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The Make-Believe Trombone

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Sometimes it's like we're the people from Whoville and the rest of Richmond is Horton. We're yelling, 'We are here! We are here!'"

That seems to be the situation for local improvisational comedians, according to Christine Walters, the founder and manager of ComedySportz Improv Theatre.

She says the audience for Comedy-Sportz shows has grown steadily, and her rotating crew of players has never been larger -- now numbering about 55. "But no matter how wide our audience gets," Walters says, "I still run into people who have no idea there is improv in Richmond."

After a recent visit to the regional Dirty South Improv Festival in Chapel Hill, N.C., Walters concludes that the local scene might be suffering from a lack of unity. "By uniting it — bringing together a number of troupes — more people will realize just how much is going on here," she says.

And so the Richmond Improv Festival — or the RIF — was born. For three days this weekend, six local troupes will participate in eight performances, including midnight shows Friday and Saturday. For the crash course, a $40 ticket will cover admission to every show.

The RIF should reveal that there are a number of philosophies behind making stuff up: The ComedySportz players split into teams to compete in improvisational games, a set-up similar to the television show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Long-form experts, like the troupe called Cousin Sheckie, specialize in developing spontaneous 20-minute-long pieces, while Jesters' Ink and Random Acts deliver fast-moving, punchline-driven routines. There's even an all-musical company, iProv, which assembles "instant musicals" based on audience suggestions.

Walters says that the variety of performances available at the festival underscores both the maturity of the improv scene in Richmond and the abundance of young talent that's been attracted to the field in recent years. "The quality keeps getting stronger and stronger," she says. "Troupes have been to other festivals, doing their research, making their shows more polished."

Those different themes orbit the improvisational concepts pioneered by Chicago's Second City, the grande dame of instant comedy founded by University of Chicago students in the '50s. Second City spawned the sketch comedy show "SCTV" and became a proving ground for "Saturday Night Live." Sixty years after those first sketches, something about the act of pretending to beat someone with an imaginary trombone has permeated the culture.

Richmond ComedySportz — one of a network of more than 20 local troupes operating around the country — doesn't just attract young talent, it develops it through training classes and camps. One of the company's featured veterans (at 22), Katie Holcomb has been doing improv for eight years. She calls her entry into the field a fluke. "I saw an ad and thought, 'I should check that out,'" she says.

In the past year, Holcomb's been recognized as a standout at the 2007 ComedySportz National Tournament in Illinois and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of ComedySportz's edgier offshoot, Full Contact Improv. Where ComedySportz bills itself as family-friendly, Full Contact is willing to add judicious vulgarity to the make-believe.

Though young, Holcomb has been around long enough to recognize changes in the local audience. "I think we're seeing a broadening of the demographic," she says. "Our 7:30 shows will always be good for families, but at [the 10 o'clock shows] we're seeing a 25-and-over crowd that you usually don't expect to be spending Saturday night at the theater."

While traditional theater administrators fret about attracting younger patrons, Walters credits her enthusiastic younger performers with keeping ComedySportz current within the pop-culture zeitgeist. When some of them suggested they set up the first MySpace site for a ComedySportz troupe, "it sounded silly to me," she recalls. "But I didn't want to shoot down the idea. Now all of the other troupes have one."

Maybe it's the MySpace philosophy that anyone can be a star that inspires its continued popularity or simply the idea of living in the moment when so many other things are planned and scheduled.

And for many players, it is an opportunity to let go of the inhibitions that can muddle a performer's mind. For Dave Gau, a player for ComedySportz since its inception in 1996, "improv is a chance to let it all out. You learn to trust that whatever comes out is right, to switch off that voice in your head that edits you." When told that it sounds like therapy, Gau replies, "This is better than therapy. Whatever's going on in your life, you can play that out in a scene and you don't have to pay $100 for it."

As for the audience, Holcomb thinks people are drawn to improv because of the element of surprise. "You literally never know what's going to happen on any given night," she says. "You can't really understand it until you go see it." S

The Richmond Improv Festival will be held at ComedySportz Improv Theatre, 7115 Staples Mill Road, Thursday-Saturday, May 29-31. Call 266-9377 or go to www.comedysportzrichmond.com for details.



Correction: The troupe Jesters' Ink was omitted from the original version of this story. It has been added.



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