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How We First Met

We are swiftly nearing that most dreaded "holiday" - the day the lovelorn hate. Yes, I mean Valentine's Day. If you're unhappily single or despondent over a failed romance, by all means, feel free to stay home and wallow over a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream or a movie rental. But if you're among that rare ilk of hopeless romantics (dashed love affairs and whispered heartbreaks all) Jill Bourque's heart-spangled improv show, "How We First Met", might be right up your alley this season.

Created by Bourque and premiered on February 14, 2001 at San Francisco's Bayfront Theater, "How We First Met" is a romantic comedy that has told the stories of hundreds of couples from diverse walks of life- featuring couples married for five decades, dating five months, and including both straight and gay, conservative and liberal- celebrating what Bourque calls the common bond of falling in love.

Bourque's interest in theatre became serious about nine years ago in San Francisco, when she was taking acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre and took an improv class "by accident". According to Bourque, "It opened up a whole world of acting that I fell in love with." When Bourque got married in the year 2000, she noticed people's interest in the story of how she first met her husband. "I was intrigued by this. In addition, the improv I knew was very male-oriented, and when the idea of doing a romantic comedy based on people's real life love stories came about, I thought it could be subject matter a lot of women would enjoy. And, of course, men love the show too."

From blind dates to May-December romances, each story told is familiar yet always unique. Bourque usually plays the host of the show and conducts Barbara Walters-style interviews on stage with one pre-selected local couple and another pair picked at random from the audience during intermission. While couples are on the hot seat and giving Bourque the scoop, improv players act out scenes from the stories as they are being told.

"The form changes, but the structure's always the same," Bourque says. "We have a regular set of questions, like: 'What was your life like before you met?'; 'How did you meet?'; 'What have you learned from all this?'"

Bourque also notes the top-notch theatrics of the group of actors. "Stories are rarely played back the way couples told them. It's especially great when weird or wacky things come up, and you think, 'There's no way the actors can play that one!' But they do, and it's like a fantasy story come to life."

Apparently, the appeal isn't limited to couples, and Bourque usually sees a gaggle of single folks and groups of women at the performances. "My girlfriends come and there's always the hubbub of 'How did that happen?' or 'I can't believe those two are together!'"

Sometimes, even though the stories told may not be particularly funny, they are interesting to audience members because they give them a peek into a private world that isn't normally revealed, Bourque asserts. "As the interview goes on, couples reveal more and more and, sometimes, it's stuff they haven't even told their friends. It becomes disarming, but it's not done in a reality TV sort of way it's like you've just met someone and had this really long, intimate conversation. And the people who are having the greatest time are always the couples telling their stories."

In recollecting memorable moments from past performances, Bourque mentions a couple on her show who met online. "There was a 15-year difference. She was in her late 30s and was married with two kids; he was 19-years old and living in his parents' basement in the Midwest." Aside from tales of unlikely couples, there are also instances when apparently straight-laced, sedate-looking participants reveal secrets from their dating days. Bourque says, "Last season, one of the couples that was randomly chosen was a very straight looking pair from Orange County. On their first date, the woman very apprehensively admitted to the man that her parents were nudist bridge players. Seeing this played out was hilarious!"

Bourque has taught the format of the show to other improv companies across the country. "After 9/11 I got really inspired for other groups to experience this kind of theater, where the audience comes away feeling good. People seemed afraid to do comedy, but I knew this was the kind of comedy that would be taken the right away." At press time, the show has played in over a dozen theaters in a handful of countries ranging from Australia to Japan, with the majority of the theaters performing around Valentine's Day.

This year, Bourque says, the show is decidedly different because it will be performed in a cabaret-style setting at the Velvet Lounge in North Beach. "We've always been at traditional theatres; this time around the setting makes for fewer barriers between the audience and the improvisers. It lends itself to a more intimate discussion."

"How We First Met"
performed at the Velvet Lounge
443 Broadway, @ Columbus, SF
February 6-28, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm
Ticket Price: $25
Phone: (415) 845-4314
www.howwefirstmet.com