The VenueReno-Tahoe Comedy is the group that books shows for the Pioneer Underground. Wayne Wright, director of RTC, has been a show promoter since the 1990s when he worked in Southern California. He fell in love with the ambience of the underground venue, which features a 175-seat theater and offers a full bar and snacks. Wright got into the promotion business because he’s been a life-long fan of comedy. As director of RTC, Wright tries to feature a broad scope of entertainment that includes stand-up, improv, hypnotism and the occasional burlesque and magic show.
Wright said parents should use their own discretion when bringing those younger than 18.
“Most of our comedians are relatively clean although most shows have at least some adult content,” he said.

Where: Pioneer Underground in the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts plaza at the corner of Mill and Virginia streets (100 S. Virginia St.).
Details: 775-322-5233 or www.renotahoecomedy.com
Cost: Most shows cost $13 advance and $16 day of the show.
Upcoming scheduleJan. 10: Utility Players Improv Troupe at 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11, comedian-hypnotist Dan Kimm at 7 p.m.; comedian Miles Weber at 9:30 p.m.
Jan. 12, Miles Weber at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Jan. 18, Dan Kimm at 7 p.m.; comedian BJ Johnson at 9:30 p.m.
Jan. 19, BJ Johnson at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Jan. 25, Dan Kimm at 7 p.m.; comedian Thai Rivera at 9:30 p.m.
Jan. 26, Thai Rivera at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Feb. 1, Dan Kimm at 7 p.m.; comedian Bobby Slayton at 9:30 p.m.
Feb. 2, Bobby Slayton at 7 and 9:30 p.m.

Reno's Utility Players improv troupe keep things spontaneous

By its very nature, life is improvisational. As John Steinbeck wrote in his classic 1937 novel “Of Mice and Men”: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

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How one feels about this is a matter of perception.

For Shane Tolomeo, performing improv on-stage is sheer bliss.

“It’s fun to get up and say whatever comes off the top of your head and not worry about the repercussions of it,” said Tolomeo, 28, and a member of the Reno-based Utility Players Improv Troupe.

Of course, that doesn’t work in the “real world.” If Tolomeo practiced that philosophy at work where he’s a manager at a local grocery store, he’d be unemployed rather quickly.

“I’m a witty and sarcastic person by nature,” he said. “So having the stage allows me to be anything I want to be in that particular moment for any reason. That’s a lot of fun. It’s safe too.”

Tolomeo is one of eight Utility Players, which is the creation of producer, director and host Jessica Levity. The troupe performs the second Thursday of each month at the Pioneer Underground. Its next show is at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10.

“It’s 90-minutes of hard-hitting improv comedy in the style of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Levity said.

That means plenty of short games that often include suggestions or volunteers from the audience. While there are some basic plot points performers must touch upon, how they arrive is ultimately unknown until it happens.

For example, Tolomeo doesn’t know what he’s going to say until the words leave his mouth.

“I hear it just as the audience hears it,” he said. “That’s why you have to have a lot of trust in yourself and your scene partners.”

Now in its sixth season, Levity, Tolomeo and Ian Sorensen are the only members from the troupe’s first season. That’s when it held shows every Wednesday for nearly three years at Studio on 4th. In those days, the troupe didn’t charge for its shows because Levity didn’t feel the troupe was experienced or professional enough to charge patrons. The troupe has been at the Pioneer Underground for almost two years now.

“I think our secret (to long-term success) is that we’ve never grown until we were ready to,” said Levity, who also founded the local production company HomeSlice Productions.

“It took a lot of dedication. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I’m glad we did do it because it got us to where we are now. We went from spending our own money to put on shows to where now I have to file a 1099 form for the first time. It’s kind of scary, but I’m very proud of everyone involved. That includes our Street Team, tech crew and choreographer. We couldn’t do this without all of them.”

Having seen the troupe in its early days and seeing it again in December for its yearly holiday show, this writer is impressed at how professional the troupe has become and how cohesive it is during scenes.

“I’ve always casted on chemistry,” she said. “Anyone can learn improv, but chemistry isn’t something that can be taught.”

Improv, however, can be taught. The Utility Players hold workshops for individuals as well as large corporations.

“If you watch kids play house, that’s what they’re doing,” Levity said. “Kids are really good at improv because they usually aren’t inhibited. They’re just having fun in the moment. So when we go to corporations, our workshop is called Learning How to Play. My theory is that a team that can play together can work together. It’s also great for social skills, problem-solving, team-building and many other practical applications. It’s a fantastic form of entertainment but also very practical.”

Tolomeo compares rehearsing improv to athletes practicing before games. If everyone is on the same page, that team has a better chance of winning.

On-stage, the Utility Players show is much like a concert, Levity said.

“If you’ve ever watched a jam band, that’s essentially what we’re doing but instead of music we’re doing comedy,” she said. “We’re just jamming. “It’s all being made up. And as host, it’s my role to get suggestions that lead to highly creative scenes. I also genuinely like to see something new. I like to (toy) with my guys and watch them take off.”

That’s why Levity started the troupe in 2009 after leaving the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in philosophy.

“I created the Utility Players for my own selfish desire to watch improv comedy,” Levity said. “So when I’m doing a show, yea, we’re putting it on for the audience but I am genuinely interested in seeing what happens next.”

All of the Utility Players have backgrounds in various genres of entertainment. Sorensen excels in singing and voice impressions. Tolomeo is a talented physical performer who pulls off an impressive Sarah Palin impersonation. Chris Daniels is a friend of Levity’s from Wisconsin. He might be better known in Reno as the drag queen, Ginger Devine. But his improv skills are uncanny, Levity said. Joseph Garton began as tech and has moved into a principal role. Amanda Alvey is an accomplished theater actress in Reno who joined in 2011. Stacy Johnson also is a local theater performer and Emily Skyle is an improver from Chicago who also has appeared in many films. She even has her own www.imdb.com page.

“We have an amazing group of people who love what they do, love one another and just have a lot of fun doing what they do,” Levity said. “I think that’s why our shows are so much fun.”

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