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05 Agos 2015 - 12:38:50

Preview: Arcade Comedy Theater keeps the laughs coming - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You can't miss the Arcade Comedy Theater. Nestled on Liberty Avenue on the edge of Downtown's Cultural District, the theater's façade is painted in a technicolor scheme of pink, yellow and blue, and boasts a large neon sign prominently displaying its name. Inside, visitors are greeted with a decor that's a cool mix between a Dave & Buster's and a NYC comedy club. The main stage is outfitted with exposed brick walls, throwing back to a scheme reminiscent of a New York club scene that can be seen on reruns of "Louie" and "Seinfeld." Throughout the theater lobby one can find actual arcade games -- hence the name.

Arcade Comedy Theater

Where: 811 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

Upcoming shows: Friday: "Your Life: The Musical" (8-9:30 p.m.); "Blue Light Special" (10-11:30 p.m.). Saturday: "Penny Arcade Kids Comedy Show" (1-2:30 p.m.); "Beta Stage" (6-7 p.m.); "Arcade Hootenanny" (8-9:30 p.m.); "Hotel Nowhere & Well Known Strangers" (10-11:30 p.m.); Sunday: "Bonus Stage" (7-8:30 p.m.)

Information and tickets: arcadecomedytheater.com/events, showclix.com or 1-888-71-TICKETS.

It's a fun and welcoming atmosphere that often has unintended consequences.

"We often have to lock the door when we're not open," co-founder Abby Fudor remarked, as a woman peered through the glass to see inside the theater. "Because people will often wander in."

The Arcade Comedy Theater was founded in January 2013 under creative directors Ms. Fudor, Randy Kirk, Jethro Nolen, Kristy Nolen and Mike Rubino. Realizing that there were a lot of comedy groups scattered around Pittsburgh that didn't have a central location in which to perform, the group came up with the idea of a theater that could show "comedy is art, and an art form," Ms. Fudor said.

Through Mr. Kirk's connection with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as manager at the Cabaret at Theater Square, the group won approval of a proposal for their venue. The Trust is Arcade Comedy Theater's landlord and also offers guidance on how the theater may grow financially.

"From the very beginning they included us in Gallery Crawls, their festivals and marketing as well. They're really more like our landlords with an asterisk," Mr. Kirk said of the relationship.

The theater has grown into a company that now offers a mix of classes, workshops and shows featuring local and national acts.

Arcade began to offer classes in March 2013, starting with "Improv One: The Basics." Ms. Fudor admitted that it was a "struggle" to fill that first improv class, and describes other challenges that occurred in the first year, such as filling shows or finding performers.

Shows have continued to grow attendance since the early days that averaged 41 people per show (with a total attendance of 7,130 from February 2013 to December 2013, which includes both ticketed Arcade events and free Trust events). In 2014, Arcade averaged closer to 48 people per show (with a total attendance of 12,549). National acts the theater has hosted include Kingsbury of iO Chicago, Asaf Ronen of Austin, Texas, and Wham City of Baltimore.

"We're sort of at a place where theater companies feel like they can experiment in the comedy realm, and I love that," said Mr. Kirk. "We want to be that place where successful and talented artists who want to stretch out their comedy muscles have a place where they can do it in a professional and good way."

Of significant note is Pittsburgh's location between Chicago and New York -- two meccas of the comedy world -- which makes it easy for comedians to make a pit stop while touring.

Indeed, on any given weekend night, patrons can find a mix of improv, sketch and comedy shows, like "Penny Arcade," a children's improv show created from crafts and literary prompts created from "Collaboration Stations" beforehand.

"One of our distinguishing features is that we don't focus on one type of comedy. We do all sorts of comedy. We have a bit of an experimental flair -- sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't," said Jethro Nolen.

One example of a show that pushes comedic barriers is "Knights of the Arcade," a live Dungeons & Dragons game played on stage. The show has proven to be popular, and Mr. Nolen admits that "it's not the type of thing we would have put together if we just did stand up, or improv or sketch. ... Because we're open and we're a space where we want other people to produce their own content, we had a home run that we would not have explored otherwise."

Mr. Nolen was not exaggerating. During a recent "Knights of the Arcade," the theater was at capacity well before the show was slated to begin. Diversity was evident in the range of ages and races in the audience, and a BYOB policy allowed for many laughs and an atmosphere that most anybody could enjoy.

Now in its third year, the Arcade Comedy Theater is in a bind of sorts. After spending its first year trying to figure out how to survive in the Pittsburgh comedy world and its second year growing artistically, the theater now has an eye toward development -- which is a challenge for a relatively new nonprofit arts organization.

"We just established a board, and our board president, Adam Novak, does development for Duquesne University so he has been extremely helpful in terms of growing as quickly as we can," Ms. Fudor said. "Most of us have full- or part-time other jobs. We want to grow as soon as we can so that we can do this full time."

Mr. Novak said that he'd like to see more funds available for their classes, explaining that "we have really talented performers coming in and I want to make sure we can compensate our house teams and other performers well and also provide an incentive to provide professional performers to come to the Arcade to perform."

When asked how he planned to achieve that, he said, "We have to enhance our relationship with the foundation community in Pittsburgh. We're still young and Pittsburgh is a huge hub of nonprofits. So there's competition out there and we need to make ourselves known ... and also be sure that former students who have gone through programs who believe in the mission are inclined to make sure that another generation has the same opportunity that they've had."

When the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was formed 40 years ago, Liberty Avenue was known as a red-light district, and the only performance venue in the area was Heinz Hall, so performance groups such as the ballet and opera were forced to operate in proximity to adult bookstores and porn shops.

"People would come to Heinz Hall and run from the garage to the hall and run back after they saw a performance," said Rona Nesbit, executive vice president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The first step was transforming the Stanley Theatre into the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, and the next phase was replacing the ground level spaces with local organizations that otherwise couldn't afford to be there.

These days, Arcade's neighbors include Bricolage Theater, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre http://scottygotanofficejob.com Company, the ToonSeum and the Trust Arts Education Center.

"Not only has it created animation and excitement for the district, but it has really helped to, I think, develop and grow some of the smaller arts organizations," explained Ms. Nesbit. She added that the Cultural District as an attraction has been a catalyst for the growing residential population, "which is just amazing to have around 10,000 people living Downtown."

"I really feel lucky to be in Pittsburgh at this moment," Jethro Nolen said. "Our job is to continue being a place where people can see, do and learn about comedy. We've been very fortunate that we've been this successful this quickly and I can't wait to see what the next few years have for us."

Valcy Etienne: [email protected]
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