History of BATS Improv
BATS Improv traces its philosophical roots back to the work of Keith Johnstone, author of Impro, creator of TheatresportsTM, and one of the few internationally recognized authorities on improvised theatre.
During his tenure at the London Royal Court Theatre in the 1950s and 60s, Johnstone developed a series of improvisational exercises to help playwrights overcome writer’s block by short-circuiting the natural tendency to edit themselves. He captured this work in his first book, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. Johnstone also went on to develop the Theatresports format, in which two teams of improvisers “compete” and the audience becomes vested spectators in a battle to create the best theatre possible.
As performers from around the world discovered Theatresports, they formed their own companies dedicated to the improvisational format. One such company was Seattle Theatresports (now Unexpected Productions), founded in 1983 and the first U.S. company to perform the format. And this is where the real story of BATS begins!
BATS Improv: A Timeline
November 1986: A San Francisco comedy theatre group, Fratelli Bologna, invites Rebecca Stockley, a teacher from Seattle Theatresports, to lead a workshop and teach the Theatresports format.
November 10, 1986: Stockley’s workshop culminates in a sold-out performance at the Zephyr Theater (now New Conservatory Theatre). Several actors in the audience that night will later join the founding members to form a new company of improvisers in San Francisco: Bay Area Theatresports. (See the list of past BATS Main Stage Company members.)
1987: Bay Area Theatresports forms its first performing company and begins offering classes. The Company performs in spaces throughout San Francisco: the New Performance Gallery, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Asian American Theater, 450 Geary, and the Bayfront Theater, among others.
1988: BATS begins renting space at Army Street Studios, which is its home for several years. BATS alumni found Los Angeles Theatresports (now Impro Theatre).
1988-1989: Driven by a love of theatre and fully developed stories and characters, BATS begins performing longform improvisation shows. This new form of improv was being explored by the SF company Improv Theater, with whom BATS shared several cast members. The form took hold quickly at BATS, and the company continues to pioneer single-story longform improvisation to this day.
1991: BATS hosts International Theatresports Tournaments at the Magic Theater, drawing improvisers from around the globe.
1991: The BATS School of Improv is founded as BATS begins offering regular workshops to the general public. Students from BATS workshops begin performing at the Phoenix Theater as “The Workshop Players.”
1994: BATS offers its first summer school session in conjunction with Stanford University, featuring a residency with Keith Johnstone. The BATS Summer Sessions program became an annual tradition, and today it draws students from as far away as Australia, Europe, and Japan.
1994: BATS holds its first annual Summer Improv Festival in August.
1996: As the number of BATS student performers grows, the Sunday Players performing ensemble replaces the Workshop Players. The Sunday Players go on to perform Sunday nights at BATS until 2010.
1997: BATS takes up permanent residency at the Bayfront Theater in the historic Fort Mason Center and experiences tremendous growth. The company adds more classes and workshops and expands its performance schedule to three shows a week.
1998: BATS begins its Laughing Stock program, offering free improv classes to people living with chronic, life-threatening illnesses and to their partners and caregivers.
1998: BATS is voted “Best Improv Company” for the first time in the SF Bay Guardian‘s annual Best of the Bay poll. Since then, BATS has been recognized with 17 more “Best of” awards from the Guardian, the SF Weekly, 7×7, San Francisco, and the San Francisco Chronicle as well as being Highly Recommended 2010 to the present by Frommer’s Travel Guide.
1999: The Belfry, a Thursday night performing group is formed. The Belfry performed until 2002.
2000: BATS formally creates a corporate training and entertainment division (now known as BATS On-the-Go).
2001: Bay Area Theatresports formally becomes “BATS Improv.”
2002: BATS creates one of the nation’s finest performance settings devoted exclusively to improv theatre through a series of fundraising campaigns and capital improvement projects. A completely renovated Bayfront Theater opens, including new lobby and concession areas and new seats
2005: After another sucessful fundraising campaign, BATS builds a brand new wheelchair-accessible stage.
2006: BATS Improv celebrates 20 years and is recoginized by the City of San Francisco as November 10, 2006, is declared BATS Improv Day.
2011: BATS begins performing TheatresportsTM and other shortform shows every Friday and genre-driven longform shows every Saturday.
Summer 2014: BATS holds its 20th Annual Summer Improv Festival and Summer Sessions workshops!
2014: BATS Improv continues to be the Bay Area’s premiere improvised theatre company and school, attracting more than 11,000 audience members and 1,300 workshop enrollments every year.
2016: BATS celebrates its 30th Anniversary Season!