When pH Productions started offering College Night in 2003, it was slow-going at first.
“Nobody really came,” said Jason Geis, Co-Artistic Director of pH Productions, a performance group dedicated to educating audiences about live theater that puts on original comedic productions at Studio Be (3110 N. Sheffield Ave, Chicago).
Fast-forward to a rainy October night in 2011. A standing room only crowd squeezes into the cozy Studio Be just a short walk from the Belmont Red Line El stop. A BYOB theater, the club’s college-aged audience buzzes with excitement before the first improv comedy troupe takes the stage.
It seems Chicago’s college population has finally caught on.
“Over the last couple of years, people have really become excited about it,” Geis said. “It just spread like wildfire.”
Brett Mannes, Executive Director of pH Productions, called College Night “this great phenomenon that landed in our laps.”
Mannes attributed the surge in attendance to the talent of the young comedians who take the stage every Thursday night that draws full houses in the 3000 square foot, 99-seat storefront theater week after week.
“They’re great,” he said. “That is the number one reason why people come.”
“The teams have really made a name for themselves,” Geis said.
The Thursday night comedy shows are headlined by two Chicago university improv groups: DePaul University’s Cosby Sweaters and Columbia College Chicago’s Droppin’ $cience.
The team from DePaul University traces its history back to 2004 when student Sarah Pappalardo decided to partner with pH Productions and founded a college improv team on her own campus.
Since then, the team has performed at The Second City, iO Theater and The Playground Theater in Chicago, in addition to several theaters outside of Illinois.
The Cosby Sweaters have competed in the College Improv Tournament, part of the Chicago Improv Festival annually since 2008. In 2010, the team earned the Wild Card distinction and competed against seven regional winners and one other wild card team at the Nation Championships held in Chicago. This marked the first time the Cosby Sweaters competed at the national competition.
Columbia College Chicago’s Droppin’ $cience also made an appearance at the College Improv Tournament National Championships in 2010. The team took third place in the competition.
Another reason for the College Night’s success?
“It’s different than anything that’s going on anywhere else in the city at this time,” said Mannes.
Be big, fun and fast
“College Night” at Studio Be is just one of pH Productions’ several offerings. There are live shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, in a similar fashion to Second City or iO.
The comedy theater also puts on an improvised musical show every Saturday at 10 p.m. called “pHamily The Musical”.
“When the emotional moments acme and we have a crescendo of emotion in a scene, we break out into song,” Mannes said.
Keeping the improvisational and interactive nature of the show alive, “we’ll ask the audience for the name and genre of the song.”
The philosophy of pH Productions is obvious in their improv musical show.
“Be big, be fun, be fast,” Mannes said, “and give more of an energy jolt than they would at any other theatres in the city.”
“I feel really lucky to play here,” gushes Jesse Wood, a nine-year improv comedy veteran. “We have such an awesome audience. So many people come out to see the show.”
Despite his young age, the 22-year-old senior at DePaul University, has had the opportunity to perform at several landmark Chicago comedy clubs. But what makes the experience on College Nights so special is the energy the audience exudes.
“There’s a feeling of community,” Wood explains. “There’s a character to it.”
Geis has noticed a distinct change in the personality of the theater-goers over the past few years.
“The audience used to be just a bunch of kids who wanted to get drunk,” recalls Geis. “But now, it’s people who actually appreciate improv.”
“It’s like we’ve created a comedy district in the neighborhood,” Mannes said.
With several improv comedy theaters near Belmont Avenue, Mannes is absolutely right. The Playground, Comedy Sportz, Big City Tap and Studio Be are all found within just a few blocks of each other.
With so many improv hubs nearby, is there any sense of competition between the theaters?
“It’s kind of a friendly rivalry,” Geis said. “We’re all competing for the same dollar. At the end of the day, we want people at our theater rather than that theater.”
At the same time, however, there is an innate solidarity amongst the various improv clubs, Geis said.
“We all have a mutual respect for each other,” he said. “We all appreciate that we’re all trying to do this art. I would say it’s the calmest rivalry you could think of.”
“To other people [the various theaters] blend together,” Mannes said. “But to us, they represent such unique and distinct offerings that they just do nothing but add variety to Chicago comedy which is legendary.”
Mannes said he is simply grateful to be in the Chicago improv scene at all.
“We’re part of this amazing comedy district that’s going on in this neighborhood,” he said.
Laid back and friendly
This comedy theater is accessible to all. Artistic director Geis explained it simply: “We’re laid back and friendly. We don’t have famous alumni. And we don’t have $20 ticket prices.”
Someday, Wood could be that famous pH Productions alumni who draws in tourists and improv connoisseurs someday to clubs. Until then, he is perfectly happy where he is.
“It’s one of the best gigs in the city,” he said.