Whimsical Chicago improv team rides an undercurrent of intensity

By Lily Williams

A young group of improv artists who call themselves “Snowball” are connecting with audiences at Chicago’s iO Theater not only with the laughs, but also by just listening.

During a practice, a volunteer says “robot,” and two artists walk to the center of a circle of their peers. One bends slightly at the waist, looking like he doesn’t really know what’s going on. The other pretends to screw something on his back. Their veteran coach bursts into laughter. Out of all the suggestions having to do with a robot, and not knowing what would come of their steps forwards, the two artists find themselves transformed as robot and creator.

They are learning how to let go, trust each other and reach out to audiences.

The 10 artists in Snowball, all in their twenties, came to improv through different routes. For Amelia Marks, a Chicago native, a camp at Chicago’s famous Second City Theater changed her life. “I was like this very shy teenager, and it like, being in that camp really pulled me out of my shell.”

Many of the artists majored in theater in college. Snowball artist Robel Arega took the almost three-hour train from Urbana-Champaign to Chicago for eight weeks in college to take classes. Billy Malmed, another native Chicagoan got hooked from the audience. “I just went and saw a show and felt like doing it. There was really no rhyme or reason.”

Each of the artists, at some point, completed classes at iO as well. “It just starts, like pretty basic. Like how to do a scene, how to listen to people, said Snowball artist Alex Raynor, originally from Houston. “And then you start doing full 30-minute pieces. How do you do that, how do you do the Harold, which is the form here?”

Snowball members performing a game where the whole team has to embody some feeling of the audience suggestion: fear. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).
Snowball members performing a game where the whole team had to embody some feeling of the audience suggestion: fear. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).

The Harold is a long format of improv with scenes and games. The artists on the stage will ask a crowd for a theme suggestion and roll with whatever it is and begin with a game. The group continues on, alternating between scenes and games, bringing everything together into a cohesive, approximately 30-minute show.

In a recent show, someone from the crowd shouted “fear!” in response to member Danny Lancaster’s question about feelings  someone felt that day. Snowball launched into a full-group game, where everyone became a nameless character to create a scene of fear.

Team member Teresa Moore said “I heard that breathing was just automatic. Until it isn’t!” The group entered hysteria as they forgot how to breathe for a few moments before Malmed and Lancaster broke off to create the first scene – a father and son, in fear of their generational differences.

Melissa Patterson and Billy Malmed of Snowball act out fear. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).
Billy Malmed, Melissa Patterson and Amelia Marks of Snowball act out fear, Malmed afraid of trusting people. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).

Other examples stage scenes about wine,  phones or any answer to any question the group prompts. The intrigue builds as the whole show comes together and makes sense. It’s not easy to do.

Snowball’s coach, Cat McDonell, is an artist at iO herself.  “With coaching, I think it’s really fun. I do have very strong opinions about long-form improv. And I love sort of watching people make discoveries.”

“Just watching them go from like, something that was one thing and watch it like expand, and people’s eyes light up and then you’re like, oh we’re really creating art here and I helped facilitate that,” said McDonell.

At a Snowball practice, she directed a beach scene and asked the team to not just mimic items on a beach, but to take hints from each other. Someone standing in the back found their role as a palm tree, another as a wave as Marks developed a lonely crab character.

Snowball performs an average of once a week, usually at iO. There are a number of other long-form teams made up of students who have completed iO’s training programs. An iO panel votes to keep artists on stage or to cut them from the program, based on their performances onstage. With new artists finishing the program frequently, slots have to remain open. But iO sets no specific time limit for someone to stay in, or leave.

Alex Raynor and Melissa Patterson work on a scene. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).
Alex Raynor and Melissa Patterson act as flight directors, Raynor hoping to see a plane crash. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).

Chicago is the “Second City” – after New York City – for improv comedy. Dozens of entertainment clubs prosper here, not just for improv, and not just for the Harold. Arega says he got his foot in the door at The Crowd Theater on North Broadway.

But booking performances remains selective. Despite that,  the artists said they don’t feel the heat of competition. “The only competition is me being like, I’ll never be as good as them cause they’re like up here,” said Marks, raising her hand above her head. “That’s not competition, that’s me idolizing them.”

“The only times that I have fun onstage and the only time I’m any good, I feel like, is when I can get that out of the way and I’m just like, spread the joy and just like, be on stage with the other person,” said Lancaster, who was a theater major in Denver and now leads tours at the Museum of Science and Industry while also taking part in Snowball.

A huge part of the Harold form of improv is trusting that other person, following their lead and reacting to it, rather than trying to dominate the scene. Malmed said early on in his improv career, he tried to make a team, but that they all did “bad improv.”

Malmed and Lancaster onstage at iO performing a scene. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).
Malmed and Lancaster play father and son respectively, Malmed worried about the “damn liberals” and his magazine subscriptions. (Lily Williams/MEDILL).

“What makes it bad is when you’re funnier than the scene or you’re funnier than the moment. It’s when it’s with the other person, together, that’s when things get good.”

While all the members of Snowball enjoy being on stage and in front of people, they can’t hog the spotlight or the quality of the performance significantly decreases. “When you start breaking down the boundaries between the group and yourself, and then your moves become selfless and things get really good because it’s not about you,” said Malmed.

The beauty of improv stems from feeding off of each other and reacting to each other, rather than trying to force the show to go in one direction. If someone has a better idea than the one that’s happening, the show has to go that way for the group to be successful.

“I think the thing I like most about them is their enthusiasm,” said McDonell of Snowball. “They want to be molded. They don’t want me to come in and be like, that was perfect and we have no work to do.”

Snowball performs again on Dec. 15 at iO, 1501 N. Kingsbury St.  As fun as improv is, the competition can be cutthroat, and the group practices at least once a week to stay sharp. This is the “second city” after all.

Photo at top: Snowball performs improve at the iO Theater in Lincoln Park. (Lily Williams/MEDILL)