Comedy Without a Net : Students at two workshops learn that there are rules for success in the high-wire art of improv.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

If, as Steve Martin says, comedy isn't pretty, then improv comedy is a horror. The act of getting on stage with no script, no preparation time and absolutely no mercy from the audience is only slightly less dangerous than a high-wire act without a net.

Yet improv comedy is commonly perceived as date-night-lite material, somewhere far down the entertainment food chain--below movies, music clubs, even stand-up. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the most elusive stage art. (One improv actor jokes that baseball hitters have a better success average than he does.) The actor or comic who masters improv may have the key advantage in the always fiercely competitive TV, film and theater markets.

"I always tell any actor starting out to learn improv," says theater, film and TV director Robert Ginty. "Improv is where you master your fears of doing anything in front of an audience. You get that under your control, and you feel like you can do anything."

Although there may be plenty of places to experience improv in a city stuffed with clubs and companies, there are far fewer places to learn it. And in the San Fernando Valley, there are only two independent improv workshops not directly tied in with a producing company.

At the Acme Comedy School in North Hollywood, and The Coolsters comedy improvisation workshop in Toluca Lake, two very different approaches to high-wire improv suggest that, as with just about everything, there is more than one way to attack a problem. The enduring problem for the improv performer begins this way: Now that I'm on stage, where do I go from here?

The 10 students in Cynthia Szigeti's Saturday morning introductory improv class at Acme Comedy Theatre are giddily joking with each other. But since this is week six of a 12-week course, they know they're about to be sent through some rigorous paces.

In minutes, Szigeti, a friendly but commanding teacher and veteran of the Groundlings comedy group, has the class doing a surprising warm-up exercise: Miming a tug-of-war match, each side plays out a game of give-and-take, tug-and-pull. It's more difficult than it sounds, with Szigeti explaining that it's really about the essence of group improv, "as much about surrender as it is about assertiveness."

Szigeti describes most of the workshop exercises in similarly esoteric terms: "information is the lifeblood of scenes," and "a denial stops a scene" and "pay attention that you're capable of emotional adjustment." Translation? "It's listening," she says, or in the case of denial, not listening. "People! If you say 'no' to the other character's question, you stop everything!" she reminds the class.

In a grueling and sometimes embarrassing exercise, four students form a face-forward line and begin chanting in simple childlike rhythm. The rhythm sets a verse line, like iambic pentameter, and the first student makes up a line. The following three must immediately make up others. Oh, and they have to rhyme.

Szigeti acknowledges that she's more technical than most improv teachers. "But it's like this: There are rules. Some teachers just tell their students to go up there, do a scene, but they really don't know what to do. But the rules like not saying 'no,' or always noticing a physical gesture or verbal and emotional offering--those are firm."

For all those reasons, Szigeti encourages her class to watch basketball players and jazz musicians at work. But she also passes out a list of L.A. comedy clubs, so the novices can study the real thing.

Although it happens to be in his theater, Acme Artistic Director M.D. Sweeney doesn't view the improv school, which opened in April, as feeding talent into Acme Comedy Theatre's current three teams of performers. "Some of them," he says of the students, "may go on to the intermediate class starting in mid-to-late July (a date is yet to be announced), some may go on to our groups, and others won't go on at all. We want only professional actors who want to hone their improvising skills."

"Even great actors like Lynn Redgrave, whom I've coached in improv," says Szigeti, "can be so uptight about this. But keep this in mind: Every hour of every day, we're always improvising. Life is one big improv. Think about it. Then this doesn't feel like you're about to die."

But on a Tuesday night, other young students--in The Coolsters comedy improvisation workshop--look as if they do feel like dying. They're working in a converted dance studio at writer-producer Topper ("Martin") Carew's Toluca Lake headquarters, under the watchful eye of teacher and veteran comic Cal Gibson. And they're receiving a strong dose of how "getting" improv is like grabbing hold of a slippery eel.

Perhaps as important, these mostly minority students are in a room where they're no longer the minority, with the chance to play a range of characters and situations. "You can get the minority points of view in this class," Gibson says. "When minority performers are in a predominantly Anglo class, they're often forced to play minority roles, and that usually means playing stereotypes."

Gibson, more an encouraging coach than a technique teacher here, divides the session into two parts: First, one-on-one scenes. Tonight's are set in a department store's exchange department, with one student playing the clerk and the other the customer. Second are group scenes--afternoon chat shows are tonight's pick.

The department store setting comes with a catch. Students in the audience decide what item the customer is returning while the customer is out of the room. He or she must listen during the improv to clues from the exchange clerk character.

And, as with the second group scene, in which four or five actors cook up a talk-show situation, listening is crucial. That, and energy.

Says Coolster Ande Richards: "When that energy level drops, you just feel like you're losing it. Cal is really great stressing never to flag or lose momentum. The trick is not thinking too hard about being funny."

The talk-show exercise is also designed to invent characters. "File those people away," Gibson urges his class, "and you can pull them out when you need them."

As a TV comedy creator, workshop founder Carew champions characters, and he's excited about another part of this project: The Coolsters comedy group, which recently played its first eight-week engagement at The Comedy Store's small Belly Room.

Carew promises future live Coolsters shows, although dates and venues have not been set, and with some financial support from HBO and Carew's TV projects, the Coolsters group and workshops may be the start of a cottage industry.

Today improv, tomorrow prime-time? "Hmmm, maybe," Carew says.

WHERE TO GO

What: Acme Comedy School.

Call: (818) 753-0650.

What: The Coolsters comedy improvisation workshop.

Call: (213) 874-9225.

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