What if you could have an improv theater without the theater?
I’m not talking about doing a montage in, like, a public park. Trust me, that’s much less fun than you’d think. I mean an improv theater that’s entirely focused on the on-stage product, without any of the social and financial pressures that inevitably gather like zebra mussels around a theater’s foundations. Is it possible to open an improv theater that won’t eventually become either a factory or a clubhouse?
For years, Kelly and I have been talking about trying to start our own theater and training center in New York, a place where we could promote our philosophy and produce shows that exemplify all that theatrical improv can be. We had a few rules:
- The shows have to be the point. The shows can’t just be a loss leader to drive people to classes, or a way to reward performers for their loyalty.
- No permanent house teams. This is a topic for another post, but, basically, we think house teams breed complacency, entitlement, selfishness, and resentment, and also they discourage performers from owning their own work.
- No pay-to-play. If you have a good idea for a show, you can get stage time, regardless of who you are or where you’re from.
- Teaching for teaching’s sake, without a levels system. Teaching is an income stream for us, yes, but more than that, it’s a way for us to spread our philosophy to a wider audience. We believe everyone is already good at this. Our approach emphasizes that.
- Total transparency. Be totally open about costs and decision-making processes.
The idea has always stalled, largely because, thanks to high rents and low public interest in improv, it’s hard to open and sustain a theater in New York while following the aforementioned rules. We didn’t want that, but we couldn’t figure out a way to make it work otherwise. So we filed the idea away under “things we might do one day if we find a giant box of money.”
In September, driving from Cedar City, Utah, to Las Vegas, looking out over expanses of sand a lifetime wide, we came up with a solution: a pop-up improv theater. It made so much sense. The idea held true to what we’d come to love about life on the road, and about performing in makeshift venues. It also held true to the inherent ephemerality of improv. With a pop-up theater, we could limit our costs as well as our obligations. We’d avoid all the long-term rot by setting an expiration date from the start. There’d be no “getting in on the ground floor” because the structure would be dismantled in a month anyway.
In mid-November, we found a space, a four-month sublet in the basement of a building in Williamsburg. The room was small, but it was affordable. Less than 12 hours after seeing the listing, we had viewed the space, met the landlord, and decided that we wanted to go for it. On December 1, we took the keys, and Countdown Theater was born.
We didn’t know whether it would work. We still don’t know. But, fuck it, we’re doing it anyway. Come join us.