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You might have heard this one before but, a statistician, a physicist, a medical student, a medical professor, an engineer, a public health professor, a law professor, a chemist, a high school teacher, a biomedical researcher, and an engineering physicist walk on to a stage. If you haven’t heard this oft-told joke, what happens next is the audience provides a suggestion, and this assorted bunch of academics throw back the punchlines, with a scientific twist.
That’s the idea of The Excited State — a monthly improvisational comedy show at the Revival Theatre in Hyde Park. Chicago is a town famous for hosting improv shows thanks to longstanding comedy institutions such as The Second City (which has roots in the University of Chicago from its antecedent mid-fifties theater troupe The Compass Players.) If you haven’t visited one of the many improv theaters in Chicago, the comedy style can loosely be defined as unscripted, fueled by audience suggestions.
A recent Excited State show began with James Dolan, PhD, asking the audience for a descriptive word. “Stupendous!” someone yelled.
One member of the troupe stepped up, “Your theory is so stupendous, it had its own variety show in the fifties.”
Another: “Your theory is so stupendous, it literally knocked my socks off!”
Finally: “Your theory is so stupendous, your estranged father finally came back to make money off of it.”
Dolan, satisfied with this smorgasbord of theory descriptions solicited the audience for another word.
“Your theory is so furry, it makes my allergies act up!”
“Your theory is so furry, I killed 47 of them and sewed them into a coat.”
“Your theory is so furry, I gave it a Brazilian wax.”
And so on. Following a series of other jokes about what our theory is, the cast launched into a variety of other goofy games and scenes, each with a nod towards science.
Whether you’re a seasoned audience member or a neophyte of improv shows, The Excited State offers something genuinely unique in Chicago – a show with a wide variety of ages, nationalities, points of view and a focus on science.
"The goal is to celebrate each research field, and get the audience curious or interested in that field through laughing,” said Yeva Shan, PhD, one of the performers and a co-founder. “Perhaps they’ll look for more information or reach out to our guest scientists. Also, we want to show the human side of research to our audience. Hopefully this leads to more public engagement with science.”
Each show features a special “guest scientist” who delivers a short lecture to the audience about their work or research. The guest gets to join in on the fun though, and frequently participates in the improv games. One example: a cast member interviews the scientist about his or her day, and then reenact scenes from it, amplifying and exaggerating minor inconveniences, foibles, and silly moments.
“At no point are we making fun of them,” the other co-founder Dolan said. “Hopefully, it’s clear how much we take care of our guests. They are a wonderful part of the show.”
“We’ve had two physicists, a chemist, a neurobiologist, and an internal medicine doctor as our guests,” added Marshall Chin, MD, MPH, another Excited State performer. “We’re reaching a lot of different departments and a broad spectrum of Hyde Park.”
On this cold February night, the audience was packed with a mix of university students, faculty and staff as well as locals who wanted to catch a funny and enlightening show.
The program featured Elbert Huang, MD, as the guest. In between cracking jokes with the cast and providing scene suggestions and lines, he gave a brief talk about work he has done in the field of quality of life around health state utility rating, which allows researchers to evaluate the quality of life that someone lives. The audience listened with rapt attention as he described his work and research, just as easily as they guffawed at a well-timed reference to popular scientist and crime-fighter Bruce Banner (aka The Incredible Hulk.)
“Our format relies on the participation and generosity of the guest scientists,” said Chin. “Our guests take an evening out of their busy schedules to rehearse and perform with us. Professors and doctors from the University of Chicago have been great about educating the public and supporting the improv community at The Revival.”
The community has shown their appreciation. The shows fill up, with audience sizes ranging from sixty to ninety people. There are a lot of options for comedy shows across Chicago, but there’s no show quite like this one.
The Excited State is a monthly show at the Revival Theater in Hyde Park. The cast is Takintayo Akinbiyi, João Caldeira, Mike Chamberlain, Marshall Chin, James Dolan, Naoko Muramatsu, Randal Picker, Huw Rees, Yue (Yeva) Shan, Stephanie Timpone, and Kate Wiseman. The show is directed by Tim Soszko. Upcoming shows and special guests are: March 14 Stephanie Palmer (Biology), April 11 Stacy Lindau (Obstetrics-Gynecology), and May 9 Brian Nord (Astronomy).