You don't know Jack (but you should)

JaCKPie may be the next step in the evolution of Atlanta's improv scene

Let's assume you stumble into a JaCKPie show by accident. You've seen some improvised comedy before, so you expect JaCKPie will be more of the same — short, silly games put on by a bunch of smart-aleck slackers. Wackiness ensues, fun times for all.

Had you happened upon JaCKPie's most recent show, an evening dubbed "The Vesuvius Project," you definitely would have found said wackiness: a gun-toting snowman brought to life, two inept snipers arguing on a rooftop, an overweight kid worrying that his mom may be a cannibal.

But JaCKPie serves its absurdity with a twist: All these characters function in a storyline that's at least tangentially related, and the run time can last as long as two hours.

While local fixtures like Whole World Theatre or Dad's Garage have become virtually synonymous with the fast-paced game-style of improv comedy, JaCKPie is trying something altogether different: long-form improv or, as co-founders Jim Karwisch and Chris Pierce call it, spontaneous theater. JaCKPie's shows aim for a longer payoff, developing characters more and relying less on audience participation. And often, the comedy isn't necessarily the driving force.

A moment arrives about two-thirds through "The Vesuvius Project" when, all of a sudden, the pressure noticeably begins to build. That animated snowman becomes a bodyguard for a lost little girl, intercepting the snipers and saving the day. The rate of action, which has been a little slow during the first act, accelerates, and the "plot," if you can call it that, stretches to a climax.

This convergence is by design; though long-form improv shows aren't rehearsed, they do often follow a pre-established scene structure. As its name suggests, "Vesuvius" is created to reflect a volcano that builds energy and eventually explodes in the second half.

The volcano metaphor may well apply to JaCKPie, because the company seems to be at a pivotal moment itself. Momentum and pressure have been building for the past year-and-a-half, and now JaCKPie sits on the verge of a major explosion — in a good way.

Though Atlanta has been exposed to long-form improv before, perhaps most visibly through Scandal, the season-long soap opera at Dad's Garage, the kind of theater JaCKPie produces feels like a different, and logical, addition to the scene. Long-form shows regularly pack houses in Chicago and New York, and some improv followers call the form an evolutionary superior to short-form. Karwisch and Pierce are banking that Atlanta will catch the long-form bug. Next month they're moving their two-man act to Peachtree Playhouse, putting on a late-night show most Saturdays in March. And they're in the process of renovating an old movie house in Avondale Estates, a venue they're already using to teach long-form classes.

Admittedly, it's an inauspicious time to open a new theater space, especially one located in a sleepy little business district perpetually on the edge of discovery. That outlook appears even darker when you consider the listless economy and the fact that JaCKPie is trotting out something largely untested in this city. Last year another improv troupe, the Comedy Response Unit, folded after starting the Red Chair Theater in another up-and-coming part of town. It begs the question, can this city support another improv group?

Pierce thinks so. "We're not just another improv group," he says. "It's not all games and bells. It's about being an actor and a playwright at the same time."

Both Karwisch and Pierce grew up in the northern suburbs of Atlanta — Cobb and Gwinnett counties, respectively. Both are 27 and have spent their adult lives pursuing acting. And both are outspoken, fervent advocates of their chosen art form. But there the similarities mostly end. In person, Karwisch is both bookish and boisterous, a self-confessed chatterbox who on stage often ends up playing the straight man. Pierce, who looks like a younger Jim Carrey (minus most everything annoying about that actor), is more of a writer than his business partner, but he shows admirable range in his acting.

A UGA grad, Pierce started acting during college and later studied improv at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Back in Atlanta he took classes at Dad's Garage and ended up on stage with the Comedy Response Unit, a young troupe of comedians who were doing game-style improv and experimenting with longer forms.

Karwisch, who's been an actor since childhood and toured in a couple of shows after college, moved back to Atlanta in 2001 following a stint in Chicago, the nation's undisputed capital of improv comedy. While there, he studied with the ImprovOlympic and immersed himself in the comedy scene.

"Jim came to Atlanta as a Chicago-schooled evangelist looking for somewhere to preach," says Chris Nalesnik, a former Comedy Response Unit member who now performs regularly with JaCKPie. "Jim led a few workshops [for Comedy Response], and it was like a breath of fresh air."

Pierce and Karwisch met in August 2001, and three months later they formed a two-man show of long-form improv. They dubbed themselves JaCKPie, an anagram of their names.

Since the Comedy Response Unit shows started at 10:30 p.m., JaCKPie took over the 8 p.m. time slot at the Red Chair Theater. Early reaction was mixed. Some nights, no one would show up at all. Others were packed. The show ran weekly through January 2002.

In February, under Karwisch's direction, another long-form show premiered. "Wax Costanza," featuring a three-man team of performers snagged from the Comedy Response Unit, ran for three months.

But things were looking grim for the Red Chair Theater, and by early spring of that same year it became obvious that JaCKPie would need to find another venue. Around that time, JaCKPie was invited to an improv festival hosted by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky.

"It was very encouraging for us to know that improvisation, in all its variety, was being offered a place in a highly respected theater, even if only for a short time," Pierce says. "That opportunity really energized us."

The experience also turned them on to the notion of moving their shows into theaters not typically associated with improv. They staged "An Evening of Spontaneous Theater" at the Art Place Mountain View in Marietta in June and began doing monthly shows at PushPush Theater that summer. The momentum increased exponentially. JaCKPie went from facing virtually empty houses to folks sitting in the aisles, Pierce recalls, thanks mostly to word-of-mouth.

But the duo was worried. Sure, they'd made back their initial investment in JaCKPie, and things seemed to be going swimmingly. What they needed, however, was new faces.

"We took a little time off to see how things were working out," Pierce says. "What can really suffocate you is no fresh talent."

Enter Tricia Bowers. The dance instructor mentioned that she was using the old Towne Cinema theater in Avondale Estates for yoga and youth dance classes, but that the space was free at night. She offered to let JaCKPie teach improv classes there for a percentage of the profits. In October, Karwisch and Pierce started the first class, and began a painstaking series of renovations on the space, all funded from their own pockets.

Before Towne Cinema gets the chance to prove itself as a performance venue, JaCKPie is mounting another experiment. The duo brings its two-man act of long-form improv to Peachtree Playhouse starting March 1.

"We've always wanted the theater to be multipurpose," says John Gibson, artistic director for Peachtree Playhouse. "We don't want people to get tired of the same stuff."

The arrangement came about through Pierce, who's currently cast in The Limousine Ride at Peachtree Playhouse's sister theater, Ansley Park Playhouse. Gibson approached the cast and asked if anyone had any ideas for after-hours shows at Peachtree Playhouse, which has enjoyed unprecedented success with its run of Peachtree Battle. JaCKPie seemed like a perfect fit.

It remains to be seen if JaCKPie's style of improv will mesh with the crowd accustomed to seeing Peachtree Playhouse's brand of camp antics. The theater is connected to the Vortex by a back hallway, and Karwisch wonders aloud if a drinking crowd will appreciate what JaCKPie is all about.

The two-man show, in particular, tends to be less frantic and requires more from the audience than, say, your average episode of "Whose Line is It Anyway?" That sense of concentration is what attracted Karwisch to long-form improv in the first place.

"The games are fun, but we give more attention to detail," he says. "There's more attention paid to character development, and more focus put on the relationships between actors on stage."

Chris Nalesnik puts it this way: Short-form, when successful, makes people laugh. But the skill level to do that is very low.

"Long-form has much loftier goals," he says. "You have to make a coherent 30-120 minute piece on the spot, engage the audience and keep them engaged, and remember everything you and everyone else does throughout the show. The skill set has to be much larger to accomplish all of that. Not to mention how you literally open your soul on stage sometimes. Long-form is therefore much more intellectually and personally challenging than short-form."

As with most things related to improv comedy, the roots of long-form run back to Chicago. It was developed first by Del Close in the late 1960s, using a structure he called The Harold. According to some improvisers, all long-form shows today are just Harolds wearing different clothes. By that analogy, JaCKPie's brand of long-form certainly uses The Harold, but gives him new clothes, a new car and a tab of Ecstasy.

But not all forms follow the basic Harold pattern, and Pierce says that the performers can figure out the rules for themselves as the show unfolds.

"Not everyone will like it," he says.

The duo is hoping that people will like it enough to come and take a long-form class at the Towne Cinema theater. They've already filled two levels of classes with about two-dozen students, and they see these students as the next phase in building the legions of local long-form-philes.

The theater itself has yet to have a real grand opening performance. Shows so far have been aimed mainly at students, with a lively show of support from friends. The space, Karwisch admits, still needs a lot of work. By April, though, he anticipates having regular JaCKPie shows up and running.

"Soon this will start to feel like a real theater," he says, looking out over the vacant room that once served as a movie house. "Now it looks like an office that has been abandoned."

Signs of improvements are already obvious. The classroom, notably, is sleeker and newer than the rest of the building, which feels a bit like a moldy community center. The stage looks like one you'd find in a middle school lunchroom, elevated an uncomfortable height above the crowd seated in removable metal chairs below.

In March, Fly-By Theatre Company is temporarily taking over the space, and in the process installing audience risers, which will remain in place. Karwisch also plans to repaint the main theater space and hang dark curtains on the wings, creating a "secret passage" from the JaCKPie office to backstage.

"There should be something artistic going on here because, hey, there's a marquis outside," Pierce jokes.

Karwisch adds: "I can see this space building a community. But the question is, will people come to Avondale to see a show?"

A bigger question might be, will Atlantans "get" long-form?

"I think to a certain degree short-form is a tad more accessible to the audience," says Sean Daniels, artistic director of Dad's Garage. "It doesn't take a huge investment by the audience, and most people we get now have often seen 'Whose Line is It Anyway?' which is all short-form. But it also may just be that the Atlanta improv scene is young. You go to Chicago and everyone is doing long-form, and it's short-form that is rare."

Kelly Cirillo, a recent addition to the JaCKPie roster, echoes the thought about "Whose Line is It Anyway?" When she tells people that she does improv, the first thing they usually say is, "Oh, I love that Wayne Brady and Drew Carey."

"It's hard and time-consuming to explain to them that our style is the same in the sense that there is no script, but really that is where the similarities end," she says. "People sometimes are not adventurous enough to just check out something new without hearing unbelievable reviews or having one of their friends drag them along to see."

Karwisch and Pierce recognize the education process required to get Atlanta audiences up to speed and acknowledge that the long-form scene will only start to grow once more people are exposed to it. This seems to be a good time for that education to begin, with the JaCKPie shows starting up next month at Peachtree Playhouse. Meanwhile, Dad's Garage has two new long-form improv shows in the works, and this fall will bring back its Harold-based "Long Johns" show.

Not that long-form is likely to replace game-style improv comedy in Atlanta anytime soon. JaCKPie members say they don't see themselves in competition with the folks at Whole World or Dad's. Rather, they see long-form as a different kind of theater entirely. That split has been noticed by other followers of the improv phenomenon. Rob Kozlowski, author of The Art of Chicago Improv: Short Cuts to Long-Form Improvisation, even suggests that the names of the forms be changed to "game" and "scenic" improv.

No matter what you call it, long-form is just now coming into its own locally. As Karwisch sees it, Atlanta could easily become the major player for improv in the Southeast. He credits Dad's Garage's increasing profile for helping boost the city's national reputation, and hopes that JaCKPie will be the next player to contribute to that rep. He lists the places with vibrant improv communities — Chicago, New York, Toronto — and points out that those cities tend to also have reputations for excellent theater, dance and other performing and visual arts.

"I don't think for Atlanta it's about being an 'improv city' and competing with Chicago for the title," Karwisch says. "Right now, when I look at what the Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts has accomplished, what the community and business leaders on the Regional Arts Task Force are at least talking about, I think maybe Atlanta is going to finally take the stage as a world-class city building a reputation for excellence in the arts. Improv can play a big role in that, and having more variety within the improv set increases the overall variety of our cultural scene."

Nalesnik puts it this way: "The improv respect list goes like this: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and somewhere down the line, Atlanta. I want us to be in the top three, which means that the troupes that do it have to take it seriously. We all have to look at what is possible and try to raise the bar of what is available to see in Atlanta."