An improv group like The Reckoning could be compared to a versatile rock band. Each member can play multiple instruments, and they use whatever they need to make a gig work. The difference is, their “instruments” are funny concepts and characters, and they don’t have a set list until after the show. A recent itinerary went like this:

The Reckoning started their scene with the word “whistle.” They imagined they were in a pet store, where they found a mocking bird, a parrot, and two love birds. Somehow they worked in Pandora’s box, a girl in a cage, a coach and referee, a puppy calendar, and an old dog. They wrapped up the show with Cage Girl picking out a puppy. It was just a typical night at the group’s home base of iO Chicago.

The ideas change every time they perform, but The Reckoning have a method they always follow. It’s affectionately known as The Harold.

The group takes a suggestion from the audience (like “whistle”) and brainstorms scenic and thematic possibilities on stage (the birds singing in a pet store). They start with three funny, easy-to-follow scenes. From there, they play around with transitions and “callbacks” (revisiting earlier gags, like the girl stuck in a cage). If one character tickles their fancy, they follow him around and pop him into different scenes. Toward the end, they weave the scenes back together the same way a movie ties up loose ends, referring to things that have happened earlier in the show — in this case, back at the pet store. The audience then comes to their own conclusions about the show — maybe there’s a strong plot, maybe not — and The Reckoning find that their post-mortem notes can be very different from the audience’s perspective.

“Whatever it means to them, we leave it to them,” says co-founder Jacob Schneider. “It surprises me, and yet it never really surprises me how audiences respond to improv and the kind we do. It’s still kind of a new thing for them. But I can’t remember a show that didn’t go well. People appreciate something new.”

Over their eight-year existence, the founding members of The Reckoning have solidified what they do as a group. Eric Hunnicutt teaches at Steppenwolf Classes West and performs improv three to four times a week in L.A. Michael Patrick writes for SNL. Schneider teaches and performs in four different shows at iO Chicago, while Holly Laurent recently participated in the Serendipity Theatre Collective’s Second Story series. Jet Eveleth teaches Comedy Studies at Columbia College Chicago. All of them are scheduled to appear at Piccolo.

A festival show is the perfect opportunity for comedians to reunite and find out what they’ve learned. “Every time we travel as The Reckoning, it refreshes everything,” says Schneider. “It’s a different location and audience, yet it’s a familiar live experience.”

“There’s a particular energy about festival shows,” says Eveleth, also a founder. “It’s fun to see what new things tickle us.”

Since so many of the Reckoners are also serious writers or actors, they bring a brand of sensitivity to their roles. Eveleth recalls, “When the owner of the iO put us together, it was because we stood out as actors. That was something we pursued before we joined, and none of us have ever stopped learning. It can get dangerous when you think you’ve made it and you can relax.”

Eveleth and her friends put the same amount of thought and feeling into their improv as they would a dramatic play. “We give ourselves hour-long notes for a half-hour show,” she says. No matter how good a show is, they look for ways to improve and develop the jokes.

The Reckoning insist on sticking to their formula, leading to some sequences that are notable for their cleverness rather than their hilarity. Sometimes they leave the audience amused, other times amazed at their skill. “We’ve rehearsed and played so much with each other,” says Eveleth. “When we get together, we’re like a family.”