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Unscrewed Screwballs

Upon hearing about the comedy group Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed, one is bound to wonder: Was the group formed after a particularly tough day at work? An enlightening visit to the psychologist? A mishap with a presumed-dead light bulb? To find out, I went straight to the source.

"It's a secret," says Dana Cianciotto, the group's founder. "We struggled with names for days. I actually wanted to call it something different, but I figured that people would ask me what it meant, and I'd say it was a secret."

Fair enough. While the phrase was coined by Cianciotto, the group owes much more to her than just the name. Two years ago, Cianciotto auditioned for a local comedy group and was turned down for a surprising reason.

"I made it to the callbacks," she says, "but was then told I was 'too gay' to be in the improv troupe. ... They said I was gay in every scene."

Instead of giving up, she founded her own troupe, Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed (NBOJU in casual parlance). Then came the auditions.

"About two weeks later, I held auditions for NBOJU because I thought it would be fun," says Cianciotto. "I wanted to start an improv troupe that had a wide variety of ages and people from many aspects of life. I held auditions in May 2002, and I got a huge number of people from ages 15 to 50. ... I had no idea how big it was going to get."

Mark White, the troupe's co-director and promoter, says Cianciotto took some chances, "and one of them was me. I am literally old enough to be everyone (in the group)'s father." At the time, White had no theater experience but would laugh so hard at Whose Line Is It Anyway? that it woke his family up at night. He notes that, as the founder of NBOJU, Cianciotto brought the group to its current level of success.

The group just celebrated their second anniversary on May 25 and are still going strong. Playing regularly at venues as diverse as the Vaudeville Cabaret, Wilde Playhouse and Bookman's, the comedy troupe does more than just entertain.

"We are trying to develop ourselves as a troupe that appeals to all audiences, and a troupe that develops new performers," White says.

The group offers improv classes for teens and kids as well as for adults. The performers themselves range in age from 21 to 52 and come from all walks of life. When it comes to performances, they alter their content and language according to their audience. For example, at the all-ages Bookman's shows, anyone, old or young, can just walk in at any time.

"Innuendo and suggestion become the rule," admits White. It's not necessarily a hindrance to the group if they need to restrict their activities for mixed audiences, though. "The Bookman's audience is probably our most appreciative crowd. As a result, we end up doing a better show," he adds.

NBOJU also leads professional workshops, such as an upcoming corporate event in which the group will spring their true nature on the unsuspecting participants, who expect just another less-than-exciting session. The group has trained marketing groups on how to catch the attention of passersby without being insufferable or insincere. Theme shows and Christmas parties are just a couple of the group's other activities.

Improvisational comedy can translate into these varied uses, because it's not just about comedy; it's about connections between the participants. Whether in the real world or on the stage, improv has certain rules.

"Unscripted does not mean unrehearsed," notes White. In addition, he says that certain less-interesting aspects of human interaction are intentionally bypassed, such as the first meeting of two people. "In improv, when you're doing a scene, you've always known that person for at least 15 minutes."

For those who have never seen the group perform, as well as longtime NBOJU fans, the troupe of comedians offers two unique shows this weekend.

On Friday, June 11, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Bookman's (6230 E. Speedway Blvd.) hosts a performance of "PG-13 improvisational comedy unscripted and unfettered with costumes or props." Children 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult at this free show. For information on the show, call 440-4436.

Later that night, a "Battle of the Improvs" will be staged at Wilde Playhouse beginning at 10 p.m. Two local comedy improv troupes--in this case, short-form pros NBOJU and the nation's oldest college sketch-comedy group, Comedy Corner--compete through four rounds, each of which is rated by the audience. Tickets to the battle are $5, but according to Wilde's Web site, those who call ahead for reservations to any improv battle through June 26 get in free. Plus, the Playhouse offers a stocked espresso bar, delicious pastries, cheese platters, fine wines and cold beers. The Wilde Playhouse is located at 135 E. Congress St. For information, call the venue at 770-1000. More information about NBOJU is available at unscrewedcomedy.com.

More by Carrie Stern

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