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A Season To Laugh

Springfield man promotes improvisation through local performances.

From comedy sports at Robinson Secondary School to two steady performances each week at clubs in Arlington and Washington, D.C., Jason Saenz has a lot to laugh about these days.

"Improv is the most honest form of comedy," said Saenz, a Springfield resident. "I like to make people laugh and improv is a way to show your sense of humor without a script."

Crediting a drama teacher for showing them how to play a variety of improvisational games, Saenz said he and classmate Patrick Gantz became enthralled with improvisational comedy, in which actors take a suggestion from the audience and "create a whole world around it, with story arcs and characters."

After graduating from Robinson, Gantz went on to study with the Whethermen at the University of Virginia and later Annoyance Theater and Improv Olympics in Chicago, while Saenz attended George Mason University and left the stage for a few years.

"Patrick has had the drive and passion to do this for years," Saenz said, and when Gantz returned to Washington he encouraged Saenz to join him in auditioning at the Washington Improv Theater.

During the summer of 2004, Saenz said he began to attend classes Gantz was teaching at WIT.

"Long form improv is like a three-act play, but it's nebulous," Saenz said. "It's challenging but wonderfully satisfying to bring something back from the start of the show later in the evening that the audience thinks you've forgotten about. It's incredible," he said.

Saenz is now part of Season Six, an eight-person improv team that has a long-standing gig at the Comedy Spot at the Ballston Mall on Thursday nights, along with a WIT-scheduled performance at the Flashpoint Theater in Washington's Chinatown district on Friday nights. Gantz is the group's director.

PERFORMING IMPROV is a way to get back to the purity of humor and fun that people lose in adulthood, Saenz said.

"As we get older, we're conditioned to work and think in statistics and have all these assumptions and expectations on ourselves," said Saenz, who has a day job with the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. "Children are fantastic at improv. They see something funny and want to repeat it. Improv is a way of teaching you how to think and act like a kid again."

Maybe that's why improv rehearsals are called "play."

The group he performs with, which includes Stuart Scotten, Justin Purvis, Julie Potee, Mikael Johnson, Stacey Higgins, Tim Ford and Sasha Bratt, have been playing together, in some combination, for almost two years. Having a successful improv troupe, Saenz said, comes from being able to cultivate a sort of trust and group mentality that allows them to know what each other finds funny.

"We learn to understand each other's style and ways of functioning so when something happens, we can recognize it" and keep the humorous thread going, Saenz said.

When a show goes badly, or the actors don't quite follow all the same queues, the audience can tell, despite not having a script to go by, he said.

"It can be a challenge sometimes, but we have to remember the reason we're doing this, and that's to be silly," Saenz said. "This is the busiest and most exciting time in our history and we're having a great time."

Season Six has a simple goal: to demonstrate what improv is to the greater Washington area and maybe "teach people here to lighten up a bit. We want to change the way the city feels about itself because this is a funny place," he said.

Plus, audience participation is almost required at each show, as the actors request a word or two from people and base the entire performance on those suggestions.

"The audience is right there with us the whole time. We're all on the same page," he said. "I know this is cheesy, but there's something magical about it."

After an especially good show, Saenz likens the feeling to "going out for drinks with your friends. That's when you're at your funniest, when you're with people you know and you're comfortable. We just want to have fun."