Two decades after their impromptu start, this troupe of clever actors is still delivering laughs with a show you truly won’t see anywhere else.
If you’re standing on a stage, in front of an audience and without a script, and you’re not having a nightmare, chances are you’re an improviser.
Improvisational comedy, also known as improv, is an art form that involves spontaneously creating scenes using nothing but the performers’ wits and audience suggestions. To the uninitiated, this might seem intimidating. To members of the Elgin-area comedy troupe called Green Room Improv, it’s the foundation for a 23-year journey that has led to residency in two regional theaters, a string of hit shows and a lifelong friendship among its castmates.
The journey began when Judson University, in Elgin, shut down its theater program in 1999, leaving four prospective thespians on campus in search of a stage.
“I probably would have been a theater major,” says David Hunter, one of the group’s four original members. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do theater in college.”
Without a school program to support them, Hunter – along with fellow Judson students Matt Aldis, Kerry Cox and Paul Gunsul – decided to improvise. They created a show of their own.
“We put together a one-night show called the Green Room,” says Hunter. “It went really well, so the next year we did two nights and charged a dollar.”
The name Green Room, which refers to the backstage space where performers relax, stuck as the group’s success led them to start a comedy troupe. Green Room Improv’s popularity grew and, after its founding members graduated, it remained a popular fixture at their alma mater until the audience outgrew Judson University’s 150-seat performance space.
“We would have lines around the block,” says Hunter. “We were turning people away.”
As the years went on, Green Room’s cast also grew. Hunter, Cox, Aldis and Gunsul (who plays music for the group), were joined by Erik Scheele, another musician, and four additional performers: Miriam Naponelli, Jess Smith, Sam Barbaro and Christian Zierke.
“I did improv at Second City and I coached a high school team for an improv competition,” says Zierke. “Some of the judges were Green Room members. My team won, and they encouraged me to audition. I’ve been a member for 10 years.”
After leaving the Judson University venue, the group started performing at the Cosman Theater, 12015 Mill St. in Huntley. They were also enticed back to Elgin by the Hemmens Cultural Center, 45 Symphony Way, to perform in their very own space.
“The Hemmens Center built a little theater in the round for us, downstairs,” says Hunter. “It has a really cool look down there.”
The shows continued uninterrupted for several years until COVID forced all live theater to a standstill. During that time, someone at Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St. in Crystal Lake, got in touch.
“We had been in talks with the Raue for a few years,” says Hunter. “When COVID hit, they had a large enough space that we could do a show and have everyone spread out safely.”
The Raue shows were also broadcast online for remote audiences. They were such a success that Green Room Improv moved from Cosman Theater to Raue Center, where they took on a three-year residency.
While both shows use improv games – an approach that uses structured parameters to create scenes – each show offers something different.
“We perform two specific formats for each space,” says Hunter. “You can go to the Hemmens and have a cool experience, then go to Raue and have a different experience. Same vibe, but a completely different show.”
At Hemmens Cultural Center, Green Room Improv is up close and personal with the audience.
“There is a real intimate feel, which is a lot of fun,” says Zierke. “The audience gets really involved. I love the feel of those shows a lot.”
The Hemmens shows are also performed in the round, meaning the audience is on all sides. This exciting element was a challenge the cast happily embraced.
“We had to train ourselves in techniques on how to block in the round,” says Hunter. “You have to avoid the center because your back is facing 50% of the audience.”
Raue Center, with its proscenium stage and 750-seat capacity, provides a formal experience. For these shows, Green Room posts random numbers around the stage and uses audience input to determine the show order.
“We put a different improv game on the back of each number,” says Hunter. “The audience chooses what game we’re going to perform.”
Whatever the venue, there are two constants that can be found at every Green Room Improv show. One is the energy level, which is always high. Hunter points out that, while keeping their improv foot on the gas can be tiring, the end result is always satisfying.
“We always feel great at the end of a show,” he says. “Tired, but great.”
Another constant is the lack of swear words, sex jokes or potty humor. Green Room likes to keep it clean and, as a result, they’ve garnered a broad appeal.
“We believe that improv is either funny or not, whether it’s clean or dirty,” says Hunter. “We are able to have a larger audience and more people who can enjoy our shows if we keep it clean.”
“There’s something to be said about clean comedy’s ability to make people laugh without shocking them,” he says. “We also typically stay away from political humor, so we’ve been able to maintain a high level of comedy without upsetting anyone.”
One result of these elements, along with the group’s 23-year history, is that Green Room Improv is now performing for a new generation of audiences.
“We’re seeing people who started coming as high schoolers who are now bringing kids of their own,” says Zierke. “It’s kind of fun.”
Green Room Improv takes the stage at Hemmens Cultural Center on the first Friday of every month. They can also appear monthly at Raue Center for the Arts and are available for private or public events. No matter how savvy audiences are to the improv artform, the group always makes sure nobody is left in the dark.
“We always approach every show like there is someone in the audience who has never seen improv before,” says Hunter. “We like to make sure that everyone can enjoy it.”
Clearly, the performers are in on the fun. The group’s roster has seen no personnel changes for the past six years.
“We have a very low turnover,” says Hunter. “When someone joins the group, they don’t want to leave.”
The group’s members each hold down day jobs. For Zierke, who works as a schoolteacher, his experience as a member of Green Room Improv has provided enrichment both onstage and in the classroom.
“Improv has made me a better teacher, and teaching has made me a better improviser,” he says. “Both jobs have taught me how to better command a stage and focus.”
Zierke and Hunter both agree that, whenever Green Room Improv gets together and hits the stage, there is as much joy onstage as there is in the audience.
“We have such a great chemistry and we’ve all been friends for years now,” says Hunter. “What draws audiences to our shows is they can tell that we really like each other when we’re onstage. We’re really having fun. We love doing what we do and we’re very good at it.”