In a strip shopping center in Richmond's North Side, a sign tells visitors they're cruising the "Beef Byway." With no steers in sight, there sits the city's only commercial improvisational theater, ComedySportz Improv. It's now in its 10th year, and many of the performers claim that the belly laughs they inspire result from the discipline and leadership they've honed while learning the craft of improvisational comedy.
With both an adult and teen league, CSI uses a simple concept: Two teams, the "Virginia Hams" and "Richmond Legends," square off in comic duel while a referee bestows points and fouls. To make split-second comic decisions, the performers are widely informed on pop culture, politics, history and more.
But at the core of improvisation is learning to field whatever's delivered to you and building on it what improv-ers know as "Yes, and Attitude" a practice that CSI participants say works in their lives too.
"Improv has given me a better idea of who I'm going to become," says Dominic Wall, a 17-year-old who has been performing with CSI for nearly two years. "My grades are much better. Everybody is my family here."
Owner Christine Walters is largely responsible for bringing the club to Richmond 10 years ago this month. "One of the best parts of this business is we give [performers] leadership skills," she says, "but we're also giving them the opportunity to go into the community and do more."
Although the group is for-profit, it also presents free performances to day-care centers, high schools and groups like the Special Olympics and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
To create between three and six shows weekly, most people at CSI fill multiple roles. When Shoniqua Williams, 17, isn't onstage sharpening her comic skills, she's out among the audience working as a food server, or "bubba."
"ComedySportz has definitely helped me," Williams says. "I learned it's OK to be myself. I'm more involved in school. Christine really stays on you like a mother."
Looking around at her teammates, Williams adds: "I see them and I want to step my game up. We do shows all throughout the community. It's important to reach out to interact with people."
Williams believes improv comedy can address community issues. That's why she hopes someday to open a school and venue in her neighborhood, Jackson Ward.
ComedySportz audiences continue to grow locally while new branches keep opening nationally. The audience interacts as shows go to unexpected places, yet those places are always family-friendly the comedy stays clean.
Some alumni have gone on to take part in Chicago's famous improv scene, Walters says. There have been a few marriages among players who've met as a "Ham" or a "Legend."
"I've always thought about opening my own CSI," says Tim Sinclair, 21, a four-year veteran of the group. "The only problem is, I love Richmond. I could definitely take over this one."
Walters makes a recommendation to the aspiring entrepreneur: "'Located on the Beef Byway.' Put that in the advertising." S
This month ComedySportz Improv Theatre, 7115-A Staples Mill Road, celebrates its 10th anniversary with alumni reunion shows Oct. 20-21 and an East Coast Comedy Tournament with other CSI teams Oct. 27-28. Tickets are $10-$12. For full schedule go to www.comedysportzrichmond.com or call 266-9377.