The (theater)-sporting life: BATS Improv turns 25!

Greek tragedy, the BATS Improv way.
Photo by Dan Heller

It was 1986, the year of Top Gun, Dallas, "Hands Across America," and "Papa Don't Preach." In San Francisco, a comedy troupe called Fratelli Bologna joined forces with Seattle Theatresports' Rebecca Stockley, and the rest was history. Bay Area Theatresports, now known as BATS Improv, marks its 25th anniversary this year with a special show Sat/12 — a one-off celebration smack-dab in the company's already-packed calendar of weekly shows. How does an arts organization stay so energetic after 25 years? Could a certain flair for improv have something to do with it? I spoke with BATS artistic director Kasey Klemm to get the scoop.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What's your history with the company?

Kasey Klemm: I started taking classes at BATS when I was 17, back in 1997. I've been with the organization ever since. I just became artistic director in April of this year. I'm just at the beginning of my three-year term.

SFBG: Is that an elected position?

KK: It's an open job position, so anyone in the main stage company is allowed to apply for it. People put together their artistic vision for where they want to develop and see the company grow, and move toward, as well as some organizational stuff. How they kind of functionally see the company working with each other, and developing as artists as well, so that we're not just staying stagnant and doing the same stuff, and we keep challenging each other. And also, a proposed six-month calendar.

SFBG: How do you think BATS has managed to stick around for 25 years?

KK: This organization has got a tremendous amount of heart behind it, and it really is the people that make it [that way]. We were just looking at some old photos that we had blown up for our lobby for the 25th anniversary display, and we have this company photo from, I think it was 1989. And it was about nine people who were with us in '89, still with us today. Phenomenal actors, and not people who are staying here because they have no other choice, but because the work that we do is so rewarding, both for the audience and personally as an artist. It's really a thrill to literally go do something new every night. It's exciting and the craft of it keeps you coming back for more.

I also think it's because we're an organization that really values stories, and stories that are driven by relationships and truth, versus trying to make something funny happen. That keeps people connected and interested much more than trying to be funny, or if this were a group where people were trying to outshine each other. But there's a real passion for telling truthful, connected stories. And what happens is, because it's being improvised, the result is often much more hilarious than anything that could have been written.

SFBG: So does BATS identify as a comedy group, or more just as a theater troupe?

KK: We self-identify more as a theater group. In some of our marketing, we started using the term "comedy theater," but the word theater is really important and central to what we do, because it's not about doing sketches or telling jokes. It's about creating theater that an audience can connect with and can be moved by, whether it's moved to uproarious laughter, or tears sometimes. We're after that sincere stuff, the sincere human experiences that are traditionally at the roots of theater.

SFBG: Do you think having strong improv skills has helped the company beyond just performing onstage?

KK: Absolutely. There's a culture of yes, and being inclusive, so it's an organization where everybody's voice gets to be heard. We're really good at communicating with each other, because you need to be. And we honor that kind of direct and honest communication with each other. Everybody knows that everybody else is here for the same reason: because we love doing theater-based improvisation. We're a group that all has the same goal: we're all artistically in pursuit of a very special kind of theater that we think only gets created through making it up on the spot.

With that, you get to know each other very well. Our main stage company is 19 people right now, some of whom have been around for the whole 25, some who are as new as having joined us last year. But because of the way we work onstage, we're very connected to each other.

SFBG: Why do you think Bay Area audiences love improv so much?

KK: Well, it's not boring! There's a lot of theater out there that for whatever reason, doesn't connect with every audience. An experimental new play might not be any good. But if we're in the middle of something, we've got the ability to go, "Hey, this is not very good. Let's change it up, let's start again." And everybody can laugh with the release of that kind of tension or pressure, so you don't have to sit through stuff that's not working.

As an audience member, when you're watching the improv happen onstage, you're much more engaged than in a scripted play, because you know the actors are creating it on the spot, so there's a part of you that's always creating these shadow stories: "Oh, I bet those two characters are going to end up romantically linked together." So they're creating the story with us. And it's a much more engaging type of theater than one that's just being told to the audience.

I think that's why you get those moments where 200 people laugh at the same time, because we've just put our finger on something that everybody was thinking, whether it was conscious or subconscious. We tap into this kind of group experience with it, and there's this explosion of laughter that happens from just hitting some sort of primal truth that exists in that moment, in that theater, with these particular actors onstage, and these particular audience in the house.

SFBG: What's the backstory on the 25th anniversary show this weekend?

KK: This weekend we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first Theatresports show in San Francisco. So 25 years ago there was a group of local actors that was kind of housed by a group called Fratelli Bologna, who brought their friend down from Seattle, Rebecca Stockley, who's now with us here at BATS. And she started teaching some workshops on the Theatresports format, which is creating theater with this kind of imaginary hook of it being a competition that draws people forward in their seats the same kind of way that a sporting event would, and gives the actors a lot of opportunities to create a lot of different types of theater in one night.

For a scene where there wasn't much improvisation happening, there were mostly scripted actors, to be able to work in film noir, and Tennessee Williams, and play a silly game all on the same night created this kind of magic that everyone got really inspired by. So 25 years ago on November 10, 1986, they did the first public performance of Theatresports in San Francisco, and there was such a great response from the audience and from the players that those players went, "There's something here. We want to keep doing this!" So that group went on and formed Bay Area Theatresports, which is now known as BATS Improv.

On Saturday night, we're going to have a Theatresports match that's going to be hosted by one of our founding members, and it's going to feature two teams of improvisers that are a mix of some of our most veteran players, and some of our newest players, and they're going to do about a 70-minute Theatresports match, and after that we're going to hold a champagne and dessert reception with the cast and audience. We're going to have people there from our history who've been important to us, longtime fans, etc. So it's going to be a big community celebration.

SFBG: What else is coming up for BATS Improv?

KK: More great theater! We're doing Theatresports on Friday nights through the end of the year. On Saturday nights in November we're doing a format called "Family Drama," which is an improvised three-act play, done very much in the classical stage play format. It's a single set that the audience helps endow at the beginning of the show; each actor only plays one character, there are no cuts or time jumps. It's a very straight-ahead, relationship-driven, three-act play.

In December, we're bringing back a show called "Very Merry Murder Mystery!," which is a British whodunnit with the hook being that not even the improvisers know who committed the murder. It's a very strongly character-driven piece that feels very much like a big, silly Agatha Christie play. It's a really fun show filled with a bunch of surprises.

"BATS Improv 25th Anniversary"
Sat/12, 8 p.m., $30
Bayfront Theater
Fort Mason Center, Marina at Laguna, SF
(415) 474-6776

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