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Free-Wheeling Improv Troupes Grab for Laughs With 1-of-a-Kind Performances

<i> Ziaya is a Van Nuys free-lance writer. </i>

Laughter is a serenade to their ears. They will whine, scream, purr, sing, act like a child, roll on the floor--do just about anything for that coveted sound. And their numbers are growing.

They are the members of the San Fernando Valley’s comedy improvisation troupes--groups scattered throughout the area, performing their scripted sketches and playing their improvised games mostly on weekend evenings.

“Comedy improvisation is popular for a number of reasons,” said Tom Maxwell, artistic director of The Groundlings and a member of that famed Los Angeles group since its inception in 1972. “People have a need to express themselves and since it’s a group effort, it’s less terrifying than stand-up. For actors just starting out, one advantage is that it doesn’t cost much to do. You don’t need an expensive set or lighting. And audiences like to see things created from their suggestions.

“The excitement of improvisation comes from its unique quality that it’s only being done once--it won’t be repeated--and everyone is aware of this,” Maxwell said.

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One of the Valley’s newest groups, the Wild Side Theatre in North Hollywood, already has nearly 40 members who rotate their performances in the company’s four weekly shows. The ensemble, which includes a generous mix of actors from diverse ethnic backgrounds, was selected through open auditions.

The group enjoys having a variety of people from across the country, including actors from both coasts and the Midwest, said Shelly Mazer, one of the theater’s founders. “What we look for when choosing performers are those willing to take chances and those who are team players,” she said.

Upon entering the 45-seat theater, the audience is given bingo sheets and crayons for use in the “Bingo Improv.” After a short introduction, during which co-founder Sam Longoria asks viewers to “tell your friends about the show if you like it--and if you don’t like it, it’ll be our little secret,” the fun begins.

Throughout the evening, members of the audience draw numbers from two fish bowls, and actually have the opportunity to play bingo. The pairs of numbers chosen also correspond to specific personal relationships and situations (or feelings), which provide the basis for the scenes the actors must improvise. As many as 500 combinations can be created, Mazer said, resulting in a show that may indeed be “wild” comedy.

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Wild Side Theatre, 10945 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays, 8 and 10 p.m. Admission is $6. Information: (818) 906-3809 .

“We’re here in beautiful downtown Burbank--making people laugh,” said Suzanne Kent, director of Live Humans, a 3-year-old comedy improv group. After 11 years with The Groundlings Kent said she wanted more creative freedom and founded, with actor James Hendriksen, Live Humans at Burbank’s Third Stage Theatre. Although the overall show is highly structured, Kent said the actors improvise the dialogue in the various sketches.

Jaclynne Greene Jacobs, 66, does her interpretation of a bag lady. Toting her cremated doggie in a Tupperware container--"so if she gets cold I can put her in the microwave"--Jacobs doesn’t hesitate telling it like it is. “My kids are ashamed of me because I have no teeth,” she scowls. “To hell with them--I wasn’t ashamed of them when they didn’t have any teeth.”

Kent said, she cautions the actors in her group that they shouldn’t always go for the laughs, but allow the humor to come out of the situation. And she said making people laugh is not the show’s only goal--as is the case in Live Humans’ nursing home skit.

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“There’s not much laughter when we do that piece,” she said. “It’s very real--and very painful. You can make your audience laugh, and yet also touch their hearts.”

Third Stage Theatre, 2811 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Shows are Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m . Admission is $7. Information: (818) 842-4755.

At the start of their show, members of Artificial Intelligence warn the audience that if the show’s not good, the audience is to blame. After all, the cast is only carrying out suggestions made by the audience, so why should the actors be held responsible?

No matter what suggestions pop up though, the strength of the cast’s outrageous characterizations helps see them through. Bill Moser’s Billy the Bum and John MacKane’s “foreign” restaurant manager stand ready to be ransported into just about any situation. The more absurd an audience suggestion, the more the seven-member ensemble welcomes it.

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Although the group was formed in July, they didn’t start performing until October. Shows are held in a small studio where the walls are painted black and the furniture is kept to a minimum. Wigs, outlandish clothing, and sound effects do abound, however. As do references to sex.

Moser admits the group sometimes “goes for the cheap laugh.”

“If you say something sexist, or put your finger in your nose, people will laugh,” he said. “But what we really want to strive toward is including work on topical subjects--subjects that allow us to state our point of view on what’s going on in the world.”

The group’s next show will include more scripted material, Moser said, perhaps as much as half.

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“What’s great about improvisation is that it keeps changing. It’s amazing and exciting,” he said. “The audience gets to participate, and if they don’t like what’s going on, before they know it, there’s something different happening.”

Mise En Scene, 11305 Magnolia Blvd. , North Hollywood. Shows are Fridays at 8 p.m. Admission is $5. Information: (818) 763-3101.

Although Actor’s Alley has been going strong for nearly 16 years, the playhouse’s comedy improvisational group, the Alley Oops, started just a year and a half ago, the result of an improvisational class.

The group’s current production, “Vaguely Vegas,” opened last weekend and will continue at the Sherman Oaks theater for an indefinite run. The motto for this Vegas spoof: “We’re off the Strip, but worth the trip.”

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The theater has been turned into a Vegas showroom, complete with magicians, music and the cast’s versions of Wayne Newton, Mel Torme and Johnny Mathis. Also included in the show, which is only about 25% improvisation, is “Beyond Relief,” a take-off of Sigfried and Roy’s famous “Beyond Belief.”

Director Steven Kavner believes the current improvisational craze is most popular in Los Angeles. “That’s not to say other cities don’t have improv clubs,” he said. “But there’s not as much in New York, or say Chicago.”

“What’s great about (improvisational comedy), is that it’s hard to lose. People laugh at you whether you’re doing some really good work up there--or dying up there. If you’re struggling with their suggestions, and not being successful, they can laugh with you.”

Actor’s Alley, 4334 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Shows are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Admission is $10. Information: (818) 986-2278.

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Four years ago, Wade Sheeler and Karen Sprankle were among those who started The Left Fielders at Cal State Northridge. On March 20 they will perform their blend of scripted material and improvisational comedy at The Ice House in Pasadena. Guitarist Andy Siegel will provide the musical accompaniment.

Among the skits in the group’s repertoire is one featuring a family with unusual kinetic powers, a bit about an instrument-less musician and a look at the inside of a 5-year-old’s vivid imagination. Some selections are short and snappy while others have fully developed story lines.

Sheeler, director of the group, has high hopes for the troupe’s future. “Eventually, I’d like to see us become one of L.A.'s main diversions,” he said. “So when people come to L.A., they’ll think of going to Disneyland, and Universal Studios--and coming to see us.”

For information on The Left Fielders’ coming performances, call (818) 994-8300.

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