VATS, 1990

VATS: Ventura Area TheatreSports wants you to know improv’s no laughing matter

By Brian McCoy
Thousand Oaks News Chronicle
April 13, 1990

“This is a stone.”
“A what?”
“A stone.”
“A stone. This is a stone.”
“A what?”
“A what?”
“A stone.”
“A stone.”
“A stone. This is a stone.”
“A what?”
“A what?”
“A what?”

Four men and four women were standing in a semi-circle on a recent Thursday night, feigning perplexity over what was, after all, just a stone. If you walked in on the scene, you might think them mad … or you might take a few steps closer and ask, “It is just a stone, isn’t it?”

But if you stuck around you’d soon to swept up in the rhythms the group adopted and in the personality of their individual voices. By the time the stone had been passed from one end to the other and back again, the exercise’s humor would have become evident.

But generating laughter is not necessarily the goal, say members of Ventura Area TheatreSports™, a fledgling improvisation group making its Conejo Valley debut Thursday at the Arts Council Cultural Center.

VATS, 1990

Russell Seveney leads the critique of the troupe’s work.

Sure, many of their scenes — or “games” — involve taking audience suggestions to hilariously illogical conclusions. But VATS knows improv can be serious and it doesn’t want to be known as just another comedy troupe.

“I think we’re more interested in creating interesting scenes than we are in being funny,” says member Tom Mueller. “We like them to be clever rather than funny; the aim is not to be stand-up comedians … not to make laughter necessarily. If we do, that’s fine but the goal is not to be like ‘Saturday Night Live.’ It’s to be able to tell a good story.”

International movement

It’s fitting that there’s quite a lively tale behind the formation of VATS, how it is part of :’. international TheatreSports movement and how the Ventura County members are in it not for fame or fortune but for the pure joy of improvisation.

“Most of us here are really interested in the process of learning about improv,” says Leslie Carson. “We’re not here to get famous or go to Second City. “ How devoted is VATS to improv for improv’s sake? Just ask them about their day jobs: the group includes housewives, two self-professed “computer geeks,” a personal trainer, and the secretary of the county’s League of Women Voters.

Only one member, Russell Seveney, is actively seeking a show business career. He bills himself a “budding actor-writer- salesman” and says of VATS, “I can’t help but think it’s doing nothing but helping my acting skills. I’m learning to react to others in a whole new light other than just relying on t words on paper. It’s opened a whole new perspective on performing for me.

Born in Calgary

That’s part of what professor Keith Johnstone had in mind 15 years ago when he established the first TheatreSports league among his students at the University of Calgary.

Johnstone had wondered why sporting events drew such large crowds when the theaters went half empty and came to the conclusion that, beyond any pretensions of culture, it was because sports enabled the public to vocalize its feelings about the action on the field.

VATS, 1990

Seveney mans VATS’ scoreboard of fate.

In an effort to transfer that kind of involvement to the theater, Johnstone devised a system in his class where two teams would play “games” – act out. various improvisational scenes – using the audience’s input to determine in which direction each situation would go. Three Olympic-like judges then rendered scores on how each team told its story, with points years detracted for such infractions as blocking the narrative’s progress or using gratuitous obscenity.

Johnstone’s experiment was a success: he and his students regrouped the following year to form the Loose Moose Theatre Company. The instructor wrote a book, “Impro,” and soon TheatreSports spread across Canada – Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax. Groups have since been established in Europe, Africa, South America and Australia.

In the United States, TheatreSports teams can be seen in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In fact, a workshop given last summer in Santa Paula by a representative of Bay Area TheatreSports led to the formation of the Ventura chapter.

Each show a premiere

But TheatreSports’ universality can be found in all its performances; because no two audiences are the same, not two shows are exactly alike either. That interaction is what gives TheatreSports’ its strength.

“Johnstone said in his book that actors have intuition that they don’t rely on and in this you get to use your intuition and rely on it,” says Dorothy Scott, whose daughter, Barbara, is a member of the San Francisco group.

VATS, 1990

David Gullett takes fellow VATS member Cindy Bell for a comedic drive at a recent group rehearsal in Oxnard.

VATS also must trust its audience. It is their suggestions that dictate where the scenes go, and it is their boos that can end them.

“When that’s explained to the audience at the beginning they always like that, they always laugh at that,” says Mueller. “I think they really enjoy the idea that we’re saying, ‘Sometimes we fail.’”

Where VATS is headed next is still in question. The group has semi-regular gigs at Ventura’s City Bakery and Plaza Players Theatre but realize they need to find a standard day and venue if they hope to establish a viable foothold in the county.