Their asses are on fire

There must be some mistake. Has Donald Trump-box-cut jaw line, New Yawk accent, architectonic hair-really jetted in from Manhattan for a Thursday-night gig at the Arts Club Revue Theatre? On closer inspection, the vast ego on-stage turns out to be Randy Schooley, a veteran member of the Vancouver TheatreSports League. As Mr. Slump, he's goading and bullying six fellow improvisers through The Imprentice, VTSL's long-running parody of the Trump reality-TV show.

The young, noisy crowd drinks beer as it watches Schooley split the contestants into two teams of three. The next 90 minutes are for lightning-witted players only: a pastiche of word games, physical comedy, and short skits based on audience suggestions, punctuated by withering criticism from Slump. Denise Jones tries her hand at speaking Antarctican; Bill Pozzobon has seconds to appear on-stage dressed as Star Trek's Patrick Stewart, then portray the ponderous actor as a boy at his bar mitzvah. In every scene, there's a delicious feeling that things could simply fall apart-and whenever that happens, nimble sound improviser Laura Skelton clears the air by cutting to a thematically related song.

Although careful to discourage heckling-a TheatreSports no-no-Schooley "fires" one improviser after another based on applause. "Don't be all sucky and Canadian and clap for both [teams]," he orders. "That's not how it works."

One of the world's pioneering improv troupes, Vancouver TheatreSports has built its reputation on spoofs of pop-culture staples from The Apprentice to Survivor to The Lord of the Rings. This month, it celebrates its 25th birthday with a greatest-hits reunion show at Performance Works, next Sunday (September 25) at 6 p.m. The company's list of alumni is impressive by any standard. Most famous is Ryan Stiles, best-known for Whose Line Is It Anyway? and The Drew Carey Show. The many others include Stiles's Whose Line costar Colin Mochrie, also of This Hour Has 22 Minutes; Governor General's Award-winning playwright, actor, and director Morris Panych; Jill Daum and Barbara Pollard, cocreators of the global stage hit Mom's the Word; former X-Files star Dean Haglund; and ubiquitous film and television actor Ellie Harvie, who just finished a pilot for the Comedy Network.

Despite the fact that Vancouver TheatreSports played a lead role in nurturing those talents-and employs a rotating cast of almost 30 actors, performing eight shows a week this fall on its Granville Island main stage-arts-funding bodies have largely looked askance. VTSL gets a mere 10 percent of its budget from government. Yet it's stayed solvent for a quarter-century and won six international improv championships along the way. Today, it's the only Vancouver theatre company that operates all year, with a Wednesday-to- Saturday calendar that includes the late-night Improv Extreme series. And remember, this is unscripted stuff: audiences never see the same show twice.

For a nonprofit society, Vancouver TheatreSports knows how to make a buck. It's got a healthy sideline producing special events and offering corporate-training sessions to local businesses-and then there are those liquor sales. "We're the only theatre in Vancouver that has a bouncer," says executive director and former actor Jay Ono, over lunch near his West Broadway office. According to Ono, more than 70 percent of VTSL patrons are in the coveted 19-to-34 age group. "The audience that we attract is the future audience of the Arts Club, the Playhouse, every other theatre company."

Among the topflight alumni booked for next week's show is Stiles, a Seattle native who grew up in Vancouver. Before he joined VTSL in the early 1980s, Stiles was a standup comic scraping out a living at strip clubs and the now-defunct Punchlines. At the league's original home, the City Stage Theatre near the corner of Thurlow and Alberni streets, he found himself meeting-and collaborating with-actors for the first time. "The hardest thing for me was going from being a really selfish, self-centred standup to working with other people, having to give to them," he recalls from his home in Bellingham, Washington.

The discomfort was worth it. In fact, Stiles credits the company with launching his comedy career. "It did everything for me," he says, explaining that the VTSL-hosted improv tournaments at Expo 86 led to him winning a spot in Toronto's legendary Second City sketch troupe. "More than anything else, it just gave me confidence in what I did," he adds. "So if I went out and auditioned for stuff, I didn't feel like I was a standup who didn't have any experience."

Colin Mochrie-one of VTSL's first members-is equally effusive. "In some ways I think it was probably my best time in improv, just due to the fact that it was new to us and new to the audience," says the Vancouver-raised actor, calling from Los Angeles. "It was almost incredibly pure, because we hadn't yet learned the tricks that you learn after you've done things for a while, the little shortcuts you can take. So we were totally fearless, and even when scenes stunk-and sometimes they did-we didn't really care. It was very fun. It's like what I like to think London in the '60s might have been like, except it was City Stage in Vancouver."

VTSL regular Nancy Robertson concedes that improv gets a bad rap in some circles. "But there's no way of getting around it that it's probably one of the most difficult things you can do as an actor and a performer," says the star of the CTV comedy Corner Gas, on the line from Regina. "You're creating a character, you're writing it, you're directing it”¦and interpreting the writing," she notes. "When you go to see a show, you're going to see as much failure in the scene as you will success, but the payoff is great and the audience is really patient with that, and I think they go to see that [failure] just as much as they go to see the scene work."

For Dean Haglund, joining Vancouver TheatreSports in the late 1980s was a second education after drama school. "I always read with envy [about] the vaudeville circuit of the 1920s and '30s, where they got to do 10 shows a week and just built that kind of experience in front of a live audience," he says from his Los Angeles home, where he's about to take his improv version of The X-Files on the sci-fi-convention circuit. "And in TheatreSports, with [1991's] Star Trick the Musical and all the [other] shows-I was doing 10 shows a week for four-and-a-half years. And that was the best training."

Vancouverites may not know it, but their city was among the first to embrace Theatresports, an Alberta concoction that is now popular everywhere from Cape Town to Yokohama. British expat Keith Johnstone, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary who describes himself as the inventor of Theatresports, held workshops with the fledgling Vancouver group starting in 1979. (VTSL is a member of the International Theatresports Institute and pays Johnstone royalties on all of its shows.) Although it emphasized games and competition, Johnstone's version of the discipline was more earnest than the comedy-based entertainment that VTSL later became.

"We were unbelievably high on it, doing these scenes," recalls founding member Jill Daum on the phone from Hornby Island. "But they weren't all funny, and I think that that's important, that they were fascinating or interesting or poignant or sad or scary or taboo or whatever," adds the playwright and actor, whose Mom's the Word 2: Unhinged premieres at the Arts Club Theatre's Granville Island Stage on October 13. "There was a huge range."

In the beginning, the VTSL actors sharpened their skills by performing for each other. To draw a bigger crowd, Daum and her fellow athletes started going into the McDonald's next door to the theatre and begging people to come and see a free show. By the time Jay Ono signed on in 1982-as a 16-year-old high-school student-there were lineups around the block. "We had, like, groupies," he marvels. "The setup at City Stage was quite intimate, and we'd stand around on-stage after the curtain call so the audience members could come up and talk to the actors, which was a nice touch. But then half of us would be going, 'Okay, let's try and get some phone numbers tonight."

By October 1982, VTSL was ready for its first full-scale production: A TheatreSports Hamlet, adapted from the Calgary version by Johnstone and Loose Moose Theatre. Mochrie, who appeared in Hamlet, was also the star of 1984's acclaimed Suspect: A Game of Murder, a Clue-style whodunit that saw him play the victim in the first act and the detective in the second. "To show that we weren't cheating in any way, we were on-stage for the entire show," he says. "I think it was harder for the women because their bladders are a little smaller."

In a different test of discipline, he had a running bet with colleague Jim McLarty to see which actor could take his pants off on-stage the most during a given season. "I think he pretty much won every year," admits Mochrie. Some of his most vivid TheatreSports memories are of scenes that died horribly. "I remember one where I started pulling people up on-stage and then I got in the audience and started yelling, 'Not so easy, is it?' Just a minor breakdown."

"WE TERM IT 'Our asses are on fire," says Nancy Robertson, referring to the exquisite sensation of going down in flames before a theatre full of strangers. "But the best thing you can do is laugh about it," she explains. "Because it's [about] taking what you do seriously, but it's also not taking it too seriously and realizing, 'Well, you know what? If I'd been cautious, my ass wouldn't be on fire but it would have been a boring scene. So I took a risk, and it was horrible, but it wasn't boring.'?"

Speaking of risks, there was the night that Robertson decided to impersonate Cape Breton singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil. "And so I went out and I had the harelip action going and I was threatening to eat everything on-stage, like, 'What is that? Can I eat it?'-everything," she recalls. "And I guess we must have had a crowd from Nova Scotia or something. Oh, my God. They hated it. They hated me for it. But my instinct was, 'Yeah? You think you hate this? Buckle up!' So I just kind of made it worse. Her harelip got more enhanced, her appetite for everything got going. I think I ended up purging, or pretending to purge, just so I could eat more."

Then again, Robertson has no sympathy for TheatreSports actors who blame the crowd after a joke bombs. "One of my pet peeves is when people go, 'The audience didn't get it,'?" she says. "Oh, they got it. They just didn't think it was funny."

According to Ono, eliciting laughter is not a teachable skill. "People have to have a natural sense of humour," he argues. "When you're up there improvising, you shouldn't be inside your head going, 'How am I going to make that funny?' What the performers need to do is totally clear their mind."

They must also be prepared to say yes. The two cardinal rules of TheatreSports are no blocking and no wimping. In other words, it's good form to accept an offer from another actor ("Here's a ball. Wanna play catch?", for example) and make them an offer back ("Start running"). Rule number three: no gagging, or breaking out of a scene to selfishly deliver a line. "With improv, one of the values is making the other person look good," Ono says. "If I was on a team with you, I wouldn't be trying to get all the laughs for me."

But as its name implies, there's still something fundamentally Darwinian about TheatreSports. "It was survival of the fittest, and rightfully so," remembers Ellie Harvie, who says six years with VTSL during the 1990s made her unflappable in auditions. "To me it's almost like if I was a doctor and there was a doctor working beside me who couldn't make incisions and was really a crappy doctor," she tells the Straight by phone. "As a doctor you'd kinda go, 'Who are you kidding? You're not a fucking doctor!'”¦So people really had to earn their stripes, and I think they probably still do."

At one point it looked as if the company itself might not pull through. When VTSL left City Stage-later renamed the Back Alley Theatre-in 1994, it owed the landlord $140,000. The talent pool thinned as several star performers left to pursue other work. According to Ono, things didn't fully recover until '98. "I always refer to TheatreSports as the cockroaches of the theatre community," he says. "[If] something tragic happened in the marketplace or funding was cut back, we would always survive."

TheatreSports may be a part-time job for its cast, but performers with strong improvisational chops are becoming a hot commodity. Haglund points out that TV has embraced improv in shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry David and his costars build scenes on the spot from a bare-bones script. Besides saving money (writers-who needs 'em?), this new aesthetic calls for actors who can really act. Stiles agrees, noting that TV auditions now demand more improvising. "They're actually relying on talented people to do television shows, rather than hiring someone because they have big boobs and blond hair."

Improv skills are also invaluable for TV-commercial work, which helps explain why Nabisco has cast a pink tutu-clad Mochrie as its Snack Fairy. You may also have noticed Harvie in A&W ads, and Stiles hearing voices in a new spot for Pizza Hut. "The improv definitely helps you," Stiles says, "because you're limited to such a structured script in such a short time that they tend to hire a lot of improvisers because they can add so much."

Ono has big commercial aspirations himself. VTSL's lease with the Arts Club expires in 2009, and the company is already looking for a permanent home with corporate suites. But if that goes according to plan, don't expect Vancouver TheatreSports to lose its edge. "There's nothing flat about doing improv," Robertson says. "There's no flattened emotion that's supplied with it." Now, that's what we call playing with fire.