Improvised Star Trek takes to the stage of Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival
By Mike Thomas Staff Reporter March 11, 2014 2:08PM
When: March 19-22
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $10- $50
Updated: March 11, 2014 7:49PM
The Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival is back at Stage 773 on West Belmont for a second year, and its featured acts — which include “A Nerdy Cabaret” and “Improvised Jane Austen” — are nerdy indeed.
But the most nerdtacular of them all is arguably an eight-person group known as Improvised Star Trek. (No offense to Trekkies, aka Trekkers.)
The ensemble — whose work is inspired by “Star Trek” iterations “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space 9” and “Voyager,” but not the original series — was founded four years ago at Chicago’s iO Theater and has grown its audience since then thanks in part to a twice-monthly podcast (at theimprovisedstartrek.com) that’s heard by “Star Trek” fans worldwide.
“The initial intent was just to do an improv show that was based on ‘Star Trek,’ but as soon as they decided it would be the same characters week after week, then we kind of backed into this new format,” says Nick Wagner, who plays Ensign Lorem. “It’s astonishing to think that these characters that are entirely made up on the spot now have four years of history behind them.”
As you might imagine, he and his fellow actors are steeped in all things Trek-related. Wagner, for instance, knows the name of William T. Riker’s twin (Thomas), which “Star Trek: Voyager” episode featured the assimilation of Janeway, Tuvok and B’elanna by the Borg, and which human first visited Denobula.
For equally knowledgeable cast member Irene Marquette (Lt. Cola), who, along with her husband and co-star Griffen Eckstein (Lt. Cmdr. Fassbinder) worked for the Las Vegas-based “Star Trek Experience” prior to landing in Chicago, that’s part of the allure. While all of IST’s characters and storylines are loosely based on the “Star Trek” model — which means, for instance, they have similar jobs aboard the “U.S.S. Sisyphus” and their dialogue contains Trek-like tropes — IST enables its actors to deeply explore their characters in a way that is rare in improv, most of which is fleeting.
One of the main challenges, Wagner says, is keeping things fresh month after month.
“It can feel like, since you’re playing the same character, that you’re making predictable choices at some point. But the interesting thing is that the more I cleave to the core of the character without worrying about whether it’s going to be new or interesting, you actually find the funniest things and also the most surprising things. Just by being true to that character.”
And truth in comedy is always the goal, no matter how moronic the scenario or utterance. (A character once wished aloud that he could “go back in time so I can become my own parent.”)
As you might imagine, audiences for IST’s show — which often end with a trivia round and are based on crowd-shouted title suggestions for nonexistent “Star Trek” episodes — are comprised largely of “Star Trek” fans, some of who attend performances in costume. But Wagner insists that level of “Trek” dedication isn’t necessary to dig what they do.
“I like to think that our show is pretty accessible, regardless of your familiarity with ‘Star Trek,’ ” he says. “Because ‘Star Trek’ is so steeped in our culture that everyone knows Mr. Spock and ‘beam me up’ and all that stuff. And I feel that that’s all you really need to know to get comedy out of our show.
“At least I hope that’s the case.”