Capital Times, The (Madison, WI)

  Published on December 19, 2001
  © 2001- Madison Newspapers, Inc.

  Byline: Michelle Gerise Godwin
  "In order to get started, we need you to shout out things, OK?" commands Dennis Kern, director of Ark Improvisational  Theater. "First, a time and a place." "Christmas in Mexico!" yells my friend Edward." "All right," says Kern, "now a state of  being, so to speak." "Gender confusion!" screams Ellen, who is sitting right next to Ed. "And, go!" exclaims Kern to the troupe assembled on stage. And just like that, a hilarious skit spontaneously erupts from the suggestions.

  That was December 1986. It was my first post-finals stint in Madison, and four of us decided to check out the Ark Improv  Theater, then nestled at Bassett and Johnson streets, where it resided from 1982-1994. Though the theater itself was somewhat dreary, the Ark's insides never failed to come alive, charged by the electricity that can only stem from  fast-paced improv. After that night 15 years ago, I knew I was hooked on Ark. I returned, alone or with friends, for several more shows before it closed down, always keen to be a part of the performance.

  It's 15 years later, December 2001, and the Ark has been rebuilt. Still housed in somewhat dark digs -- not in the theater's own building, but at Imperial Palace's lounge on Sherman Avenue -- the MO is still the same as Dennis Kern stands before us and says: "OK -- Now, for the next skit, we need a list of emotions, or states of being." "Rage!" "Strung out!" "Suspicious!" fires back the audience. "Now, what profession do the two on stage have?" asks Kern. "Out-of-work porn stars!" yells a male voice.
And so, amid the hanging lanterns and tanks filled with bulgy-eyed carp, while some of us dine on pork fried rice and others quaff the tap brews, an on-the-fly skit commences during the new Ark's third-week run -- all to the strains of a silent-movie-type pianist to boot."There just comes a time, when it is time," says Kern, 52, when asked why the Ark is afloat again. "This past spring, there
was a group that worked on long-form improvisation: three or four ideas that can expand into 30-minute routines. Sort of  like the Olympics of improv. But that dissolved and focus was back on the old Ark, which revolves around a lot of suggestions from the audience and quicker skits."
 Says Kern, who teaches improv skills to middle school and high school kids through the MadCAP program (Madison Creative Arts), "Improvisational theater is crucial for a sense of community. People need to get out and relate to one other and what better way than by expressing an idea, or emoting, or being part of a scene? You aren't allowed to contribute that way with real theater.' "
* Humor," says Kern, "is also key to how humans relate. Some seem to be afraid of it. But our whole culture desperately needs a sense of humor. And something every city needs is theatrical improv. We're just happy to be a part of that once more."

  I'm happy they're back, too.

  The Ark Improvisational Theater takes the stage at 8 p.m. on Thursdays at Imperial Palace, 1291 N. Sherman Ave.
  Admission is $2. For more information, call 249-4448. Michelle Gerise Godwin Type of story: Column