At this theater, audience members show no restraint.
They hoot. They holler. They shout “Bad!” at an actor delivering a risque line.
Out comes a bag with - Father forgive them - the face of the Rev. Bernard Coughlin, chancellor of Gonzaga University, whose smiling visage must be worn by the offending actor the rest of the skit.
But this audience is unstoppable.
“Die!” members shout at an actor whose jokes fall flatter than flapjacks.
“Die by eating hamburger meat!” they shout, really incensed.
Actor Kevin Gamache mimes frying a hamburger, eating it - and slamming to the floor with a croak.
This isn’t theater. This is gymnastics, psychology, history, politics, comedy, tragedy and a few very bad accents. It’s GUTS: Gonzaga University Theater Sports.
Since 1988, students have performed improvisational theater, drawing up to 100 people a show. Just attending takes energy. Imagine what it takes to perform.
“You’ve got to basically be willing to explode,” said Nick Francone, 19, of Salt Lake City. “You assume you’re super-human so you find yourself in amazing bodily positions that on a normal day you’d never be involved in.”
“You can’t just go up and have a silly character and make a funny voice,” says Mark Thompson, a professional improv actor with Unexpected Productions in Spokane who came to offer his support. Great improv requires strong characters, stories with a beginning, middle and an end, and timing - just as great theater does.
The twist? All the characters, emotions and dilemmas are unscripted. They’re based on audience suggestions.
“You have to have someone who can think symbolically,” Thompson says.
The GUTS audience sends two actors into an ice fishing skit - with all the action in reverse. Actors must think of story lines for such images as “Libertarianism,” a Chinese finger puzzle and a slide show of ancient catacombs.
All without shoes. The 28-member GUTS troupe appears barefoot or in socks, sometimes matching.
“Our shoes are our egos,” says Jayme Wilmore, 20, of Santa Barbara, Calif. “Without them we’re all on equal footing.”
The shows, held every two to three weeks on Saturday nights, draw steady crowds to Russell Theatre. Last week, competing with the annual Charity Ball on campus, the audience numbered four. But nearly an hour after the show was supposed to start, the usual seats finally filled.
“Losers!” the actors shouted at the crowd filing in. The crowd cheered. The interplay is reminiscent of a night at “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“The Rocky what?” asks one woman, seemingly too young to remember.
“This attracts an audience unheard of in theater, teenagers to 35,” says Thompson, 26.
Originally envisioned as an alternative to drinking beer in dorm rooms on Friday night, GUTS remains a safe, albeit raucous outlet.
The troupe is based on four principles: creativity, humility, trust and teamwork. During most shows, actors and actresses divide into two teams who compete for audience scores playing games such as Gibberish, Alliteration and Party Quirks with improvised characters and scenarios.
At twice-weekly practices that begin at 10 p.m., actors were pumped - far more interested in “playing” the games than talking.
“My turn,” said Josh Smith, 22, jumping up midsentence. Smith, of Spokane, is one of three council members who cast the shows. He is also the ref who throws a flag on floundering skits, lewdness (“Bad!”) or when a player blocks someone else’s creativity.
Natural hams and divinity students join theater majors and engineering majors on the stage. As for the audience …
“One audience last year kept mooing at us,” Francone said. “It made no sense. We were all up there going, ‘Why are they mooing at us?’ Not booing, they were making cow noises.”
Games stretch the imagination. One game involves an actor buying an object suggested by the audience next to an actor selling with an emotion. The resulting scene: “I’m buying a locomotive” and “I’m selling with Satanic glee.”
Another pun game, “185,” goes like this: “May I have an occupation?” an actor asks.
“Liposuctionist,” someone yells.
Each member of the troupe then takes turns: “185 liposuctionists go into a bar and the bartender says sorry we don’t serve liposuctionists so 185 liposuctionists say:
“Is it the hips?”
“Never mind the drinks, we just wanted the straws.”
The audience roars. On the stage, the countenance of Father Coughlin just smiles.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
MEMO: GUTS will perform twice more this semester, on Nov. 23 and Dec. 7 at Russell Theatre at 9 p.m. Admission requires a $1 donation.