You might not think a 25-year-old company with its own 200-seat theatre would consider a few simple chairs a purchase that would significantly boost production values. But if it’s a company where the story gets made up on the fly every performance and the props are all mimed, it makes sense that BATS Improv’s recent acquisition of a matched set of chairs for the stage is a small victory. Artistic director Kasey Klemm shows me around during an improv class and I notice the chairs the students are using don’t match, to which he cheerfully explains that the nice new chairs are stashed away, awaiting the weekend.
There’s not much about BATS that Klemm isn’t cheerful about. He’s homegrown―he took his first BATS class in 1997, joined the company in 2000, and is now in the first year of his three-year term, one of five paid staff. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, BATS also has a board of directors, a large main stage company, a musical director, musical and lighting improvisers, house managers and volunteers. “BATS is an actor-driven and actor-based organization that has always kept actors empowered,” Klemm explains when I ask about the company’s policy of rotating in new artistic directors every three years to keep any one person from becoming entrenched. “We are a strong, vibrant ensemble of 19 people who may not have exactly the same vision.”
Just before Klemm took office, former ACT executive director Heather Kitchen came in as a consultant and strategized a top-to-bottom restructuring. She also encouraged the company to consider itself a mature nonprofit organization and fundraise accordingly; BATS learned it “need not apologize for fundraising” and set a goal to raise $150,000 for the 2011–12 season.
Although it’s long used only the acronym, “BATS” stands for “Bay Area Theatresports.” A system in which teams of improvisers compete for points, Theatresports was created by Professor Keith Johnstone, author of the classic text Impro. In 1986, Seattle Theatresports’ Rebecca Stockley came down to teach the format to a group of actors assembled by the comedy troupe Fratelli Bologna at what is now New Conservatory. By 1987, the company had formed and started offering classes. Stockley’s still here, incidentally, performing with BATS and teaching.
BATS performed all over before settling into the Bayfront Theater in 1997, and players have gone on to form other groups. The company has developed long-form and genre formats. This season features a three-act “Family Drama” and “A Very Merry Murder Mystery,” but BATS has also recently revisited “Epic Romance” and is pondering long-form sci-fi.
BATS Improv is tripartite. There’s the performance arm, the school and BATS On-the-Go for corporate training and entertainment. The sections are carefully balanced, with the school driving income and revenues. Management works to determine “a fair profit margin that lets us pay people respectfully” yet keeps classes affordable and offers free classes to people with chronic, life-threatening illnesses through the Laughing Stock program. As for On-the-Go, thanks to nondisclosure agreements, Klemm can say only that BATS works with “great companies,” doing trainings for as many as 200 players led by six- or seven-coach teams. Corporate clients mostly request skill building in communication and teamwork. “Making your partner look good is a revolutionary idea for corporate folks.”
Looking good’s not a problem for BATS, but it needs to raise its profile. “We wish not to be a secret any longer,” Klemm says. While the company is robust enough to have players both at home and out on tour, the “more immediate goal is selling out this theatre every night. I have 400 tickets to sell every week to a show we haven’t written yet!”
The Bayfront Theater, though blessed with easy parking, has drawbacks. Tourists don’t know about it. As a test, Klemm once asked a Fisherman’s Wharf shopkeeper if there was any comedy or theatre close by, and the only answer he got was Cobb’s. Public transit to the theatre is ungainly. Fort Mason’s new management team is working to increase traffic with art installations, festivals and a farmer’s market.
Klemm clearly believes in the collaborative nature of his company’s work, wincing when he describes seeing improv in other cities, where he sees the emphasis being placed on being funny versus supporting your stage partners. “I don’t think it’s ever been a space of ‘how funny can we be,’ although there is a lot of humor that comes from living in the truth of this situation, in these very unique moments.” It seems to pleasantly surprise audiences expecting something like what they’d find on TV. “People come for the comedy and get a little more theatre than they bargained for.” And nicer chairs. Visit improv.org.
Lisa Drostova is a Bay Area theatre artist and writer.