The Tokay High School Theater is dimly lit, with laughter erupting from the first few rows. Five teenagers are scattered on-stage, frozen, with arms and legs bent akimbo, waiting for a sixth to tell them what to do next.
A tall girl serves as liaison between the stage and audience and offers four options.
Option A: Ian breakdances.
Option B: Alba breakdances.
Option C: Alba breakdances and is a zombie.
Option D: Michael can’t talk, falls to the ground and waits for Ian to help him, only to find that Ian has become a hungry zombie with an eye on Michael.
The audience debates for a moment. These are pretty good options. They narrow it down to C or D. Drama teacher Jim Jones has the final say.
It’s option D. Michael dies and is carried offstage by his fellows.
This was one scene practiced by the black team, one of four that make up the high school’s comedysportz club. They’re an improvisational theater troupe who compete among themselves and against other high school teams to earn points and laughs.
Jones was inspired to start up the team after hearing a presentation by a professional improv team in L.A. several years ago.
“I liked the structure, I liked that it was family friendly,” he said. “You can bring a fiveor six-year-old to a show.”
Now, as the coach for Tokay’s team, he advises the largest high school improv club in Northern California. The club’s forty members are split into four teams, identified by purple, gold, black and gray shirts.
Tonight, the black team will head to Roseville High School to compete. Their next home show is on April 3.
Performances are set up like a tournament. Each has several rounds of scenes, two teams alternating or battling on-stage and a referee with an eye out for foul plays.
These include the groaner, delay of game and brown bag fouls.
If the audience groans at a pun, the player has to apologize to the audience and hope they accept it.
Slow jokers must pass the scene to the other team.
Stepping past the boundaries of good taste forces the perpetrator to wear a brown paper bag over his or her head for the rest of the scene.
All these rules are meant to keep the game moving, family-friendly, and legitimately funny.
An improv team in Sacramento, part of the professional comedysportz league, partners with Tokay High to provide training, instructors and referees for each competition.
The players are all over the board. Some have a background in theater while some are shy and reluctant to come out of their shell outside of their weekly practice.
But acting in improv requires students to think fast, take risks and be willing to fail.
Four team captains have learned a few valuable lessons on how to survive the fast paced nature of improv.
“If you’re going to fail, fail big because it’s hilarious to the audience,” said Matthew Litfin, 16, who captains the purple team.
Players hail from various social circles on campus, but cliques go out the window on-stage and among club members, said Anthony Rodriguez, 17, captain of the gray team. Personal dignity is not important. Sometimes pants are ripped.
Keeping a ragtag group of energetic teenagers in line isn’t easy.
“The hardest part is controlling the team without killing their imagination,” said Jamie Walcott, 18, who manages the black team.
But perhaps the most important skill is the ability to roll with the punches.
Someone in the audience could throw out any idea to influence a skit. It’s essential for players to keep up on pop culture, according to Walcott’s mother Nara Walcott who helps supervise the club.
“You have to be ready,” she said. “If you’re not ready, fake it.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.