J.T.S. Brown was an improv group that rehearsed and performed in Chicago from 1998-2000. In addition to bringing transformation edits into greater prominence in longform improv, the show directly led to the four-person improv show 4 Square, which started in the mid-2000s (and continues as an occasional two-person show 2 Square) and inspired the improv trio Switchboard. The Craig Cackowski-directed show Nite Terrors (2003-2006) performed their take on the show as well. The name J.T.S. Brown comes from the Kentucky bourbon whiskey of the same name that is featured in the films The Hustler and The Color of Money. J.T.S. Brown is one of the most lauded improv teams in the history of the art form.
Christina Gausas, Sarah Gee, Peter Grosz, Case Clay, Ike Barinholtz (later left), Bumper Carroll, Jen Bills, Gillian Vigman, Rob Janas, TJ Jagadowski (later left), Jack McBrayer (later left), Jason Sudeikis, Ed Goodman, Jed Resnik, and John Lutz (joined later).
One of the things the group was known for was having an extensive rehearsal process, even before any show was scheduled. They were inspired by stories of Jazz Freddy a group that performed in 1992 which similarly rehearsed many times a week for months before ever performing on stage.
J.T.S. Brown rehearsals started in Fall 1998 and continued for 18 months until their 6 month long run which started in Spring 2000.
The original run of the show took place at ImprovOlympic. It was produced by some of the members of the group as an outside entity.
The Show's Format
J.T.S. Brown was not a form so much as a philosophy of play. It was designed for a large cast (10-14 people), to involve as many players as possible at a time, to have a higher level of theatricality and polish than a typical improv show, and to encourage any move to be made at any time, with the idea that anything that happened was the perfect thing to happen. We didn't have a set structure, but we had a few rules to abide by:
- No sweep edits. Every edit was a transformation. Transformations could come from within or without. Even in a 2-person scene, an improvisor could abruptly change character, initiating a new scene with the same partner.
- No walk-ons. As soon as someone joined the scene, it became a new scene. Anyone in the previous scene should instantly choose to either exit, become a new character, or become some inanimate or expressionistic element in the new scene. If someone knocked at the door to enter a scene, it became a new scene the second the door was opened.
- No sidelines. Anyone not in the scene was watching from backstage. Anyone the audience could see was in the scene.
- The playing area was not limited to the stage...the whole space was used.
- Any scene could recur at any time, so the players were fine with a scene being edited after 10 seconds, knowing they could bring it back whenever they wanted.
- There were "worlds within worlds". If, for instance, Scene I tranformed into Scene II into Scene III, it was fun to spiral back out and have III become II and then I again (similar to the shortform game "Spacejump" or "5 to 1" or "7 to 1" or whatever).
- We had a number of "gimmicks"--devices that we had rehearsed that could be pulled out at any time. They included:
- Hemingway: The players narrate their own scene as well as playing it.
- EdTV: A scene can return to a pivotal moment at any time, presenting an alternative outcome. Usually done in threes. (This was named after Ed Goodman, not the Ron Howard film).
- The Third Degree: The players could come out and ask 3 rapid-fire questions of a character at any time. These were the sort of questions that you might ask while sidecoaching a scene ("How long have you known this person?", etc.)
- Shadows: A character was sometimes "shadowed" by a another improvisor playing their essence, or id, or subtext. The 2 characters' shadows would then have a scene of sorts in the background, presenting a more representational version of the original scene.
- Shapeshifting: Any improvisor could play anyone's character at any time. Particularly effective in cross-gender scenes. This fostered the idea of group ownership...every character is owned by the group, not necessarily the improvisor who created it. The show began with a shapeshifted character monologue, which allowed the audience to meet the cast members one at a time.
- There was an emphasis on physicality, sound, and environment. The players were encouraged to be architecture, inanimate objects, animals, weird shit, etc. All this probably sounds crazier than it actually played. We tried to eliminate weirdness for weirdness' sake. The idea was that the form was crazy, but the content was solid. It was an interesting package for good scenework. We worked hard to emphasize gift-giving and relationships in the scenework. In fact, we tried to, at some point in the middle of the show, have a "spotlight scene", a 6 or 7-minute 2-person scene that was not fucked with in any way. In the middle of a fast-moving, constantly evolving show, it was a nice to have a little scene oasis and to take a deep breath.
A 1999 review of a J.T.S. Brown show by Jack Helbig (linked to below), praises the performance with the following:
Most impressive were the occasional cubist improvisations--sublime, dreamlike sequences created by two or more company members who literally repeated the same five or six lines of dialogue several times, changing the emphasis with each repetition.