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Where to go to watch, learn about improv in Atlanta

Originally posted Wednesday, October 10, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

In mid-1995, two groups opened up improv theaters within a few weeks of each other: Whole World and Dad’s Garage.

It was a breakthrough moment in Atlanta for the burgeoning comedic art form. Both nonprofit organizations have survived and thrived over the next 23 years. In the intervening years, a handful of other theaters have popped up locally as well, most led by alums of the original two groups. At the same time, “Whose Line Is It Anyway” (now on the CW) turned improv games into mainstream entertainment. And improv vets such as Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have become household names.

“You don’t really have to explain in great detail at shows what we do anymore,” said Tommy Futch, who runs Laughing Matters, one of the first independent improv troupes in town.

He said they were performing at Manuel’s Tavern in the mid-1990s when Dad’s and Whole World stole their public audience. His solution? Corporate gigs.

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Since then, Laughing Matters has worked with almost every major company in town teaching improv, now an acceptable exercise to improve public speaking skills and boost people’s confidence in social or work situations. He’s busy 250 days a year, often doing multiple shows a day.

Here’s a quick take on each theater and what they have to offer. Most offer both public shows and training classes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Shannon Jenkins CAPTION: One performance of the improvisational "Invasion: Christmas Carol" at Dad's Garage featured Chris Blair (from left) as a rapper, opposite Lucky Yates (as Scrooge) and Tina Ochs.

Dad’s Garage

Who they are: Of all the theaters, Dad’s has the largest space, a converted church it moved into in 2016. Communications director Matt Terrell noted: “We’ve already outgrown it.” Its budget has grown from $1 million five years ago to $1.7 million today, he said.

Their primary goal is continuing to diversify the cast, staff and board. They’ve added a scholarship program for folks who can’t afford classes and are developing a bilingual Spanish-English improv troupe.

Types of shows: Currently, there is a long-form show at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays called “Lawrence-Burg,” which is described as “Star Wars” meets “Dukes of Hazzard.” (Prices range from $17.50 to $29.50 depending on the night, whether you purchase online and the seating location.) The 10:30 p.m. shows are different types of short-form improv games, including the long-running “Theatre Sports” on Saturday featuring its strongest cast members (Thursdays, $5.50-$12.50; Fridays and Saturdays, $14.50-$21.50).

Types of classes: Quarterly eight-week courses, four levels, $235 per course. There are also special classes for actors, kids and teens. They are now taking in more than 800 students a year, quadruple the number from four years ago.

569 Ezzard St. SE, Atlanta. 404-523-3141, dadsgarage.com.

Whole World Improv Theatre Co.

Who they are: Its theater space is more intimate than that of Dad’s Garage, constraining its revenue stream for shows. It focuses primarily on traditional short-form improv, the kind you see on “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”

Types of shows: Thursday night’s show is free for ladies before 7:30 p.m. (and is otherwise $10); there are two classic improv shows at 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday ($24), with one additional late show at 10:30 p.m. Saturday ($15). They also offer a free improv show at Atlantic Station at 8 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month.

Types of classes: Like Dad’s, Whole World holds quarterly eight-week classes at four levels, $230 per course. There’s a summer camp for youths and teens, plus a year-round program. There’s also an “X-Group” for kids with special needs such as autism and learning disabilities. Actors can audition to be in a special program. There is diversity scholarship money available.

1216 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 404-817-7529, wholeworldtheatre.com.

October 05, 2018 – Village Theatre 10-year anniversary improv show. (CREDIT: Dustin Chambers for AJC) (DUSTIN CHAMBERS/Dustin Chambers)

Village Theatre

Who they are: Created by Whole World alumni, the theater just celebrated its 10th anniversary. They offer short-form and long-form improv, along with other comedic formats.

Types of shows: With two stages, they host at least 20 shows a week Thursdays-Sundays, the most of any theater in town. On Thursdays, they do improv in the dark called “Seance,” which is like an old-time radio show. Another popular concept is “Village Voice,” where celebrities tell stories and the cast does comedic improv off those stories. “Improv A-hole,” at 9 p.m. Saturdays, is the theater’s oldest show, where the audience chooses cast members to drink if they are deemed jerks. Most Thursday shows are $5 while Friday and Saturday shows are generally $10. Sunday is a mix of $5 and $10 shows.

Types of classes: There are four levels of improv classes, eight weeks each, for $225, with electives. Sketch comedy classes are also eight weeks and are $250 each led by Ryan Archibald, artistic director and a veteran of Chicago’s famed Second City.

349 Decatur St. SE, Atlanta. 404-688-8858, villagecomedy.com.

Highwire Comedy Company

Who they are: This company provides improv, stand-up and sketch comedy.“We’re performance based,” said Ian Kovell, an instructor and actor. “Everyone who comes through our doors has options. There is a path to get on stage.” While other theaters have tenured ensemble casts, Highwire opens all 32 slots in its four improv troupes every six months.

Types of shows: They do six shows a week, two each on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tonight (October 12), there’s “Duo,” featuring two-person improv, followed by “The Soapbox Show,” with improv veterans re-enacting a monologuist’s stories. At 8 p.m. Saturday, John Mangan and Mark Kendall do comedic bits and monologues followed by stand-up at 9 p.m. Shows are typically priced $5-$7 each.

Types of classes: Eight-week improv classes, four levels, $235 each. As of this writing, there are no sketch or stand-up classes available.

451 Bishop St. NW, Atlanta. 1-800-522-1498, highwirecomedy.com.

080612 ATLANTA-- Matt Pharr (cq) perfoms during the weekly Under-Promoted Comedy Show at Relapse Theatre in Atlanta on Thursday, June 12, 2008. Owner Bob Wood said he opened the venue--in what was once a church and homeless shelter on 14th Street--to give local comedians, actors and others a place to perform. Allen Sullivan / AJC *Allen's cell phone: (404) 345-9995 (Allen Sullivan/AJC)

Relapse Comedy Theatre

Who they are: It operated from 2005 to 2013, closed for three years, reopened in 2016. Bob Wood, who runs the theater, doesn’t have a set ensemble comedy troupe. He allows independent groups to rent the space and host shows. Wood keeps costs low by not paying himself. His wife, he said, is gainfully employed. “I love my life,” Wood said. “I’m on top of the world doing exactly what I want to do. That’s money to me.”

Types of shows: The schedule is variable, with different improv, stand-up and sketch groups each week. Tonight is a kids’ show followed by burlesque. This Saturday features two improv shows. On Tuesday, there are two comedy shows. Wednesday is an open mic. Thursday is a variety show. Most shows are priced $5 or $10.

380 14th St. NW, Atlanta. 404-464-5894, relapsecomedy.com.

Basement Theatre

Who they are: The creator, who goes by “JStar” for privacy reasons because he’s had stalkers, started the theater in 2004. He learned his craft from Futch in 2000 and travels  the world teaching improv. The theater seats about 55.

Types of shows: Two shows nightly on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Show prices are typically $8-$12. Friday at 8 p.m. is family-friendly.

Types of classes: Two levels of improv, $200 for eight weeks. There is a summer camp for kids as well as corporate workshops and team building.

175 W. Wieuca Road NE, Atlanta. 404-277-3071, thebasementtheatre.com.

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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