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Slow comedy, art, music movements call for savoring the work

Jimmy Carrane teaches 'slow comedy' improv class Stage 773. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Jimmy Carrane teaches a "slow comedy" improv class at Stage 773. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Art of slow comedy performance

With Jimmy Carrane

When: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturdays, Oct. 13 to Nov. 17

Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

Fee: $249


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Updated: October 28, 2012 6:17AM

The Stage 773 community theater building is located on busy W. Belmont Avenue in Lakeview, a neighborhood rife with speeding cars and harried pedestrians and roaring ambulances and barreling buses.

But every so often, under the sage and efficient tutelage of “Improv Nerd” podcaster and veteran improv instructor Jimmy Carrane, Belmont’s bustle melts away amid the deliberate, considered, thoroughly unhurried exercises of Carrane’s longstanding and well-attended workshop: “Slow Comedy.”

While it wasn’t formed in response to the ever-expanding popularity of so-called “slow” movements, it fits perfectly into a genre that emerged several decades ago as an antidote to the relentless haste of modern life. As an article on the comedy web site recently noted, comic Louis C.K. and Chicago’s own masters of long-form improvisation, T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, are in the same camp. In their worlds, credible human connections trump easy gags and snappy one-liners.

As with slow food, slow travel and slow parenting, to name but a few of the most prominent movements, slow comedy implores its practitioners to pull back and dig deep so as to focus on the intra- and interpersonal associations that imbue it with emotional honesty. That is to say truth. For truth in comedy, the late improv oracle Del Close reminded countless disciples, is everything.

“You really have to create a safe environment for them so they can reveal themselves and be vulnerable,” Carrane says of his pupils, 11 of who showed up recently for an intensive three-hour Saturday seminar. (Heoffers a multi-week course starting Oct. 13). “And the work of slowing it down and giving them permission not to be funny and not to worry about being witty or clever… gives them the permission, then, to start exploring their emotional lives.”

Like Carrane, Hudson, New York-based artist Tim Slowinski (name prefix wholly coincidental) is a proponent of pausing. For him, it’s the only way to properly appreciate a painting or sculpture or any other work of visual art. The “slow art” movement he champions has spread to many cities, including Chicago, and Slowinski sees it as a natural response to the near-constant “moving and beeping” of everyday life.

In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as fast food swept the nation, the fine arts became increasingly commercialized — so much so that, Slowinski notes, “the traditional values and essence of what it means to be an artist was being lost.”

Slow art, he explains in a lengthy email, “stands as the antithesis of fast food — not the food itself, but what it represents, which is the commercial exploitation and subjugation of the most essential components of our civilization — food and art — to the glorification of profit for its own sake.”

Chicago-area “slow art” proponent Elizabeth Arnold has hosted a handful of annual Slow Art Day events over the past several years at the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art. After pre-selecting eight to 10 works for her guests to contemplate — two are required viewing and the rest are elective — she asks them to spend a minimum of 10 minutes with each requiredpiece.

In light of the fact that most folks are used to breezing through museums like Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon, “You warn them that it’s going to be hard,” Arnold says, “that it’s a little bit uncomfortable.”

Afterward, participants meet for lunch to discuss their respective experiences and the work itself.

“They see things that they wouldn’t necessarily have seen,” Arnold says. “And it also takes them into a different space of quiet in their own head.”

The same principles that apply to slow comedy and slow art also hold true for slow music — which, if it hasn’t hit you already, has nothing to do with tempo and everything to do with fuller and richer absorption of the form.

Like Slowinski, slow music advocate Howard Fishman makes an analogy to the fast food industry, whose “cynical” marketing, “unsustainable” farming practices and bland homogenization he considers “American culture at it’s worst.”

The music industry, he thinks, “is governed primarily by the musical equivalent of the McDonald’s mentality. If McDonald’s is fast food, then most of what’s shoved down the throats and into the ears of American music consumers is fast music. It’s cynically created by managers and labels to fit the latest trends, and cynically marketed to sell to the greatest possible numbers of certain demographics with seemingly little concern for what actually sounds and feels good.”

Consequently, Fishman’s folk-and-jazz-influenced music is “natural, straight from the source, exactly how I intended it.”

In essence, slow. Ditto the artwork and liner notes that adorn his CDs. Omitting those elements would be cheaper and faster, he points out, but not necessarily better.

“I want the person who’s giving me their time and money to have as complete an experience as I can give them.”

As for how to enjoy slow music, Fishman suggests listening as an end in itself — with no computers, texting or other activities to distract from “paying attention to the present moment and to what is being communicated by the artist.”

Back at Stage 773, Carrane leads his charges through a series of exercises meant to lower inhibitions and heighten self/other awareness. While they’re in a circle he asks each student to reveal “the last time you cried.” He also has them name “one thing you don’t want us to know about you.” The revelations are surprisingly raw and real.

In another effective game, Carrane places two chairs onstage and explains, “Your objective is to do nothing.”

As one pair of students at a time does just that, their peers regard them in silence from seats in the small auditorium. At the end of a long-seeming couple of minutes, spectators analyze nonverbal cues and speculate about what sort of scene might have been playing out.

It’s all about trusting in silence, Carrane tells them. “If you invest in the emotional stakes of the scene, then the words will just flow.”

And investing in the emotional stakes of a scene, of course, requires one to slow down.

“Slow motion,” Carrane says, “will get you there faster.”

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