Ask a grown man to squawk like a chicken or impersonate Michael Jackson, and you risk a knuckle sandwich. Ask Jef Rawls to make like a rooster or mimic a pop star turned would-be pedophile, and he's off and running.
"Improv is life," according to Rawls, co-founder of the Valley's Jester'Z Improv Comedy Troupe, "and life is improv. The same rules apply to both. It's all about listening, teamwork and a whole lot of laughter."
The troupe grew out of what was left of the Oxymoron'z, a renowned Scottsdale-based improv group founded by actor/teacher Louis Anthony Russo in 1991. Russo died in 2000 of congestive heart failure, and Rawls, who'd quit his job as a repo man to work for Russo some years before, took over the company.
"Louis always said, 'If I die, lock the doors and sell the chairs!' And we had to do just that, to pay the debts. But I couldn't let the troupe go. So we changed the name and kept it going, in Louis' memory."
Also in Russo's memory, Rawls named the Jester'Z Scottsdale storefront "Theater 168," after a running gag from the company's Oxymoron'z days. "We always did this punning game every single night that went, '168 blanks walk into a bar . . .' You had to fill in the blank and then tell a joke, like '168 doctors walk into a bar, and the bartender says, "We don't serve doctors," and the doctors say, "We just want a shot!"'"
Fortunately, Rawls and company have dropped the routine. "It was too gimmicky," he admits, "and we wanted to move up in the world a little, comedy-wise."
They have, and audience response has been so good that the troupe has added a second Saturday show to accommodate capacity crowds who, once they arrive, are put to work, shouting out suggestions for the actors onstage.
"Good improv is really dependent on the audience," says Rawls, "and some nights it can get a little weird. " The Jester'Z have recently been asked to interpret a praying mantis, a rock, and always, always Michael Jackson.
"Maybe it's because he's always in the news. I don't know," Rawls moans. "But we get Michael Jackson every night. We'll call out, 'Where would you like to go on vacation?' and someone will call out 'Neverland!' We'll say, 'Tell us someone you'd never want to be!' We almost never do him, because it's just hard to come up with new ways to do the same character every night."
Therein lies the beauty of improv, Rawls says. There's no rote memorization of lines; no having to spout the same dialogue or be the same character every time you hit the stage. "To me, improv is an art form that allows you to be yourself, and to give the audience exactly what they ask for."
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One recent audience member asked for something so rare and unusual that Rawls stopped him on the way out of the theater and gifted him with a pair of free tickets. "It was the most beautiful audience suggestion I'd ever heard," Rawls said. "I had to give him something just for coming up with it."
And what was that remarkable audience suggestion? Rawls thinks for a long moment. "I don't remember," he says. "But it was really good."
The Jester'Z perform every Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Theater 168, 7117 East McDowell in Scottsdale. Thursday shows are $8; Friday and Saturday shows are $10. Call 480-423-0120 or see www.theater168.com.