You don't know Jack (but you should) 

JaCKPie may be the next step in the evolution of Atlanta's improv scene

Let's assume you stumble into a JaCKPie show by accident. You've seen some improvised comedy before, so you expect JaCKPie will be more of the same -- short, silly games put on by a bunch of smart-aleck slackers. Wackiness ensues, fun times for all.

Had you happened upon JaCKPie's most recent show, an evening dubbed "The Vesuvius Project," you definitely would have found said wackiness: a gun-toting snowman brought to life, two inept snipers arguing on a rooftop, an overweight kid worrying that his mom may be a cannibal.

But JaCKPie serves its absurdity with a twist: All these characters function in a storyline that's at least tangentially related, and the run time can last as long as two hours.

While local fixtures like Whole World Theatre or Dad's Garage have become virtually synonymous with the fast-paced game-style of improv comedy, JaCKPie is trying something altogether different: long-form improv or, as co-founders Jim Karwisch and Chris Pierce call it, spontaneous theater. JaCKPie's shows aim for a longer payoff, developing characters more and relying less on audience participation. And often, the comedy isn't necessarily the driving force.

A moment arrives about two-thirds through "The Vesuvius Project" when, all of a sudden, the pressure noticeably begins to build. That animated snowman becomes a bodyguard for a lost little girl, intercepting the snipers and saving the day. The rate of action, which has been a little slow during the first act, accelerates, and the "plot," if you can call it that, stretches to a climax.

This convergence is by design; though long-form improv shows aren't rehearsed, they do often follow a pre-established scene structure. As its name suggests, "Vesuvius" is created to reflect a volcano that builds energy and eventually explodes in the second half.

The volcano metaphor may well apply to JaCKPie, because the company seems to be at a pivotal moment itself. Momentum and pressure have been building for the past year-and-a-half, and now JaCKPie sits on the verge of a major explosion -- in a good way.

Though Atlanta has been exposed to long-form improv before, perhaps most visibly through Scandal, the season-long soap opera at Dad's Garage, the kind of theater JaCKPie produces feels like a different, and logical, addition to the scene. Long-form shows regularly pack houses in Chicago and New York, and some improv followers call the form an evolutionary superior to short-form. Karwisch and Pierce are banking that Atlanta will catch the long-form bug. Next month they're moving their two-man act to Peachtree Playhouse, putting on a late-night show most Saturdays in March. And they're in the process of renovating an old movie house in Avondale Estates, a venue they're already using to teach long-form classes.

Admittedly, it's an inauspicious time to open a new theater space, especially one located in a sleepy little business district perpetually on the edge of discovery. That outlook appears even darker when you consider the listless economy and the fact that JaCKPie is trotting out something largely untested in this city. Last year another improv troupe, the Comedy Response Unit, folded after starting the Red Chair Theater in another up-and-coming part of town. It begs the question, can this city support another improv group?

Pierce thinks so. "We're not just another improv group," he says. "It's not all games and bells. It's about being an actor and a playwright at the same time."

Both Karwisch and Pierce grew up in the northern suburbs of Atlanta -- Cobb and Gwinnett counties, respectively. Both are 27 and have spent their adult lives pursuing acting. And both are outspoken, fervent advocates of their chosen art form. But there the similarities mostly end. In person, Karwisch is both bookish and boisterous, a self-confessed chatterbox who on stage often ends up playing the straight man. Pierce, who looks like a younger Jim Carrey (minus most everything annoying about that actor), is more of a writer than his business partner, but he shows admirable range in his acting.

A UGA grad, Pierce started acting during college and later studied improv at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Back in Atlanta he took classes at Dad's Garage and ended up on stage with the Comedy Response Unit, a young troupe of comedians who were doing game-style improv and experimenting with longer forms.

Karwisch, who's been an actor since childhood and toured in a couple of shows after college, moved back to Atlanta in 2001 following a stint in Chicago, the nation's undisputed capital of improv comedy. While there, he studied with the ImprovOlympic and immersed himself in the comedy scene.

"Jim came to Atlanta as a Chicago-schooled evangelist looking for somewhere to preach," says Chris Nalesnik, a former Comedy Response Unit member who now performs regularly with JaCKPie. "Jim led a few workshops [for Comedy Response], and it was like a breath of fresh air."

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