Bannon Backhus, Brian Duguay, Lizzy Honoway, Dann Sytsma, Tara Sytsma of Crawlspace Eviction. <span class='image-credits'>Mark Wedel</span>

Crawlspace Eviction builds a space for its expanding comedy empire in downtown Kalamazoo

This wasn't something one would expect in a church -- the portrayal of Sasquatch mating habits. 

One wouldn't expect that in most places. But it's just what happens to come out of the heads of Kalamazoo improv troupe Crawlspace Eviction.

In a recent show, Tara Sytsma and Brian Duguay were on opposite sides of the stage, hooting in an uncomfortably erotic fashion, as squatch hunters Bannon Backhus and Lizzy Honoway were spellbound at this rare natural encounter.

There was no physical contact, but still -- this is the oldest church building downtown, there since 1853, the oldest of the old churches that surround Bronson Park. It's stately front overlooks Michigan Ave. It's why Church St. is Church St.

The Bigfoot frolic was all part of a long-form improv scene based on an audience member's story of skinny dipping in frozen Lake Michigan, with an added theme of pseudoscience. 

"That was a good scene!" Dann Sytsma says afterward. "Solid scene work, anytime you recreate Sasquatch coitus on stage, you know you've gotten to the pinnacle of any art form!" 

There were swears. In a church, First Baptist, 315 W. Michigan Ave., in a room turned into a  comedy-club-like space by Crawlspace Theatre Productions.

They were also serving alcoholic beverages, catered by Taco Bob's.

Sytsma says there may be preconceptions about shows in their latest space, "that it's going to be clean, or it's going to be somehow censored."

But they are not holding back. "Not that Crawlspace has ever been super raunchy. But I do want to talk about Sasquach pubes once in a while," he says. Crawlspace needs to be free to explore "the human condition," he very wryly adds.  

Does the pastor know about this?

Crawlspace started in 2003, when the cast of the improv show, "Tony and Tina's Wedding," wanted to do more after its run at the Kalamazoo Civic. 

They got a few nights at the Whole Art Theater. "Audiences, they kept showing up, so we kept doing it," Sytsma says.

But that theater closed, and Crawlspace hopped from stage to stage, looking for "a space we could call our own." 

They expanded into an improv institution, holding festivals, producing other teams, running workshops and doing corporate work. Crawlspace still holds weekly Saturday jams for those who've taken classes, and all-play jams for anyone who dares on the first Saturday of the month, evangelizing their art and increasing their flock. 

In comes the Kalamazoo Non-Profit Advocacy Coalition, KNAC, and its effort to save a 166-year-old church with a shrinking congregation. Crawlspace moved into a room for their rehearsals and workshops in mid-2017, and opened their ground-floor theatre in September 2018.

Sytsma used to attend First Baptist. "I knew a lot of the leadership already," he says. "They've been really open-minded about the different things that we have in mind."

The church now houses a wide-range of nonprofit and arts community organizations, from the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music to Queer Theatre Kalamazoo

"I think First Baptist has been extremely wise and brave with some of their choices," he says. "Keep it relevant, keep it vital to downtown. But that means inviting weirdos like me in there to do our stuff."

"They've been really supportive and really cool about it. You can see a little bit of grief behind the eyes, because it's changing, and it's not what it was before as far as religious relevance to the community, but I think it can actually have an amplified relevance to the community because of the open-minded nature of their decisions." 

But is the building sort of a blind spot -- are people only seeing a church, and not a home for an improv/sketch/comedy club?

"It's difficult," Sytsma says of drawing an audience who doesn't know they're there. They do have a placard advertising comedy nights they can place outside, but there's no way anyone would allow a permanent sign in lights above the door of the historic building.

One plus is, it is in a section of downtown away from downtown's crowded and entertainment-venue-dense east, he notes. A lot of free parking is available on Michigan/Church/Academy St. on the weekend.

"I'd love to be more visible on that stretch, and leave no doubt in people's minds that, yes, comedy is going on here." 

How to improvise a sustainable business?

"I've never been concerned about that before," Sytsma says, laughing. "I've done everything so cheap." 

Though they saved money by "leeching onto" other theaters, "we never really made any money." 

They invested around $9,000 in renovations to turn the Clough Room -- still "used for church fellowship, support groups, a food pantry, art gallery and reception room for weddings" -- into their comedy theater, with "lots of volunteer hours" over eight weeks, Sytsma says. "The greatest effort was from Jud Gilbert (member of Dormouse Theatre, which performs sketch comedy at Crawlspace) and Paul Laferriere (improv team Blab Rats, also were regulars at the new theater)."  

Improv with Crawlspace. Suggested setting: School cafeteria. Unexpected development: New girl’s school ID turns out to be her old prison ID.Now having made a solid home, they'll be expanding with shows every Friday and Saturday, with the help of other local improv teams, sketch comedy groups, standup acts and improv talents from Chicago. Sytsma is also planning to apply for a liquor license, to add more revenue.

They're trying to keep the playtime going. Meeting with the rest of the troupe in their rehearsal space, Sytsma compares improv with playing house, but as a grownup -- "now you've got life experience to pull from, other people's brains to access." 

Why would one want to get on stage with no script, and make up something on the spot with the goal of entertaining an audience?

Lizzy Honoway, the newest CE member, says she'd tried standup around five years ago. She joined Crawlspace after taking improv classes at their last space at the Park Trades Building. "I was looking for something different so I didn't have to write jokes all the time," she says.

Brian Duguay says, "My doctor told me it's the best thing to keep you from getting Alzheimer's. So that's why I come here." 

What does it take to stick with this? Tara Sytsma says she joined husband Dann on stage when she thought, "I can do it better!" Improv became their business. "We've done this for 15 years, and we've got a family now," Tara says. 

Once a year, as they start a new season of improv, the Sytsmas ask themselves, "do we want to do it all over again?" she says. "Yeah, I do... it's my thing where I just let go and just create. It's so fun to just play and create something."

Tara Sytsma says that they've learned to expand their improv range, "learned to not force laughs." This came in handy for a recent show on a cold night.

Frostbite isn't so bad 

In their church home, Crawlspace has had more of a connection with the community.

During the Great Polar Vortex of 2019, they canceled a show, and First Baptist opened their club as an emergency warming shelter for the homeless. 

They thought, "Why don't we just do a short show for the people being sheltered," Dann Sytsma says. 

People were on cots, set up to sleep for the night, giving the show a slumber party-like atmosphere. As usual, the team asked for prompts to spark scenes.

"They were giving very genuine prompts," Honoway says. "Really normal human stuff." 

They passed paper slips out, told their audience to write down anything on their minds. "They were all just really sweet and uplifting, about loving each other and wanting to be acknowledged," Honoway says.

From the usual Crawlspace audience, they sometimes get crass humor, "a lot of butt stuff," Dann Sytsma says.

Sytsma reads from the slips he saved from the show. "Frostbite isn't so bad, if you have a good friend to talk to you.... God loves you and me.... When someone smiles at me, I smile back, otherwise, I'm being disrespectful." 

Tara emits an "Aww!" at the memory.

"It had an impact on me, certainly," Dann says. 

It was just further evidence that a night of improv could go anywhere. "It's a different contract with the audience," Dann says. Everyone on stage and off knows that anything could happen, fueling the performers with an "exhilaration."  

Crawlspace Eviction performs March 15 and March 16 from 8 to 10 p.m. at Crawlspace Comedy Theatre, 315 W. Michigan Ave. The soup theme is French Onion.
 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering everything from The Beastie Boys to invasive species. For more information see his website here
Signup for Email Alerts