Adal Rifai embodies dedication to the art & craft of improv comedy. This is evident by his commitment to not only perform, but to teach and put into practice what he’s learned. Be sure to catch a performance, or class, with Adal if you’re in the Windy City — you’ll be glad you did! You can find Adal performing and teaching at the iO Chicago.
I’m from Central Illinois (Galesburg/Kewanee) originally but have called Chicago home for the past 10 years.
I was a theater major in college and then moved to Chicago to act but fell into the improv scene by chance and found my passion.
I’ve done theater, commercial, film, print, sketch and improv. I’ve written, directed and performed comedy shows for the past 8 years.
What was your first paid job in Entertainment? What was that experience like?
After graduating from Second City they cast me in a few weekly shows that paid. In improv, compensation for your time/talent is rare, so it was surreal to be getting paid to make people laugh for an hour.
You do it for the rush and for the joy it brings you but obviously being able to pay the bills is a nice bonus.
What, or whom, inspired you to go into improv comedy?
I can point to my Grandpa as an early source of dark humor and my mom allowing me to watch Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Delirious at the age of 13, which pretty much exploded my brain.
I’ll say Michael Keaton’s performance in Beetlejuice pretty much inspired me to be a comedic weirdo when I grew up.
I did short form improv in college (Illinois State University’s Improv Mafia) but didn’t fully understand that it could be more than a collection of games and templates.
We had a graduate student, Matt Fotis, arrive my senior year and teach us long form improv. I enjoyed it but struggled to lose the easy laugh approach.
When I got to Chicago, Second City saw me do theater and offered me a scholarship and that’s what got me on the track to where I am now.
Matt is responsible for planting that seed.
What is “Whirled News Tonight?” What is your involvement in it?
Whirled News Tonight is a satirical improv show that’s been playing at iO since 2003 created by Jason Chin.
The audience cuts out articles from that day’s newspapers and we improvise off that.
I was brought into the show in 2008 by Jason who had taken a liking to me.
I sat in for about a year and then got tapped to join as a full time cast member.
You’re a Teacher & Coach at iO Chicago, what has that experience been like?
I find being a teacher and coach one of the most fullfilling things I do in the community. To pass along your knowledge and help guide people to find their comedic voice is incredibly rewarding.
When you teach someone and they go one to do great things, in improv or tv/film, you’re just ridiculously proud.
Obviously, you’re barely a flicker of light in a galaxy of reasons they have success, but the feeling is wonderful. Also teaching and coaching makes you really hone and sharpen your craft.
The more I talk and teach improv, the more I’m aware of what I need to improve on. If my students come to see me perform I need to practice what I preach.
So, it pushes you to always be the best you can, especially in regards to group play and support.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
I got a great deal of success very quickly when I started here so I had to stop asking myself ‘what’s next?” and really slow down and enjoy the amazing opportunities I’ve been afforded.
If you constantly crave that next thing you’re going to stall out or be in a constant state of dissatisfaction.
In terms of actual performance, I came to eventually realize you can’t try and make every line you say or every move you make be perfect.
I’m incredibly hard on myself and used to think I needed to say the exact right thing at any given time.
After awhile you notice the best improv teams spit out coal and polish it into a diamond rather than kill themselves trying to only spit out diamonds.
Use of Social Media for your career?
I mostly use it to promote shows or share content once in awhile. I’m hoping to use Twitter more for comedic content.
What are your current career aspirations?
I’d love to teach/coach more outside of just Chicago, which I’ve been doing a bit of in 2015.
Endgames Theater in San Francisco just brought me out to teach workshops and do shows and it was an absolute blast. So, more of getting to help grow other improv communities while keeping my home base.
My ultimate goal would be to write and produce a show for Adult Swim. That’s pretty much the best job I can fathom.
Advice for those wanting to get involved in improv in Chicago?
If you come to Chicago to do improv, spend a good month checking out as many shows and theaters as you can.
Hit up iO, CIC, Second City, The Playground, Annoyance, The Den, etc. and find what theater seems to be doing the type of work you connect with and start your training there.
When you start to get performance opportunities, don’t spread yourself too thin. Choose 2 or 3 projects you’re passionate about and commit to them 100%.
So many improvisers do 8 to 10 projects a week and it causes them to have to miss shows and rehearsals or wear themselves out.
You’re going to do better work and grow faster if you limit the amount of plates spinning.
Top 5 moments in Entertainment
1. I’ve always been added to already existing teams, so the first time I got to play with Revolver, Whirled News Tonight and a show called Our Feature Presentation (we did an improvised movie each week) made me feel on top of the world. It was me getting to play with my heroes.
2. There was a Revolver show at the Del Close Marathon in 2012 that is to this date maybe the most fun I’ve had in a show. I remember we just all kept setting each other up in really playful ways, culminating in me asking someone to read a haiku they had written and the whole team dogpiled on it.
Probably the highest high of my improv career. I’d sell my toes to have a copy of that show on DVD.
3. I produced an improv show at American Theater Company from 2008 to 2010 with Pudding-Thank-You and I’m proud of the shows we put together every week.
We got to play with all kinds of bizzare guests like Michael Shannon, Nora Dunn, and Jim Jacobs, who wrote GREASE.
It was a weird, cool, BYOB improv spectacle we created with our friends.
4. A friend of mine Ellen Haeg and I created a show at a theater called Upstairs Gallery where the concept was, the Donner Party is putting on a night of entertainment to distract themselves from starvation and madness. The show was called ‘Dog Penis Salad’ and it was a mix of music, sketch, improv, storytelling and disturbing shadow puppets.
We made the audience sit on blankets and wear nametags of actual people who were in the Donner Party.
At one point we passed around plates with actual fried caterpillars and chicken feet.
5. Recently I started doing a two-person show with my girlfriend, Meredith, and that’s been a highlight of the past year.
Getting to play with someone you love and respect and whom makes you laugh is about as good as it gets.
We got to play at The WIT theater in D.C. and did a show about a married couple who were both magicians and had accidentally made their son disappear. The show was just the two of them slowly starting to resent one another more and more but trying to rekindle the spark.
What is something that most people don’t know about improv comedy that you wished they did? Common misconceptions?
I’ll hear people complain that improv is not consistent enough or that they tried watching improv and it just isn’t for them.
To me improv is comparable to music in that if I’ve never been to a concert before and I go see a band that has a rough show, I’m not going to say “whelp, I hate music.”
So, realize that every show is going to be different and there are teams/shows that are consistanly great. Don’t swear off improv after seeing 1 or 2 bad shows.
The risk/reward is that nobody knows what’s going to happen and it can be hard to watch or it can be the most incredible thing you’ve seen.
What is it like being an iO Chicago Harold Team Performer? Take us through a typical show night if you would.
My Harold team Revolver performs every Friday at 10:30pm. So, typical show night is we all meet at the theater at 10pm. We check in briefly with each other to see how we’re feeling and if there’s any exciting news from the week.
After that we warm up, (run through different games and exercises focusing on different improv tools), for about 25 minutes and then remind ourselves of what we worked on in rehearsal so it’s at the front of our minds during the show.
We’ll watch the opening team to be aware of what themes/information they’re exploring so we don’t have any redundancy.
After the opening group we do The Dream, which is interviewing an audience member about their day and then both teams show them what their dream that night might look like. Then Revolver plays for about 28 to 30 minutes. Both teams come back on stage to play freeze tag for a few minutes and then that’s it.
After each show we get notes from our coach and then as a team we go around and mention our favorite moments from the show, any moments where we attempted to make a move and weren’t clear and anything that we had wanted to inject into the piece but did not.
That allows us to purge our brains and better anticipate what each other might do moving forward.
If you don’t articulate your thoughts post show I think it’s hard to continue to get to know one another as players.
I did theater and short-form improv in college. In Chicago I completed the training programs at Second City, iO and The Annoyance.
I’ve had two mentors in improv. The first is Jason Chin who took a shine to me while I was still in classes at iO and basically cast me in every show he put together in the past 7 years.
So, he takes the largest credit for any amount of success I’ve had. I eventually became roommates with him, which was great as far as just sitting around and talking improv at all hours of the day.
Hearing his philosophies and ideas for where improv should head next and hearing stories of when he first started out and learning from Del Close.
The second person who offered me guidance was Revolver’s first coach, Mike Enriquez.
He taught me about respecting improv as an art, never resting on your laurels and carrying yourself in the community with humility. Mike was such a wonderfully kind and giving guy.
Since him and Jason passed away there’s been a huge gap in heart of the community, but their impact on me, and several others was huge.
I’m in Revolver every Friday night @ 10:30pm at iO.
I do Whirled News Tonight every Saturday @ 8pm at iO.
I’m in an independent group called Pudding-Thank-You that performs every once in awhile at CIC and The Den Theater.
You can listen to a podcast I’m apart of called ‘Hello From the Magic Tavern’ where I play a shape-shifting badger named Chunt.
The guys at Cards Against Humanity have allowed us to record the podcast in their studio and be apart of their podcasting network which has been great — ‘Hello From the Magic Tavern.’
I also have a few projects in the works:
One is an immersive improv experience where the audience gets to feel more involved and not be confined to a chair, in the vein of NYC productions ‘Sleep No More’ and ‘Then She Fell’.
The other is an extension of a show I did last year (with the newest Beyonce album) called ‘In-Stereo’ where I select an album of an artist I enjoy and assign a group of improvisers/musicians to each song to reinterpret a track however they like. Could be a song, a monologue, a dance, a sketch, whatever they are inclined to do.
I’m hoping to mount that at iO in the coming months.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I’d like to say hi to my sister Sadieh who’s incredibly talented and has still made time to see more of my improv shows than anyone else.
If you get a chance to see her perform in Chicago please do. She’s a phenomenal actress.
Where can people go to find out more information about you and your work?
You can follow my sporadic tweets at @adalrifai and check out http://ioimprov.com/chicago/ for my current shows!
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