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Fools Play

The long-running improv troupe continues to experiment with spontaneous comedy

Fools Play spins improvised stories out of one word, or sometimes nothing at all. Photo credit: Fools Play

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In some ways, Whose Line Is It Anyway? was both the best and worst thing to happen to improvisational comedy. While the show undeniably introduced the form to an immensely wider audience -- most fans of improv belonged to niche markets in comedy-focused cities like Chicago -- the style of improv it depicted would become synonymous in the public's mind with improv in general, despite the fact that improv can be performed in a multitude of ways. Reductively, improv can be divided into two forms: short-form and long-form. The former, which Whose Line used, has the advantage of a snappy rhythm and comedic cadence, befitting its short scenes and games.

Long-form improv, though, has the capability of being a much more enriching and impressive experience to watch, with stories rolling out over anywhere between 20 minutes to a full hour. Beginning in the ‘90s, improv troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade helped to formalize and popularize long-form improv across the country, aided in large part by their weekly ASSSSCAT shows. In Tacoma, the Fools Play troupe has been performing long-form for over two decades.

"It's like watching an improvised, unscripted play," says Fools Play member Josh Hird. "We tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We'll have characters that have a bit more depth to them. We try to bring in consistency, so humor can be a little bit more slow-burning, a little less punchy or energetic or crazy. But the trade-off is that you sometimes get these really cool stories that feel like they're written, but they're just made up on the spot."

For Fools Play Tacoma shows, the current format is to do two extended scenes: for the first, they get a suggestion from the audience to help them initiate the scene, but the second is performed without the benefit of an inspiring suggestion. Having this sort of free-form improv format, requiring the performers to hash out the story, characters, and setting for their scene is a fairly unique method. Hird, though not a founding Fools Play member, has been with the troupe for about a decade, and remembers other ways in which they experimented with different styles.

"We did a lot with what we called ‘recurring character worlds,' where it was a serialized long-form," said Hird. "Every time we performed that show, we'd be building upon the history of that show and the characters that we'd shown the audience before, which is pretty unusual. I like to think that, what we're doing right now, with no structure at all -- this discovery-based improv -- is pretty experimental. To do these things without even a suggestion is quite a bit different than my short-form roots."

For those who want something closer to Whose Line-style improv, Fools Play's Olympia shows focus on shorter improvised sketches, and they'll be having a show Aug. 25 at Olympia's Gravity Yoga. Those curious in the strange power of long-form improv can catch Fools Play on the Tacoma Little Theatre stage this Saturday.

FOOLS PLAY TACOMA, 8 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 11, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma, $10, 253.272.2281,

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