Ventura County Star
September 1, 2000
By Lisa McKinnon

Better Living Through Improv

Tom Mueller, Jim Kasmir, Judy Gottlieb and Jeanie Hays (clockwise from top left) represent Ventura in this weekend’s California TheatreSports Tournament.

They’ve built a reputation as gracious hosts. Now members of the improvisational troupe Ventura Area TheatreSports™ are working on “Building a Funnier Tomorrow.” That’s what they’ve dubbed this weekend’s California TheatreSports Tournament the fourth such competition they have organized for teams from the San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Maria, Stanford, Redwoods and Bay Area chapters of TheatreSports.

“Everyone wants Ventura to host it,” VATS co-director Tom Mueller said of the annual three-day orgy of improvisational theater games and competitions. “They love the fact that the beach is right there and that they can walk to the theater any time of day or night.”

For 51 weeks of the year VATS presents its offbeat unscripted shows in the Livery Theatre, an intimate venue in the old Livery Arts Center on Palm Street. But on tournament weekend the action moves to the Laurel Theatre, a former church on Main Street that now serves as the home of Rubicon Theatre Company. The site offers expanded seating on what Mueller has jokingly referred to as “the most comfortable pews I’ve ever encountered.”

In addition to competitive matches tonight through Sunday, the weekend will feature a late-night presentation of “Spontaneous Broadway” during which performers create an original musical using song titles suggested by members of the audience.

But the focus is on the competition.

“There’s no denying that the home team has the advantage,” said Mueller, who, with Judy Gottlieb, Jeanie Hays, and Jim Kasmir, is representing Ventura. “Then again we’ve never won the whole thing.” (VATS played host to statewide tournaments in 1996, ’97,  and ’99, each time coming in third place behind the Los Angeles and Bay Area teams.)

“The prizes for our competitions are symbolic and have no actual value whatsoever,” Mueller said. “What we’re interested in winning is a greater appreciation and understanding of the human condition and we do it through the universal language of laughter. In a way (the tournament) is a tiny step toward global peace. Or to look at it another way, it’s a bunch of extremely twisted people engaging in completely unpredictable and bizarre antics to amuse a crowd of raucous spectators. You just can’t lose with this thing.”

VATS formed in 1989 as one of hundreds of troupes throughout the United States Canada and Europe belonging to a franchise started by Keith Johnstone. Legend has it Johnstone was working as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre in London in the 1960s when he went to a professional wrestling match with friends and had an epiphany:Watching the enthusiastic participatory response of the crowd Johnstone wondered why similar reactions were never part of more conventional theater productions. Could a freewheeling sense of competition be the key?

Johnstone went on to share his theory in a 1979 book “Impro” and in workshops that introduced actors to theater games with names like “Freeze Tag Endowment” and “Slow Motion Commentary.” More than 20 years later similar games are a staple of the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?”


Tonight through Sunday at Laurel Theatre 1006 E. Main St. Ventura. Improvised theater matches featuring players from seven California TheatreSports teams at 7 and 9 tonight and Saturday $10 with semifinals and finals at 7 p.m.
Sunday $15. Elimination improv at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday $7. “Spontaneous Broadway” at 11:15 p.m.
Saturday $5. Tournament pass $50. 643-5701.

© 2000, Ventura County Star.