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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Teams Will Joust With Jokes at Tournament

Nine groups from around the state will match wits at the annual TheatreSports competition. Paper bags and horns help keep comedians in line.

May 23, 1996|BILL LOCEY SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine people who get lost hiking and are forced by exasperated rescuers to wear Homer Simpson masks for 24 hours. Imagine welfare recipients who are forced to catch rich people's homes during the next round of mudslides. Imagine Clint Eastwood inheriting the bulletproof-vest franchise in Beirut.

None of these silly scenarios is as farfetched as one may think, not at TheatreSports in Ventura, where anything can and usually does happen.

And this weekend is the big one--The Gone With the Wind of Grin--the third annual TheatreSports State Tournament.

The match features nine teams from around the Golden State, stopping by to challenge the locals who go by the acronym VATS. This stands for Ventura Area TheatreSports and not Various Actors Trashing Shakespeare, which may very well happen anyway. The VATS logo is two baseball faces with the stitches making either a happy or a sad face.

The performers are definitely not the types stuck for an answer when someone says "hello." These people take "wingin' it" to new, often absurd heights, or at times, depths.

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Founded 40 years ago in Calgary by a guy named Keith Johnstone, TheatreSports is an improvisational ensemble performance group with 58 chapters worldwide. There are no reruns and every show is a premiere as skits are improvised by teams, usually of four. Teams compete for points awarded Olympic style by a panel of judges.

Greg Jones, emcee and Laughing Academy guide for the evening, explained the point system at last week's performance pitting the Santa Barbarans against the Venturans.

"Zero points is when you couldn't even find the stage," he said. "Five points is 'Why are you here? You should be in Hollywood.' "

Audience members, not encouraged to remain passive like at the movies, offer suggestions, sometimes participate in skits, and spend much of their free time laughing. Also, unlike the movies, there are no $12 trips to the snack bar, just free cookies and coffee. So TheatreSports operates on an "Ed Wood" budget, but with better actors.

As soon as the three judges appeared for the competition, Jones encouraged the audience to boo them vigorously. The judges wore robes with ooga horns around their necks--the TheatreSports version of a gong--in case a scene is going nowhere and needs an ending.

Suggestions regarding a Jenny Craig franchise in Mogadishu or the Stevie Wonder Driving School are considered in bad taste and can get a player or an audience member bagged. That's bagged, as in paper bag, as on your head.

There was but one bagging on this particular evening and it was awarded to a Ventura actor who gave an unkind salute to an invisible dog that had gnawed his ankle.

Folks, these are the props: horns, bags, and three wooden boxes onstage. Low budget indeed.

Jones set the tone for the evening by asking the crowd to stand for the National Anthem. But since TheatreSports is an international organization, he took suggestions for the song. "Money" by Pink Floyd or "Creeps Like Me" by Lyle Lovett didn't win; "Louie, Louie" did.

So the audience and the cast howled a few choruses of the Kingsmen's biggie, but stopped before getting to the controversial nasty lyrics.

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Thus, the games began. With piano player Ken Wahl providing the subtle soundtrack, the evening's first category theme was festivals. Each four-person team then delivered a three- or four-minute skit.

One was about Tractor Day, the other a celebration of Hitting People With Rocks, neither likely to rival the Strawberry Festival in popularity. The judges showed great restraint with their horns.

Later, there were scenes of personal heartbreak; the theft of an invisible motorcycle; mean dogs; an alien Zymorphian deer with rutabagas in its teeth in a casino; a little kid who burned down the house, but nonetheless, was expecting Santa; and so on like that, several of them very funny.

Appearing a lot like the score of a basketball game, it ended, Ventura 77, Santa Barbara 71. After the last round of audience applause, cast members with fast-break energy put away the chairs, hauled off the stage, and the two-hour evening was history.

VATS has about 20 members, and depending upon work schedules and levels of laziness, everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame on the stage at one time or another. On Thursdays, VATS holds workshops on theater games and improvisational techniques. The public is invited, so long as they have $3 and an interest in acting.

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The forthcoming big tournament will feature teams from San Francisco, Humboldt, Stanford, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Palm Springs and San Diego.

During last year's tourney, Ventura came in third behind San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This weekend the locals will be led by Tom Mueller, Gary Best, Randy and Katherine Boring, Betty Pattengale and Judy Gottlieb, who said it best, or at least, said it last: "I used to be involved in legitimate theater in L.A. You learn your lines and then just do it. There are no lines here. We start laughing at 7 and stop laughing around 11."

Call 642-8041 to get in on the joke.

DETAILS

* WHAT: TheatreSports State Tournament.

* WHEN: 7 and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 p.m. Sunday.

* WHERE: The Performance Studio, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: One show, $5; two shows, $7.50; all shows, $20.

* CALL: 642-8041.

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