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Tokay High improvisational comedy troupe debuts tonight

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Posted: Friday, December 1, 2006 10:00 pm

A latte-dizzied renter crawls along the floor trying to track down a bothersome mouse. A hippie becomes a corporate clone after experiencing her first dab of non-organic, but totally exhilarating, hair gel. A family debates its second appearance on the "Maury" show.

Actually, two dozen Tokay High drama students stood in lines on stage in the Sydney Halsey theater Friday, waiting for their turns to dream up and act out impromptu scenes.

Their new improvisational comedy troupe is performing their first show tonight.

Lacey Herman, 17, a senior, said she was looking forward to the show - "It's competitive, you have to be quick on your feet."

Drama teacher Jim Jones said he wasn't nervous for his students, because many of them recently performed "Hansel and Gretel," which allowed some real-time practice.

"It's not just flopping around on stage, there's more structure than that," Jones said.

Konstantine Retelas is an improv trainer with the group ComedySportz, and came up from Hollywood to lead a two-day workshop with the theater students.

ComedySportz is the largest improv performance group in the country, Retelas said. There are franchise teams in 22 U.S. cities and two abroad, and just about every team that's been around for five years leads a high school league. In northern California 19 high schools have teams, and 82 teen teams compete in southern California.

Friday's workshop was mainly fun and games - students created characters and act out their actions in imaginary universes.

Lessons of Improv

Retelas led students through exercises all meant to push the envelope and get young "actletes" comfortable.

They practiced not laughing on stage. They practiced building characters and relationships an audience will care about.

"An improviser can take anything and go with it," Retelas said.

Lesson 1: Failure is fun.

"We have no reason to be nervous because no one will know you 'mess up' unless you let them know," said Anthony Razo, 15, a freshman.

Lesson 2: Say "Yes," not "No."

ComedySportz teaches the theory of "Yes, and …"

"It's accepting another person and building on it," said Emily Suess, 16, a junior.

Tokay High School students practice for their comedy show Friday at the Tokay theater. (Whitney Ramirez/News-Sentinel)

This improv exercise is like verbal "tag." For example one person starts telling a story; the next person adds to it, and so on, and every line must begin with the words "Yes, and …"

It's really a lesson in accepting what someone gives and letting it change you, Retelas said.

He calls "Yes, and …" the Tao of Improv.

Lesson 3: Trust.

"To do improv you're taking some big personal risks," Jones said. "And some of them are really funny."

Lesson 4: Push the envelope.

Lacey Herman, 17, a senior, decided that when it was her turn to take the stage in one improv game, her character would jump around, give some kicks, yell and tumble to the floor. The other two on her team played along in big, physical style as they pretended to be a mom breaking up a two-sister fight. It paid off: the skit brought huge laughs from her classmates.

"Between 15 to 18, human beings' natural improv ability is at a high," Retelas said.

It's just that adults don't improvise that often, and not in a comedic way, he said. Compare high-energy kids to people who live in the "real world" - people who are wrapped up in their responsibilities, going day-to-day in a corporate, cubicle-filled existence.

ComedySportz is a family show - that means no swearing or off-color remarks. They have no costumes, no props and no scripts. This frees performers from the traditional, Retelas said.

Jones agreed that ComedySportz will teach more than just performance skills.

"You start thinking outside yourself. (With) this kind of teamwork you're anticipating what your teammates want to do. It's not only about 'what do I want to do,'" Jones said.

Instead of muscling on the gridiron the ComedySportz improv performers' goal is to make people laugh. Tokay's next-closest teams are at least an hour away, so they'll likely compete among themselves for now.

In a match, teams compete for laughs and points, with a referee keeping things moving.

ComedySportz can be compared to the TV show "Whose Line is it Anyway" in that performers rely on audience suggestions to make up scenes and play games.

Jones first heard about ComedySportz at the California Educational Theater Association annual conference in Los Angeles.

"The first time I went to one of their shows I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe," he said.

During Tokay's fall break, he took some members of the Thespians club to San Jose so they could see ComedySportz for themselves. They were hooked.

Razo said he wanted to join the team because he loves making people laugh and loves being on stage.

"You can't describe the feeling you get when you're on stage. It's indescribable," Suess said.

Herman had a different view. "It's different, it's crazy, and it's fun!"

The Interactive Improv Experience is tonight at 7 p.m. at Tokay's Sidney Halsey Theatre. Admission is $5.

Contact reporter Kendyce Manguchei at kendycem @lodinews.com.

First published: Saturday, December 2, 2006

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