Picture a stage in a tiny storefront that used to offer bargain prices on furniture. In front of it sits an audience of 60 individuals, eager to see what journey awaits them. As anticipation reaches its apex, a team of seasoned improvisers run on stage, and the adventure begins. Long-form improvisational comedy is unusual, but the Richmond Comedy Coalition have spent years developing their own version of it, eventually giving it a permanent home in the form of the Coalition Theater. Richmond is all the more prosperous as a result.
In 2009, the theater that hosted ComedySportz had just closed. The loss of one of the most beloved local venues for the form made this era a sad time for long-form improv in Richmond, but the appetite for this creative outlet never diminished. The collective enthusiasm of David Pijor, Katie Holcomb, Matt Newman and Aaron Grant pushed them towards new endeavors. Although their former improv home had ceased to exist, they were ready to create something of their own. “We started out as comedy nomads. We were free to do what we wanted with our insane ideas. This is liberating but also harder to accomplish,” recalls Grant. “We decided to call ourselves The Richmond Comedy Coalition as a way of developing an umbrella for all of our projects to exist under. It also sounds a bit more legit,” Pijor says.
Early performances took place at Art6, in the heart of the downtown Arts District. “We were at the mercy of whatever art exhibit was displayed,” Grant mentions. “In our first year, there were some pretty interesting pieces on display. My favorite would be giant pieces of cardboard formed into what looked like hobo cocoons, hovering from the ceiling over the audience’s heads.” These early performances created sparks of excitement for their new endeavor. “[By] our third performance, our audience had easily tripled or quadrupled in size. I remember looking around and wondering what had changed,” Pijor says.
One possibility is that Richmond audiences were beginning to discover the beauty of long-form improvisational comedy. Coalition improviser and instructor Jim Zarling explains it this way: “Long form improv, when you’re doing it great, it is unbelievable. You make such strong emotional connections with the people you’re on stage with. You’re all seeing the same things, and you can’t even explain it afterwards.” The bonds created during experiences like this unite all of the Coalition’s performers, from the founders to the most recent initiates.
“Before we start each show, we take a moment to look each other in the eyes, and genuinely say, ‘I’ve got your back’,” explains performer/educator Summer McCarley. “I’ve been performing with some of these people for almost four years now, and I feel like that statement holds true in and out of shows. We can play any way we want, from pretending to be a pissed off tween to a billionaire cheesecake company heir to a rotting jack-o-lantern and everyone around you will be like, ‘OK, that’s this character, let’s party.’ It doesn’t matter the height, weight, age, race, or gender, you can play any character you want. And that’s a super fun, liberating experience.” The results of this approach are fueled by deep commitment to the performance, which enriches the humor and draws comedy-loving audiences from all walks of life–many of whom are eventually inspired to become performers themselves.
After some time putting on performances at Art6, the Coalition eventually moved their performances to Gallery 5. “It seemed to work towards our advantage,” Newman says. “Amanda Robinson allowed us to have two nights a month there. With that residency, we began developing some of the events that we have become known for.” One of the many events that the Coalition began at this time was Richmond Famous, an evening focused on a Richmonder of some repute. The subject at hand discusses themselves and their endeavors, followed by an improv performance. Guests have included Nathaniel Rappole (Gull), Andrew Cothern (RVA Playlist), GayRVA founder Kevin Clay, the group behind WRIR’s The Total Football Show, Jennifer Lemons (The Check Out Girl), and many others. One of the most incredible moments in the Coalition’s history occurred when Marc Cheatham of The Cheats Movement proposed to his girlfriend during his own Richmond Famous event.
“One of the great things about the Richmond Famous events is that we get to reach out to so many different audiences,” Holcomb says. “[Depending] on whomever is our guest that night, we are more than likely going to have new faces that have little to no idea what it is that we do, and that drives us to really excel.” Improv teacher Patrick Gantz remembers Young House Love and No BS! Brass Band’s appearances at Richmond Famous as two of the best shows the Coalition have hosted. “The Richmond Famous shows are always well attended, but these two shows were particularly packed. When the energy in the room is that high, it’s impossible to have a bad show. And these were GREAT shows. John Petersik of Young House Love is also an alumnus of my college improv group, The Whethermen, so we had John do some scenes with us, which the audience loved. And the No BS guys ended the show with an impromptu jam session which set the crowd hooting and dancing.”
The Coalition have had some memorable one-off presentations as well. In 2010, Chris Gethard, host of a monthly live talk/variety show at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City, started a Kickstarter. “One of the premiums was that he would do one of his shows in your city for $500. We were immediately sold,” says Holcomb. The Coalition made the pledge, booking Gethard for a performance at Gallery 5 that took place in January 2011. Wanting to involve some of the city’s unique artistic elements in his local performance, Gethard got in contact with GWAR and planned a visit to the Slave Pit. “He received a thong from Balsac The Jaws of Death and felt inspired to wear it at the show while encouraging audience members to pour Bloody Marys all over him,” Holcomb relates. “[It] was just amazing to be around someone who we all really admire, and be a part of something that could only really happen in Richmond.”
A couple of years into their existence, the Coalition began to creating spaces for potential students to learn the ebb and flow of improvisational comedy. “We floated around a bit all throughout Richmond when we began offering classes,” Newman recalls. “After ComedySportz shutdown, there was definitely a niche to be filled,” Pijor says. “There were many people that wanted to learn exactly what went into the thought process of performing in this capacity.” The very first student to sign-up was Robert Sobecke. “I remember signing up for classes at 6:30 in the morning, as I was overwhelmed with anxiety that the classes would fill up almost immediately,” he says. “After attending any session I could get my hands on, I went through the audition process and eventually got on my first house team, Karate Practice. It felt like [going from] doing karaoke [to] getting to front a band [featuring] my idols.”
The Coalition’s reputation eventually extended beyond Richmond. “[People] felt that spaces for this [comedic form] were long dormant,” Newman says. “To see us working to create that encouraged them to be involved.” Word getting around the state eventually attracted the attention of Charlottesville comedian Jim Zarling. “I had been doing improv in Charlottesville since 2003, and really didn’t enjoy it,” Zarling says. “I saw a RCC show and really enjoyed their approach. When auditions were announced, it was a real no-brainer.” Zarling is one of many that have gone on to become teachers and coaches through the infrastructure that the Coalition has developed.
Each individual brings a very specific voice into the group. This multiplicity of viewpoints is only one of the many benefits Coalition classes impart to their students. “Whenever a class begins, I tend to tell the group that they will most likely leave here with a set of new best friends,” Holcomb says. “There is a newfound strength that most of our students acquire through these programs. They build confidence in working with others, learning how to escape the fear of failure and just [take] risks,” Pijor adds. “The one thing that I try to push students to understand is that it’s all about emotion, and being honest with that. The laughs will come along, but the honesty of it all is the strongest suit,” Newman says. “Long form improv is unbelievably challenging, thrilling, emotionally draining and rewarding,” says Zarling. “If you’re reading this, you should probably sign up for a class.”
As their popularity continued to grow, the Coalition began to look towards the future and a way to obtain a space of their own. “We were pretty much utilizing whatever space we could get our hands on for classes,” Newman recollects. The group hoped for something better, and soon found it in the space at 8 W. Broad St. Once they signed a lease, they launched a successful crowd-funding campaign, bringing in nearly $27,000 to help cover longterm costs. “We were one of the first improv theaters to generate that much revenue through a crowdsourcing campaign and it is still unbelievable to us,” Newman says. “We did spend a great deal of time to build a reputation around the city, and that assisted in garnering that support, but none of us could have possibly imagined that enormous of an outpour.” This success has continued, and the Coalition Theater recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.
For a glimpse at the Coalition’s future, one place to look is the recently created monthly live late-night talk show RVA Tonight with Beau Cribbs. The show’s more structured format gives the group a chance to move away from purely improvisational performances into pre-written sketch comedy. “We tailor the program towards having monologues, commercials, bits and what have you, but to do an hour of sketch comedy would just be so incredible,” Newman enthuses. “We have created this really great space for long-form improv and I think there is still a lot we can do within that train of thought, but we would love to move further towards sketch comedy. Encourage our students, as well as ourselves, to write with that in mind,” Pijor says.
The evolution of Richmond Comedy Coalition over the past five years has involved quite a few different phases. Beginning with a core group of individuals cultivating their own space for a particular brand of performance that they loved, the spirit of creative discovery that fuels improv comedy in general and the Coalition in particular has helped propel the group to achieve every goal they’ve set for themselves thus far. “When I look back to five years ago when we started this whole thing and reflect, it seems so crazy to me,” Newman says. “It makes me even more excited as to where the next five years will have in store for all of us.” One thing we can all be sure of–the exuberant performing spirit and abundance of laughs on display will continue to result in Coalition performances that exceed all expectations.
This article is taken from the Winter 2014/2015 print edition of RVA Magazine, out now! Look for copies available for free at your favorite local Richmond businesses. To read a digital version of the full issue, click here.