When I conjure a mental image of the archetypal comedian, the picture that always comes to mind is that of the court jester risking life and limb in his jingling hat and patterned tights to make the audience double over, roaring with laughter. That willingness to fall on your face for a laugh takes a kind of enviable courage and belies an abiding optimism, a limitless faith in the eventual payoff of risk-taking. At Coalition Theater, Richmond’s only independent venue dedicated entirely to improvisational comedy, that bold spirit is essential.
Matt Newman, Coalition’s Executive Director, describes the intoxicating “lightning-in-a-bottle sensation” that only comes from creating on-the-spot comedy in front of a room full of strangers. When we met at Coalition’s West Broad Street space on a cold, sunny afternoon, Matt was dressed smartly clad in a gray blazer and knit skinny tie, a circular orange pin sporting the Coalition logo attached to his lapel. He speaks softly in measured, articulate sentences, but beyond his composure, I detect an undercurrent of excitement bubbling just below the surface.
“When I moved back to Richmond from Chicago in 2009, I asked friends that I used to do comedy and improv with in high school, ‘What’s going on? Are you guys doing shows?’” Matt told me while leaning against the polished wooden bar in the middle of the high-ceilinged venue. “They were like, ‘We’re about to have our first meeting for this group we’re starting up!’” The lack of a dedicated comedy performance space sparked the group’s interest in opening a theater of their own. Matt continued, “We were paying rent to so many people to perform in different venues around the city that it made sense to bring it all together.” After a successful Kickstarter campaign in May 2013, they took the plunge and opened their Broad Street location three months later.
From the beginning, Coalition’s purpose has been twofold: to serve as a performance space and an educational facility. The theater presents several weekly improv shows and open-mics featuring local Richmond comedians and travelling performers. As a comedy-education hub, they also offer classes in improv, standup, and sketch comedy throughout the year. “We’re going to have just over 100 people in classes this session,” Matt said with a smile. “We have this whole pool of people who have already been through the classes who are asking, ‘Is there more we can learn?’” As a result, this year Coalition will offer more advanced classes for those hungry to delve deeper into the nuances of comedy performance.
Further fulfilling the educational component of their mission, Coalition partners with local nonprofits to deliver improv-based outreach programs to youth in the city. “We work with Art180 just around the corner, doing outreach with schools and young folks and teaching the same lessons of improv to address things like self confidence and bullying.” Matt explained that the feelings of support and safety sought after in an a well-oiled improv performance group is analogous to the same sense of encouragement and security that kids should feel from their own community of friends and family members.
Matt and his cohort of Richmond comedians have seen the risk that they took three years ago in opening Coalition rewarded as they have witnessed first-hand the outgrowth of an enlivened comedy scene in the city. “Folks that started from scratch going through our stand up classes have now sort of become part of the fabric of our open mic scene,” Matt told me. With an excited glint in his eye he continued, “It seems like there’s another phase of growth in the comedy scene that’s happening and we’re a piece of that.”
This strengthening of the Richmond comedy community in the past few years is in no small part due to the role that Coalition has served as an incubator for talent and a safe place to experiment with stretching new comedic muscles. That connection makes sense, taking into consideration the basic tenants of improvisational comedy. “You need to support each other,” Matt explained, “You need to be open and vulnerable to each other, present, and excited about other people’s ideas. It makes a lot of sense that that would carry forward into people coming together as a community.”
Asked what fuels his desire to both perform and encourage others to do the same, Matt replied, “There is a moment,” he saids, “for most people who really want to continue doing improv, when it hits you—this moment where it’s just a thrill and a rush of being onstage. You take a risk and you trust the people on your team to support you when you take that risk, and it lands, and the audience goes crazy.” He paused for a moment as if remembering a cascade of thunderous applause, then continued, “There’s no other kind of thing I’ve done on stage that is like it,” that undercurrent of excitement buzzes between his syllables as he finished with a shy smile, “I still just want to do that as much as I can.”
Coalition Theater presents The Relationsh*p Show on Friday, February 12. For tickets (and to see their full performance schedule), visit rvacomedy.com.