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By Laura McHale Holland
One autumn evening in 1986, William Hall was making dinner at his Noe Valley home with Rebecca Stockley, who had directed Hall, an actor and co-founder of the Commedia Dell'Arte troupe I Fratelli Bologna (the Bologna Brothers), in several local plays. She told Hall she'd been doing improv work and writing stories lately. Intrigued, Hall asked what her stories were about. She asked him to guess. "Space aliens" is what popped out of his mouth. Stockley said he was right and encouraged him to guess more. While they sliced, stirred, and sautéed, Hall guessed the entire story. Then Stockley confessed she had created a framework within which Hall had improvised the tale. "I was amazed that there was a story inside of me that could come out without any sort of conscious thought," Hall recalls.
Stockley and Hall gathered a group of friends for a two-day workshop in which Stockley introduced them to the "theatresports" style of improvisation, pioneered by Keith Johnstone. It culminated in a public performance that met with raucous laughter from an enthusiastic audience.
A handful of instigators soon formed Bay Area Theatresports, now called BATS Improv. Today, the company calls the Bayfront Theater at Fort Mason home. It has a stage company as well as staff handling management, artistic direction, and education. Each year, it has a summer school intensive that attracts students from around the world.
In theatre sports, two teams of improvisers compete, and judges rate them by holding up numbers, Olympic-style. Players who say things that are too outrageous for polite society wear bags over their heads for a time. This way, "you can be spontaneous," Hall says. "If you accidentally offend the audience, you'll be absolved because you get penalized for it."
Several original members remain in BATS' comedic orbit, including Hall. He still lives in Noe Valley, as do members Rafe Chase, Regina Saisi, and Tim Orr. BATS is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 18.
The events on Nov. 4 and 5 will include guests from Seattle Theatresports/Unexpected Productions. The special 20th Anniversary Show, commemorating the first BATS performance, will be Nov. 10; the Alumni Theatresports Extravaganza will be Nov. 11. Guest competitors on Nov. 17 and 18 will be the Los Angeles Theatresports/Impro Theatre. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, except for the 20th Anniversary Show, which will be $25/$30. For more details, tickets, and directions, visit www.improv.org.