Improv is a Great way to enjoy raw theater.
Up a flight and a half of stairs, in the semidarkness of San Francisco's new Climate Theater (what was probably at one time a second-floor apartment living room), the first thing you spot is the unmistakable Brillo pad of hair.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" says Cassidy Brown, who works at Concord's Willows Theatre.
"Yeah," he says. "I call it my drug of choice."
When he says that, I feel my heart beat a little faster, and my field of vision narrow. Yeah, I know what he means. For the longest time, my son and I have been talking about trying improvisational theater -- it's quick, no weeks of rehearsals, no fancy costumes or sets. It's instant gratification or humiliation -- in a matter of seconds, you are walking on a cloud or sinking in quicksand.
Improv has been percolating near the edge of being the next big thing for years. The concept (although edited for maximum laughs) had network exposure on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" High school students compete in an informal improv league, and dozens of improv groups are spread across the Bay Area. But for now, anyway, it has a kind of marginal audience support.
Despite that, there are a number of well-known improv groups, including Oui Be Negroes, operating out of the Bay Area. Oui Be Negroes started in Chicago and has toured the world over the past decade. Shaun Landry, a former member of Chicago's Second City, and one of the Oui Be Negroes principals, is the founder of the San Francisco Improv Co-Operative, the organization running the weeknight improv sessions.
The cooperative and Bay Area Theatresports, which has operated out of a theater at San Francisco's Fort Mason for years and continues to flourish with regular performances and classes, are the two major Bay Area improv organizations.
The cooperative members perform at 2263 Mission St. in San Francisco every Sunday evening. The Monday and Tuesday sessions are at the Climate Theater, magician Paul Nathan's new venue at Ninth and Folsom streets, an old industrial neighborhood on the trailing edge of the SoMa club scene.
"Five bucks to play or watch," says Landry on the phone, issuing what amounted to a veiled challenge to make good on a threat about wishing I could go back onstage and do some improv. "Either one, five bucks."
Five bucks: Cheap for humiliation, I thought. No, not really -- the thought of humiliation didn't cross my mind. When you do improv, you think in terms of triumph, of doing some sort of mind-meld with the two or three others on the stage, and creating pure magic, getting laughs and floating offstage in an endorphin cloud.
The fact that I hadn't been onstage doing anything close to improv for about 30 years didn't hit me until I stepped up onto the platform with two other guys, whose combined age may have been close to mine.
"Lost in the jungle," somebody shouted from the darkness (a relative term in a small place like this).
One guy started furiously hacking away at imaginary underbrush, the other began freaking out over our being lost in the remote jungle. And, within seconds, I had adapted the persona of an old-style British colonialist, who remarked about how he had been flying first class, while the hacking guy was in tourist. So, naturally, it was his duty to hack me to safety.
The scene evolved into a mad conversation on class structure and the duties of the noble rich, and, best of all, made people laugh.
Yep, the drug of ... wow ... just thinking about it now has me feeling more than a little high.
OK, I was rusty, but the basics dropped back into place, and I was able to get around the stage without training wheels. And perhaps best of all, I was in a room full of kindred spirits -- people with the knack for assuming an altogether different character in a matter of seconds.
What makes this so much fun is the low-key nature of the Monday and Tuesday improv sessions. The gatherings are designed for performers hooked on the form.
Basically, the session starts about 8 p.m., when someone begins shaking a jar with little pieces of folded paper inside. Each paper has a suggestion for a type of improv, and those who want to try it simply climb onstage and begin acting.
During a single sketch, the tone of the piece can move quickly from slow and ugly to pure genius. The other performers are encouraging and, like those onstage, live for moments when the magic happens and improvised hilarity flies from the stage.
What is puzzling about these performances is the lack of an audience more interested in watching than playing. At five bucks, you get a two-hour show with enough good material to make you want to come back. You have the opportunity to see theater created in the raw, and marvel at the workings of the comic mind.
Anyway, playing or not, it is a different sort of night out.
For information on the various improv activities out of the co-op, log on to www.sfimprovcooperative.com.
Pat Craig is the Times theater critic. Reach him at 925-945-4736 or