Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Nights at the Improv

The new Coalition Theater brings live comedy to downtown Richmond.


David Pijor, creative director of the Richmond Comedy Coalition, stands near the front entrance to the new Coalition Theater at 8 W. Broad St. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • David Pijor, creative director of the Richmond Comedy Coalition, stands near the front entrance to the new Coalition Theater at 8 W. Broad St.

After years of local comedy groups holding shows in untraditional venues such as Gallery5 and Bottoms Up, downtown Richmond finally has landed a dedicated spot for live comedy.

The Richmond Comedy Coalition raised about $27,000 through a monthlong online Kickstarter campaign to create Coalition Theater at 8 W. Broad St., scheduled to open in July as soon as permits are approved. It's smack dab in the new Downtown Arts District, directly across the street from Tarrant's Cafe and Books, Bikes and Beyond Thrift Store.

The for-profit theater plans to offer local sketch comedy, classes and occasional touring comedians, mostly on the weekends to start, though class schedules are flexible. Its motto: "Live Comedy. Dead Serious."

"In order to grow we had to bring everything under one roof," says its creative director, David Pijor, during a walk-through tour of the narrow, 17-foot-high, tin-ceilinged space with handsome crown molding. "We're going to offer affordable comedy for an area that is clearly being revitalized."

The Richmond Comedy Coalition will perform two to three shows a week, roughly four times as many shows monthly as the group has been doing. To help accommodate the new schedule, the group recently held auditions to double its house teams of unpaid performers from 20 to 40 (some of whom include paid teachers). Tickets for the shows will be $10 for evening performances, and $5 for late-night shows; most of their operating money comes from teaching classes. There's no kitchen, but some events may use banquet licenses to serve beer and wine.

Walking in the door of the theater, you're greeted with a mechanical-feeling mural by artist Michael Broth that offers a take on a Rube Goldberg device, in which a bunch of unnecessary steps are taken to accomplish something small or ridiculous — a visual representation of the improvisational comedy the troupe promotes.

"What they accomplish is not important, it's how each one affects each other," Pijor says, pointing to the whimsical caricatures on the wall. "We make something from nothing here." One of the comedy group's popular exercises is to project Craigslist ads on the wall and have audience members pick random entries to inspire spontaneous improv sketches from the performers.

Beneath the large, street-front windows, the concessions and ticket counter are made of reclaimed doors from HBO's "John Adams" film set. Hanging from the ceiling are wooden comedy stage chairs (Bentwoods) repurposed as light fixtures. A rustic spiral staircase in the far corner leads to an upstairs balcony for lighting and sound equipment. But the room's primary feature is a low, horizontal stage positioned midway along a long a wall instead of at the far end of the room. With a bank of stage lights above, the effect puts the performers right in the faces of the audience.

"We wanted something unique — part comedy club, part theater," Pijor says. "But really neither."

The Richmond Comedy Coalition started in 2009, teaching its classes in Carytown, with its members touring and playing festivals across the country. Formerly, most improv groups met in the West End, but Pijor says years of classes helped build a solid group that could takeover a downtown space. He regrets that here, as nationwide, there are fewer minorities actively involved in the "acting silly" exercises that make up improv — though the reasons are unclear. But he has been excited to se more women joining (15 out of 36 performers).

The new theater space, formerly a photography studio and art gallery, was completely empty. So a good deal of the donated money was used to build the space out and pay local artists and craftspeople for the jobs. Ross Trimmer of Sure Hand Signs, for example, did the hand-painted windows. Designer Shannon Reed, who worked on Dutch & Co. in Church Hill, helped with interior layout.

While occupancy hasn't officially been established, managing director Matt Newman says the group expects around 60 to 80 seats for shows. He adds that the arts district designation has been helpful in speeding up the permit and zoning process — a goal of the city's program.

Newman says the marketing strategy will be to form relationships with other local businesses in the area for cross-promotion. The theater's already contacted independent radio station WRIR-FM 97.3, and hopes for regular shout-outs on air. S

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