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Theatrical journeys into the unknown.

The audience is a willing participant in San Francisco's improv theater performances

EXPECTING THE unexpected is part of the delight of collective improvisation. For audiences, improv promises the freshness of an all-new show every 10 minutes or so throughout an evening of theatergoing. For actors, it means entering uncharted territory just as frequently. For both, it involves the excitement of unpredictable imaginative collaboration--which may be why an evening of improv can feel more absorbing than conventional theater, and why mistakes or misdirections are more easily forgiven.

San Francisco's theater community has an unusually strong complement of performers who are both willing to take on the risks of improvisation and skillful enough to do it in a consistently interesting way. Flying into the unknown requires a brave heart as well as a quick mind, a willingness to welcome the anxiety of being on the edge. As Rebecca Stockley of Bay Area Theatresports puts it, "You're trying to do something you don't already know you can do--often, many times in a single evening." Pulling this off also requires training; the availability of high-quality training in San Francisco is one reason why the city is blessed with a wealth of improv talent.

Such training has value for actors whether or not they're working with a script. Brian Lohmann teaches improv techniques at the American Conservatory Theater, even though the company does not present improvisation. "The training helps actors performing a script night after night to say in the moment, to be spontaneous and responsive," he says. "It helps them play the play, rather than demonstrate the play." At a deeper level, it teaches both actors and audience to treat a suggested direction as a gift, a door to be opened with anticipation rather than resistance.

Improvisational theater gets different twists from different performance groups. In general, though, you can expect intimate seating, few or no props, and relatively low prices. Though humor abounds, you'll find that gags are not really the point; imaginative exercise is more what it's about.


Here are some established improv theater groups with current offerings in San Francisco.

Bay Area Theatre-sports (BATS), (415) 824-8220. Competing four-player teams take on challenges formed with audience suggestions. One team might play a scene with each member using a different verse form; its opponents might tackle a "Rashomon," a short scene replayed from the point of view of each character. Judges flash score cards evaluating each performance event for technique, narrative development, and entertainment value. They can also honk a horn to cut off a scene that just isn't working.

Good-natured combat takes place Mondays at 450 Geary Boulevard; tickets are $10. Call for reservations or workshop information. (Workshop matches, Tuesdays at the Phoenix Theatre, at Eight and Folsom streets, cost $3.)

Pulp Playhouse, 922-9375. Using audience-supplied titles as starting points, the troupe improvises stories in familiar pulp-fiction genres--horror, romance, adventure, whatever. Halloween Horror will be offered October 29, 30, and 31 ($10 to $15) at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue. Call 861-8972 for reservations.

National Theatre of the Deranged, 4411-7808. Inspired by long-established local entertainer Jim Cranna (remember The Committee?), this group uses current news topics suggested by the audience to invent comic TV news-format "features." Performances are every Monday at The Improv (401 Mason Street); in addition to ticket price of $7, the club has a two-drink minimum (but also offers fruit-based "drinks for drivers").
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Title Annotation:includes directory of theater groups; improvisational theater in San Francisco, California
Author:Williamson, Marcia
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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