Celebrated Chicago-based improv duo Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto will open the city's first dedicated theater and training center later this year.

  • Sumo

I don’t know if most people go to their first improv comedy show expecting a life-changing experience. I didn’t.  I was in my junior year of college living in a suburb of Vancouver, a city so entrenched in the performing arts that it’s been dubbed “Hollywood North.” Although my friends and I rarely had any money to burn, we were always happy to give the last few bucks we had in our depressingly empty wallets to see whatever band, film festival, or play we could find.  So, when my RA invited me to go with him one night to something called “theatre sports” with the promise of cheap admission and a few laughs – I readily obliged and followed him to a little revue stage on Granville Island.  That small place, I later learned – home of the Vancouver TheatreSports League – launched the comedy careers of alumni like Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie (both of whom who later star on the TV staple Whose Line Is It Anyway? in both the US and the UK), and countless other Canadian actors who would feature prominently in film, television, and stage productions.

Theatre sports is probably one of the most accessible and recognizable forms of improv.  The gist: players are divided into teams and act out short scenes based on audience suggestions, often scored competitively by volunteers in the crowd or a host that doubles as a “referee”.  The comedy mostly arises out of the restraint placed on the actors to initiate, develop, and conclude a scene in a matter of minutes.  I sat in my seat during that first show in awe of how nimbly the cast made such smart, funny decisions in such a limited amount of time – with absolutely no support from a script.  I was hooked. So much so that the more shows I saw over the years, the more I desperately wanted to get up on stage and participate.

But I never did. It wasn’t for lack of chops. I’d actually had formal, college-level theatre training. I had performing experience. I had access to good – really good – improv classes that were just a bus ride away.

What I didn’t have…was guts. And it turns out you have to have those if you want to try improvising.

It was something I regretted for a long time, albeit tucked in the back of my brain for a decade-and-a-half while I focused on jobs, family, friends, and all the other things that vied for my attention. It was a chance conversation last year with a colleague at work – who shared my enthusiasm for comedy and had received training from The Second City – that eventually led me back to the improv community. I began attending shows around the city, meeting and chatting with local improvisers, and within a few weeks I found myself signed up for a workshop during the Columbus Improv Festival.

The instructor was Tara DeFrancisco – an accomplished comedienne who grew up in Columbus and now works as a full-time theatre educator and improviser in Chicago. What struck me immediately about Tara was her folksiness and honesty, pushing our group to find joy in the moment when you’re sharing the stage with someone and seeing where simply being present took you. That feeling of each scene being a new adventure was the reason I wanted to learn the craft all those years ago. I was hooked again.

Tara and her partner, Rance Rizzutto, have been working together for over a decade. They currently helm an improvised musical show, Here, which – aside from their chemistry – changes with every performance; new characters, new songs, and new music genres. The show has a permanent home at the iO Theatre in Chicago, and has – and will continue to be – played to audiences across the country and internationally. Both have been involved in numerous productions with iO, ComedySportz, and The Second City, and regularly teach improv classes at multiple venues around Chicago and beyond. Tara has also ventured into projects for television on the ABC Family/Blip TV and LOGOtv networks, and will appear in the upcoming feature film, The Life and Death of an Unhappily Married Man. She is founder and President of The Improv Retreat, an annual intensive camp experience for improvisers held each summer.

With such impressive portfolios and a seemingly relentless schedule, it seems improbable that there would be much left for Tara and Rance to accomplish. Earlier this month, however, they announced what might be their most ambitious endeavor to date: opening a first-of-its-kind improv comedy theatre and education center 350 miles away in Columbus this fall. They envision this new facility as a necessity for Columbus’ growing improv scene, bringing new performance opportunities for local talent and offering reliable space for the lengthening list of established groups that are already active around the city. To offset their own capital investment, they’ve established a GoFundMe campaign which – in just under three weeks – has raised almost 30% of their $15,000 target.

Still touring with Here when we spoke about their big announcement, Tara and Rance explained the motivation behind their decision to bring their dream project to Columbus and discussed what performers and the public can expect when the theater opens its doors later in the year.

You and Rance are completely dedicated to the improv craft. What initially pulled you both into the community and why does it continue to be so meaningful to you?
Rance: “It’s always spontaneous, which means it doesn’t get old.”

Tara: “Improv is a giant parallel to life – you’re doing it every second, though when people think about performing it, they fight anxiety and adrenaline. It’s interesting from a psychological standpoint, that if we say ‘create!’ some people get nervous, but if we say ‘live!’, most don’t.”

Tara, you’re originally from Columbus, and I know you both have a lot of affection for the city.  What do you see in Columbus’ community of improvisers that has motivated you to make such a significant investment here?

“Rance and I take frequent trips to Columbus – my family and lots of friends still live there. I only moved to Chicago because it was a resource to study and play with the best in 1999. Now, improv is everywhere, and I want to be a part of fostering a home so no one has to leave home to learn as much as they can and play consistently with this artform. We’ve done a lot of improv, sketch, stand-up over the years and want to be a resource – and learn from students with wider lenses not solely focused on getting famous or whatever – but to entertain others, and honestly make their lives more full. We want to make lives better and share the joy of play with as many as possible. It has changed our lives, every facet of them.”

Rance: “The Columbus performers we’ve worked with have a lot of heart and talent and spirit… things that we look for and strive for in performance already. An important thing for us as we started was having a dedicated theatre to perform in, and we want to provide a home for the people of Columbus.”

Tara: “Yes. It is different to be able to walk in a clubhouse and see like-minded individuals as many times as you like each week and feel like you are part of a community of support. It makes everything easier to know a place like that exists.”

You have big plans for this future space.  What kinds of performances and opportunities can people expect to see evolve as the project takes shape?

Rance: “All kinds!”

Tara: “Yeah! Everything! Something we’ve learned from touring our shows and teaching in over 20 countries is that communities needlessly divide their resources instead of teaming together. For instance, in many of the cities we’ve been to worldwide, a long-form theatre will hate a short-form theatre, and the sketch people will hate the stand-ups.”

Rance: “It’s unnecessary.”

Tara: “Exactly. Yes. It’s so sad, and it really comes from fear that once people find passion in a thing they love, that someone will take that thing away – by dividing audience attendance, or otherwise. However, the most successful communities we’ve worked with to build, have found out early that all people should help one another. We’ve been professional mainstage performers all over Chicago, performing innumerable shows at iO Chicago, The Second City, and ComedySportz, and tour our own show Here – and lots of others. We’re just cutting out a step of the inevitable evolution – meaning everyone, from the beginning, is welcome in our place, and we’ll have different nights of programming to facilitate that growth and support for each branch of the comedy tree. People should help one another in the arts. High tides rise all boats.”

You’re also in the process of securing a license with the ComedySportz franchise that will be completely new to Columbus.  Tell me a bit about what makes that particular brand of improv unique.

Rance: “Tara and I both got our start in improv through ComedySportz. The nice thing about it is it’s an exciting and accessible way for people who are new to improv to enjoy their first experience. It’s formula works while still having enough freedom to have endlessly different shows each time – and it’s just plain fun.”

Tara: “Yes. It’s so fun. Everyone who sees (it) thinks it is a joyride. Like Rance said, this is the most inclusive type of improv for newbies – there is a host who explains how to watch each game and the show overall, there’s audience interaction, it’s pacing is playful and upbeat. There are loyal fans who never miss a show. It’s engaging and goofy and the brand itself fosters incredible kindness across the globe.

Rance: “It’s also all-ages, plus it’s a no-brainer since both Tara and I have over ten years of experience as cast members and artistic direction of the brand.”

You’ve both been very vocal about making this venue welcoming, safe, and inclusive – all of which are fundamentals of the improv craft itself. As educators and performers, how do you do that while still encouraging comedic freedom of expression and risk-taking?

Tara: “We’ve been improv instructors and curriculum designers for a long while. I think we’ve both learned that if you foster an environment of support, trust, and care, that if there is a delicate issue brought up in content, you can give a note or consider the content without criticizing the human.”

Rance: “And our training teaches our students to take those delicate subjects and find the deeper meaning, rather than let it be a joke.”

Tara: “Our job is to protect comedy and the humans doing and watching it. So, yeah – sometimes some people’s comedic style isn’t your flavor, and that’s one thing. However, most brilliant comedy in the world tends to shine a light on complex matters. It doesn’t go for what is easy; it tries to bring levity to what is hard. It’s an intelligent person’s game, comedy. It really is. It’s ridiculous, but comedians are the modern day philosophers that everyone likes. We get to say big things. If we’re doing less, why?”

Opening the doors to this new theater, you’re also hoping to attract people who want to try improv comedy for the first time – maybe they’re interested in taking a class, or they jump on stage during an open mic or jam night. What advice or urging would you give to someone who is considering taking the plunge?

Rance: “Do it!”

Tara: “Dooooo iiiiiiiittttt!

Rance: “A lot of new people take classes because they have a friend who says, ‘hey you’re funny! You should take improv classes!’ – and that’s awesome. But don’t let not feeling funny stop you from trying it. Comedy is a bi-product, not a requirement.”

Tara: “Yeah! Next question. Just kidding – really, this work is about presence. How present can you stay with a group of people making art all at once? Can you make something beautiful together? This is like one of those giant collages of individual pictures that turns out to be a giant, more beautiful piece when you hover above it; Where you can see all the pieces put together mattered, and though they were awesome alone, they make something more gorgeous as a unit. Comedy is the best. Improv is collaborative, it’s a life skill.”

You’ve acknowledged that there are already several active improv groups in the city who have established identities and your desire to make this a place for them, as well.  How do you intend on doing that?

Tara: “We have a proposed lineup ready…”

Rance: “We have a night built for that.”

Tara: “Currently, Thursday nights will be ‘community celebration’ nights – and any already established team in Columbus will be put on a rotating schedule with other teams. So, each Thursday as it stands, two Columbus teams can play – and they will be scheduled by our staff each quarter and apply online to do so. Stage time is free of charge, by the way – that’s important to us, too. In Chicago, you rent space always – to rehearse, to play, to perform. We felt like it might be cooler to start from a place of gratitude towards the very folks we’d like to thrive.”

If we were to come back and talk about the theater a few years from now, what are you hoping you’d be able to say about its success and growth?

Tara: “We crushed it. Everyone rules at comedy now, and we’re closing. We’re shutting her down.”

Rance: “Tara!”

Tara: (laughing)

Rance: “I would say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m too busy to answer your questions right now.'”

Tara: “Yeah, we’re gonna be real jerks. We can answer for real now.”

Rance: “…I forgot the question.”

Tara: “Have I mentioned that improv helps memory?”

Learn more about Tara and Rance’s work by visiting their shared websites: taraandrance.com or herethemusical.com. They can also be found via their individual sites: taradefrancisco.com and rancerizzutto.com (or @taradefrancisco and @rancerizzutto on Twitter).

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