Finding the Funny: Historians’ Lectures Provide Material for Improv Comedians

Historians in the News
tags: teaching history, Comedy

On a Sunday evening in February, the audience relaxes into old-fashioned red velvet theater seats as the lights go down. The show’s logo is projected on the back wall. The emcee and cast enter the stage, empty except for a simple podium, and over the next hour, history and improvised comedy combine for an unforgettable evening at Study Hall, the monthly comedy show hosted by the Philly Improv Theater (PHIT).

PHIT has been doing a version of these performances since 2011. They asked Michael Yudell, historian of public health and professor and chair of the Community Health and Prevention department at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, to collaborate on a comedy performance at the Philly Science Festival. He was asked to pair actors with historians to dramatize history; when he arrived at the show, he discovered that the actors were actually improv comedians. A great show followed, including a satirical performance based on the local yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Over the next three years, PHIT invited him back, and he participated in a similar performance at the local Fringe Festival in 2013. In 2014, the theater invited Yudell to be part of a regular monthly show called Study Hall.

Study Hall and the preceding festival shows are based on the Armando improv format, named for Chicago Improv teacher Armando Diaz. In this long-form game, a person performs a storytelling monologue for the audience. After the monologue, the performers improvise scenes that riff on the story. 

For Yudell and PHIT artistic director Mike Marbach, also the director of Study Hall, the Armando game was a perfect way to bring together academic researchers and comedy. Marbach suggested that Yudell tell true stories from history, current events, and his own life, and over the past six years, Yudell has told more than 100 such stories on the stage. 

As the show expanded, they began inviting guest lecturers.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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