The History of the Improvised Horror Movie

 Jason running tech in the booth at the old iO location

Jason running tech in the booth at the old iO location

It’s the 6th year of the Improvised Horror Movie and with the 10-year birthaversary for DCH just around the corner, I wanted to share what makes the show so special to me. Directing, producing, and performing in this show, striving to make it better each year, is my way of honoring a great friend and keeping his memory alive.

I moved back to Dallas in 2013 after living in Chicago for the better part of a decade. I learned a lot about performing, directing, writing, and tech while I was there. One of my teachers and mentors was Jason Chin, a constant and bright light in the Chicago improv scene.

One of the shows that Jason produced was the Improvised Movie. They covered many film genres in their run but the horror shows were always my favorite. I even took a special workshop from Jason to learn the ins and outs of the format and shortly thereafter he trained me to be his understudy on tech; which at the time absolutely terrified me.

Tab in the iO booth when Jason was training me to do tech

The idea of an improvised movie was nothing new, Del Close had come up with it years before. His idea was that the performers would improvise a narrative while calling a variety of camera shots. But Jason decided to take Del’s form even further, adding the things that made it a standout show. He broke down the structure of movies in a variety of genres, allowing the actors to perform each movie with all the tropes and cliches of a scripted film. Then he added an improvised soundtrack and light cues. This is where he brought me in and trained me on how to do the seemingly impossible, choose songs and hit cues that fit the scenes and what the actors called for all by the seat of your pants. The first time Jason was out for a show and I had to fill in for tech I thought I was going to throw up. But I didn’t. I scored the show. I hit the cues. I did the thing.

I would fill in for him several times over the shows run, becoming more confident in my ability but also being incredibly grateful. This thing that Jason thought of and taught me, the idea of an improvised soundtrack for an improvised show, it became the skill that I am most proud of and one I love to teach others.

When I moved back to Dallas I began hitting up the jam at DCH regularly, eager to involve myself in the community. One night at a jam Kyle Austin asked me what kind of show I would want to put up here. I pitched the movie, but since Halloween was coming up - I pitched it as a one genre special show. The Improvised Horror Movie. Kyle loved the idea and wanted to run with it. I was excited and hoped that my friend, and creator of the show, would approve. 

 The Improvised Horror Movie at DCH in 2017. Photo by Jason Hensel.

The Improvised Horror Movie at DCH in 2017. Photo by Jason Hensel.

I want to note here that while Jason was an incredibly kind and wonderful friend he was also protective, especially of his shows. If you tried to put up a show he created (and there were many), without asking for the okay you would hear from him. I’m not even sure how, but he always found out if someone was putting up one of his shows, no matter where they were in the world.

As you probably already guessed, Jason gave me his blessing to put the show up here. He also gave me guidance. I wanted to tweak the format and add some new ideas to make it special for Dallas. So with Jason’s help, we made the show into what it is today. 

The original format didn’t let the audience help to cast the main characters. It didn’t label the archetypes. There were no props. No masks. We added all that (and more) because we really wanted to make the show unique to Dallas Comedy House.

 Tab doing the thing. Photo by Jason Hensel.

Tab doing the thing. Photo by Jason Hensel.

Jason and I were both so thrilled that the first run of the show was a success. So much so that when the show got put up again the following October, Jason was back to helping me, all support and encouragement. A few months after that second run, Jason passed away unexpectedly. The news ripped my heart out. This essay is about the horror movie, but Jason was so much more than that to me, and to the improv community as a whole. Losing him was, and still is, absolutely devastating.

Months passed by in a flash and all too soon it was time to do the show again. Grief resurfaced and I almost quit the show. But I didn’t. I directed the show. I added new elements. I did the thing.

Now we are lucky to get to perform the show every October at DCH. I look forward to it all year.
The Improvised Horror Movie is how I keep Jason’s memory alive, how I honor his impact on our community, and how I thank him for taking me under his wing.

You may have noticed that some of the chairs at DCH have small name plaques on the back. There is a single chair that bears the name ‘Jason Chin,’ but you’ll never find it during the Improvised Horror Movie, because it’s always on stage.

Tabitha has been performing and teaching improv for the past 20 years. You can see her at Dallas Comedy House in The Improvised Horror Movie every Saturday in October (with a bonus show on Halloween!), or with One Man Show year-round.