by Michael Bowen

A young woman and two young men scamper across an open space, gesticulating. To a casual observer, they're quite possibly deranged. There's a whole lot of shrieking and hand signaling going on. Two of them seem to want to communicate some obscure message to the third. Slowly, the situation clarifies: they want the third guy to mimic the actions of parasailing. (Now we're getting our bearings.) But there's a catch. Against all probability, the parasailor is supposed to deduce from his partners' shouts and antics what observers on the scene already know -- that his "sail" is ostensibly an anvil, and that his "skis" are actually made of Jell-O.

By the way, that's onion-flavored Jell-O. The actor doing the improvising? He needs to figure that out for himself.

Every Saturday night, downtown at the Magic Lantern Theater, a troupe of local comedic actors perform skits, devising them as they go. Improvised comedy ("improv") has surged in popularity in the last few years, in large part due to Drew Carey's primetime improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and its offshoot, The Wayne Brady Show.

Spokane has followed suit with the Blue Door Theater, which burst onto the scene four years ago with wacky transformations of lightly scripted material into completely impromptu comic sketches enhanced by audience suggestions. Not long after, a local group called SpoComedy installed itself in the former art-house cinema and started playing improv by the rules of ComedySportz, a nationwide codified and competitive form of improv in which two uniformed teams compete at improv games under the watchful eyes of a referee.

Kasey Christie, general manager of SpoComedy, explains that "in the past, our biggest marketing problem has been getting folks to understand what we do. When we say that it isn't stand-up, people used to ask, 'Well, then, what are you?' Our answer used to be, "We can't explain it; just come and see it.' Now we can ask if people are familiar" with Drew Carey's improv show.

The improv bug has bitten local college actors, too: the local Jesuit school has produced "Gonzaga University Theater Sports" (GUTS), a kind of offshoot of the ComedySportz concept. Whitworth can boast of two troupes: the "On the Spot Players," who do improv as part of community service-learning projects, and their by-audition-only group, known as "CoolWhip."

Improv isn't exactly stand-up comedy; it's more like stand-up by committee. Think of a Saturday Night Live skit written by lightning. In an era of predictable sitcoms with laugh tracks that all sound the same, improv appeals to audiences in part because, even more than scripted theater, each night holds the promise of something never to be repeated in quite the same way. With improv audiences, largely college age and rowdy, there's something at work akin to our fascination with car wrecks: we cringe, hoping to avoid the carnage but also curious to see it. Partly, we want to witness the spectacle of otherwise rational adults making complete fools of themselves. While it's true that sometimes the best opportunities for comic rejoinders, silly wordplay and ridiculous antics are often lost or wasted, nevertheless, when the comic riffs are timed just so, improvisers and their audiences experience the easy, effortless joy of a good joke brought to life, physicalized, made funny.

The night I saw them, the SpoComedians

followed several standardized games. In the

ComedySportz format, rules need to be followed and audience suggestions need to be carefully incorporated into the scene. A man dressed as a referee in the requisite striped shirt, whistle in hand, watches over their spontaneous goofs, looking for the right moment to bring the frantic improvisation to a soft landing.

In the parasailing bit, the trio of absurdists -- bamboozled and foundering -- are intensely aware of being scrutinized. After all, about 120 other people are watching them, nearly all breaking up with laughter. The blame for all this onstage comic confusion belongs with the audience. They're the ones, after all, who came up with the idea of onion-flavored Jell-O.

If you want to know about ComedySportz -- its rules and origins -- then Kevin Bradshaw, SpoComedy's assistant GM, is your man: he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history and training methods of ComedySportz. The concept of a sports-based, ritualized competitive improv show started in Milwaukee in 1984 and has since spread to most major American cities. On a recent night at the Magic Lantern, I witnessed at least a half-dozen different scenarios in a fast-paced 90-minute wit-display, so it rather boggles the mind when Christie notes that "I have personally documented well over 200 different games and scenes that ComedySportz [performs] around the nation."

Here are some of the games SpoComedy plays. One player mimics an action, and when asked, has to reply that she's doing something entirely unrelated ("What Are You Doing?"). The audience selects unusual jargon words associated with an unusual profession, and then teams of three improvisers make an attempt -- usually failed and ludicrous -- to complete the spelling ("Trade School Speller"). "Interpreter" has one actor pretending to interpret gibberish at a "news conference." In "Countdown," a skit with three specified objects is improvised -- and then performed in half the time, and half of that, and half of that. In "Dinner at Joe's," four actors enact the dominant trait of an unsuspecting audience member's sibling, best friend, lover -- and mother. After a skit begins in "Forward-Reverse," the referee, as if by remote control, can speed the players up or send them into reverse slow motion.

The Blue Door has setups that include skits based on two completely unrelated hobbies and emotions; a cooking show with one effete chef and one greasy-spoon cook, both portrayed by two actors, with one speaking and the other, standing behind, gesturing wildly with unseen hands and arms. Then there's a concluding "Oratorio," a kind of a cappella madrigal chant with comic rhythms. In the upcoming Saturday night Halloween-themed show, "Give Me Something good to Eat 2: The Nightmare Continues," says Jason Frederick, Blue Door's managing director, "the entire second half will be a piece called 'Campfire,' where we will have audience members share their own spooky or paranormal experiences and then use them in a long-form improvisation done in the style of telling stories around the campfire."

Improv teams are always straining after that elusive ideal of inventive, rapid-fire comic teamwork, in which all the one-liners are witty and all the made-up stage business plays for the punch line. They're a pretty self-analytical bunch. So what do they look for when they are in the audience? For them, what makes for outstanding improv?

"When I observe other improv troupes in action, or watch Whose Line is it Anyway?" says Bradshaw, "I watch for teamwork and listening skills, key ingredients to the success of the improvisations. Good listening, give and take, waiting for the right moment to enter the scene, adding information to the scene (vs. simply asking questions or standing there not contributing to the scene) are important skills as well."

Frederick admires actors with lofty aims: "There are troupes in the improv community attempting to improvise cohesive, full-length plays, with intricate story lines woven together by the improvisers. When I see that, I am intrigued even if it's not succeeding at every turn."

Laura Sheppard of the GUTS troupe dislikes grandstanding, valuing humility and genuine teamwork instead. In GUTS, she remarks, "we aren't even looking anymore for how 'good' any particular player is at being funny or capturing the spotlight, but at how the players play as a team to build each other up." (It should be noted that both GUTS and SpoComedy have banished all off-color humor from their acts.)

Christie emphasizes the need for team building among improv players, and clearly the others value teamwork highly. A good example arose in a recent skit at the Blue Door. Frederick was pretending to be the chief of some primitive tribe, issuing orders to Martty Zeller to "go fetch beans from yon trees, that we might have beans enough to feed our starving people." Zeller was accompanied by Billy Tierney, who was kneeling to bring himself down to a child's height. Tierney was either reluctant or unable to get into the scene, and noticeably hadn't spoken a word throughout the skit. That was the moment Frederick improvised "Go forth, Zacharias, and take your mute."

They teamed up; it was an improviser's gem. Broke us all right up.

The Blue Door Theatre, 122 S. Monroe, has shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Tickets: $7; $5, students. Call: 747-7045. ComedySportz by SpoComedy, at the former Magic Lantern Theater, 123 S. Wall, runs Saturdays at 8:30 pm. Tickets: $8; $7 with canned food donation. Call: 994-0536. Gonzaga University Theater Sports (GUTS) is at the Russell Theatre, 502 E. Boone Ave. Their next show is Sunday, Oct. 28, at 9 pm. Tickets: $1. Call: 484-4521.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

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.