Improving the Improv 

Richmond is serious about the business of comedy.

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There's a game called Entrances and Exits that improvisational comedy troupes sometime play. The audience is asked to name a place, and then the players try to come up with logical — but funny — reasons to be entering and exiting that location.

In March 2009, the entire ComedySportz improv troupe had to exit their location, a performance venue and restaurant on Glenside Avenue. It was logical — attendance for all performing arts groups was down dramatically — but decidedly unfunny. “I was burnt out,” recalls Christine Walters, owner and force behind the troupe since 1996. With the shuttering of ComedySportz, the future of improv in Richmond looked dim.

Almost a year and a half later, Walters sings a different tune. “I hate to sound clichAc,” she says, “but it's just like that old saying, ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window.'” In the ashes of ComedySportz the seeds for several other efforts were sown, and this fall the projects that grew from those seeds are bearing robust fruit.

Furthermore, the people behind these projects have learned a cautionary lesson from recent history. Improv groups these days are incorporating numerous innovative strategies to attract a more steadfast fan base, moving beyond the standard “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” package of games and skits to create innovative comedy hybrids. These troupes are popping up on a comedy landscape in Richmond that's suddenly more diverse than ever.

After the ComedySportz venue closed, several of its most devoted performers mulled over different possibilities for a few months before organizing themselves into the Richmond Comedy Coalition. This collective has built a steady following with shows at Gallery5 that mix stand-up comedy and improv; it celebrated its first anniversary in June. This summer it developed a new format for keeping its shows fresh called Richmond Famous that the troupe says audiences are eating up.

Members invite a local personality onstage to deliver a monologue or tell a story. The improv performers then create scenes based on the guest's material. Co-founder Katie Holcomb says that the spontaneity really draws the crowd in. “The energy is amazing,” she says. The August show featured the local writer and bon vivant known as the Checkout Girl who provided plenty for the players to riff on with her stories about intimate relationships with co-workers and her stint as a phone-sex operator.

Holcomb says these types of shows are just the latest way they've explored to broaden their appeal: “It took a while to attract a new audience but now about half the people who come to our shows never went to ComedySportz.”

Another project that's developing a hybridized type of comedy is Sketchprov Live!, a new troupe developed under the Firehouse Theatre Project banner that debuts Sept. 21. As its name suggests, this crew combines original comedy sketches, spoofs and satires with improv games in what it promises will be a fast-moving, eclectic night of edgy entertainment. Video segments will be interspersed with live action and the show will feature musical and dance interludes as well.

The way the troupe's co-founder Kimberly Jones Clark describes it, Sketchprov's approach is an attempt to improve the comedy odds. “Improv is one of those things that can be very hit-or-miss,” she says. “We feel that, even if we have a little bit of an off night with the improv or if one of the games doesn't do well, we know the sketches are a sure thing. We plan to keep adding elements to make it interesting.”

The Sketchprov crew consists of several longtime veterans of the local scene. Familiar to many Richmonders will be Jeff Clevenger, an alumnus of earlier efforts such as Take 5 and Random Acts. Other members include Dave Gau and Susan Scovill, both former ComedySportz regulars.

Gau and Scovill's involvement with Sketchprov may seem surprising given that both have enlisted with Christine Walters to try to revive ComedySportz (the three of them along with the troupe's original founder Jamie Manley are investigating potential venues). But cooperation, not competition, is a key aspect of the local improv resurgence. The coalition's Holcomb speaks highly of Sketchprov. “One thing we try to drive home is that our mission is to build the scene,” she says. “And one improv troupe does not a scene make.”

The new projects help feed a growing hunger for homegrown comedy or, perhaps, the growing need of local venues to find a variety of acts for their stages. The new Richmond Triangle Players theater in Scott's Addition held a “Stand Up versus Improv” night in July featuring comedians and improvisers building on each other's material. And the Hat Factory in Shockoe Slip will serve as host of the F-Bomb Comedy Festival starting Sept. 16. The four-day festival will feature some out-of-town talent, but was specifically developed to highlight the work of local funny men and women.

Walters is particularly heartened by all of these homegrown efforts. She's in touch with other ComedySportz alumni, several who left to work with Chicago's Second City and New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade, who are also organizing local troupes. “There is improv and comedy everywhere now,” she says. “I look back at it now and think how glad I am that we closed our theater.”

The Richmond Comedy Coalition has a show every third Thursday at Gallery5. Details at rvacomedy.com.

Sketchprov debuts Sept. 21 at the Firehouse Theater. Information at firehousetheatre.org.

The F-Bomb Comedy Festival kicks off Sept. 16. Tickets and information at fbombva.com.

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