Dad’s Garage celebrates 25 years of improv frivolity

Dad's Garage is celebrating 25 years of funny where artistic director Jon Carr is onsite for the first time in 5 months Monday, Aug 3, 2020.  The venue still has the stage ready for the parkour show planned for March while the comedy co-op holds all shows and lessons online.  Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dad's Garage is celebrating 25 years of funny where artistic director Jon Carr is onsite for the first time in 5 months Monday, Aug 3, 2020. The venue still has the stage ready for the parkour show planned for March while the comedy co-op holds all shows and lessons online. Photo: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Dad’s Garage, the hardy Atlanta improv theater, had grandiose 25th-anniversary plans this August: a big outdoor street party with carnival rides, beer and alums flown in from around the country.

But the pandemic scuttled those plans.

“We worked a year in advance to get the permits to close the streets and getting permits are not easy,” said Matt Terrell, communications director. “It was disappointing.”

Instead, the theater is planning a 25-hour marathon of live and taped performances on its Twitch live-streaming channel starting at 7 p.m. Friday, August 7. Danny Loecken will host dozens of elements. Among them: interviews with founders, a 4 a.m. ghost stories segment, a 6:30 a.m. commentary from a producer of a recent Dad’s Garage hit show “Wicket” and a live improv class.

Any arts organization that makes it a quarter of a century has clearly done a few things right to get there. And Dad’s Garage managed to survive and thrive despite a cavalcade of challenges it faced over the years.

Under normal circumstances, Dad’s Garage hosts more than 300 shows a year, a blend of scripted and improv productions that draw 30,000-plus spectators a year to its converted Old Fourth Ward church space it purchased five years ago.

Now an institution in Atlanta,, Dad’s Garage was once a scrappy start-up, thumbing its nose at whatever was considered highfalutin “arts.” In 1995, a group of Florida State University grads ventured to Atlanta, drawn to the pre-Olympic vibe, to start an improv theater from scratch. They rented a cruddy warehouse space in Inman Park for $2,500 a month with limited parking, no central air conditioning, a tin roof that made hearing a challenge when it rained during a show and bathrooms that kind of worked. (One time, a toilet backed up and exploded, spewing sewage and forcing an evacuation.) Seating was ratty couches from thrift stores.

Improv as an art form was relatively novel at the time.“Whose Line Is It Anyway?” was still three years away from debuting on ABC, introducing the masses to the concept via brief games. Cast members would have to explain to the audience what they were doing in elementary-school fashion.

While quick-hit improv games were always the core of a theater such as Dad’s Garage, players quickly experimented with longer-form storytelling. Its biggest early success was “Scandal!” an inspired twist on the hoary soap opera. Each season was set in one location — say, a prison, or a police station or a hotel — and characters would develop week in and week out, with both improvised standalone storylines and season-long story arcs. The director would play “Voice of God,” shaping the shows by calling scenes over a mic.

“What I love about the this format is that it really enables better storytelling and character work,” said Matt Horgan, associate artistic director, in a special Dad’s Garage 25th-anniversary book. ”Of course, it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can be such a satisfying narrative experience for the audience.”

“Scandal!” remains Dad’s Garage’s longest-running show, still alive today.

Sean Daniels, the organization’s first artistic director from 1995 to 2004, credited The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s former arts critic Dan Hulbert for providing them positive ink, giving Dad’s Garage early credibility they desperately needed. “When we would get a nice write up from Hulbert, the phones would start ringing,” he said.

Most theaters are geared to older audiences but Dad’s Garage deliberately catered to people in their 20s. “We wanted to make something for ourselves and have a great time,” Daniels said. If that meant doing a show based on wrestling, why not? How about a kid’s show called “Uncle Grampa’s Hoo-Dilly Storytime”? Experimentation was welcomed. Failure was OK.

While Daniels always felt like they were two bad shows from shutting down, the organization gradually built a following that kept them afloat even through tough times. In 2002, a milestone moment was having Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter appear for a show about presidents including a segment about Carter himself. Secret Service roamed their ramshackle building 24 hours earlier. They had to keep his appearance a secret, or it would be scuttled. It worked. The Carters sat quietly in the second row, but it didn’t take long for the audience of 150 to figure out who was there.

Per Secret Service directive, they had cleared out a room just for the Carters to hide out if need be. But instead, during intermission, Carter shook hands and thanked attendees for supporting the arts. When the show reached the segment about Carter, he received a standing ovation that went on for several minutes, Daniels recalled.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter visit a show at Dad's Garage in 2002. Contributed.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter visit a show at Dad's Garage in 2002. Contributed.

Credit: Dad's

Credit: Dad's

By the mid-2000s, the organization needed to mature and hired development director Lara Smith to build more consistent and secure community, foundation and corporate support. When Smith arrived, she said, ”We were a mess. We owed the landlord $150,000 and didn’t have a lease. We were squatters with a ton of back rent.”

Dad’s Garage managed to get its fiduciary act together, growing from a $400,000 budget in 2007 to $1 million by 2013.

“Board members always joke that Dad’s is the most professional board they’ve ever served on,” Smith said. “We have to be so buttoned-down behind the scenes so the artists have the freedom to do what they do on stage.”

During the 2010s, artistic director and Canadian-born Kevin Gillese built Dad’s Garage’s reputation internationally, bringing in celebrities such as Fred Willard, Tim Meadows and Aisha Tyler for fundraisers. Actor Kevin Bacon in 2012 actually showed up to their annual fundraiser BaconFest.

“Whose Line Is It Anyway?” vet Colin Mochrie would fly in regularly just to goof around on stage. “From the first time I performed with them,” Mochrie said in the 25th anniversary book, “they reminded me of why I love this art form. The commitment, the fearlessness, the joy... The company has made me laugh, made me stretch, and taught me not to take this job for granted.”

By then, they had also lost their home on Elizabeth Street to developers. They scrambled, finding shared space at 7 Stages Theatre in Little Five Points. They also allied with fustier organizations such as the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Opera and the Atlanta Ballet seeking younger audiences. “We did improv with ballet dancers and opera singers,” Gillese said.

They ultimately found a forever home in a former church in the Old Fourth Ward, first raising $169,000 in a Kickstarter, then another $1.1 million. They financed the rest of what would be a $3 million purchase and renovation. The building has air conditioning, far more parking and much nicer bathrooms.

“It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment lined with exhaustion,” said Gillese, noting they couldn’t afford to close down, so they had to renovate while they were still actively hosting shows.

Kevin Bacon makes an appearance at Dad's Garage's BaconFest in 2012. He's with Lucky Yates, one of the organization's long-running performers. Contributed.
Kevin Bacon makes an appearance at Dad's Garage's BaconFest in 2012. He's with Lucky Yates, one of the organization's long-running performers. Contributed.

Under Gillese, the theater also focused on broadening its appeal with more women and people of color on staff and the ensemble cast. (The 1990s founders were all young white men and for many years, minorities and women were more token than the norm.)

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done to diversify,” Gillese said. “But it’s not easy. It’s not like you fire half the cast and hire new folks. You need to evolve it over time because the group dynamics are our value. You can’t just play God with your group demographics. You have to massage it and make it work.”

In December, 2019, veteran ensemble player Jon Carr, who is Black, took over as artistic director.

Before Carr had a chance to make his mark on stage, the pandemic hit three months later, shutting live operations down. Three days later, they quickly pivoted to airing new and archival content on a new Twitch channel on March 16, courtesy of marketing director Chelsea Stevenson. With no ticket sales, they were able to raise more than $10,000 in the first month from donations.

The break also gave management a chance to work on projects that would have otherwise not been a high priority. They built a new roof, designed an outdoor drinking garden and are converting to a “touchless” environment inside, from ticketing to toilets. Terrell re-painted the entire interior himself. Staff painstakingly inventoried props into a digital database. They are installing an air filtration system that can remove viruses called a “cold plasma generator” and electrostatic foggers added to sanitize the indoor environment even more when the theater is ready to re-open at a still to-be-determined date.

The organization, which brought in nearly $2 million in 2019, largely broke even for its financial year ending July 31 despite no live shows for nearly 40 percent of the year. They filled the gap with on-line donations, loans, a line of credit and grants.

Carr, a former youth pastor for Creflo Dollar’s church, is quite the phoenix. He started taking improv classes at Dad’s in 2005 but said he was so bad, he was actually suspended for three months in 2008. He said he was thinking too much. “Improv is a free fall,” he said. “It’s trusting your own personal instinct to be able to 100% trust everyone around you. That’s the scariest thing in the world.”

Many people would have slunk away, but Carr persevered to become a capable performer. In 2013, he joined an all-Black ensemble cast called the Dark Side of the Room and helped write one of the theater’s biggest recent hits, “Wrath of Con,” about nerds going to a sci-fi convention. Around 2015, he joined the primary ensemble, the first Black person to do so. “I’m not good at giving up,” Carr said.

As the artistic director, Carr said he hopes to help keep Dad’s Garage healthy as it ends its second quarter century of existence, even if all planned plays are canceled for 2020.

He wants Dad’s Garage to continue to be the home for weirdos to thrive. “Actors that would be cast as the ‘funny/sassy friend’ anywhere else will be cast as the lead here,” he wrote in the concluding essay of the Dad’s Garage history book. “I’ve been given too many opportunities by this place not to spend the entirety of my tenure taking chances on every artist that comes through our door.”

Dad's Garage in 2020. Contributed.
Dad's Garage in 2020. Contributed.

Credit: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com