John Stoops and The Revival: How improv returned to Hyde Park

There’s a northeast corner in Chicago’s Hyde Park, specifically the corner of 55th Street and University Avenue that emits an energy so powerful that astronauts can see it from space. I can’t swear that’s true but if it’s not, it should be. During a sweltering July in 1955, comedy as we know it was born on that corner. Today, events from deep within that storefront continue to impact life on earth in ways we can detect and in ways we may never know.

In 1955, the address belonged to a small dive bar called The Compass. A few blocks south, University of Chicago students were absorbing the views of the school’s chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins who believed in the power of dialogue and independent thinking, and railed against the lock-step life. His student Paul Sills heard the message. Paul and his friend David Shepherd gathered some like-minded friends, secured space at The Compass and named themselves The Compass Players. No one had ever seen comedy like theirs.

Janet Coleman in her book The Compass Players describes it thusly, “The task they set themselves was to report on their times every week with no set script and no fixed lines … They did not plan to be funny or change the course of comedy with their improvisations. But that is what happened.”

They would become famous individually – Ed Asner, Bernie Sahlins, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Sheldon Patinkin, Valerie Harper, Del Close and Alan Alda were just a few – and also as the first incarnation of Second City. Eventually, the Compass Players moved to new digs and the cast members scattered in different directions.

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John Stoops

The Compass Bar remained empty of magic for decades. Sixty years later it came back to life. In the summer of 2015, John Stoops bought the building and renamed it The Revival. John’s personal story is also about resisting conformity, but he didn’t start out that way.

John is a University of Wisconsin grad who came to Chicago to work for global advertising giant Leo Burnett Worldwide. The accounts he managed included United Airlines, Procter & Gamble, Dean Witter and Comcast. One day, a new possibility appeared on the horizon, or more accurately, in a memo from management. “I was informed that employees were eligible for free improv classes, so I jumped into my first improv class just on a lark, and that’s what ignited my whole interest,” he remembers.

What happened next, John says, “was never the plan.” Many improv classes later, he found himself auditioning for the internationally famed improv troupe Boom Chicago, based in Amsterdam and founded by three Northwestern grads. Soon he was part of the cast, performing all over Europe, rooming with Seth Meyers and collaborating with Boom Chicago colleagues Jordan Peele and Ike Barinholtz.

Inspired by Boom Chicago’s success, a kernel of an idea began to sprout. John returned to Chicago and earned an MBA at Northwestern. He fused the lessons of top-tiered Kellogg with the principles he’d learned at Second City, iO and Boom Chicago, and decided he would return improv to its birthplace in Hyde Park.

John kindly spoke with me by phone about his rewarding unconventional life, the magic that’s happening at The Revival today, and how events at that historic corner are changing the world in ways that will benefit us all.

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FROM OFFICE TO AMSTERDAM

Teme: Why did improv resonate with you?

John: It was eye-opening. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the opportunity to be creative and unencumbered in a loose and playful environment. At the start, it was little more than an outlet, but I stuck with it and graduated from the classes. Then I jumped into the Chicago storefront theater community and performed for a number of years.

Eventually, I auditioned for Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and moved there for a year. The experience confirmed that this was no longer a hobby. I had left my job and moved outside of the country, and was paying my bills performing. I extracted everything I could from the experience, including the idea that those three young men [of Boom Chicago] had opened a theater of their own. It planted the seed. I came back to Chicago and moved behind the scenes directing and producing, and that led down the path to what became The Revival.

Teme: You had some interesting colleagues at Boom Chicago and roomed with Seth Meyers and worked with Jordan Peele. What was most memorable about working with them?

John: Boom Chicago has become a proving ground for amazing talent. Ike Barinholtz was also there. It’s a unique experience to set everything else aside and step away from any encumbrances and just focus on the work. It was really fun to be a part of the backstage experience with them.

The thing that rings true about all those folks is the work ethic. What appears fun, playful, and spontaneous is actually the result of tireless effort. Those guys are workers beyond anything else, and that makes quite an impression.

Teme: What was your most memorable show with Boom Chicago?

John: We toured all over Europe, including Germany, Spain, France, Belgium, England, and Scotland. Probably the wildest show I performed in was under a circus big top tent for an audience of about 500 people on the island of Ibiza, Spain.

HOW TO GROW AN IDEA

Teme: When did you decide to create The Revival?

John: After Boom Chicago, I went back to school at Northwestern with this kernel of an idea for a theater and ended up getting an MBA. I used everything from accounting class to finance to marketing operations as an opportunity to flesh out this idea. I graduated with the business plan in hand, which set it on the final official path to our opening in Hyde Park in 2015.

Teme: How did you decide on Hyde Park and that historic corner?

John: Initially, I didn’t have a specific neighborhood in mind. At one point it seemed like I was looking under every rock, building, and retail space you could imagine. Somewhere during that process, it occurred to me that this thing called improv is actually a Hyde Park invention. I dug into the history books and learned more about the Compass Players and the space where they performed in 1955 and added Hyde Park to the list of choices.

I also went to the League of Chicago Theatres database. Anyone can go online and search their database by geography. As you can imagine, the North Side is sliced and diced with every neighborhood and sub neighborhood spelled out with at least a half dozen theaters each. In contrast, there’s just one broad category for the South Side, which I guess was intended to include everything south of Madison. At that time there was one member, the Court Theatre, who’s now across the street from us.

If I learned anything in business school, I wasn’t intrigued with being the 223rd North Side theater. I was more interested in staking out space that we could claim as our own, which also allowed us to build on the history and be part of an evolution in Chicago. We’re one small part of a larger change which is unfolding on the South Side with the Obama Presidential Center on the horizon and the University of Chicago becoming more and more active in the area.

You’ve probably read about the multimillion dollar donation to the Museum of Science and Industry which will bring them into the 21st century and beyond. We wanted to be one small part of that rising tide on the South Side.

Teme: How did you decide on the name The Revival?

John: We were in a sense, reviving this neighborhood’s history and our connection to it. This street, 55th Street, was the epicenter of the American jazz movement of the 1950s, and “revival” is a very resonant word in jazz music. “Revival” is also a theatrical word, as well as the revival which is happening on the South Side in a larger context.

THE REVIVAL TRANSFORMS LIFE AS WE KNOW IT

Teme: The Revival website says that you use improvisation “to affect personal, professional, and social change.” How are you doing that and what makes improv so powerful?

John: One of the first things we do in trainings and workshops is dispel the notion that improv is about jokes or punchlines. The word “improv” is often paired with the word “comedy.” We take the word “comedy” and set it aside.

We do not teach the art of the joke and we do not treat laughter as our end goal. We’re focused on the building blocks of improvisation, which are listening and collaboration. When you see a great improv show, that’s really what’s on display. You’ll see people who are amazingly in tune with one another, who are voraciously listening to one another, and are effortlessly collaborating to build something from nothing. When you understand that improv is really that at its core, you can take those skills, which are very teachable, and take them into any number of realms.

We work with folks at colleges and universities and traditional corporations. We work in the medical space and with adults and kids.

Teme: Do you have an example of someone who has done differently or better because of what they’ve learned at The Revival? I’m especially curious about doctors. I could definitely appreciate better listening from the medical community.

John: One student who comes to mind came to us right at the beginning. He is a department chief at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and came on a whim to try our “Improv 101” course. He ended up staying for the entire program and graduating from our “Improv 501” eighteen months later. He has since jumped into other classes we offer; stand-up comedy, storytelling, you name it. He immediately started applying some of the things he learned at the hospital. This doctor has an upcoming article in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) about the application of improv principles to the medical space.

Teme: Wow! I think everybody’s had the experience of wishing their doctor listened and communicated better. What a great contribution!

John: This doctor has now joined an ensemble of scientists that The Revival created called “The Excited State.”

Teme: How did you get the idea to have scientists do improv?

John: Knowing that there were so many scientists in our backyard and in our training center, I saw an opportunity to stoke interest within the larger scientific community.

We invited scientists to participate in a traditional audition process. We now have an ensemble of about twelve active scientists from the University of Chicago, Fermilab, Argonne National Laboratories, University of Illinois/Chicago and beyond.

Teme: Where does the name “The Excited State” come from?

John: It’s a scientific term which refers to the activity of protons and neutrons. It worked its way onto a list of options that we were considering. I saw that name and thought, “That sounds like a rock band and like something I want to see.” The name has a lot of energy and it is a show that has a lot of energy. Knowing it’s a scientific term that would get a smile out of visiting scientists, we went with it.

Teme: Is the show for scientists and non-scientists?

John: Yes. We have a special guest each show and give them an opportunity to speak for fifteen minutes about their most recent research. They present it in a way that’s digestible for folks who don’t have a scientific background.

The idea is to take them out of the laboratory and put them in front of an audience of lay people and nonscientists, and present them as real, fun, approachable, funny people. They performed here last night to a packed crowd.

Teme: I see on your list of shows that there is a lot of interaction between The Revival and the University of Chicago. How did that come about?

John: The University of Chicago is the biggest group in our community. We are on the northern edge of campus. We reached out to them from the get-go. The Revival is the home of the University of Chicago’s student improv troupe. We partner with many of their departments and schools. We are deeply immersed with the Booth School of Business working on ways to use improvisation as a tool to improve collaboration and innovation. We’re partnered with the law school, the medical school, you name it.

Teme: Wait, lawyers with a sense of humor?

John: Again, it’s not about humor. We’re not using laughter or jokes, we’re teaching listening and collaborating, so every single incoming first-year law student at the University of Chicago goes through a three hour Revival workshop in the weeks leading up to their first day of class. It’s designed to open their ears to one another and to start thinking on their feet, but also to get them used to acting collaboratively with their fellow students.

Teme: Wow, so the Revival is changing the world! I’m imagining how learning to listen and work together will transform so many lives once all these doctors, lawyers and other Revival students are out in the world practicing what they learned.

John: That’s the idea!

GO SEE A SHOW AT THE REVIVAL!

Teme: I’d love to hear about your other shows, too!

John: We write a completely new original sketch comedy revue every quarter. Our new winter revue will open in late January or early February.

“The Breakdown” is a living newsfeed and an homage to The Compass Players, the group credited with inventing the art form right here on this corner in 1955. They had a performance called “The Living Newspaper.” They ripped articles out of the newspaper as inspiration for a completely improvised show. We wanted a modern take on that. “The Breakdown” goes beyond the printed newspaper to additional sources like blogs and social media.

“Off Off-Campus” is the University of Chicago’s student improv troupe. It is the second oldest student improv troupe in the country. They were founded by Bernie Sahlins, one of the founders of Second City. They have been performing here since we opened.

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Compass Players Andrew Duncan, Omar Shapli, and Mickey LeGlaire, “The Living Newspaper,” summer 1955.

SURPRISE CELEB DROP-INS AND HIGHLIGHTS

Teme: What are some of the best moments since you founded The Revival?

John: Getting to opening night was a pretty thrilling experience. Our very first night in business we opened with a show from the head writer of Conan O’Brien’s show. That was really a fun way to kick things off. There have been a lot of highlights over the years, like Hannibal Buress performing on our stage.

Teme: I remember hearing about that! Did he stop in for a surprise set?

John: Yes. He just popped in, and then there he was, and that was unexpected and amazing. We’ve had some great Saturday night shows over the years that have been quite exciting. Also, just seeing talent go from the classroom to the stage and ultimately to one of the coasts, which is where they tend to end up when they decide to pursue things full-time.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Teme: What are the biggest challenges of running a theater in Chicago?

John: Thankfully, the biggest challenge for us, knock on wood, is staying on top of the demand. More organizations are understanding the benefit of this work and are eager to bring it into the workplace. Without an ounce of marketing or advertising, the phone has been ringing from day one. Staying on top of that is the biggest challenge, but obviously one we are very grateful for.

Teme: What are your time management secrets? Do improv principles help with managing that demand?

John: The study of improvisation is about being present and focusing on the here and now, and those things that you can control rather than getting too far ahead of yourself and projecting into the future. Staying present and grounded and focused, observing and listening to what’s happening around us, and just putting one foot in front of the other has gotten us to this point.

Teme: What are your energy secrets for accomplishing all that you do?

John: Loving what I do and seeing this kernel of an idea turn into an ongoing business is exciting and that’s what keeps me engaged and energetic.

2020!

Teme: What are you looking forward to in 2020?

John: We have a new show opening in the new year. We’ve got a bunch of new classes starting in January as part of our training center, and also some special classes that are targeted to folks who are curious but not yet ready to commit to an eight week class. For example, we’ve got something called “Improv for a More Joyful Life,” which is a two-part class that’s going to happen here at the theater in January, taught by a really gifted performer, Erica Elam. The class is designed for newbies who want to capture some of the insights that you and I have talked about and apply them to their daily life. I’m excited about that and to just keep growing.

Teme: Anything else that you especially want people to know about The Revival?

John: We’re excited to sit here at this historic corner and to return this Chicago art form to its birthplace, and to carry it forward in a manner that’s truly reflective of the diversity of our city. I encourage everyone to see a show, to try a class. We’re really excited about what’s happening here. We hope more and more people can discover it for themselves.

The Revival is located at 1160 E. 55th St., Chicago. More information and complete schedule of shows and classes www.the-revival.com.

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