by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "W & lt;/span & hy do we drive down parkways but park in driveways?"

I'm playing an improv comedy game called "Panel of Experts" in front of a live audience at the Blue Door Theater on Garland Avenue, and listeners have declared me an expert on depression. But now I really am depressed because some wiseacre has thrown this question my way -- and I don't know what to say.

But this is improvisational comedy: I can just make stuff up! So I meander for awhile about traffic jams and my car, lamely, and... it's lame. But then magic happens. Audience members are also tossing questions at two other "experts" on my panel: a woman named Manew is supposed to be obsessed with chocolate, and Chris (told to display his expertise about "something that, if you keep doing it, you'll go blind") decides, brilliantly, to obsess about... Manew. She starts going ga-ga over chocolate, he starts leaning in close to her and practically drooling: Yummy, creamy, I know, desire, ohmygod, your neck, truffles. Brilliant.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & aving always admired quick wits (and being slow-witted myself), I re-upped for five sessions of an intermediate improv class at Blue Door after completing the beginners' class this summer.

Joining an improv game, I discovered, is like playing a fast-paced 3-D version of Mad Libs: Somebody's always prompting you to come up with an unusual word or strange situation. You have to listen and be receptive; you have to turn off your judgments and preconceptions. You have to be creative, tapped into your subconscious, alive to what's going on right now. It's exhilarating.

We played word-association games; simple games of "Freeze" that involved restarting improvised scenes; and ice-breakers like "Zip, Zap, Zop," in which people stand in a circle and rapid-fire nonsense words at each other until their heads explode.

We learned about making offers and always saying yes and incorporating whatever goes "wrong" into the scene as part of that scene's truth. We were adults at play, and our sandbox was each other's quirkiness.

But I kept making too many "offers." I'd barge into a scene and -- coming from a scripted-theater background -- erupt with about 14 different details about where we were and what we were supposed to be doing and why. My classmates' eyes would get really big. I may have been trying too hard.

"Improv isn't going to be continually funny like stand-up," says Frank Tano, Blue Door's artistic director. "There aren't jokes every 30 seconds." This isn't the solo jokester firing off gags; instead, Tano says, improv's about "unexpected group discovery -- that moment when players will suddenly see something that they didn't see coming, and then suddenly ... wow!"

Even after just a few sessions, our group of a dozen intrepid punsters would occasionally devise scenes that went off on tangents that were unexpected and comical and funny because they were unpredictable.

Soon Tano was announcing that, blemishes and all, our intermediate class would be performing live during an evening called "Classmates in Comedy" -- sort of, let's bring out the junior varsity tonight and have all their friends and neighbors laugh at them. Which is how I found myself vaulting across the stage and spouting gibberish (in front of complete strangers!) during a game called "Foreign Movie Dub."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & uring classes, improv newbies like me often get thrown in with more experienced players. One night, we were playing a game in rehearsal: First two people improvise a scene, then a third person freezes the scene, joins in and changes the entire premise of the scene -- its characters, setting, objectives. And then a fourth character jumps in, and a fifth....

The scene had transformed improvisationally from two people fixing a refrigerator to three people whispering in a monastery, and so on. Now there were about seven of us scattered about onstage; I think we were at a religious revival and had just started speaking in tongues.

So Jeremiah -- one of the veterans -- strolled on as our eighth player, needing to envision a new scenario. He took his time, looked around, and said, "I tried to find food, but the aliens have destroyed everything. There's nothing left out there." Then he glanced over at a guy sprawled on the floor. "We'll have to eat Chris."

That's when I knew I wanted to watch more improv, study more improv. I wouldn't approximate (even a little) some of the comedians in this town, but the improv bug had bitten, and I wasn't going to need a script for whatever I was doing next.

The Blue Door Theatre, 815 W. Garland Ave., presents improvised sketch comedy in all-ages shows every Friday night at 8 pm. Tickets: $8; $6, seniors, students and children. At 9 pm on the first and third Saturdays of the month, "Safari" presents always-changing material that may not be suitable for all audiences. Blue Door's next adult improv class runs on Tuesdays from 7-9 pm, Nov. 6-Dec. 4. Cost: $90; $20, per class. Visit or call 747-7045.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.