The families that work together succeed together: the Von Trapps. The Kennedys. The Mansons. The same could be said about Chicago's Elams, but they don't focus on music, politics, or murder — improv comedy is their thing. The family — the three Elam siblings Erica, Brett, and Scott, plus Brett's fiancée Jet Eveleth and Scott's fiancée Lisa Burton — have taken the Chicago comedy world by storm, honoring the mirthful memory of Del Close at the iO Theater. "Our family's close," says Erica Elam, "but we don't talk about things very much. We tell stories on stage we might never say to dad or mom, because it's a different kind of bravery to tell one-on-one than it is in front of audience." That's the charm of Dinner with the Elams — they'll do traditional improv sketches, but there's added intimacy since they're all related or engaged. "The best improv groups have a real sense of trust and support," Erica says. "But we don't just have a couple of years of history. There are decades of it between us."
When the Elams take a suggestion from the audience to use in a sketch, it often inspires a true-life story. "It's not unique, but the audience feels like they're being let into our lives," Erica explains. "There are built-in laughs because of our relationship." And since the crowd is in on the joke, they share the performers' reactions when surprises are revealed on stage. "In our first show," Brett says, "we each had to share the story of how we lost our virginity." The results were uncomfortable and hilariously funny. "We were honest about how we felt and what was going through our heads at the time. There was a real awkwardness when the fiancées had to stand up." Erica didn't know how her brothers lost their V-cards either, and they say her response was priceless.
While creating comic situations, the Elams bond with each other, too, and there are great moments to witness on stage. "Scott was embarrassed telling the story about when he crapped his pants," Brett giggles. "And then Lisa looked Scott in eye and said, 'I shit my pants too.'" You can't get any more romantic than that.
Not all of the Elams' anecdotes are frivolous. Youngest brother Scott had a severe speech impediment as a child. Most of the family couldn't understand him, and in his first few years of school, he couldn't communicate with his teachers. "It became a theme of one of our shows," Erica says. "As we were exploring ideas we gradually realized how far our baby brother had come. Scott makes his living talking articulately with people. He speaks quickly and he's a great improviser after struggling so much. It was a moving, beautiful show."
Jet Eveleth is well known to local audiences as a member of The Reckoning, and her positive experiences with Theatre 99 led to the Elams' current visit. "She's naturally a great actor, and one of the best improvisers in Chicago,." Erica gushes. But there's another, more pressing reason for them to traipse to South Carolina: Their 15th annual holiday on Pawleys Island. "We go out on the beach and play improv games all day," Brett says. As their Charleston gig ties in with their latest vacation, their parents and other family members from Nashville will be in the audience seeing them on stage for the first time. They might be in for a shock. Most importantly for the Elams, as Brett puts it, "they'll hear some truthful stories."