Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Best Theatre You've Never Seen

There’s a little theatre in Richmond that no one in the theatre community seems to know about.

Out in the West End, where Staples Mill Road meets Glenside Drive, behind a Shoney’s and next to a Radio Shack sits a small storefront theatre with a tiny stage and a huge heart. If you haven’t heard of ComedySportz Improv Theatre, or if you have never visited their theatre, that may be partially because the local media declines to treat them as theatre, instead lumping them in with stand-up comedy. ComedySportz is apparently not deemed to be “theatre.”

I’m telling you, my friends, that nothing could be further from the truth. The actors at CSz, and actors they are, just may be the most skilled and best-trained performers in Richmond, and if you haven’t been out to see them work you owe it to yourself to rectify that mistake.

CSz’s players put on four unrehearsed shows on a standard weekend, two on Friday and two on Saturday night, with generally six players per show. It’s not the same thing every weekend; there are adult shows, specialized troupe shows, and this year they added iProv, a musical improv show.

If you think memorizing and rehearsing is hard, folks, try improv for a few hours. It’s the most demanding thing in acting that I have ever done. Hands down. It’s not about being funny all the time; the guys who are just naturally funny tend to be poor at making their partners look good, and they run out of jokes pretty quickly. It’s not even about being quick-witted; if you get ahead of your partners you often end up on an island alone. It’s about listening, saying yes, and doing everything in your power to make your partner look good.

In short, it’s about everything that makes acting good.

ComedySportz is run by my friend Christine Walters, who is, by the way, currently serving as vice president of the Richmond Alliance of Professional THEATRES. Christine is one of my heroes. Her business acumen and administrative skills are impressive (they certainly dwarf my own), but it’s her role as a teacher that makes her so special. Her players, numbering in the dozens, meet weekly to practice, to train, and to develop skills; she adjusts the session to fill the gaps in her players’ abilities. She is constantly building her players’ skills to make them better. And she reaches out into the community, using her expertise for team-building sessions and workshops at businesses and high schools in the area.

I’ve played with them on a couple occasions, and I would be there every week if my schedule allowed it.

I’ve played with them. They are actors. What they do is theatre. They create stories and characters, their plays have structure and conflict, and their shows are delightful. It is thrilling to sit in the audience and watch them play, watch this pure collaborative creation, watch them boost each other up, cheer each other’s successes and prop up their failures. I would love to find a way to get some of these players to do some Shakespeare; I have no doubt that, with a little text training, they would be fantastic in roles like Dromio, Mercutio, Feste, Puck, Bottom, etc.

It’s unfortunate that they don’t fit into newspaper definitions of “theatre,” and even more unfortunate that their shows aren’t regularly reviewed. ComedySportz is creating some of the most engaging theatre in town, and they deserve more attention.

When I talk about ComedySportz with Richmond theatre artists, the standard response is something like, “Oh. I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it’s really funny.” It’s more than funny. It’s brilliant, and it’s theatre. If you haven’t been out to see them, I hope you’ll make a date. I’ll be there tonight for their New Year’s Eve bash.

A couple of ComedySportz’s actors came to Drew Vidal’s stage combat workshop a few weeks ago. They filled out registration forms that ask the participant how much experience as an actor. One of them wrote, “Amateur. I’ve been playing with ComedySportz for 4 years.”

I’ve got news for you, brother. You’re a pro.

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4 Comments:

  • At 1/01/2008 3:05 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    Well I HAVE been to Comedy Sportz, and I respect the challenge of improv and the difficulty in doing it well (it's a monstrous challenge for sure).

    For me, improv is not my cup of tea - not what I enjoy watching, not what I enjoy doing. To me, these are two things that should be distinct to an audience and a performer: Audiences should know if they're coming to see a production based on a script written by a playwright performed by actors who will tell a scripted story using their own creative vision of that story (along with the director, set designer, lighting designer, and costume designer); or if they're going to see IMPROV, which is a very different theatre experience altogether.

    Again, all due respect to the improv folks, it's an incredible task. But, it's not for everyone. It's not for me. But I encourage folks to go and see an improv show at Comedy Sportz or similar venue, because for many people it is highly engaging.

     
  • At 1/02/2008 5:26 PM , Blogger pnlkotula said...

    Andrew, I list ComedySportz in the Richmond Marquee listings, but in truth, they don't send me press releases or updated information. And they aren't alone. I do the best I can at seeking out the information to print, but our theatres don't do a good job of self-promotion.

     
  • At 1/29/2008 5:05 PM , Anonymous Tim "Dr. Love" Sinclair said...

    Andrew,

    I'd love to do Shakespeare if my schedule allowed. I'd love to play Puck or Mercutio or whomever. It's absolutely thrilling and fantastic.

    I love what you do.

     
  • At 1/31/2008 6:48 PM , Blogger Terry said...

    Nicely said, Andrew. I'm married to one of those pros! And he's been improv-ing for 11 years now. Sometimes he uses a script at other theatres, but his real love is comedy improvisation. Thank you for recognizing this fine group of performers who entertain audiences every weeks, 52 weeks a year!

     

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