Admittedly, I have turned into that annoying “no TV” guy. When someone asks me “Did you see that commercial about the dog and the guy and the toilet?” I start with “no.” Usually I am asked in return “How have you not seen that? It’s on all the time” to which I have to respond “I don’t own a television.” I don’t think I’m better than anyone who owns one; TV and I have been roommates on and off since I was little. Eventually I realized I function better without one. I end up watching dumb stuff for no reason, and I think back about all that GARBAGE I watched growing up and it kind of sickens me.
However, the final tossing of the boob tube onto the sidewalk with a “FREE (works)” sign attached happened when I discovered Reno’s indie theater scene. My parents took me to big production plays when I was young, and you are also currently reading the yammerings of Sycamore Junior High’s lead actor of The Phantom Toolbooth (Milo). After that, theater kind disappeared in my life.
My friend took me to Pageant at Brüka Theater many years ago and I walked out with my stomach muscles in agony from laughter. That one experience inspired me to buy season tickets for a few years, and in doing so I realized there is even more “like that” in Reno. These performances were the final nail in the coffin for the big black box. In theater, storytelling, stand-up, etc, there are no overdubs, reshoots, adding filters or manipulation to cover mistakes It’s pure, raw and un-edited. I was a changed man.
Not long after moving to Reno in 2006, I met Jessica “Jester” Levity at the Studio on 4th Street. We discovered in a phone number exchange that both hail from Cincinnati, OH, so clearly our Midwestern/Ohio pride was huge (FYI people from Ohio are very proud and it has nothing to do with our sportsball teams). While I was focused on music, she had founded an improv comedy troupe called The Utility Players. According to Levity “I had a insatiable yearning to see really good improv comedy, and I also dreamed the name “The Utility Players”, and thought, “Holy shit, that would be a great name for a comedy troupe that can do anything.”(fun fact: A ‘utility player’ is a baseball term for someone who can play any position proficiently). We stayed in touch over the years (see: Midwestern/Ohio pride) and seeing each other’s endeavors grow, we had both grown out of the Studio on 4th and in 2011 I found myself at my first Utility Players show at the Pioneer Underground.
Modeled after the 1998-2007 show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Utility Players take the crowd through a series of “games” which create scenarios for the comedians to improvise within. What makes this way better than the show is first, it’s live; and second, no network TV censorship (the show is 18+ only) so it has an “anything goes” ethos. After attending easily over fifteen UP’s shows I can promise that anything truly does go.
Much like an improv jazz band or jamband, improv is influenced by the energy of the crowd, the moods of the comedians, the ideas called out from the crowd, or even how recently practiced are the comedians? One thing that’s so magic about improv is the unknown. Will this “show” be incredible or fall flat? When a performer walks on stage with no set-list, skit, or pre-rehearsed bit, the potential is completely unknown. Throw in inviting crowd members up onstage for games, and every show is a wild card. I’ve seen the Utility Player’s build so much energy in a room your hair stands on end, and a few times they’ve even ended a game by saying “ok, that was terrible.” It’s a risk you take to create magic.
After a long tenure at the Pioneer Underground, they were offered an incredible opportunity: their own theater and weekly gig at the Sands Regency. “Jester’s Theater” was created in small conference room upstairs in the Sands (fun fact: the rooms was previously The Funny Bone Comedy Club until 2007). My first thought was “the Utility Players are already great, but when a group like this performs weekly instead of monthly, their improv is going to get even better than before.” While the theater created in the Sands is no Pioneer Underground structurally, it’s more intimate and you can hear the performers better than ever. The cast for this past week: Amanda Alvey, Chris Daniels, Derek Sonderfan, Ian Sorensen, Joe Garton, Shane Tolomeo, Stacy Johnson and Taryn Gomez, along with host Jessica “The Jester” Levity, clearly have benefited from their weekly gigs. It was clear their improv was quicker, sharper and funnier. From “game” to “game” the overall consistency of the show was really strong. The crowd was pretty rowdy but overall respectful and was adding great cues (when asked).
Not only did their weekly gigs tighten their show, but they were invited to the SF Improv Festival this past September. That experience, Levity says “humbled us, it inspired us, it networked us, and, in the words of Derek Sonderfan (our musician): ‘It wasn’t our greatest performance, but it showed that we deserved to be at SFIF.’ They loved our performance, and the team bonding that occurred that weekend is irreplaceable. Most importantly, a bunch of improv junkies got to see a bunch of incredible improv, and it has completely set a new bar for what we want to do as a troupe. Also, the UPs got to witness THE troupe that single-handedly inspired me to create my own troupe when I saw them in Amsterdam — Boom Chicago. They were speechless after the performance.”
There are only two shows left in The Utility Player’s eighth season at the Sands. THIS TROUPE IS FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS RIGHT NOW. Every Saturday through 12/20 (no show on 12/13). Tickets are available online at www.utilityplayerscomedy.com or the Sands cage. Doors open at 7:30 (get there on time to get best seats). These shows have been selling out so we recommend arriving early and buying presale tickets.Please also like Homeslice Productions and The Utility Players on Facebook.