By Julian Routh | Editor in Chief
On this particular evening at the Arcade Comedy Theater, Abby Fudor is dating a man whose mother is a vampire.
At least that’s the situation she thought of off the top of her head, which has been hard at work since the performance began. Improv comedy is no easy task, especially in front of an audience.
“Your mother’s a vampire?” she asks fellow improviser Jethro Nolen, who nods his head. “I would love to meet her.”
“I don’t want you to meet her,” Nolen shoots back. “I’m a little embarrassed.”
“Because she’s 470 years old.”
Laughter erupts, signifying a small victory for the two performers, and an even bigger victory for the comedy theater.
Since the Arcade opened on Liberty Avenue in early 2013, the chuckles have gotten louder as the theater has become more established. With a dedicated staff of volunteers and an outpouring of support from the community, the theater is no longer a niche nonprofit, but the quintessential source of all things comedy in Pittsburgh.
Like every good idea, the concept of a comedy theater originated over drinks between good friends. After a night of laughs at the old Cabaret Theater’s weekly Improv Jam, five performers – Fudor, Randy Kirk, Mike Rubino, Nolen, and his wife, Kristy – shared dreams of doing comedy together more frequently in Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh has had an improv scene for a long time, but I think it was sort of relegated to the basements and underground spots,” Rubino recalled.
Their wishes took form in a small, 80-seat venue that Kirk called “the Vaudeville house for comedy,” where city-goers could find several types of comedy under one roof.
But at the beginning the problem was finding a variety of comedians to take the stage every weekend.
“I still remember the days when we could barely get acts that wanted to perform,” Fudor said. “It was first, like, calling up friends and saying, ‘Want to come do improv Friday night?’”
Now the theater hosts a healthy mix of established local and national acts each weekend. This past Sunday, New Orleans comedian Mike Spara brought his silent sketch comedy show to the stage, and earlier in November, Las Vegas magician Kyle Marlett did a set.
These special acts are a nice complement to the array of regular performances by the theater’s in-house improv troupes, including the monthly Dinner with the Nolens and Arcade Hootenanny and the weekly Bonus Stage.
The variety of shows gives the Arcade a different feel than other comedy venues in Pittsburgh. The Improv in Homestead is strictly stand-up, despite its name, and Steel City Improv in Shadyside is improv-focused.
“At the Arcade, the breadth of experience and of different genres and varieties of comedy and improv keeps it exciting,” host and performer Anna C. Reilly said. “There’s always new things you want to try, and you can.”
That’s what’s unique about the Arcade: there’s not much separating the comedians from the community. The theater offers classes for people of any skill level in basic improv, musical improv, sketch writing and stand-up.
During the last term, there were 90 students in the basic improv class. The influx of new students actually influenced the Arcade to open a second classroom space on Penn Avenue.
The classes – along with the variety of shows and troupes – make the theater a collaborative space for art, Kristy Nolen said.
“It’s a place where people can feel free to exchange artistic ideas, so that people aren’t in a comedy community in a bubble,” she said. “It’s a place to play and explore.”
A night at the Arcade is more affordable than an evening at a traditional comedy club. Most shows are $10, and there is no two-drink minimum. Instead, attendees can bring their own alcohol for $2.
“We are more affordable than a movie, and we’re probably more reliable,” Rubino said. “What we do here is live, it’s exciting, and that generally translates to a great time for the audience.”