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BACKSTAGE CAHOOTS : Quick Wits : Santa Barbara improvisational troupe makes fast work of silly situations provided by the audience.

February 28, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember your irresistibly seductive opening line for that wild party? Or that perfect withering retort? Only problem was, you thought of them an hour later or the next day, when the moment to shine had long since passed? Consider all those squandered opportunities for brilliance when watching the monthly antics of Santa Barbara's Cahoots Improvisational Comedy Troupe, and you can really appreciate what these people go through to earn a laugh.

The Cahoots performers improvise scenes from situations, characters and relationships suggested by the audience, a process that requires all the timing and precision of acting without the safety net of a script or rehearsal time. When it's not working, there's no place to hide.

But when it does work, improv comedy opens a window into a way of relating to the world through our wits rather than our rituals. And sometimes the material ignited in this spontaneous combustion can be funnier than any pre-programmed punch line.

The members of Cahoots are no strangers to either the perils or the payoffs of performance on the edge. The group has been operating in Santa Barbara under a variety of names, with rotating personnel, since 1978.

If anyone has the process down to the semblance of a science, it's Lois Yaroshefsky, the group's feisty artistic director and one of its original members. "The elements of successful improv," she says, "are the quality of the initial suggestion, the extent to which the actors can respond with material drawn from their own lives and, of course, their onstage chemistry."

A typical Cahoots outing will feature a mix of improv techniques. "I try to vary the pace and the content," Yaroshefsky says. "Some are very free-form, where anything can happen, while others are more structured--like a panel of kooky characters discussing some hot topic, or a video dating service taping a revealing confession. Plus, we always have great musical guests to break up the routine."

Because the group relies heavily on guest performers and that all-important audience participation, it's hard to predict which way a show will go, but a loyal audience built up over the years will usually find something worthwhile.

In a "Who am I?" skit during a recent sold-out performance, Cahoots member Sharon Bettis was sent outside while the audience chose an occupation for her (a midwife), which she then had to guess by interacting with Yaroshefsky and an audience volunteer. It was like watching the process we all go through in an unfamiliar situation--sorting through clues and feeling around to determine what's appropriate. Along the way, Bettis drew hysterical laughter as she talked about her franchise operation, at one point rolling up her sleeves with a matter of fact "Well, shall we get started?" When she finally guessed it, there were cheers.

Other scenes depend on empathic rapport--one pair of actors performing a scene in lip-sync with voices supplied by another pair from the sidelines.

This month's announced cast will include Yaroshefsky, Bettis, K-LITE radio personality Nancy Nufer, and longtime improv veteran Brad Bronk, along with the usual wild-card guests. But the audience is just as important a participant, so bring your most creative situations, characters and conflicts to the party.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Cahoots Improvisational Comedy Troupe performs Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Paseo Nuevo Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $7.50. Call (805) 963-0408.

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