ComedySportz is 10 years old Ten years. A decade by most counts, but in the entertainment industry, where most career arcs end in a downward spiral and longevity is an elusive El Dorado, 10 years is an eternity. And so, when Lynn Becker, Mia Lee Roberts and Ed Trout - the triumvirate behind the Indianapolis improv theater ComedySportz - celebrate the 10th anniversary of their troupe during an annual awards banquet at the Hard Rock CafÈ on Feb. 9, they"ll do so with a sense of accomplishment. They"ve earned the privilege.
Ten years of making Indianapolis theatergoers belly laugh has earned them a dedicated fan following and the respect of their peers. And, at a time when "profitable theater" is usually an oxymoron or an ironic aside, ComedySportz is plugging along, paying the bills without any outside support. Part of their success is undoubtedly due to the wide variety of shows and services they offer. The three weekly, family-friendly performances of ComedySportz - a branded, sports-themed concept that pits two teams of comedians against each other in a variety of improv games; the group pays royalties for the rights to use the formula - are the mainstay. Other recent offerings have included an improvised children"s fairy tale, improv soap operas and original, scripted productions from the company"s members. Like improv itself, where success is dependent on the cooperative interplay of disparate personalities, Becker, Roberts and Trout compliment each other in ways that more similar personalities might not. The result, both onstage and in the running of their business, is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The muse "There is a very different response to improvising a show than saying, "Hey, I"ve written a play and I want you to come see it,"" says the 38-year-old Trout. "People will embrace a risk that says, "Hey, let"s just do it." I know improv scares some performers to death, but [for me] it feels so much safer to let an audience know we"re making this up as we go. There is a level of forgiveness that you won"t get otherwise." Trout talks in grand concepts: art with a capital "A," comedy with a capital "C," theater with a capital "T." "It is a lot harder to capture the reality of the moment, the reality of the reaction in scripted theater," he continues, "because you are performing that same reaction night after night. With improv, you can really get some of those pure moments." But Trout is also a Midwesterner - a product of New Pal High - and because his corn-fed pragmatism and earnestness shine through everything he says, he never sounds hokey. You get the feeling that when Trout states something, he not only means it, he"s really thought about it. If you asked him the same question in a week you"d get the same answer. In 1988, with a handful of other performers he"d met working at the now defunct Way Off Broadway theater on Virginia Avenue, Trout first began to poke around the edges of improvisational theater. The group started performing Paradise Now, a politically-charged, socially-conscious piece about the creation of an ideal society that was collectively authored and originally performed by the avant-garde Living Theater in the 1960s. The piece featured a minimalist script and involved loads of audience participation and, eventually, the group booked themselves to perform it at an all-night fund-raiser. "But we got slated at 3 in the morning in between all these rock bands," Trout says, "and when we saw the crowd, we just said, "You know, not the piece for this crowd. It"s just not going to work." So about an hour before we were set to go on, we decided to scrap it and do improv comedy. We threw together some games and a couple sketch ideas and the audience loved it." The group, which quickly included Becker and Roberts, decided to call themselves Below the Belt. "Below the Belt was a combination of sketch and improv. We would do some improv games," Becker says. "Then we would also do sketches, but they were almost never scripted. Everything came from improv. All of the sketches were developed for improv. We would put a scenario together, maybe the way we wanted it to end and start, but everything would be improv from there." The troupe started playing one or two gigs a month, anywhere they could find a stage. "We did several shows at the IRT [Indiana Repertory Theatre] on the upper stage, also the [IRT"s] cabaret," Becker says. "We did some shows at a nightclub called Jimmy"s on Pennsylvania." Maybe the aborted performance of Paradise Now was a harbinger, maybe not, but BTB was definitely not a comedy troupe with a social agenda. The goal was laughs, any way, any how. "So much in the early days it was the sheer guts of doing it," Trout remembers. "We weren"t necessarily polished or well-schooled, but there was enough talent in that group and an appreciation and enjoyment for what we were doing that audiences came." BTB finally landed a home at Theater on the Square, back when it was on Fountain Square, before the move to Mass. Ave. made the name an anachronism. The only catch was that they had to wait until the TOTS production was over before they could go onstage, and then they had to work around the existing production"s set. "We would have to come out after their regular performance, whenever it would end, pull out all of our [equipment], set it all up," Trout says. "Do the show, tear it all down and put it back in storage so that they could do another show the next day. We played on one set that had a pool in the middle. On another show the set was a porch. We"re trying to do this improvised show around all this stuff, and of course not damage anything." Ron Spencer, creative director at TOTS then and now, thought enough of BTB as tenants to let them hang around. "I loved it back when they were doing their own free form comedy," Spencer says. "I am sure it was just insane for them. But when I am watching something, all I care about is this: If it works, it works. And no matter what kind of obstacles they had to work around, they always made it work." Toward the end of 1991, in an audition that also snagged Dave Ruark, a familiar face to local theatergoers, BTB hauled in a comedian from Chicago named Randy Smock. "We took him right away," Becker recalled. "He was really good." It was Smock, who had played with the ComedySportz troupe in Chicago, who introduced the group to their current concept. "It didn"t take too long [for momentum to build]," Trout says. "There were certain things about the show format that were very attractive. It"s a format that has been proven over and over again. It"s appropriate for all ages, which Below the Belt was not. Plus, there were some artistic differences in Below the Belt. People were ready to try something new. The ComedySportz idea really came about at the right time. It was a pretty exciting possibility. It gave us a way to move forward with a more marketable show." "I don"t think any of us were even aware of ComedySportz before Randy," Becker adds. "Some of the other members went up to see ComedySportz in Chicago and it was decided amongst the members that we wanted to start doing it - as opposed to what we were doing at the time." BTB had been a communal theater, so all the profits in the bank account were divided among the members and, although many decided to stay and perform the new ComedySportz concept, only six - Becker, Roberts, Ruark, Smock, Trout and Rian Logan - decided to reinvest in the idea. They bought the ComedySportz manual, and under Smock"s direction, they started practicing the new show. "We started getting the feel for the show," Becker says. "We had to start training to do family shows because ComedySportz is a family show and we definitely were not a family show at that time." Then, just three months into rehearsals, Smock moved to Minnesota. No harm, no foul By its nature improv is unpredictable. It only follows that the quality of the show will be inconsistent from night to night. The savvy in the ComedySportz formula is that it minimizes the risk for failure. The games provide structure, the referee keeps things moving along and if a sketch doesn"t work, the ref can put the kibosh on it. No harm, no foul and, most importantly for the audience, no agonizing moments as the players try to get a derailed scene back on track. During a rainy winter night that kept most of the crowd at home, the ComedySportz crew launched into a game called Instruction Manual. "Somebody give me a household object," Trout, the referee, asked the audience. "A paper clip." "OK. Now somebody give me a chapter from an instruction manual." "Maintenance." Sometimes the dice come up sevens, other times you are trying to make jokes about paper clip maintenance. "This may look easy and sound easy, but it"s not easy," Roberts says. As a matter of fact, there were problems right from the start. "So, I get a phone call one day from Dick Chudnow," Roberts recalls, as she puts her hands on her hips and puckers her mouth for emphasis. "I don"t have a clue who Dick Chudnow is." That was in 1993. Nowadays she knows perfectly well who he is. Chudnow, a veteran of the Kentucky Fried Theater and author of the Leslie Nielsen movie Spy Hard, is the creator of ComedySportz, but in February 1993, he had no idea that a handful of actors in Indianapolis were performing his concept to late night audiences at TOTS. "All I know is we"ve done a couple of shows and know we"re supposed to send somebody royalties," Roberts says. So she did the honest thing. She called ComedySportz HQ in Milwaukee, Chudnow"s home turf. And her phone message led to the phone call in question. Chudnow read Roberts the riot act, ending with a demand that she overnight tapes of the group"s performances to his attention, which she did. A couple days passed, but eventually Chudnow rang back. "The second conversation was much nicer," Roberts says. "It was basically: Keep trying ... and keep sending the money." Roberts isn"t just an animated talker, she"s an animated listener. Her head cocks to the right and left like a metronome as she takes in what you"re saying. You know you"ve got her attention when her head momentarily pauses and she screws up her face. And then, Boom! It explodes into a barrage of nods as she lets you know what"s on her mind. She"s unpredictable, but in the good way, not the dangerous one. You never know what she"s going to say next. One minute she is the mother figure, sternly clucking her brood back into line; the next she"s the big sister, complicit in the crime. "Mia is absolutely wonderful," Spencer says. "She doesn"t do enough stage work." Leap of faith During the summer of 1993, TOTS moved from Fountain Square to Mass. Ave. A great move for TOTS, but one that left the fledgling ComedySportz troupe without a stage to call home. Fortunately, Rian Logan"s father had leased a spot on 30th and Kessler to open a restaurant. The space was large, and the group leased a third of it for about $650 a month, moving in near the end of 1993. "We weren"t business people," Roberts says. "This turned us into business people. I just wanted to act and be funny, but now we had to learn how to do a lease and everything." The troupe built the stage and did all the painting. They could accommodate 60 people on folding chairs. There was a boom box sound system. Back stage was literally outside. The new theater didn"t even have a telephone, just a voice mailbox to take reservations. "The building, when we moved into it, had some issues," Becker says. "It had a really old furnace. Right after we first moved in, the building flooded. And then it froze." On another occasion a patron"s car caught fire just before a performance. "Completely ablaze. The thing was totally on fire," Becker says. "It is amazing it didn"t catch any other cars on fire." They charged $5 admission, but didn"t have a liquor license to sell drinks. Other than peanuts, they didn"t serve food. "It was a leap of faith for us, that"s what it was," Becker says. "I mean, we are talking about changing from having to pay for our sets and whatever costume pieces we used, which was pretty much nothing. We went from that to paying a rent and utilities, so it was a big jump." Most importantly, it meant that they could put their shows on anytime they wanted. No more waiting for the TOTS production to end before they could start setting up their show. And the show kept developing. Sometime during the move, the group went to their first ComedySportz National Tournament, a yearly competition between the 20 or so ComedySportz theaters sprinkling the U.S. "I remember that first tournament," Chudnow says. "They were the new kids on the block so nobody really expected much from them, but they ended up being the buzz of the event." The Mass. Ave. era The troupe spent six years at 30th and Kessler, and after about the third year, moving became a primary goal. "The old place was pretty much a destination location," Becker says, the only one of the triumvirate who doesn"t work at the theater full-time. "You"d have to want to go there to get there. We didn"t have people walking by our doors like we do now. We wanted to be downtown or in Broad Ripple, so we had been looking around. We found this place and we really felt it would be a great area for us." A self-proclaimed "lifer" at the Indiana Sports Corporation, Becker is the most reserved of the three, but she"s also very focused and dedicated. If she is not onstage, Becker can usually be found taking tickets or serving drinks at the theater. "To make something like this work, you have to stick with it," she says. "You have to give up a lot." Logan didn"t stick with it and eventually drifted out of the group. As they prepared to make the move to Mass. Ave. in 1999, Ruark, whose acting schedule was growing increasingly crowded, also left, leaving Becker, Roberts and Trout as the remaining owners. "I knew that Ed and Mia and Lynn wanted to take the business to the next level," Ruark says, "and I knew that they could, but that I wouldn"t be available to help them." Raleigh"s Dinner Theater had been the previous occupant at 721 Mass. Ave. "I had actually done some shows there with some of my friends and I had always said, "If Raleigh"s ever goes out, this would be a great spot for us." Meaning no ill will to the ladies that were running Raleigh"s," Trout says. "Later on, I was walking by and I was like, "Hey, Raleigh"s is gone." I called Mia and told her there was a space. And we started investigating. As always, the rent is higher than you like but we started crunching numbers and we thought, "Yeah, we can make this."" It didn"t take long to get the theater ready. The owner would not let them paint the interior. The stage was already there. They gave the spot a thorough once-over with some sponges and mops, set the sound equipment up and hung an open sign on the door. Nowadays, the theater is doing a brisk business. The foot traffic up and down Mass. Ave. has been a boon. The tickets that used to go for $5 now go for $12 and they have picked up a liquor license and added a menu. They are coming off one of their most successful shows ever, The Watsin"s Girl Diaries, an improvised soap opera produced by Circle City Secrets, a separate but related comedy troupe that draws almost exclusively from the ComedySportz performer pool. "I wouldn"t trade my experiences with this group of performers for anything that I could think of," Trout says. "I don"t want to be clichÈ and say it"s a family, but there is an incredible feeling of ensemble. Even when you have personalities that don"t always mesh or differences of opinion or fights, heaven forbid, people really disagree with each other, but even then there is this sense that when the dust settles, we are still a group. We"re still together." "It"s a business. It"s a job," Roberts adds. "It"s funny business, but we"re not fooling around. We"ve gone from running a really big hobby to having a successful business." "A big thing in improv is gifts," Becker says. "People give you gifts, which are ideas, presentations to you. You learn how to use those, not to deny them and how to make things bigger, how to raise the stakes." What"s on tapComedySportz performs family-friendly shows every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 p.m. Adult tickets are $12, kids under 12 are $6. Now, tickets to the Friday show include free admission to the long-form improv jam that starts at 9:30. Tickets for the long-form show only are $5. The next Circle City Secrets improvised soap opera is scheduled to begin in March. Tickets are $10 and the shows are R-rated. The ComedySportz high school league performs Feb. 8 and 15 at the ComedySportz Arena. Show time is 3 p.m. and tickets are $7. An additional 15 shows are scheduled at local high schools. Times, dates and pricing will vary. Call for more info. On Sunday, Feb. 9, ComedySportz will celebrate their 10th anniversary at the Hard Rock CafÈ, 49 S. Meridian. The evening will feature their annual award show and a ComedySportz performance. The party begins at 6 p.m.; tickets are $35 for adults, $12 for kids and include a meal and soft drinks. ComedySportz is located at 721 Massachusetts Ave. For more information or tickets to any of the shows, call 951-8499. Or visit the ComedySportz Web site atwww.indycomedysportz.com