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Wiping the War Paint off the Lens


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Most accounts of improvisational comedy rely on the inspiring story of Chicago's Second City company, founded in the 1950s, and its many stars. Seham (theater and dance, Gustavus Adolphus Coll.) takes a far more sophisticated look at the genre and the history and theory behind it. Her basic point: Chicago-style improv has been dominated both in numbers and in control of content and style by young, white, straight men, which means that it's harder for women and minorities to shape scenes and conjure characters. (For example, men are less willing to accept a female improviser's attempt to initiate a male role, and whites are less able to grasp a minority performer's references.) Relying on extensive interviews as well as texts, she tells the story not only of Second City but of the 1980s groups that succeeded it, like ImprovOlympic and ComedySportz. The latter, she notes, were more committed to improvisation, while Second City became commercialized and incorporated pre-written sketches. Still, the power dynamics remained the same. In Chicago, a third wave of improv began in the late 1980s, including the raunchy and outrageous Annoyance Theater, minority groups like Oui Be Negroes, and all-women's groups. Now, concludes Seham, an even newer wave is addressing the paradoxes of improv. Though this well-detailed book lapses periodically into academic jargon, it should well serve strong performing arts collections. Norman Oder, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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