Out of their heads
Bay Area improv players have a winning strategy for turning San Francisco into a world-class performance city: making it up as they go along.

By Robert Avila

KASPAR HAUSER, the San Francisco-based sketch comedy troupe, deftly spoofs what many people think of as a "typical" improv game. Promising a completely spontaneous performance, four players solicit a word from the audience (in the end opting for one of their own) and then immediately drift apart in a mute, meandering, self-conscious display of utter randomness. The joke turns on what live-theater audiences are said to fear the most, after mimes: bad improv.

But that stereotype may soon be outdated. Not only has San Francisco long been home to some very fine improvisational theater, but also, for the past four years or so, more improv troupes have been forming and performing than perhaps ever before. Two recently fledged improv festivals – the second annual Bay Area Theatresports Improv Long-Form Festival and the first annual San Francisco Improv Festival – were underway during May (the latter continues on through June). And rather than seeming merely excessive, all this activity looks more like a modest start to a Bay Area improv renaissance.

Why improv? Why now? The bigger picture probably includes the popularity of improvisational performances on film and TV, including the films of Christopher Guest, HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bravo's Significant Others, and the improv game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? Moreover, the success of reality shows seems to be feeding, at least in part, a developing industry trend in unscripted performance – though at a basic level, reality TV and improv couldn't be farther apart.

Reality shows tend to be as much about who loses, and how badly, as about who marries the millionaire or gets to leave the space station and return to Earth. They're often mesmerizing little paeans to social Darwinism, with a ruthless each-against-all ethic at their core.

The ideas and methods underlying improv, on the other hand, lead in the opposite direction. They fall under the simple formula: "Yes – and ...," which is the golden rule of improv. It means an improviser always embraces and supports a fellow player's idea, or "offer," and reciprocates with another, turning the exchange into a collaborative, social venture. Only in this context can an improviser maintain focus. In improv lingo, focus means replacing the cerebral with the intuitive (what a jazz musician might call getting out of your head and into the moment). It means getting in the "zone" and thereby achieving "flow" (yes, I've been reading up on it), where intelligence and creativity exercise free rein and an improv performer (or "player") translates intuition into spontaneity: the ability to fully act in and relate to one's social environment without recourse to, or interference from, hierarchies of any kind.

Since much of improv is based on discreet "games," separate teams of improvisers might compete with one another (as in the sports-style organization of improv schools like Bay Area Theatresports (BATS) and ImprovOlympic), but when playing together, improvisers practice the fullest degree of cooperation. If it sounds trippy, that's because it is. "I have a friend who's a big Buddhist guy," says Regina Saisi, BATS artistic director and a member of the accomplished improv troupe True Fiction Magazine, who knows all about the zone. "He watched [TFM perform] and was so intrigued because that's what they're fighting for, to be present. And he interviewed me afterwards and realized I was only that way onstage."

It all goes back to the Chicago school of improv comedy, which in turn starts with the theater games developed by actor, director, and teacher Viola Spolin. Her depression-era work with children's theater cultivated individual creativity and group cohesion among young actors by systematizing the notion of play. With a strongly antiauthoritarian perspective, Spolin's highly specific and myriad theater games were ultimately more than a set of acting tools, delving into the possibilities for individual and social transformation through drama. In 1955 her son Paul Sills and his University of Chicago classmate David Shepherd adapted these games to an idea they had, partly inspired by Bertolt Brecht, for a politically and socially relevant form of cabaret theater. This was the serious-sounding birth of the Compass Players and, later, Second City, the vastly influential progenitors of modern improv comedy.

BATS has been a leading force in Bay Area improv for the past two decades, along with loosely related troupes like TFM (composed of Saisi, Paul Killam, Diane Rachel, and Barbara Scott) and Three for All (the remarkably potent collaboration between Rafe Chase, Stephen Kearin, and Tim Orr). And BATS had pretty much dominated the scene for 10 years or more, along with one or two other long-lasting companies like Joya Cory's Lucky Dog Theater and Sue Walden's Flash Family (founded in 1978). "When I first started," says Paul Killam, who joined BATS in 1989, "there was BATS and Flash Family and National Theater of the Deranged out there. There were probably some other ones, but those were the three groups that were going, and that was kind of it. I don't think a lot of people were able to figure out how to get an audience, get a theater together, publicize it, and that sort of thing. There wasn't a whole heck of a lot going on constantly."

As the few long-lasting troupes continue to hone their craft and push their own styles, a newer assortment of groups (many composed of individuals who met and trained at BATS) has been meeting and performing in spaces like the Climate Theatre, the Next Stage Theater, Edinburgh Castle Pub, and the new Off-Market Theater. The people who gather at these venues to do what's known as long-form improv are students and practitioners of what they're convinced is a viable art form in its own right (as opposed to merely an acting "tool"), and they're unusually well organized.

All this activity builds on a local tradition more substantial than many realize. In fact, what improvisers consider the most innovative and artistically daring development in improv – namely the narrative forms that move beyond the shorter game format and toward a complete and spontaneous dramatic work – arose not in Chicago but in San Francisco. And not once, but twice.

So (Del) Close

The Monday Night Jam at the Climate Theatre has become a lively and increasingly popular meeting ground for both seasoned and up-and-coming Bay Area improvisers since Shaun Landry and Sam Shaw first started it in 2001, along with something they call the San Francisco Improv Cooperative. The night I go to watch is actually a Thursday. The Monday Night Jam has been paired for three consecutive nights with Cesar Jaime and Jeff Pacocha's Delmonic Interviews, a new documentary in tribute to late improv legend and "guru" Del Close. The double bill is part of the ambitious 12 weeks of eclectic programming (including an improvised film, an improv workshop with Mick Napier of Chicago's Annoyance Theater, and an assortment of local and national troupes) making up SFIC's first annual San Francisco Improv Festival.

The audience barely outnumbers the performers this evening, but nobody's spirits seem dimmed by the modest turnout. (That's good, because at this time the following week they have to compete with the merciless final episode of Friends, and place a distant second.) The improv play consists of three intertwining stories made from audience suggestions, and it turns out to be pretty engaging. Among the half dozen players are pros like Landry – whose own troupe, Oui Be Negroes (the nationally known African American improv company she cofounded with husband Hans Summers in Chicago in 1993), will perform another night – as well as relative newcomers like Dan Wilson, a local actor and director who proves such a natural that it comes as no surprise he's got his own troupe in the festival too, a protean grouping called Pharmarsupial.

The actual form the improvisation takes (or set of rules that gives the performers a basic structure in which to improvise) has the goofy proper name of Harold. The Harold, also called long form, is Close's child and one of several key lineages of which your average improviser is intimately aware. As the Harold gets underway, each of the narratives started by the players, with suggestions elicited from the audience, begins to bleed into the others whenever inspiration strikes, ideally heading toward some masterful final scene that wraps them all up in a bow.

Along the way, a lively volley of side-coaching (another improv term) from players who aren't in a given scene elicits flashbacks, close-ups, and other narrative detailing, sometimes adding depth or maybe just a laugh, as well as a strong, syncopated rhythm to the action. The group even manages one or two inspired moments in which the seamless execution of an idea brings the players and the audience together in slightly giddy wonder at what just happened.

After the jam, improvisers and audience members grab beers and hunker down for the screening of the Delmonic Interviews as Landry relates to the room the first time she met Close. "He came into my comic book store on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, mumbling about Robert Crumb or the Hernandez Brothers, and I thought he was a homeless man. I mean a scary homeless man." The improvisers laugh knowingly. (All who knew the brilliant but terribly eccentric Close have a great story about him.) "Of course, then I found out who he was, and we talked. In the end he pulled up his sleeves and proudly showed me his track marks, and I started taking lessons with him the next day."

More stories and anecdotes follow in the documentary, in which Close's former students at Chicago's ImprovOlympics – including Matt Besser (of Upright Citizens Brigade), Amy Poehler (of UCB and Saturday Night Live), and a bunch of high-profile comedy writers out of Chicago's enormously successful comedy mill – relate their memories of and indebtedness to their beloved mentor. In the darkness the small circle of true believers shares knowing laughter, occasional surprise, and reverent beer-gurgling semi-silence.

"I've got a lot of Del Close stories," Corey Fischer, cofounder of San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre, says, laughing. Fischer's career as an actor, director, and playwright owes much, by his own reckoning, to his experience in 1968 as a workshop company member in the Los Angeles branch of the Committee, the fabled San Francisco comedy troupe started in the early 1960s by veterans of Second City. "Somebody had the idea of trying to get Del Close to come down [from San Francisco], having heard that he was pioneering what's now called long-form improvisation," he says. "So we were one of the first companies he experimented on. It was the form he called Harold, and he had this incredible dream of creating an improvised theater that would have all the depth and power of Greek tragedy. I don't think he had a clue about how to really achieve it, and he was completely wacky, but it would be great to just sit back and listen to him."

That experience led Fischer and some colleagues, including future Traveling Jewish Theatre cofounder Naomi Newman, to start their own improv company based on the Harold form – what Fischer remembers as "the Holy Grail of improv" – a troupe called Synergy Trust (of the company's très '60s name he says, "Even back then I hated it"). After moving to the Bay Area, Fischer continued to use improvisation but principally as a means of developing specific theatrical projects. In the early 1990s, however, he returned to pure improvisational theater, albeit in a new form, collaborating with performance artist Nina Wise on spontaneous theater pieces of a highly physical yet distinctly verbal, personal caste.

Although Fischer's work has continually evolved, one hears in his account a still vital connection to those basic truths first learned studying improv with the Committee. "For me, it was an incredible eye-opener, very liberating, a very important piece of my training, just doing the basic Viola Spolin peer games," he says. "In its pure form the processes are great. It's interesting now to see the popularity of SITI [the movement-based ensemble theater company founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki in 1992] training and Viewpoints [improvisation technique adapted by SITI from choreographer Mary Overlie], it owes so much to that, and a lot of modern dance like Mary Overlie. Of course, all that stuff was cross-fertilizing. It's fascinating. There's almost a perennial wisdom that keeps recirculating and getting packaged in different forms. In a way there's never anything new under the sun. The truths about the body and the ensemble and listening ..."

Third City?

In the improv history of the past 50 years, Second City can seem like the big bang, flinging out improvisers in concentric orbits to coalesce into new groups and new institutions whenever things become too pressurized at the core. This is more or less what happened in the early 1960s when Second City veterans founded the Committee in San Francisco, a development that led to Close's experiments growing improv into a complete theatrical art form.

But beginning in 1988, San Francisco spawned a genre-based narrative form distinct from Close's Harold yet after a similar end. This came about through the innovations of some first-generation BATS alumni who were part of the happening late-night comedy scene.

"Brian Lohmann, who was a local actor and one of the original BATS people, wanted to form a group that combined acting and improvisation," Saisi recalls. "So he got eight different actors in the city, improvisers, and we started Pulp Playhouse. We did late nights at the Eureka Theatre. We were the darlings of the city at that time," she says, laughing. "We'd pack the house – because Michael McShane was in it, you know, a lot of Faultline [the comedy group founded by Lohmann, McShane, and Greg Proops in the mid-'80s] people; there was a big following."

Paul Killam, who in college studied commedia dell'arte with English director William Gaskill, joined BATS and Pulp Playhouse after moving here in 1989. "We did the form called the Harold when I was in high school – our teacher, from San Francisco State, was a big fan of the Committee. And I suppose you could consider commedia dell'arte to be a sort of long-form. But with Bay Area Theatresports, when I got here, several of the people were experimenting with the idea of doing full-length single-story pieces. I became associated with that particular idea."

Rafe Chase formed Improv Theater the year after joining the initial Pulp Playhouse lineup, specifically to pursue the idea of a longer, genre-based form of improvisational storytelling. "He kind of pioneered the long form in San Francisco, I think," Saisi says. Chase admits that it was something brand-new for him and that it naturally grew out of his interests at the time, including a love of film (he also writes on film history), rather than from any direct study of the Harold structure developed earlier by Close. "I had never seen long form before," Chase says. "So the exploration was so much fun and so interesting. We took a very cinematic approach to long form. We would do one or two 'films' a night in different genres. We might have a film noir and a boxing story, [or] a nun movie and maybe a women's prison. We'd get a title from the audience and just go, [while adding] filmic tools to the improv stage, like montage and doing quick cuts."

The longer narrative structure had a strong appeal to improvisers like Saisi who were also trained actors. "You're committed to the work," she says, "as opposed to just standing there and thinking of what could be funny, which is just another type of improv, kind of like Whose Line Is It Anyway? Those guys are brilliant. There're just a couple of different styles."

Ironically, while many improvisers give credit to that TV show for familiarizing a mass audience with improv, Whose Line favors quick-draw comedians over true improvisers in its lineup (including Faultline-Pulp Playhouse veterans McShane and Proops). In general, TV's impatient and impersonal format makes it ill-suited to full-blown improvisational performance, which doesn't necessarily abide by a reliable joke-punctuated pace and heavily depends on contact with the audience. Still, the tendency toward a more commercially oriented variety of improvisation has been a fact of improv from the beginning. Fischer, who saw it firsthand, says, "The performances of the Committee – and it was the same with Second City and probably the Groundlings – quickly fall into a sketch comedy mold. And all the real energy goes to coming up with funny lines and funny situations. It's like good TV comedy writing, and it can be wonderful, but it's not the essence of the work, and it's rarely really improvised by the time [it's onstage]."

By contrast, the genre-based brand of long-form improvisation developed by Chase and company, for all its original ties to the comedy scene, has pushed character, story line, and theme over a series of punch lines. If humor remains a central element in a True Fiction Magazine performance, it's not necessarily the dominant one. As Chase puts it, "I'd rather let them laugh but not make them."

The fruits of this distinct approach have fed audiences of TFM, which closes the S.F. Improv Festival in June, ever since, with spontaneous but recognizable narratives that at their best seem to reinvigorate the genres they play with. The well-earned popularity of TFM and Three for All testifies to the power of a supple formula. "We were just making it up as we went along," Chase admits, "which is what improv is."

Herding the troupes

Shaun Landry and Sam Shaw first met in Boston in 1997 while she was on tour with Oui Be Negroes. That same year Shaw moved to San Francisco. He eventually started organizing improv jams in small, inexpensive spaces (of which there were, naturally, very few at the time; Shaw admits that when he decided to move here, he did so under the mistaken impression that Silicon Valley was somewhere outside of Los Angeles). Everyone who showed up would pitch in $5 for the rent on the space.

Bryce Byerley, a local actor and improviser, became an enthusiast of these low-budget sessions. "Pieces suffer when there's no audience in improv," he says. "Without that connection to give you your building blocks and the feedback of laughter or interest, it seems like an unfinished piece. That's why jams are popular. You have the freedom to take chances and to suck, as in rehearsal, along with the feedback of an audience."

After Landry and Summers moved to San Francisco in 2000, Shaw and Landry teamed up to establish a regular jam at the recently defunct Spanganga and to produce shows. For their first production, they sponsored an improv troupe from Japan, Yellow Man Group. Needing something to put before the word "presents" in the advertising, according to Shaw, they decided to form the San Francisco Improv Cooperative. Soon afterward they asked Byerley to be its third member.

Byerley – who performs in SFIC's festival with Becky Haycox as the "brother-sister" team the Babcocks (the brainchild of Shaw, who also directs them) – remembers the larger impetus behind the cooperative being Shaw and Landry's dismay at the relative lack of improv troupes at that time and the minimal communication that went on between those that did exist. Breaking down those barriers and networking seemed absolutely necessary. "For independent troupes back in 2000, 2001, 2002, performance spaces were hard to find, rehearsal spaces were most often someone's living room, and instruction came from rereading Impro or Truth in Comedy," Byerley says. "We believed that if we could pool our knowledge and provide access to affordable performance and rehearsal spaces and get the actors paid, improv could take off like a rocket in San Francisco."

Joining in this effort has been Off-Market Theater on Mission Street downtown, opened by Matthew Quinn and Steve Kahn of theatrical company Combined Art Form Entertainment. Off-Market has been hosting a number of local improv troupes in addition to CAFE resident improv company Tilted Frame, a uniquely techno-media-based venture cofounded by Quinn and Heather O'Brien that incorporates things like live-video feed and the Internet into shows. "We see a need," says Quinn, a Chicago native reared in the Second City tradition. "Improv groups tend to be hour shows; they have problems affording the $200 a night thing, and they don't necessarily have the same kind of support that theater companies do. They don't tend to be very well marketed, but rather fly-by-night. So we've sponsored a lot of groups, Legal Briefs, Muy Fuerte, Tonal Chaos, doing fifty-fifty splits so that they're not worried about the price." Some, like Legal Briefs and Muy Fuerte, have ended up pooling their resources and bringing their audiences together for double-bill performances. "I think we're offering very unique forms of improv, as well as a way for these groups to work together."

The new wave of improvisers hugely benefits from the dot-bomb, which made performance spaces more readily available again. (Daniel Gamburg's improvised film, IPO – a wryly intelligent, extremely well-acted portrait of the city during the dot-com era – is an accordingly apt SFIC festival offering. Enabling these up-and-coming performers are organizations like SFIC and Off-Market Theater, which offer a support structure crucial to building audiences that can sustain the better troupes. Such a structure becomes all the more vital considering improv troupes, as a rule, tend to be unwieldy and fragile propositions – "like herding kitties," according to Killam, who specifically credits Landry with energetically supplying encouragement and opportunities to local groups, which "seemed to spawn an upsurge in the number of shows" after she moved here in 2000.

"Since a lot of the existing troupes now know one another, and Sam and Shaun have access to many good performance spaces, it's a lot easier to put on shows," Byerley says. "Now we can pair and triple up with other troupes. The co-op helps find the venue and get you the support – house crew, ushers, stage managers, and techs – needed. Plus, since we are rather aggressive in our ideal that actors need to be paid, everyone takes home a part. It may not be much, but that sort of reinforcement not only strengthens the drive to do more shows but also to put on a quality, professional show."

"Having people see improv, that's the whole point," Landry says. "I don't care what format you're doing. If it's an improvised movie, I'm down for it. If you're doing improv on a blue blanket for free in the middle of the city, it's going to be promoted." At the same time, SFIC is determined to avoid the "inbred" phenomenon: the same groups continually playing the same venues. Landry and Shaw draw on their national and international connections to bring in troupes from Chicago, New York City, and Japan and to pair them up with local troupes. They also try to foster variety with a loose organizational structure that allows individual groups to do their own thing. "I want to create a scene that's allowed to spread out," Shaw says, "with many different leaders, many different voices. A lot of stuff is going on with genre work over at BATS, which I think is exciting. I'm hoping we can add fuel to that fire. There's so much in improv that isn't explored."

"It's exciting," Byerley enthuses. "Like being in Chicago in the '50s during the birth of the Compass Players." That statement may be a measure of the excitement taking hold of improvisers around town rather than a meaningful historical parallel. But strangely, as if to acknowledge the promise in the smorgasbord of improv then on display, one of the brightest lights of the Compass years alighted on San Francisco. Standing a bit incongruously at a lectern a few weeks ago as the guest of City Arts and Lectures, Elaine May, a cool and fit-looking 71, took questions from an adoring audience at Herbst Theatre. In answering with the quick-witted yet casual charm of a raconteur, the respected screenwriter and actor hinted at her artistic and professional roots in an earlier career as a brilliant improviser – work showcased in the legendary comedy duo Nichols and May, whose hold on the imagination after more than 40 years was evidenced by the number of questions about those days.

And yet it was perhaps an indication of the ground improv still has to cover in order to claim widespread legitimacy that many in the audience seemed oblivious or incredulous when it came to the ultimately spontaneous nature of the classic Nichols and May material they collectively cherished. One audience member, still trying to track down a recording of a sketch he remembered, offered a premise and a punch line. Everyone laughed at the description, but May was helpless. "We really did improvise so many of them that I don't remember," she confessed. "Sounds funny, though." Another fan thought Woody Allen had tried writing for them once. "He never wrote for us," she corrected. "We actually, truly never wrote anything down. We really did improvise. I know nobody believes that, but it's true."

The improvisers in the audience might have nodded appreciatively. Not a few were in attendance too – with careers that in some cases went back to the days of the Committee. "There were a lot of improvisers there that I hadn't seen in 10 or 15 years," Rafe Chase notes. "All the improvisers went to mecca, which is what Elaine May is."

A weekly short-form jam on Tuesday nights is the newest addition to SFIC's offerings, now that the Monday long-form jam has become so popular. "Sam came up with the idea," Landry says. " 'Let's do a night of a thousand games!' And of course we'll never get there, but we'll try." Each week, a heaping helping of the games improvisers play–and there are hundreds, maybe thousands–get written on strips of paper and placed in a plastic receptacle imposingly christened the Beer Cup of Death. Next, according to Landry, "People get up [onstage and draw from the cup], and we explain the games. It has that giddy, childlike feeling. It's fun to do. It's going back old school. Yeah, sure, it's going to grow into something else, that's what we expect. That's what we hope."

That last thought sparks another as the tape runs out on my recorder. She continues racing ahead, however, to flesh out just what that "something else" might entail. A true improviser. "Goddamn!" she shouts, in desperate need of a pen, "Are you writing this down?"

'San Francisco Improv Festival' runs through June 26, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Next Stage Theater, 1620 Gough, S.F., and Climate Theatre, 285 Ninth St., S.F. $12-$15. (415) 863-1076, www.sfimprovfestival.com.


June 2, 2004