Laugh It Up
This article was published on 03.06.14.
Comedy is serious business. This is the anchoring principle of Reno's Utility Players, an improv comedy group founded back in 2009 by Jessica Levity. For five years, the comedy troupe has honed their craft, trying to bring laughter to the community. From humble origins on the stage at Studio on 4th to packing seats at the Pioneer Underground, the Utility Players have worked to enliven Reno's comedy and theater scenes with improvised comedy performances and comedic theatrical productions.
Fresh off the stage from their most recent show, which concluded Feb. 22 after a three-week run, the Utility Players show no signs of slowing down as they jump back into their regular schedule of improv shows. You can catch them every second Thursday of the month at Pioneer Underground at 100 S. Virginia St.
“In baseball, ’utility player’ is a term for someone who can play multiple positions very well,” says Levity. “In any workplace or organization, everyone loves the utility player because they’re so dependable—you can put them wherever you need them at any given time, and they’ll execute any role with as much professional brilliance as the person who’s always in that role.”
Levity felt that this idea related well to improvisational comedy, because, in essence, to be able to improvise is to be capable of anything. With that in mind, she set about gathering friends and acquaintances to form an improv group back in 2009.
“I really love anything that can make me laugh,” she says. “And I like bringing different people who make me laugh together.”
Initially, the Utility Players attempted a full variety show, which they dubbed “The Comedy Cabaret.” They found their stage at Studio on 4th, 432 E. Fourth Street, a small venue that often features local performers trying to find an audience. They developed new sketches, routines and musical bits centered on a different theme each week. It required an immense amount of time and energy and throughout their first months together they were working every night of the week to produce new shows. Early on, their performances had rather sparse turnouts.
“Our shows consisted of three of us up on stage and even less people in the audience,” says Levity. Despite the size, the players describe their audiences as forgiving and eventually they found a loyal following. They were just pleased to have a platform for their art.
Six months into their endeavor they decided to move in a different direction. They left Studio on 4th behind, along with their variety show format, and for a time were without a home for their show. Without a venue, they also found themselves without as many resources. Focusing on a more pared-down format out of necessity, the trio began to orient themselves toward a more improvised format. Improvisation allowed the Utility Players to be more mobile with their performances. There is little to no production cost and there is no reliance on sets or large performance spaces. Honing their improvised comedy skills helped them through their stint as a homeless comedy troupe.
In 2011, they found a new home at Good Luck Macbeth Theater, a 40-seat theater that, at the time, was located in downtown Reno. With a larger venue came a larger audience. After almost two years developing their act, the Utility Players had grown a substantial following. By spring 2011, they were selling out shows and having to turn people away at the doors. Levity recalls it being a bittersweet experience, and she realized that they needed a new home to accommodate their larger audiences. It was around that time that they caught wind that The Pioneer Underground was being leased with the intention of turning it into a comedy club.
“We were absolutely terrified to book a venue that was four times the size of what we knew we could handle,” said Levity, recalling their preparation to move their show yet again. Those fears proved unfounded. In May 2011, they became the first sold-out show at the Pioneer Underground.
In five years, the Utility Players have come from being a tiny group of friends trying to do comedy to being a growing, thriving cast of nine with a large production team backing them up. They have a die-hard group of followers who hardly miss a single show that they have lovingly named “The Utilitarians” and a cast and crew that are constantly growing with people looking to lend their support and folks who are interested in performing.
Christopher Daniels, a player of the group, describes what creates a dedicated audience: “There’s an exchange that happens in an improv show. As opposed to a play or a musical where audiences are mere spectators, audiences at an improv show co-create the show with us with their suggestions, with their participation in some games, and with their energy. In improv, our audience is an invaluable part of the show.”
More recently, the Utility Players have been working on expanding their repertoire. Along with their monthly performances, periodically the troupe creates and puts on theatrical shows. The content ranges from murder mysteries to game show parodies. They keep their audience on their toes with original productions and improv comedy.
“We keep morphing and challenging ourselves; we keep creating new games and changing others, trying to find the perfect combination that will make the audience laugh,” says Ian Sorensen, a veteran player of the troupe. Right on the tail of their most recent enterprise, the Utility Players already have another one in the works. Daniels, who wrote the last three mystery performances, mentioned finishing up his newest project, “Dirty Laundry,” that he hopes to have on stage by the end of this year.
“The art scene in this city is blowing up, and comedy is a big part of that boom,” says Sorensen. The Utility Players are something of a rags-to-riches story. The members have a love for performance and passion for comedy. If laughter is the best medicine, the Utility Players provide a large dose.