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A Season To Laugh

From comedy spots at Robinson Secondary School to 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."

Their teacher, Doug "Chip" Rome taught them the fine art of improvisational comedy, something Gantz said he thought was a part of every high school's theater department.

"I didn't realize other schools didn't have this," he said of the school's comedy sports program he'd participated in since seventh grade.

The two comedians split up for a while after graduating from Robinson in 1997: Gantz went on to the University of Virginia while Saenz attended George Mason University.

"I thought I'd be done with improv after high school," Gantz said.

At UVA, there were lots of groups for the performing arts, but nothing like improv, Gantz said. He and some friends got together and created the Whethermen, a short-form improv group that continues to perform at the school. Following that, Gantz went on to study with the Improv Olympics and Annoyance Theater in Chicago, believed to be the best improv scene in the country.

"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.

Short-form improv is similar to shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway," in which the actors take suggestions from the audience throughout the course of the evening. Long-form improv is less audience-participation focused and more geared around telling a story, Gantz said.

Improv is something he would be happy to do as a career, if the opportunity presented itself.

"The best improviser in the country, T.J. Jagodowski, is on TV doing the Midas commercials with Fred Flintsone," Gantz said. "No one knows who he is. I saw him on a train in Chicago after seeing him in a club and it really opened my eyes. I'd love to be a professional improviser but even the ones who do it professionally don't make a lot of money."

These days, Saenz is 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."

GANTZ STILL finds time to perform improv with his other group, Jackie, when he's not coaching and teaching members of Season Six or working at his day job in the health care industry.

"Being a coach makes me a better improviser," Gantz said. "It makes me think of the fundamentals and mechanics. But being a performer makes me a better coach, too. I love to perform but I think I have a skill for being a teacher."

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," said Gantz. "We want to change the way the city feels about itself because this is a funny place."

Audience participation is 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."

Fellow Sixer Stuart Scotten said having the audience involved in the show makes it more fun for everyone.

"No one knows where anything is going which I think makes it more enjoyable," Scotten said.

Because the show starts with an audience suggestion, every night is different, so the comedy stays fresh, he said.

During the day, Scotten is an account manager for a Web development company. Improv is a way to spend his free time doing "something especially creative."

Improv "is a different style of entertainment. It gets you out of yourself," Scotten said. "I still get nervous before every show, but it's so rewarding to challenge that fear."

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."