For 16 years, ImprovBoston has been bringing the funny to Inman Square in Cambridge. Now the improvisational comedy theater group has outgrown their tiny home between Christina’s Ice Cream and All Star Sandwich, so they’re moving up Prospect Street into Central Square.
David Marino, one of the directors at ImprovBoston, says “The new space is going to revolutionize how improv theater is done in Boston. Suddenly, people who never had a venue before will be able to perform.” Dana Jay Bein, who teaches standup comedy at ImprovBoston, says “It’ll offer a lot more opportunities for standup. We’re gonna be making our mark in a much bigger way. People who were moving to NY, Chicago, and LA are jumping the gun. I think Boston’s got a really experimental, fun, young, lively scene.”
The cast at ImprovBoston loves the intimate old theater. Kevin Harrington, co-host of the Sunday night Sgt. Culpepper’s Comedy Jamboree said “I’m gonna miss how fearless I feel performing here, because it’s something that’s so comfortable.” The small, floor level stage, surrounded by seats for about 75 patrons, is backed by a rough brick wall that separates the theater from Christina’s. Michelle McNulty, a member of the TheaterSports troupe at ImprovBoston, says “Even when you’re not getting laughs you hear them breathe. You can feel them pull into you when you’re doing something serious. You can tell they’re into it.” The backstage area, as intern Jennifer Descharme puts it, is “up there and down here and all around. It’s like an ant farm.”
ImprovBoston started their last week at Inman Square and the celebration of their 25th year with a weekend of events showcasing the history of the group. Cast members from the entire stay at Inman came back to perform, topping things off with seven hours of shows on Sunday night that pulled together five or ten minutes from many of the showcase events of years past. Patrick French, part of the Mainstage troupe, was watching the show. “With the guys from the 80s, it’s kind of rewarding. I’ve been amazed and I’ve been touched.” It was a celebration, but also an emotional time as performers got up on the Inman stage for the last time.
But sooner or later, everyone leaves home. The theater in Inman Square has significant limitations. It’s intimate, but the small facility severely limits the size of the audiences that can see any of the shows and the number of shows and other events that can be produced in the theater on a regular basis. The tiny size of the lobby often forces patrons to wait out on the street before shows due to the tiny size of the lobby, Chip Brewer, a former cast member back from Maine to say goodbye says the lobby “gets crowded really quickly with about three people, and I don’t think that projects the kind of welcoming atmosphere you want at a theater like this.” The infrastructure is old, making it difficult to create powerful effects with lighting, sound, or video, let alone keep the toilets unclogged. The bathrooms where the toilets are located are tiny, barely larger than phone booths.
There’s no separate rehearsal space. The green room, where performers prepare before shows, is in a dark, cold, and smelly basement. Andy Ofiesh, MC of the Naked Comedy showcase, says he’ll miss the stench. “Every once in awhile you get the sweet scent of, it’s closest to chicken dung, and that to me is the scent of art.” The ceiling there is so low that many cast members can’t stand up straight. Marcello Illamo, MC of the Sunday night jamboree, pointed out the spot at the bottom of the staircase “where there’s a little bit of blood where David Mogolov split his head open after one of the shows.” Dents in the ceiling caused by wayward heads, or dents in heads caused by too much enthusiasm are common.
The whole building is hot in the summer, so the doors have to be left open to allow air in. Creatures from the back alley sometimes wander through. Kristina Smarz, a member of TheaterSports, remembers working on building sets where “we’re out in the back alley painting and watching rats go by.” It’s also cold in the winter, especially in the green room.
The small size and other limitations of the space, along with some conflicts with area residents who don’t want to share the block with a performance venue, prompted the decision to move. Additional funding was required to finance the change, since as a non-profit organization ImprovBoston does not have a large bankroll stashed away. The ImprovBoston Funny Money Capital Campaign has improvised new ways of generating income, ranging from a 24 hour improv marathon, to selling cream pies to audience members so they can interrupt the show at any time to toss the pie in the face of a performer, down to putting a box in the green room where cast members could toss loose change. Each member of the ImprovBoston community has their own web page to help them solicit donations and track the results. The campaign been much more interesting than a public TV telethon, and it has collected almost $100,000 to defray the expenses of the move.
ImprovBoston has reduced the cost of the move by doing much of the construction work in the new space themselves. Cast members, students, and other volunteers, guided by technical director Dave Totty, have spent weeks clearing out the space and putting up drywall, painting, and doing other basic labor while professionals dealt with the more complicated tasks. Bein, who is also in TheaterSports, was power spraying the ceiling in the Cabaret, the new secondary stage, earlier in the day. He had moved to Inman Square from Brighton to be closer to the theater, but he’s still looking forward to the move. “It’s inspiring to be putting my own effort, blood, sweat, and tears into our new home.”
The location of the new theater will make it much easier for audiences to get to shows. The theater is at 40 Prospect St. in Central Square, just around the corner from Mass Ave and the Central Square T Station on the Red Line. There are parking lots nearby for people who prefer to drive. The theater is near the Irish pub The Field and across the street from the Cambridge Community Television studios. The first show at the new theater is scheduled for February 15th.
Staff working at nearby establishments are happy to see ImprovBoston moving in. Over at Cambridge Community Television, Marissa Acosta, the studio manager, said “It’s good that there’s going to be another arts-oriented venue in Central Square and it’s also fitting that they’ll be right across the street from a community access center, because there might even be some crossover.” ImprovBoston’s Harrington agrees. “Being close to something like CCTV, since we’ve got so much talent, both performers and writers, it’s another toy to play with.”
The new theater is triple the size of the old one, with a dedicated rehearsal space and a clean, roomy green room, where performers meet before shows to prepare. The theater is designed with two stages, a main stage that holds about 100 people and a Cabaret Room that holds 40-45 with seating that can be rearranged to accommodate different kinds of shows.
The lobby is much larger and it contains a bar, which will draw people in and help them unwind and get involved in the show. There’s ample heat and air conditioning to keep everyone comfortable
The new theater will allow ImprovBoston to greatly expand their offerings. ImprovBoston has been presenting shows Wednesday through Sunday nights in Inman Square. They’ve been holding classes on the nights when there were no shows scheduled and on weekends during the day, and scrounging around for rehearsal space. Now they will be able to present multiple performances each night, and run those shows later into the night because there won’t be any residential neighbors upstairs. ImprovBoston will increase the number of classes they present and no longer needs to look elsewhere for rehearsals.
There’s some risk associated with the move. Operating expenses will be higher. But managing director Elyse Schuerman says that the group has a 10 year lease that is fair, and everyone expects that the proximity to the Central Square T station will result in a significant increase in traffic. Michelle Dunnewind-Nathan says “It’s so nice to find something that is so close to the heart of a community.”
Comedy has a long, proud tradition in Inman Square. In the ’60s Jane Curtin of Saturday Night Live fame worked with The Proposition out of a space behind what is now Rosie’s Bakery. The Ding Ho (now Café Ole) was a successful launching pad in the 80s for numerous comic, including Steven Wright and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Now ImprovBoston helping create a new nexus for improv comedy in Central Square. They’re raising the stakes for Bastards Inc., who have been performing Thursday nights in the basement of the Cantab Lounge, and Flaming Awesome, who have been putting on shows at the All Asia. These groups, and others, will be performing in the new ImprovBoston theater. All this is in addition to the vibrant nightlife scene that revolves around the numerous music venues in the area.
Steve Gilbane, who has played music for ImprovBoston since the first show back in Inman in 1991 when it was still the Back Alley Theater, says “Watching the troupe go from having no space at all, to sharing a space, to leasing the space completely themselves, and now moving to a large space and building it themselves, it’s quite a journey.” The crew at ImprovBoston hopes everyone joins them on the journey in Central Square starting February 20th, to help build new memories and have more than a few laughs along the way.