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Taking comedy seriously

Zach Ward and DSI Comedy Theater

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Zach Ward, founder of DSI Comedy Theater, referees a ComedySportz performance - PHOTO BY TIM LYTVINENKO
Zach Ward, founder of Carrboro's DSI Comedy Theater, may be the hardest-working man in show business. Since he founded Chapel Hill High School Improv as a freshman in 1993, Ward has dedicated his life to comedy in North Carolina, building an active theatrical community that now includes 46 local players and many more alumni nationwide. Since 2001, he's organized the Dirty South Improv Festival in Chapel Hill, the largest comedy festival of its kind in the country. At the center of it all is DSI Comedy Theater at the Carr Mill Mall, where for less than the price of dinner you can be treated to a night's worth of completely improvised hilarity.

Ward stresses that DSI is not a typical comedy club. "So many of the comedy clubs you go to are bars first and comedy second," he says. "We don't even sell beer. We're a comedy theater, not a club. We look at improvisation as an art form."

The theater hosts seven live comedy shows every week, including two shows every Friday night, ComedySportz at 7:30 p.m. and Mister Diplomat at 9:30 p.m. ComedySportz is an on-the-fly comedy competition where two teams of comics compete for laughs in a series of improvised challenges all instigated by audience suggestion.

On one particular Friday, the performers were skipping jump rope with Bono and Bill Clinton one minute, enacting a bad breakup in full Shakespearean English the next. One little boy in the front of the theater was beside himself when his suggestion of "Scooby Doo" culminated in nearly every person on stage doing simultaneous impressions of either Scooby or Shaggy.

Mister Diplomat at 9:30 is the sort of show that seems like it should never, ever work, but it does. Each week Mister Diplomat brings in a local celebrity to tell interesting anecdotes from his or her life, which the performers then use for material. The combination of personal history and off-the-wall comedy makes for 90 minutes of entertainment that is easily more engrossing than any movie or television show. By the end, the performers had me in tears.

Our diplomat was a local volcanologist named Dr. Jason Lees, who was introduced to DSI by his teenage son who has become a part of the community there. Previous visitors to Mister Diplomat have included Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish, Jimmy "J.J." Walker of Good Times, Maddy Curley of Disney's Stick It, Douglas Sarine of AskANinja.com, and Durham's Mark Jacobson of Mark Jacobson Toyota.

Wait a second--a car salesman? Ward just laughs. "That was a really terrific show," he said.

Besides the performances, the theater offers training classes catering to all skill levels, and many of the theater's weekly shows include performers who are either advanced students or graduates of the theater's program.

The theater's 46 players are not paid to perform; they come to Carrboro from as far away as Greensboro, Charlotte and Charlottesville, Va., out of a desire to improvise with other comedians at the top of the field. In April, one team from DSI traveled to Chicago and took home the Super CageMatch World Championship at the 9th Annual Chicago Improv Festival, beating out competitors from as far away as New York.

What the performers get out of the experience is training that's hard to come by anywhere else. Jay Olson, artistic director for DSI Chicago, says the company is gaining a strong national reputation for that reason. "[DSI's] main impact is that it is sending highly trained improvisers into improv hotspots like Chicago and New York City. Ten years ago your average 22-year-old coming to Chicago to improvise had--maybe--experience with a collegiate troupe. Now an improviser from North Carolina can hit the ground running in any of the improv 'capitals' with loads of long-form training and professional stage-time under their belts."

Olson runs the Beatbox in Chicago, part of Ward's growing network. He describes Ward as a "blue-collar improviser": "Fame and fortune are not his goals, although he does have that level of talent. He's not only in it for the love, but he's been able to carve out a career based on sharing that love."

Ward continues to mentor both Chapel Hill High Improv and UNC's Chapel Hill Players, though if pressed he'll admit that he feels a tighter bond with the high school squad. "It's that hometown feeling," Ward says. "These kids are growing up here in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, right where I did."

Ward is right to be proud of the community he has built and fostered. The theater opened last October, and after 10 months of operation Ward is still its only full-time employee.

"On show nights I can come in at 8 a.m., perform in two shows, and stay until the last show ends and we clean up," he says off-handedly, as if he hadn't just described a 17-hour workday. In addition to everything else, he usually teaches at least one class, and he's busy planning the seventh annual Dirty South Improv Festival in February, a six-day event with approximately 500 performers.

You have to wonder when the man sleeps.

Does Ward ever grow tired of the hobby-turned-career that has dominated his life since he was in high school? Does he ever wake up and--every comic's nightmare--just not feel funny anymore?

Not at all. "This was the only thing I knew I wanted to do--and to be able to do it for the rest of my life, I knew I had to make it my living." After saying this, Ward smiles a bit. "Not that it's much of a living yet," he adds. "But it's getting there. It's getting so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

When Mister Diplomat is over, Ward instigates another round of applause for the guest-star volcanologist and for his fellow comics, and then invites us to stick around for the next show for only half-price. "Just tell the ticket booth Mister Diplomat said it was all right," he says.

Then his characteristic grin takes over, and he waves. "That's it for us tonight. Hope you had fun. Support live theater whenever you can. Be safe. Good night."

With that, the house lights come up, the players take their final bow, and Ward and his fellow comics bound off the stage to another round of thunderous applause.

DSI Comedy Theater hosts seven shows every week. A detailed schedule is available on the Web at www.dsicomedytheater.com.

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