The Gainesville - Chicago Improv Connection
Chicago is the cultural epicenter for improvisational theatre. Every year, dozens of improv practitioners from around the world move to the city with dreams of performing among legendary companies like the Annoyance, iO, and Second City. Curiously enough, a high percentage of these ambitious actors move from Gainesville, Florida, a college town with a buzzing improv hub. Home to the University of Florida, Theatre Strike Force, and Gainesville Improv Festival, the city of Gainesville has stamped a solid spot on the map for cultivating some of the strongest improvisational theatre performers in the country.
The city of Gainesville is a fantastic improv incubator, consistently shaping actors into aficionados ready to tackle the world.
Established at the University of Florida in 1989, Theatre Strike Force has blossomed into a renowned collegiate improv troupe. The award-winning company focuses specifically on long-form improvisational theatre, and they have built an esteemed reputation for their workshops and performances. Hosting free weekly classes, the student organization successfully trains young performers before releasing them out into the world. Many TSF alums continue shaping successful improv careers in Chicago.
Bill Arnett is one of these alums. Arnett cofounded 3033, a popular Chicago team with roots in Gainesville. Arnett has also taught improv in Chicago for almost twenty years. A UF student from 1992 to 1998, Arnett fondly remembers his TSF years as being both embarrassing and thrilling. Arnett says, “No one’s improv group was ever as large or as warm as TSF. They gave me a powerful point of view... positive, fair, non-judgmental.”
In his now almost two decades of living in Chicago, Arnett has established himself as having one of the most distinctive perspectives on long-form improv. His blog is well-respected and shared among performers. Arnett also served as Head of the Training Center at iO before establishing his own premier program, Chicago Improv Studio. He says, “The longer I was at iO, watching how the sausage was made, I realized that I was spending more time changing the syllabuses to suit my tastes. After a while I just had to do my own thing.” Many of Arnett’s philosophies coincide with those at TSF, including an important “dive in and try” attitude. Both programs offer a support system unlike any other.
Now in its tenth year, the Gainesville Improv Festival hosts performers from around the country. With many groups coming from Chicago, the festival often grants TSF alums an opportunity to return to Gainesville and showcase their work. In fact, the festival’s co-founder, Skyler Stone, now resides in Chicago. Having lived in Gainesville from 1995-2007, Stone looks forward to making the trip back every year. He recalls establishing the festival ten years ago, saying, “The more we talked and the more we experienced, the more we realized how unique TSF and Gainesville was. We wanted to honor and continue that.” Thanks to Stone and his mission, the festival has upheld the art of improv for ten strong years and is now a thriving Gainesville tradition.
On a personal note, I met Bill Arnett while attending one of his workshops at the Gainesville Improv Festival in 2011, and he was instrumental in my transition from Gainesville to Chicago later that year. I am currently enrolled in his Level Four Class at Chicago Improv Studio, and I cannot speak more highly of his program. Arnett has a sincere passion for both his craft and his students. While looking around the Chicago Improv Studio space on my first day of Level Four, I noticed that the majority of the class was from Florida. After having a conversation with Arnett about the large amount of Gainesville transplants performing improv in the Chicago, I was inspired to write this piece.
Liz Anderson is another Chicago transplant by-way-of Gainesville that has found continued success in her latest dwelling. Anderson attributes much of that success to her TSF roots. She says, “We had a built in network the moment we got to Chicago. There's somewhat of a generation gap between the people who moved here in the early 00's and the people my age who've been migrating here en masse, but we've been able to bridge the gap again… I know tons of people who got their jobs or got referred to auditions based on the TSF connection. It's great. Everyone is so nice.”
Anderson is already carving out a niche in Chicago with her creation of the One-Woman No-Show, a brilliant juxtaposition of improv and scripted theatre. Drafting new material every week, Anderson invites an actor to perform it without any preparation. The results are chaotic, multifaceted, and hilarious. Anderson says, “In Chicago, the tide is slowly turning away from people being pure improvisers and towards people being general artists—you have to create your own stuff to really grow.” Chicago audiences can expect to see more of Anderson’s inventive work; the One-Woman No-Show is returning in March with an even stronger through-line and emotional arc.
Anderson’s current role of Creator and Producer can be traced back to her leadership skills as TSF’s President during her last year at UF. Thinking back, she says, “TSF President taught me a lot about how the business of comedy can and should work… taught me how to work hard, and it taught me that the creative and the realistic need to work in tandem to succeed (and they often can!).” Although she has found well-deserved success in Chicago, Anderson reflects on Gainesville with pure bliss. She says, “I love Gainesville so much. I plan to retire and die there.”
While the art of improvisational theatre continuously grows in respect and form, it is an absolute thrill to watch programs ripen and mature. Improv is now offered at the collegiate level, a movement spearheaded by the University of Florida several years ago. Theatre Strike Force recently hosted their twenty-fifth anniversary reunion. The Gainesville Improv Festival is ushering in a second decade of workshops and performances. The city of Gainesville is a fantastic improv incubator, consistently shaping actors into aficionados ready to tackle the world. Many of these actors choose to connect with Chicago; it is a warm and welcoming connection after all.