How Ann Arbor's improv scene roared back after a dormant decade

Nearly 10 years after the 2006 closure of the Improv Inferno club on Ann Arbor's Main Street, Shelly Smith says a recent push to bring improv comedy back to Ann Arbor at least partly "came down to gas money."
 
After Improv Inferno's rent reportedly doubled, forcing the club's closure, Smith regularly drove from her Ann Arbor home to Ferndale's Go! Comedy and Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre to hone her craft. As recently as two years ago, those venues were among the only regional options left for improv students and performers, especially after Second City Detroit (originally located in downtown Detroit before making the move to Novi in 2005) also closed its doors for good in 2009.
 
So Smith had a personal stake in helping to resurrect the improv scene in Washtenaw County when she first approached the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (A2CT) about forming improv troupes in 2013. The company wasn't ready to take on a new project at that time, though, so Smith pounded the pavement around Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, seeking potential homes for a new, homegrown troupe. She held auditions and put together a small group, which put on a few shows but ultimately disbanded for lack of a permanent home.
 
"I approached several venues that were dark on most nights, and I just kept thinking, 'So you don't want to make any money and liven this place up? You'd rather have it just sit here empty on most nights?'" Smith says. "Some places told me they'd let me use the space for $200 an hour. But we didn't need any special lighting or sound. We just needed a certain amount of square footage and some chairs."
 
During this time, Smith – who uses her improv skills professionally training salespeople by day – kept crossing paths with David Widmayer, who, like Smith, was regularly involved with A2CT shows. Widmayer, who is currently the president of A2CT's board, had previously co-founded the U-M improv troupe Witt's End during his student days.
 
"Every time we ran into each other, we'd start talking about doing improv, and we'd say, 'We've got to do this, let's just do it, let's find a place to be, … and let's figure it out. We can't possibly be the only ones who miss Improv Inferno,'" Smith says.
 
When A2CT agreed to launch improv troupes under its umbrella in 2015, and Smith and Widmayer held auditions for Civic Improv Ensemble, the turnout seemed to bear out Smith's suspicions.
 
The formation of Civic Improv Ensemble
"We were expecting maybe 20 or 30 people to come out," Widmayer says. "We got, like, 65."
 
Men, women, old, young, experienced, new but eager to try – a wide range of hopefuls arrived at auditions, looking to play.
 
Among them was Ann Arbor-based special education teacher (and Concentrate contributor) Patti Smith. Smith says she'd wanted to try improv because, although she'd long been comfortable speaking in public, "the thing I always stayed away from was extemporaneous speaking."
 
"I thought I should force myself to try it," Smith says. "I didn't expect to make it. It was a pretty intimidating audition. We each had numbers, and they took a photo of each of us with our number, but I ended up getting cast."
 
While Widmayer and Shelly Smith originally planned to put together two troupes of 10, the turnout inspired them to cast a larger number. Later, they even added a third troupe, coached by Jen Delisi. This allowed them to have one troupe that specialized in short-form improv (fast-paced games, as seen on the TV show "Whose Line is it Anyway?"), one that focused on long-form improv (more involved games that allow time for scene development), and one that's a hybrid of the two.
 
Widmayer says A2CT audiences have responded well to improv, and A2CT is happy to host the troupes since sets, costumes, performance rights, and other costs associated with a traditional play aren't a problem.
 
"It's a pretty compelling thing to get butts in the seats without spending eight weeks and lots of money putting a show together," Widmayer says. "I think it's a helpful model for us going forward. We could consider an improv-based storytelling-type thing, or a live radio show, or other events like that that don't require a huge theater production but still serve the community's desire for theater."
 
A2CT did need to work out some structural issues, however.
 
"Usually with a Civic show, you do one weekend and think, 'We're done,'" Shelly Smith says. "But with the improv troupes, we realized we're rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and doing more shows with more troupes, and we just kept going, going, going. We had to have a powwow about what a season for us should look like. We hadn't defined that at first because it was all brand new."
 
Most training programs, for instance, offer a class for a number of weeks, culminating with a show, and then students go on to more advanced classes, eventually working toward the program's "graduation" – at which point performers often seek out opportunities with new or established troupes.
 
Which brings us to the other half of Ann Arbor's recent improv comedy resurgence: the opening of Pointless Brewery and Theatre last New Year's Eve.
 
Pointless Brewery and Theatre
Many local news articles have told the story of Pointless founders (and married couple) Tori and Jason Tomalia, and it's easy to see why. On their first date, the couple decided they should open an improv theater together one day. Years later, in 2013 – while the two were studying theater in EMU's graduate program and raising three young children – Tori Tomalia was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.
 
The bad news came as Jason Tomalia had been deepening ties within Detroit's improv scene, as well as dabbling in home-brewing craft beer. He suggested the couple not wait for the "right" time, and instead start laying the foundation for the theater of their dreams immediately while also incorporating his craft beers.
 
The Tomalias bought and renovated space at 3014 Packard Rd., bringing a dedicated improv club to Ann Arbor for the first time in nearly a decade.
 
"We knew this town was ripe for it … and we've really been embraced by the community," Tori Tomalia says. "It's been wonderful. We're told things like, 'I found my people,' and, 'It feels like "Cheers,"' – we hear that a lot – and, 'When I go there, it feels like home.' That wasn't our main focus … but to feel that warmth and encouragement has been amazing."
 
The Tomalias originally expected to keep Pointless' doors open with beer sales, but improv shows and classes have exceeded their performance expectations. Pointless classes often fill to capacity; there's an incubator troupe of up-and-comers; and the club's official house troupe, the League of Pointless Improvisers, often performs on weekend nights with an opening guest group.
 
In some cases, Pointless is a logical next step for A2CT's improv alumni. Shelly Smith has found some of that needed sense of structure in A2CT's troupes by adopting a cyclical system that encourages players to move on to new endeavors once they've earned their improv stripes at A2CT.
 
Rather than any sense of competition, a rich spirit of community pervades the rejuvenated Ann Arbor improv scene. When the Tomalias were first taking steps toward making Pointless happen, Jason Tomalia reached out to Smith, who couldn't have been happier at hearing news of an improv club opening in Ann Arbor.
 
Although A2CT's improv programming continues on unabated, the theater can only provide rehearsal and occasional show space for improvisers. With Pointless' arrival, Ann Arbor's improvisers once again have a space to hang out, have a beer, and enjoy their craft.
 
"When Pointless came around, it was like a linchpin," Smith says. "I sat down with [the Tomalias] one time, and I told them my goal is to help this club stay open. As more people come through Civic, hopefully you'll have more people coming in to sit at Pointless and drink beer and be with other people who love improv."

Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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