International Students Tackle Long Form Improvisational At Chicago's iO Theater
Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
"What is candy corn?," asked Christian Kaserman innocently. Kaserman, a 36-year-old actor from Zurich, Switzerland, is spending his summer studying long form improv at the famous iO Theater in Chicago, and sometimes needs some extra help with American candy traditions.
iO (formerly known as ImprovOlympic) was founded by Charna Halpern and Del Close in 1981 to train actors and comedians in a "more robust form of improvisation," that focuses on longer scenes--or entire shows. iO made long form improv, or the Harold as it is known to insiders, famous.
The theater churned out mega-stars including Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Jon Favreau, Amy Poehler, Seth Myers and more---which is probably why 75 people from around the world decided to spend their summer learning the ropes at North Side theater.
"I do improv in Zurich with Theater Anundpfirsich," Kaserman said. "I read Charna's and Del's book 'Truth in Comedy' and I realized Chicago is the mecca for improv. In Zurich, I work as an actor in plays and musicals. I also teach adults and kids acting. I want to go back to Zurich and teach long form improv, as we only have short form improv in Zurich."
Kaserman is cramming one year's worth of improv classes into five weeks at iO, and he is not the only international student. Theater buffs from South Africa, Ireland, Canada, Israel and Switzerland have also made Chicago their summer home in the name of improv.
Founder Charna Halpern said she does not aggressively recruit international students, and that most of them "find out about our program through word of mouth."
Among other things, students have learned about different methods of long form improv--many of which started at iO.
Kaserman said he particularly enjoyed learning about the Armando method--named after iO alum Armando Diaz. The form is practiced on Monday nights with a rotating cast, and a monologist tells a personal story that inspires the resulting scenes.
During one Monday night performance in mid-July, the monologist was actor Steve Waltien, who talked passionately about his father's death. The monologue and resulting scenes led to Kaserman's first experience crying in the theater.
While Kaserman said he loves the classes, the spirit, the tradition, the shows and the great teachers, he sometimes finds himself not understanding some of the humor and colloquialism.
He speaks 6 languages, but English is not his primary one.
Other international iO students include Sharon Mannion and Danny Kehoe, a couple from Dublin, Ireland who are in the improv troupe Ghost Train Willy. Like Kaserman, they only do short-form improv in Ireland.
"We came to Chicago because it is the home of improv and wanted to study here," Mannion said. "We hope to go back with more of an understanding of long form and have one of my groups perform long-form improv."
She agreed with Kaserman in that America's sense of humor is different from her own--and sometimes she does not get cultural references.
"In Dublin, the improv community is very small," Mannion said. Taking classes here has been very strange and out of my comfort zone...However, we are having a great time and working very hard. I am excited to see how far we've come."