Comedy free-for-all 

Improv shows fast becoming Atlanta's hottest ticket in theater

The crowd at the Red Chair Theater is rowdy this Friday night, and they're screaming for Jennifer Caldwell to "Die!"

The improv game they're playing is "Zulu." The audience yells the names of categories -- "breakfast cereals," "super heroes," "degrees at Georgia Tech" -- and six members of the Comedy Response Unit must deliver funny examples for each ("Super Crunchy Noodles," "Sideburn Lad," "electrical engineering.")

The evening's host, Cameron Smith, on roller skates and sporting a Superman chest plate, rules over this game of comedic responses, but the audience decides when an answer isn't funny enough by yelling for the perpetrator to "die."

Caldwell is the first to go. Her answer for "super heroes" ("Bitch Ain't Funny") gets a resounding veto from the packed 100-seat house. The fast-paced skit goes on, but Caldwell slumps in the theater's titular Red Chair, taking a short breather from a long night of improvisational comedy.

To hear some tell it, audiences in general are yelling a collective "Die!" at Atlanta theater at large. The past two years have seen the troubling trend of artistic directors leaving the city, while theaters blame dwindling audiences and lack of corporate support for financial woes and personnel problems.

Yet, the city's improvisational comedy scene seems to be blossoming, with packed houses and a growing spirit of collaboration between new and old troupes alike.

"I think improv is just getting more popular overall," says Sean Daniels, artistic director for Dad's Garage Theatre. "Stand-up tends to be dying out, and people want something a little riskier. Also, we take off our shirts a lot in the shows. You won't see that anywhere else."

Riskier indeed, and certainly more interactive than traditional theater, which may explain the medium's magnetism to the 18-30 set. The Comedy Response Unit, for example, goes to absurd lengths to engage its audience.

"One great night we went out and started pulling people up on stage and ended up getting the whole audience on stage. The players came out and sat in the chairs in the audience, and we took pictures of them on stage," Caldwell says. Judging from the packed Friday nights at the Red Chair or the long lines at Dad's Garage, the risks seem to be paying off.

For the uninitiated, improv comedy is just what it sounds like -- an onstage form of sketch comedy that's unscripted, unrehearsed and typically unpredictable. The medium gained exposure in the '60s and mid-'70s due partly to the popularity of Chicago's Second City Theatre and its later incarnation as "SCTV." Counting among its alumni notables such as Dustin Hoffman, John Belushi, John Candy and Martin Short, Second City paved the way for "Saturday Night Live" and many other similar sketch comedy shows. More recently, the American version of the BBC's TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway" has introduced improv's game-centered format to mainstream audiences, establishing it as a zany alternative to traditional stand-up.

Improv is certainly not new to Atlanta. One group, Laughing Matters, has been around for more than 15 years and still boasts a handful of its original players.

"We are the vagabond nomad comedy group of Atlanta," says Allison Gilmore who, along with Tommy Futch, Emilio Perey and Gary Anthony Williams, helped start the troupe in 1985. Laughing Matters was born from a series of comedy classes taught by Robert Lowe (who Gilmore calls "the father of Atlanta improv, which would make me the godmother.")

Laughing Matters has long been known for its popular shows at Manuel's Tavern and also does regular gigs at both locations of Dave & Buster's. The secret to its success? "Trust," says Gilmore. "I know that you could put us on a flatbed truck in some small town in south Alabama and we'd entertain. We have a lot of respect for each other's talent."

The game is called "Slide Show." Using a suggestion from the audience, players assume wacky frozen poses on stage with the lights out. When the lights come up, another player has to explain what's going on in the "photo."

On this randy Friday night at Dad's Garage, Lucky Yates is playing narrator. The visibly buzzed audience has suggested the slide show center on a honeymoon in Thailand. Yates manages to keep the story going as Marc Cram and Chris Blair bend their bodies into increasingly improbable poses.

With the final photo, Yates essentially dares the players to reveal what happened in the honeymoon suite. The lights come up and ensemble member George Faughnan is suddenly and inexplicably naked, with a lone tubesock saving the crowd from full frontal. The audience explodes.

If Gilmore is the godmother of Atlanta improv, the guys at Dad's Garage Theatre are the unruly cousins who ring doorbells and run away and host secret meetings in their tree house. The Inman Park den of Gen-X hilarity has gained a national reputation for its high-profile plays, most notably shows by Trey Parker of "South Park" and the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python. But the theater's core following remains its obsessive improv audience.



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