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WITH THE KIDS

With honors in humor

High schoolers get real-life benefits from ComedySportz improv contests.

June 03, 2004|Don Patterson | Special to The Times

It's hard to imagine how Alexander Price is going to wriggle out of this one. The high school ComedySportz improv match between Irvine and Capistrano Valley has only just begun, but the game of "Da, do, run, run" is already presenting him with a steep challenge.

One after another, players in this game are required to keep a song flowing by rhyming each line with a proper name. If they blow it, they hear the shrill sound of the referee's whistle, and they have to sit down.

In this round, the name is "Keith" -- tougher than the first round's "Dave," which players navigated by crooning such lines as "Heeeeeee hates to shave, da, do, run, run, run, da, do, run, run." But just when it appears all options have been exhausted, Price, a junior at Irvine, concocts a twisting lyrical maze ending in "bequeath" and draws a hearty laugh from the audience.

It's just this type of situation that Price says has done him a world of good in his life offstage.

"I think this has really helped me blossom as a person," he says. "It's made me a lot more fearless."

Ryan Davis, who was captain of the Capistrano Valley team last year, echoes that sentiment, saying improv is a great confidence booster. "In school, giving an oral presentation went from something I dreaded to something I barely prepared for," he says. "This really translates to your everyday life."

The high school program is an offshoot of ComedySportz, the professional improv show that originated in Milwaukee in 1984 and came to Los Angeles in 1988. In Southern California, the high school league is made up of 65 to 70 teams, each with a coach from the professional ensemble. Once a month, players attend workshops with other schools, and they also have private monthly workshops with members of their own team.

The pros do four shows a week at the National Comedy Theatre in Hollywood: two on Fridays -- one a musical -- and two on Saturdays. (The company also offers a camp during the summer for high school and college students and teachers.)

High school players follow a format similar to the pros', choosing from a wide variety of stage games. It could be anything from "Shakespeare," where the cast takes a suggestion from the audience and performs in Shakespearean fashion, to "Slide Show," where one of the players narrates as the others freeze in contorted poses.

Paul Breazeale, a junior at Capistrano Valley who will be the school's improv captain next year, says it's inspiring to see the professionals perform. When he attended ComedySportz camp, members of the company put on a two-hour musical, and he says he would have bought the soundtrack. "They had an entire plot," he says. "I got sucked into the characters and the story, and I almost forgot there was no script."

On the night Capistrano competed against Irvine, the ref was Adam Fisher, who, at 20, is the youngest member of the professional company. Long after the audience had left, students from both schools sat around him in a semicircle and listened to him critique their performance.

Fisher's favorite moment that night came when a player uttered the word "Lord" in exasperation and one of his teammates popped up in the background, held his hands high above his head and answered as God.

"That was awesome because it was such an acceptance of an offer," he told the players. "A lot of times in these shows, offers get thrown out and they fall flat because they aren't taken. Imagine how different the scene would have been if you had said 'Lord' and it had just been an expletive."

Even for students who thrive on playing lead roles in traditional school plays, the freedom to walk outside the boundaries of a script is refreshing.

"In drama, you have to say what you have to say, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work," says Stephanie Cyrkin of the Irvine team. "In this, if you've got something that doesn't work and you want to go in a totally different direction, you can say something like, 'Oh, my God. It's Michael Jackson.' "

The founder and artistic director of Comedy- Sportz-LA, James Thomas Bailey, is a longtime drama teacher in Southern California. He launched the high school program in 1989 with 12 teams, coaching them all.

For Bailey, introducing improv to kids is a natural extension of messages he conveys in the classroom.

"It's great for building communication skills, and it teaches you how to make creative choices and find solutions rather than viewing problems as dead ends," he says. "There are a lot of life lessons. We don't push those too hard with the kids, though," he adds. "If we did, none of them would sign up."

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Don Patterson can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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ComedySportz

ComedySportzKidz: Party for kids, includes improv show about the birthday boy or girl, cake, drinks, prize bag, paper goods and a 45-minute workshop. Cost: up to 15 kids, $495; up to 30 kids, $750 (one adult per child free).

ComedySportz: The inspiration for the high school program, this show is performed as a sports competition, with referees, uniforms, an organist and fouls for below-the-belt humor. Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 and 10:30 p.m. $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

ComedySportz collegians: The college team performs a show Thursdays at 8 p.m. $9.

U-sical: A two-hour improvisational musical based on the life of someone in the audience. Fridays, 10:30 p.m.

Where: The National Comedy Theatre, 733 Seward St., Hollywood

Info: (323) 856-4796, www.comedysportzLA.com

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