March 21, 2017
The first years of his life spent in the company of an ice-skating chimpanzee named Spanky, Jonathan Pitts has spent the last two decades of his 57 years in the company of a vast array of talented human beings walking that creative tightrope that is improvisational comedy.
He is the co-founder and executive director of the Chicago Improv Festival, opening March 27 and now into its 20th year. It will be Pitts’ last and he says, without regret and with palpable pride, “I am proud of how far we’ve come. We started with 30 performers and one venue and now we have ….”
The festival has grown as the city’s (and the nation’s and the planet’s) improv world has forcefully expanded. This year there will be 180 performers in four venues. It runs through April 2, with some familiar names such as Dan Harmon, Scott Adsit, Susan Messing, Rob Belushi, Jon Barinholtz, Joey Slotnick, T.J. Jagodowski and Rachel Dratch. Still, among the great delights of the festival has always been seeing performers you’ve never heard of, discovering new talent.
But enough about the festival (you can get all the information at www.chicagoimprovfestival.org). Let’s hear more about Pitts, its guiding force and a man who is a walking and talking history of improvisational theater from its earliest days here.
He was in high school when he watched the first years of “Saturday Night Live” and those shows were for him, he says, “like first seeing Elvis or the Beatles.” In time he learned that Second City was the only place around offering workshops in improv and he enrolled. “And I simply fell in love,” he says. “It was a place where adults could still play, and that was for me. To play, I thought then and still do, is a divine right of being human.”
He was, at 20, nearly a decade younger than most of the others in the workshops. “They were hip and smart and funny,” he says. “I organized an improv group at Triton College, where I was studying liberal arts. We did a few shows and then I dropped out.”
This might have upset his parents, who had met as undergraduates attending Northwestern University. They were divorced when Jon was an infant and he was raised an only child by his mother, Judith, in Oak Park, where she taught language arts in grammar school.
His dad also understood, since he too had been similarly drawn to a life in show business. At N.U. his father, David Pitts, had been studying musical theater at the university but he too dropped out to sing with a trio. His singing career evaporated after he saw a roller-skating chimp at a state fair, bought that chimp’s brother, named him Spanky and taught him to ice skate. They formed an act that made them among the most popular headliners for the Ice Capades, traveling the globe.
“The first two years of my life we all — me, Spanky and my parents — lived in a trailer and traveled the country,” says Pitts. “Then my parents divorced and I would only see my father one day a year, when the Ice Capades came to town, or sometimes when he and Spanky would be on some TV commercial or talk show.”
Not to play psychiatrist, but it seems likely that in improv Pitts found a number of artistic “fathers.”
He worked with the all-star team of improv teachers, such people as Paul Sills, Byrne Piven, David Shepherd, Sheldon Patinkin, Alan Baranowski and, the king of them all, Del Close.
“Del is the closest thing we’ve had to Picasso,” Pitts says. “And one of the things he told me has guided me forever. He said, ‘We don’t ever have to stop learning.'”
Pitts would move with a girlfriend to New Mexico for a while, come back and work odd jobs (among them delivering singing telegrams, a vanished “art form”), but was eventually drawn back into theater where he would work as teacher, director, performer and anything else that came along. In the late 1980s he was involved with assisting Jane and Bernie Sahlins with their ambitious International Theatre Festival here, an experience that would soon prompt him to ask this question: “Why isn’t there an improv festival here?”
So in 1998 he and Frances Callier started one, and it was a hit from the outset. She would leave the festival after three years and has since built a solid career in film and television. (She’s coming back for this year’s festival, performing with Angela Shelton in their improv duo Frangela).
Pitts carried on. He taught classes at Second City, he performed (1,250 shows and counting), he directed. But the festival — which, ever-growing, demanded more and more of his time — has been the major focus of his life.
He has gained the admiration of many, including the aforementioned Messing, who says, “I have participated in every CIF since its inception and every single year, without fail, I always find Jonathan, through sheer will, keeps himself standing up. He actually might be sleeping on his feet. He has taken on an insane and insurmountable task and somehow makes it work. I get exhausted simply looking at him. The city of Chicago and the entire improv community owe him a huge thank you. Give that guy a hammock.”
He was ready to leave five years ago — “I was just burned-out and felt that I had made my contribution,” he says — but then his mother had a stroke and he became her principal caretaker. She died in 2013 (his father, after 15 years in the Ice Capades and a couple of subsequent careers, now lives in Brazil). After dealing with the details of her death he decided “now was the time for me to make the move from being a producer and return to being an artist.”
He wants to travel (he’s off to England for the wedding of a friend right after the festival), to teach and perform, to explore other roads of improv.
He intends to remain artistic director of the festival as associate producer Jessie Kunnath takes over his administrative duties. He intends to produce the Chicago Podcast Festival, which he and Tyler Green began last year with 35 podcasters presenting at five venues around town.
“My whole life has been about creating and connecting and that is what drives most all improv, that desire to play and connect in an increasingly icy world,” Pitts says. “There are now 22 improv theater groups in Chicago, all manner of training facilities, and while I do believe that everyone can improvise, not everyone can improvise professionally.”
He might start a theater company. He might start performing more. He might …. And there’s great joy and freedom for him in not really knowing what will come next.
(Read this article by Rick Kogan on the Chicago Tribune’s website by clicking here.)