By: Julian Routh | News Editor
On a Thursday night five years ago, five improv comedians wished they had more opportunities.
As they gathered for drinks after a long night of laughs at the Cabaret Theater’s weekly Improv Jam, the group shared dreams of performing more frequently and expanding Pittsburgh’s comedy scene, which was in need of more variety.
Luckily, Mike Rubino, Jethro and Kristy Nolen, Randy Kirk and Abby Fudor found their opportunity a year ago, when they opened a small 80-seat not-for-profit venue on Liberty Avenue called the Arcade Comedy Theater.
When they did, Pittsburgh got funnier.
The theater, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on Feb. 15, is a home for all comedic artforms, including improv, stand-up, music and visual comedy. Kirk calls the theater “the Vaudeville house for comedy,” one of the only places in Pittsburgh where city goers can find several types of comedy under one roof.
“We kind of embrace variety, rather than a particular discipline,” Kirk said.
The variety in shows and performances makes a normal weekend at the theater anything but normal. On a Friday night, it could be Missy’s Hi-Fi Music Improv Mix, where a crowd of tipsy adults drinking alcohol they brought from home watches improvisational freestyle rap stories. Then, less than 24 hours later, it’s the Penny Arcade, where a sea of children and their families watch an all-ages matinee designed for elementary schoolers.
This format makes comedy more accessible for people, and distinguishes the theater from other comedy venues in the city, Kristy Nolen said. Steel City Improv in Shadyside is improv-focused and the Improv in Homestead is strictly stand-up despite its name.
The Arcade does both and more, including being affordable. The cost of seeing a show never exceeds $20, and runs as low as $5 for students fifteen minutes before a performance.
The theater’s audience base is growing because of its affordable price and variety, according to Kristy Nolen, and not to mention it has been open for business every weekend since it opened.
When the theater first opened, the founders were worried they wouldn’t find enough talent to perform consistently, according to Jethro Nolen, Kristy’s husband. Now, there is such a wide array of performers eager to take the stage that the founders are expanding programming into new nights.
“[The theater] provides an opportunity for local talents to showcase themselves in a fun and engaging venue,” Jethro Nolen said.
For now, the talent is local. The theater has tapped into the Pittsburgh comedy market to find artists, because “Pittsburghers are really talented,” Kristy Nolen said. The 80-seat capacity prevents the theater from bringing in nationally-recognized comedians, especially because the ticket prices are so low.
To make up for this, the founders are using their comedic knowledge to teach classes on topics like improv and stage presence, in hopes of bringing new talent to the Pittsburgh scene.
Jethro Nolen, who has been in the improv business for over 20 years, said the Arcade offers a level of experience that has never been available in the city.
“For people who are interested in pursuing comedy as an active hobby, the Arcade can fulfill that need,” he said.
Learning comedy may not be so difficult at the Arcade, because the five founders are pretty funny themselves. They perform in Player One, an improv group that performs at the theater regularly.
“It just so happens that we’re a really good team when you put us together,” Kristy Nolen said. “We had hoped we’d be a good team putting together a theater.”
When the five came together, they decided that each of them would contribute something different to the operation of the theater. Jethro Nolen would handle programming, Kristy Nolen would supervise education, Kirk would specialize in management, Fudor would take marketing and Rubino would oversee branding.
Together, they found a way to take on the challenge of managing their own theater, even though it wasn’t easy.
“It’s kind of like having a child where you think it’s going to be a lot of work, and it turns out to be 100 times more than whatever it is you thought you knew was coming your way,” Kristy Nolen said. “And just like a child, it’s so rewarding and comes with a great feeling of accomplishment.”
Their child hasn’t grown up just yet. The founders are focused on the future, and in particular, expanding programming, adding classes and making the Arcade “the most desirable place to see or do comedy in the city of Pittsburgh,” Jethro Nolen said.
Thankfully, Pittsburgh, a self-deprecating but hardworking city, has always had a sense of humor.
“Pittsburghers are people who will give something a try, and if they give us a try, they’ll be coming back,” Kristy Nolen said. “And they’ll love it.”