Daniel Harvey, Brighton based improviser (pictured). He went to Chicago to study improv for 5 weeks at iO. He has some advise for the multitude of people going this year, or planning to go some time in the future:...
BEFORE YOU GO
You'll want to fully immerse yourself in the improv community, so make sure you have enough money for shows and for drinks afterwards (the really popular shows sell out, so you won’t get in for free). Immerse yourself in the world of improv: read and listen to all the books, blogs and podcasts you can and re-read/re-listen to them. I made the mistake of only half reading Truth in Comedy [by Charna Halpern] and Improvise [by Mick Napier]. You will be in a better position to learn and you’ll have better questions to ask your teacher.
Turn up on time: I know it's pretty obvious, but very important. No one will tell you off [except maybe Craig Uhler, who'll call you a “boner”], but you will receive subtle yet brutal frowns from your teacher and classmates.
Take notes: 5 weeks mean 5 different teachers, so 5 different unique perspectives on the greatest art form known to man. In my first week, teacher Barry Hite told us: “Everyone has a book to sell, so decide for yourself what is bullshit and what isn’t.” As the weeks go by you’ll find that your teachers will contradict each other. This is no bad thing.
Your notes are your very own improv manual and 10 times more valuable than any published work out there; this is certainly true of mine.
If you have good intentions, but are lazy and miss a week, don't hesitate to ask one of your classmates to borrow their notes: it's important that your notes are as comprehensive as possible.
While it's important to write down all the exercises and advice you get, it's just as important to write personal notes: strengths and weaknesses; What your ‘go tos’ are; what you do too much; what you don’t do etc...
See as many as possible: a lot of them are free, but the popular ones will sell out. T.J and Dave, Cook County Social Club, Improvised Shakespeare Company, 3033: when I was there last year sold out without fail, so buy tickets on the first day for the whole time you are there. There is a rap battle called Haterade: enter it. Go to the Annoyance Theatre: Chicagoland and Messing With A Friend are particularly good [as is the legendary Green Mile jazz bar two doors down]. There is place down the road called the Underground Lounge: it's kind of a dive bar, but on certain days it's where i.O and Second City students play to pretty much no one. It's great! I got to improvise with a few of them and do stand-up. I’m sure if you asked nicely, they would let you perform. It's also a great way to meet other improvisers who are slightly further up the improv ladder than you are, but not so much that they make you go all giggly and shy like T.J will.
By taking notes at shows, you may feel like a weird, overly keen nerd freak. That’s because you are! Remember you are a student and there to learn. I didn't take notes during or after shows; not many people do, but it is recommended. At least half of what you’ll learn is through watching the best improvisers in the world do it live on stage.
FOOD & DRINK
You may find yourself walking into Whole Foods and being excited by the varieties of houmous on offer. Don’t be: I love houmous and was sorely disappointed by the dry, home-made-by-a-homeless person pathetic excuse for what is meant to be the perfect snack.
Americans are known for many great things; houmous is not one of them.
If you are into beer, there is a really good craft brewery in Chicago called Goose Island. They serve 312 at the i.O which is one of theirs. PBR or Pabst is $3 and tastes like a pretty average lager, but they serve it in a jar so that makes it cool. Sam Adams is also a really good American beer.
However, if you would like to see Mitt Romney in the White House, Coors and Bud Light are also available. Mullen's, just a few doors down from i.O, does wicked Long Island Iced Teas: a quick and lethal way to get in the party mood.
I didn’t eat out very much, but there are lots of great places to eat: buy a copy of Timeout Chicago and check out the latest recommendations. There are different areas that sell national food: Chinatown was quite nice; Pilsen is a great Mexican food area.
Cozy is a Thai restaurant around the corner from the I.O. It's relatively cheap and its B.Y.O.B.
Perhaps avoid hot dogs or deep dish pizzas: they are apparently what Chicago is famous for, but they are not particularly interesting and you'll be going home with excess baggage if you overindulge. Case in point: you can get a slice of macaroni and cheese pizza (I shit you not) down the road from the I.O.
TRAVEL & COMMUNICATION
Buy a 30 day CTA pass ($80ish): it will allow you to travel on the Metra and the buses. You can pick one up at the Jewel Osco or Wallgreens pharmacy, as well as in the subway station (but oddly enough not always).
I would also recommend buying a ‘burn phone’ - one that you just use for your time there. I bought a T-Mobile phone for $20 with the $50 unlimited plan plus $10 to call the UK. So $80 in total and well worth it.
Unsurprisingly, I bought it from a T-Mobile shop, one located in Evanston, but I’m sure there are others.
Wi-fi is your friend, internet cafes are not: there is only one and it is not that cheap considering you can get free internet in Starbucks. So bring a device that supports wi-fi.
DOING OTHER STUFF
Chicago is a great city with a lot to see and do: art (the Art Institute of Chicago), theatre (the Steppenwolf), bars, clubs, sports and festivals (Lollapalooza takes place the first weekend in August). But what I would do if I were you - and by God I wish I was - is spend as much time as possible seeing shows, doing workshops (other than those at my own school) and hanging out with improvisers.
For improv, there really is no other place like it. In short, if there is a choice between doing something touristy and doing Improv ALWAYS CHOOSE THE LATTER. ALWAYS.
P.S Chicago gets hot.