Storybox Improvisational Theatre: Press
New City Magazine - Review, 7/13/09
Chicago Improv Festival's "Storybox" is a new kind of improv the kind where each actor is both a storyteller and a role-player in a play which they spontaneously create themselves, along with eight other people who each have their own ideas about how the story should go. In a Mad-Lib type effort, nine people cooperate to tell a different story every performance, a story in which none of them have complete creative control, and where none knows for certain what will happen next. Together, they work as a team to produce a coherent, compelling narrative. It's as if a person were trying to tell a story off the cuff at a campfire, and had a large group of friends to help them out. Unlike other improvisational shows, the focus here is not only on getting laughs, but is more about taking the audience on an emotional journey through the often serious dilemmas in the lives of characters portrayed. And, though more comedic moments would improve the quality of the Piven Theater production enormously, Storybox is still a fascinating experiment. And in order to make it work, Storybox creator Jonathan Pitts explains, it is necessary to have both a group mind and "a group heart," a feat which is difficult to accomplish and fun to witness.
At Sunday's Storybox performance, there were a few slip-ups, a few cliche plot devices, an excess of melodrama and a few bloodthirsty narrators that killed off too many characters. But there were also fabulous characterizations. A very versatile actor, Jeremy Schaefer, in his leading role in the story that night, showed a remarkable ability to shift his emotional delivery and to convey his character's pain when, with a few seconds notice, his character's plight was changed from bad to worse. Kelly Williams' dry delivery of her lines was effective at cutting down the sappiness of the more sugary scenes, and made her more believable than most in her many roles. Jonathan Pitts could be wonderfully funny, and lightened up the mood of the story when things got overly serious. Pitts is such a talented comedian that I wish he'd had more of a chance to showcase his talent for humor in the story they told that night, but he took full advantage of the moments he had to shine. Joe Yau's natural tone made all of his characters seem honest, and his narrative choices were by far the most poignant and realistic.
Using a minimalist set, these performers seem to create a world out of thin air an imaginary world with vibrant characters that they bring to life themselves. For those of us interested in storytelling, watching someone create a story before our eyes can be quite an interesting and illuminating experience.
"Storybox" plays at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston, (847)866-8049, through August 2.
Chicago Sun-Times - Preview Article, 7/10/09
Fresh Theater Contained in 'Storybox'
Anyone looking for something different on the theater scene this summer should check out two eclectic shows opening in the next few days:
A fully improvised theater piece, "Storybox" is a collaboration between Piven Theatre Workshop and Chicago Improv Festival Productions.
The unscripted show is created and developed by Chicago Improv co-founder Jonathan Pitts and directed by Nick Johne. It draws upon various theatrical techniques, including Story Theatre, Noh Theatre, Viewpoints and long-form narrative improvisation. In each unscripted show, the actors create a mix of characters, style and tone that's comedic, dramatic or both.
"'Storybox' is improvised, but it is not improv," Johne said. "The most important characters are the storytellers and the story itself. As a director, what I want to bring is a constant transformational process for the actors and the audience."
Piven's artistic director, Jen Green, had been looking for a way to take what the company does with Story Theatre and turn it into a long-form piece.
"I feel we've found a very interesting fusion of ideas and techniques," Green said. "It's exciting because every show is so different."
"Storybox" opens tonight and continues through Aug. 2 at Piven Theatre, located in Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston. For tickets ($15), call (847) 866-8049; www.piventheatre.org.
Evanston Review - Preview Article, 7/2/09
Storybox, An Unusual Way To Perform A Play
Every performance of "Storybox" is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That's because the cast spontaneously creates a complete show each time with unique characters. Creator Jonathan Pitts, an Oak Park native, emphasized that although "Storybox" is improvised, it is not improv. "In improv you need a group mind but in 'Storybox' you need a group heart," he said.
Storybox is co-produced by the Chicago Improv Festival and Piven Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays, July 10-Aug. 2 at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. $15. (847) 866-8049
"Storybox" actors train by touring with "Storybox for Kids." "That's how they start getting to know the components, vocabulary and process of 'Storybox' because the kids' version is a simpler, modified version," Pitts said. "The kids' show runs about 45 minutes and features predominantly one main character. The improvised play that is 'Storybox' runs 80 to 90 minutes and has multiple narratives being woven through them by the cast."
"It's a really interesting and challenging show to work on," declared director Johne.
Actors who show aptitude for the technique move up to the company that performs for adults. They then train in workshops -- the current cast was in the workshop process for over a month. Then, they rehearse four times a week for two weeks, "like you would for a play," Pitts said. "And then we have a week of 'tech' before we open."
Since the cast changes from year to year, Pitts noted, the rehearsal process allows the company "to create the sense of 'Who is this ensemble now?' We get better at our skills. We're also focused on being students of the form."
That form involves six possible substories, three styles of narration and four ways of introducing characters and locations. "With that many options, there's a lot to learn," Pitts said. "In rehearsal, we go over it and get smoother at it. Because it's an improvised play, the last thing we want the audience to experience is the sense that this is improv. We want it to look like we'd been rehearsing this one show for a month."
Both Pitts and Johne (who has been a "Storybox" actor) emphasized that the most important skill cast members need is listening ability. "It's truly an ensemble experience," Johne said. "Everybody has to shine."
Johne said he views his role as a facilitator. "It's kind of like being a ringleader or the host of a party," he joked, adding, "It's such a tight and wonderful ensemble."
Another part of the director's role is a follow-up discussion with the cast after performances to talk about "where the story went and where it could have gone."
The show is launched onstage when the cast asks the audience if they want the story to be about a man or a woman. "Then we go about the process of naming and creating the insides and outsides of the lead character that's going to be the focus of our journey of that story," Pitts said.
Pitts concluded, "A 'Storybox' performance combines all the discovery process of rehearsal and all of the intensity of opening night."
Norwegian Feature Article On Storybox Founder, 3/20/09
To read this article, please click: Gjovik, Norway
ChicagoImprovNetwork.Org - Show Review, 1/26/08
When was the last time you saw an improvised show where laughter--the funny--wasn't the objective for the actors, or even the primary measure of their show's success? Hmm...
Storybox, a 90 minute improvised one act (with a run thru Feb. 3rd at The Piven), is different. In rare shows by the best of teams, an audience may leave the theater profoundly, even emotionally, affected; Storybox, by design, is a show likely to elicit such reactions on a more regular basis.
And the funny? Storybox has that, too, but the laughter comes from a different place entirely. When I saw Storybox last night (1/25), the biggest laugh of the night came near the end of the show, on an innocent callback to the great thing about swimming in heaven (when you get out of the water, you're instantly dry).
After all the audience had witnessed to that point, the laughter was more akin to cathartic release, and any regular improv show would have pulled the lights then and there. The story, though, wasn't over, and the lights remained to see Karen, an elderly woman from heaven (with soft skin and a love for jokes), poignantly reunited with her husband and daughter.
An ending like that would have been precluded by less committed actors--it takes discipline to refrain from selling out a scene or moment for the sake of a laugh--but the ensemble here worked together to maintain the integrity of their piece.
Besides deftly weaving an intricate and often touching tale, the cast also executed fairly seamless transitions, all dramatically punctuated with minimalist props (sticks and cloth). What will strike you is the great variety of theater forms represented. They open with some elementary Spolin, they narrate throughout with variations on Johnstone; at one time they backed up the action with some instrumental ambience, quickly blending into two distinct, and aurally pleasing, rhythms of sound; later, they formed a chilling tableau around the main character, Karen, as she recounted the agony of a dark time in her past.
The story itself, if it approaches the one I chanced to catch, is likely to be the damnedest thing you'll see for a while. On 1/25, it was comparable to the movie What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams, or the lucid strangeness of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles--although I don't doubt that the cast could play a more mundane story just as ably.
At its best, the story and the staging/lighting/music will coalesce to spine-tingling effect, resulting in an experience that plays on a subconscious level. This is seldom explored territory for improvisation in Chicago, and it's worth checking out before the run ends next week.
Storybox @ The Piven Theater, Directed by Jonathan Pitts, Thur-Sun ending Feb. 3, $10. (Basically right next to the Noyes Purple Line Stop).
Evanston Review - Preview Article, 1/17/08
Shaping Possible Stories
They're made up on the spot, but Jonathan Pitts prefers the term "unscripted theater" rather than "improv" to describe the tales of Storybox productions. The 90-minute, script-free show is now at Evanston's Piven Theatre.
The performances, which incorporate ritualistic elements of Japanese Noh puppetry as well as techniques developed by theater innovators Paul Sills and Anne Bogart, change with each audience. Yet all the eclectic methods of Storybox's creative process are grounded in improvisation, an art Pitts, founder of Chicago's Improv Festival, learned from the undisputed master of the form, Del Close.
"I don't like to use the word because people associate it comedy. They'll say well that wasn't very good. I only laughed twice," Pitts said. And while Storybox shows invariably contain humorous aspects, they aren't the stuff of an after-hours set at the iO (formerly Improv Olympic) or Annoyance Theatre where Pitts trained.
The crucial difference between Storybox and scripted shows, Pitts explains, is that scripts work from the outside in, while Storybox works from the inside out. "A script is an external thing to begin with," Pitts said, "You read it, you break down the plot and the characters, you get the goals and the vision of the director. With unscripted work, you start from the inside, from yourself. You create the character, and with the cast, you develop the story from listening and responding and feeling."
With Storybox, the ensemble begins with a single suggestion from the audience about a primary character. From there, the possibilities are infinite, says cast member Marla Caceres. But that endless realm of possibility is governed by a single, guiding principal: The lead character must undergo a transformation.
"We ask for one suggestion from the audience, is this story about a man or a woman? Then, we begin to narrate, name where the main character is from, describe him or her physically and emotionally, and go from there," Caceres said.
Keeping the carefully modulated chaos of unscripted theater from descending into anarchy or sprawling non-linear nonsense is a talent that requires years of training and an ensemble of members acutely attuned to each other, Caceres and Pitts said.
Caceres began her improv training as an undergrad at the University of Florida, and continued her studies in Chicago at the iO, where she performs weekly in Whirled News, a satirical send-up of current events. She's been a member of Pitts' Storybox Ensemble for close to three years.
"It takes six months of training together just to begin to feel comfortable and not overwhelmed by the Storybox form," Pitts said. "When it doesn't work, when we start getting into trouble, is when a secondary character starts taking too much focus, or when we start throwing in so many changes that the audience gets lost."
That last is a particular hazard, given the Russian nesting doll structure of Storybox productions: Tales unfold one within the other within the other, with the performers transforming sticks and bits of cloth into everything from sailing ships to cradled infants.
"It becomes almost instinctive," Caceres said. "We know when it's over when the transformation is complete. There's a very natural sense that it's finished that evolves within the cast.
"The choices you can make within the story are infinite," she added. "And there are no mistakes. As long as everyone is supporting each other and focused, you can't go wrong."
Windy City Times - Show Review, 1/16/08
Everyone is a storyteller, set designer and costumer in Storybox ( which is both the name of the ensemble and the show ) . Dressed all in black, the actors build and improvise a play with fabrics, sticks and their own acting skills based upon an audience member's suggestion.
So don't be shy when Storybox director/conceiver/actor Jonathan Pitts asks whether on not you want the play to be about a woman or a man. After ritualistically approaching by clattering wooden poles on the floor, the ensemble launches into the play's main character's description, appearance and frame of mind immediately after the first audience member speaks up.
I'm unable to go into a lengthy plot description of Storybox since it's very likely the show changes at each and every performance. The night I attended focused on a cat-loving librarian who falls in love with an auto mechanic who loves to dress up in a bear suit. And when that story didn't quite run 90 minutes, Storybox filled out the intermission-less running time with a fairy tale acted on the spot from an audience's suggestion. ( We got a revisionist Hansel and Gretel with a lot of dubious German accents. )
So you can't really comment on whether the plot is satisfactory or not based upon the variable beginnings and endings of where the actors take the show. What can be commented on is the firm commitment and playfulness the ensemble brings to the story and characters they concoct.
The ensemble of Maria Caceres, John Hildreth, Elise Lammers, Jonathan Pitts, Kristala Pouncy, Jenn SavaRyan, Jeremy Schaefer, Kelly Williams and Joe Yau all work together smoothly and adeptly.
The initial tale feels like a certain amount of polished rehearsal and preset guidelines are part of the process, while the Hansel and Gretel was improvised in a more by-the-seat-of-their-pants style. Backing all the actors up is Jonathan Wagner, playing a solid musical accompaniment on percussion and sampled keyboard.
Yet for all the improvised creativity, there's an element of pretentious preciousness about the whole affair if you're not in the mood for such artsy creation. Oh there's no doubt that the show is frequently funny and clever, but the unwieldy nature of the spontaneous construction might not be to everyone's personal taste.
But at $10 for a ticket, you can easily give away 90 minutes of your time to watch this dedicated ensemble prance, prod and play around as they each work together as a team to be storytellers. Storybox does stress the elemental importance of imagination and ritual in theater and, on that level, it succeeds.
Chicago Tribune - Preview Article, 1/4/08
'Storybox' Has Piven Improvising The Start Of The Year
"Storybox" opens Thursday at Piven Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Through Feb. 3. Tickets are $10 at 847-866-8049.
Piven kicks off 2008 by getting back to basics in this one-act improvisational show, created and directed by Jonathan Pitts, the founder of the Chicago Improv Festival. Using the "story theater" techniques of Paul Sills and his mother, Viola Spolin, which formed the creative matrix for both Second City and Piven's own celebrated youth-theater program, the show also incorporates other influences, including Japanese Noh theater, Anne Bogart's "Viewpoints" techniques, Del Close's long-form improvisational approach and the myth work of Joseph Campbell.
The show, a collaboration between Piven's Performance Lab and the Storybox ensemble (vets of past improv festivals), takes as its motto "within every story, there lies another story." The artists aim to produce an original narrative piece every night using a single audience suggestion, wooden sticks, and pieces of cloth as they follow one main character through a series of different fanciful environments.
I just wanted to let you know that last night's performance was awesome! I was amazed at how well everyone listened and built upon what was previously said. It was a spare, beautiful, touching, funny show.
Storybox For Kids Articles
Kane County Chronicle - Article, 5/4/07
Geneva Students Put Pigs In Space
The Storybox Theater group came to Mill Creek Elementary School with no idea what they were going to perform. The improvisation troupe, part of the Chicago Improv Foundation, took suggestions Friday during two shows and developed stories that had full casts of characters, including some students. "It seemed like they'd been rehearsing a long time," 11-year-old Sarah Lewis said. Ryan Schneider, 11, agreed. "It didn't look like they were making it up," he said.
For one show, students were asked what gift they would give. After suggesting a pig, the three men and two women launched into a story about Tom, who wanted his pig to win a contest and the prize of $100 of McDonald's food. "We had no idea we were going to do a pig show," Storybox director and actor Jonathan Pitts said. Rudy the pig, played by Pitts, persuaded a student pig to skip the contest and escape to outer space. The pigs landed on the moon, only to find hostile moon chickens, played by two actors and student volunteers. "I like the chicken fight with the pigs," 11-year-old William Morrison said.
The students who participated contributed to the energy of the show, said actor Tusiime Jackson, 35, of Chicago. "I love to see kids get up," he said. "They want to be in the story." Tom, watching Rudy on the moon in a telescope, took his mother there and saved the pigs by writing a poem. Students asked questions after the show about the characters' backgrounds, which the actors made up along with the story, and whether the performers knew what each other would do.
Actor Elise Lammers, 24, of Chicago said the group members watched and listened to each other but didn't have signals. "It's just a matter of practice," she said. Actor Jeremy Schaefer, who also is a 24-year-old from Chicago, was glad that students asked about the characters. "It indicated we created something that really spoke to them," Schaefer said.