Comedy Without a Net

Shortly after his 50th birthday, Mark White decided to try something new. He didn't go out and buy a flashy, red sports car or fast motorcycle to celebrate his milestone. Instead, his daring act was to join an improvisational comedy troupe called Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed.

"I wanted to find out if I could do it," says White, who joined the group in 2002. "And I wanted to do it before I was too old to try."

White is co-director of the troupe along with Mike Pierce. But founding honors go to Dana Cianciotto, who formed the group in May 2002. Cianciotto studied musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. She formed Not Burnt Out after being turned down for a part.

"They said she was too gay," explains White. "She decided to start her own group with a different mix of people."

The troupe ranges in size from 14 to 18 people, with ages spanning from 19 to White's 53 years. Occupations vary as well. "We have a school teacher, account rep, software designer, crisis counselor, administrative assistant ... no lawyers," says White.

With so much diversity, it makes sense to have an unusual name for the troupe. But even White doesn't know the origins of the moniker, saying "it was never revealed." Since Cianciotto now lives in Phoenix, it appears this secret will remain.

White is anything but secretive when talking about his troupe, and he does so with humor and several different accents. Simply put, White describes the troupe as "a group of performers that takes audience suggestions and participation to create scenes that are entertaining and amusing."

The troupe creates short scenes or games that last between three and eight minutes in length. Approximately 10 games are performed in one hour. The host of the game asks audience members for suggestions.

Some examples of games are Switcheroo, Changing Places and Party Quirks. In Switcheroo, two different characters must assume the character of the other person, taking on a different accent. In Changing Places, characters start out in Tucson and ask the audience for dialect suggestions. They must keep on the same subject but change dialect often in mid-thought.

In Party Quirks, the host of a party has to guess who his or her three guests are. The guests may be people or objects. White explained three guests might be Marie Antoinette, someone with Tourette's syndrome and a urinal. When offered a snack, Antoinette might say, "I would like cake." The Tourette sufferer might exhibit several tic-like movements. And the urinal might request a sanitizing block instead of cake. All three guests would continue to act out and speak telling lines, while the party host would continue to size up the company to determine their identity. This can lead to some suggestive comedy.

"The suggestions we accept from the 21-and-older crowd are different from the family show," says White. "It gets positively raunchy. If (the word) tampon is brought up, there's a better chance of us using it."

But lines are drawn when it comes to the family-friendly show. "We take sexuality and vulgarity out of scenes and focus on simple humor," continues White. There is also a no-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol. The troupe's Web site, unscrewedcomedy.com, outlines this policy clearly. "I was the one to say people in altered states can't be doing their best," he says.

The troupe also tries to bring out the best in other performers and professionals. According to their Web site, they have "taught interested people how to perform, present, listen, entertain and improvise. Not Burnt Out can help your staff find ways to relax in presentations through improvisational comedy training and develop thinking 'on the fly.'" This includes offering sales training, corporate training and workshops, creative-marketing services and shows tailored for specific audiences. Not Burnt Out also offers workshops at schools, and has taught the "Introduction to the Basics of Improv" to students at Rincon High School and Yuma High School.

Part of the introductory class involves teaching students how to build an environment. "If there's a cabinet or refrigerator, the audience must see it," says White. "You can't walk through a table. You must honor the space and create where you are and what you are doing."

But the real secrets of good improv are "listening, contributing and staying in character. The first rule is listening. Don't pre-think any response. If you come up with something, it may not fit the scene. You must listen and don't pre-think anything."

White also mentions the success of Not Burnt Out is a group effort. "I'm really proud of the people I work with. They make the troupe. It's not a one-person vehicle. Its success is interdependent on a variety of people. That makes us special, the great diversity."

Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed performs a 21-and-older show from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Saturday, July 16, at Vaudeville Cabaret, 110 E. Congress St. Admission is $3. For more information, call 440-4436 or visit unscrewedcomedy.com.

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