In bigger cities, growth is often a by-product of combo theater/training centers (Second City, iO, Annoyance, ComedySportz, etc.). People see the professional shows, catch the bug, take the classes, and want to form their own troupes and do their own shows. The theater/training center model supports this in a couple of ways:
- There’s a place to study—so players have a chance to get feedback from a trained, completely objective source.
- There’s a place to play—training centers put up student shows (typically for free) on off nights.
DISCLAIMER: The following is not a slam on the KC improv scene or any troupe(s) in it.
My thought (I don’t say opinion, because I just started working this over in my head a day or so ago) is that this lack of one (or better yet, several) improv theater/training centers slows our growth—as performers, as troupes and as a community. Here’s why:
Obvious Reason: A lot of us—most of us, probably—got up on stage for the first time without much training. I know I did.
Maybe Not-So-Obvious Reason: Without a central…wait.
First, an example. At iO in Chicago, in one week, you can choose from 15 shows on their Cabaret Stage alone. There are prime slots (8 and 10:30pm on weekends) and shitty spots (10pm on a Sunday). Admission is anywhere from free (student shows) to $14 (the best Harold teams). For the most part, you get what you pay for.*
Here—unless troupes are associated with a school—they have to pay rent for their space. And the rent at Westport Coffeehouse, for example, is the same for CounterClockwise Comedy, Improv-Abilities, Hypothetical 7, The Trip Fives, Tantrum, Full Frontal, Scriptease and any other troupe in town.
I’m not saying troupes with years of experience alwaysalwaysalways put on better shows than the newer groups. Or that newer troupes’ shows lack value. NOT SAYING THAT.
Still. Experience does count for something.
The collective inability to afford any sort of sliding scale sends a…well, an interesting message to audiences, who are used to paying different prices for high school plays, community theater, professional theater, etc., etc. Let’s say someone unfamiliar to improv sees that ticket prices for Troupe A (doing their third public show) and Troupe B (a group of vets) are $10. They probably assume they’re getting the same basic level of quality. Because training and practice matter, it is highly likely Troupe B is going to put on a stronger show. But if they see Troupe A, and the show doesn’t feel worth $10, they may assume that’s what you get for $10 in Kansas City.
Personally, I’m just not interested in paying the same amount to watch people who’ve been improvising for a couple of years as I pay to see players who have hundreds of shows under their belts.** I've seen a shload of shows, and a more experienced troupe is way more likely to surprise me with something I've never seen before, inspire me with something I want to try or entertain me with rich, character-driven scenework. Groups who are still learning and exploring tend to go through the same cycles I've been through—and seen a gazillion times. Because what I get out of the experience is likely to be different, I want my investment to reflect that.
It’s nobody’s fault. We have to base our admission prices on our overhead, instead of the demands of the marketplace. Troupes have to charge enough to make rent without having to sell out a house. It’s just a little extra hurdle we have to get past in creating a rich, vibrant, well-attended, sustainable improv scene.
*The exception to the rule is TJ & Dave. Arguably the best improv show in Chicago, it goes up at 11pm Wednesday and costs $5.
**Though I’m not all that interested in paying to see the same thing I’ve seen over and over and could do myself in my sleep, either.