Happy birthday! BATS Improv celebrates 25 years

On the spot: Bay Area Theatresports players — from left

Bay Area Theatresports Artistic Director Kasey Klemm has overcome his fear of improvisation.

The actor, who began taking classes when he was 17 and joined BATS just before turning 21, admits, “Improv happens in the moment. No one knows where it’s going. It is scary at first. But after enough times on the ledge, it’s more than scary; it’s exhilarating.”

The San Francisco improvisation troupe and school celebrates a quarter century this week, marking the occasion with popping Champagne corks and a 70-minute match in which teams of veteran improvisers will compete against each other for points.

Klemm, who has been in BATS for more than 10 years, calls it an “organization with a lot of heart, which speaks to the artistic fulfillment you get as a player. For this organization to survive and thrive speaks to its quality.”

The pursuit is about teamwork, above all. Players are there for each other, making their partners look good, Klemm says. Audience members suggest plot points or titles, and stories are spun on the spot, with often hilarious and moving results.

“What we do is not sketch comedy. We tell stories through truthful, honest acting, letting humor come from real situations, not forcing it,” Klemm says.

The perfect way to start a story, he says, is to think of something you wouldn’t want to have happen to yourself or someone you love.

BATS was born in 1986 from the fusion of William Hall’s San Francisco comedy theater group Fratelli Bologna and Rebecca Stockley’s Theatresports workshops.

The fruitful union resulted in a sold-out performance Nov. 10, 1986, at the Zephyr — now the New Conservatory Theater. Actors in that audience joined BATS founders to form the first troupe of improvisers.

Origins of the improv troupe go back to exercises that Keith Johnstone developed at London’s Royal Court Theatre to prevent playwrights from editing themselves and to help them unleash their creativity. Johnstone developed the Theatresports format after moving to Canada.

BATS excels at both short (three- to five-minute) and long-form works. In the long narrative — a format unique to the troupe — BATS actors capture the heart of a genre, such as a murder mystery or epic romance.

The full-time theater company offers main company shows Fridays and Saturdays, student showcases on Sundays as well as classes, workshops, a corporate training program and improv for those with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Saturday’s contest features an all-star cast of main stage company players, including BATS original founding members and host Hall, cofounder of BATS.

Team One includes Stockley, Paul Killam, Diane Rachel and Ben Johnson. Team Two includes Rafe Chase, Dave Dennison, Lisa Rowland and John Remak. The judges are Jeff Raz, Corey Rose and company guest Rebecca Poretsky.

IF YOU GO

BATS Improv 25th anniversary

Where: Bayfront Theater, Building B, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco

When:
8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets:
$25 to $30

Contact: (415) 474-6776, www.improv.org

Note: A dessert reception follows the show.

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