Chairs sit against a plain brick wall, waiting to become elements of a new universe. Two men begin pantomiming a first date, eating meals made of air. This is the essence of improvisational comedy: culling new existences from nearly nothing.
It is also the ethos adopted by The Revival, a new comedy club established in Hyde Park, intent on rejuvenating the relatively dormant comedy scene on the South Side. Its name and location evoke its historical significance—the club is located on the same corner as the theater of the Compass Players, an improv troupe that was the progenitor of Second City. Comedic luminaries such as Mike Nichols and Elaine May got their start in the cabaret on 55th Street. The Revival’s homage to them and their contemporaries can be felt; the walls of the club hearken back to their roots with black-and-white photographs of the original Compass Players. Despite having only opened this past November, The Revival is building its image, in part, on sixty years’ worth of history.
“We are sitting right on the corner where the art form [of improv comedy] was invented,” The Revival’s founder John Stoops says, clasping his hands against the slick bar counter. It is evening, before show time, and he greets the people trickling in with a sense of warmth that contrasts with the club’s muted ambience.
One might expect the venue, with its dim lighting and dusky color scheme, to be a place for Beat poetry and subdued snapping, not laughter. There is little to distract the audience from the workings of the actors, no elaborate props or set design to ease the suspending of disbelief. The decor has a minimalist, coffee shop feel—the chairs are black, the walls sparse. For a place built atop mounds of antiquity, the space seems to have a paradoxical desire to be new.
Stoops described the presence of The Revival as following a type of revitalization in Hyde Park that includes the expansion of retail, restaurants, and entertainment. “There seems to be something in the air,” he said, “and we thought it would be a great time to do something of this sort.” The majority of theater in Chicago—comedy or otherwise—is located on the North Side, and Stoops hopes that placing The Revival on the South Side will encourage talent to diffuse geographically throughout the city, as well as promote emergence of distinctly South Side voices. Notably, The Revival is the only venue on the South Side that offers a mix of improv, stand-up, and sketch comedy.
In this endeavor, “everything is genuinely created from scratch,” Stoops says. He’s referring not only to the on-the-spot nature of improvisation, but also to the building of a new community for comedy. The Revival’s projects include partnering with the University of Chicago improv troupe Off-Off Campus and offering training sessions for community members of Hyde Park or surrounding neighbors.
“I feel like so many of the great cultural movements that have emanated from Chicago were actually rooted on the South Side,” he said. “It seemed like almost a miss…to not give the voices of the South Side a stage in their own backyard, to express themselves.”
Nevertheless, to call The Revival—located in one of the whitest neighborhoods in the otherwise ethnically diverse South Side—emblematic of what the South Side has to offer is a tenuous claim at best. In fact, the hour of comedy I witnessed that night was comprised solely of white actors making the trek down from the North Side. This raises the question: does the Revival represent the South Side as a whole, or is it simply a product of Hyde Park’s aspiration to revitalize itself?
Stoops recognizes that it’s dubious to speak for an area of such size and variety. “I think it’s tough to generalize too much. Certainly as a resident of Hyde Park, I’m aware of the unique personality of Hyde Park…I am interested in bringing together both that world and the surrounding South Side,” he says. He doesn’t say how he will go about this, only that this combination has yet to be accomplished.
The ambitions of The Revival are bold, but listening to the tepid laughter of a scant audience, I don’t feel the rejuvenation the comedy club’s name promised me. Like the rickety chair I sat in, the Revival is standing on coltish legs.