By Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Grand Rapids is about to get a whole lot funnier when The Comedy Project (540 Leonard St NW) opens its doors this month. The comedy theatre is the first of its kind in the area and will feature improv, sketch and comedy variety shows, a comedy training center, private event hosting and, of course, cocktails.
For founders Amy Gascon, training center director; Stevie Sahutske, technical director; Ben Wilke, marketing director; Joe Anderson, artistic director; Cara Powell, house/bar manager; and Eirann Betka-Pope, theatre manager; the Comedy Project has been a labor of true love. Each have deep roots within the local comedy scene, which itself has flourished over the past few years with the advent of new comedy groups, open mic nights, LaughFest, and improv jam nights. The group notes that until now, the scene has operated out of bars, in black box theatres and anywhere else they could fit it in. Now, comedy in Grand Rapids will have a permanent home.
“I am looking forward to putting comedy into a space where it is meant to be, instead of trying to retrofit it into a space that already exists,” Sahutske said.
Like many great ideas, The Comedy Project started years ago with the purchase of a domain name obtained by Anderson. Then, in 2016 as the concept developed, Wilke and Anderson launched a Kickstarter to raise funds. If the crowdfunding campaign was a means of asking Grand Rapids, “Is this something you want?” the city answered with a resounding, “Yes!”; they exceeded their funding goal and raised nearly $30,000.
While most of us tend to think “stand-up” when it comes to comedy, the group emphasizes that “comedy” is an umbrella term that encompasses many art forms.
“Comedy is an understanding,” Betka-Pope expressed. “It’s a way of communicating; it’s its own language.”
When you attend a show at The Comedy Project, you won’t find stand-up comedians, but full theatrical productions, whether they be pre-written or improvised by the in-house cast or students of the theatre’s training center. Shows will run seven days a week.
“In terms of one of the types of shows that could happen…there is literally nothing like it,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be all comedy, all of the time.”
Gascon is a graduate of the conservatory program at Second City, one of the world’s most renowned comedy theatres, in Chicago. She, along with Betka-Pope, have a background teaching improv at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre & School of Theatre Arts. As the training center director for The Comedy Project, Gascon has developed a comprehensive program that includes comedy acting, comedy writing and improvisation.
Each pathway has four levels that lead to the stage. The beginner classes are designed for anyone, even those with no degree of experience, to dip their toes into the world of comedy.
She emphasizes that comedy is a learned skill, one that, with practice, anyone can learn.
“Learning to find humor in yourself is a valuable skill,” Gascon expressed. “As a teacher, I get to help students see things in themselves that might not be acknowledged in other areas of their life.”
Registration for The Comedy Project first term classes closes on March 3, with classes kicking off on March 6.
Gascon, Anderson, Bettka and Sahutske all emphasize that the communal aspect of theatrical comedy is what makes The Comedy Project available for everyone.
“The communal, familial elements, particularly with improv and more so with sketch— it’s all about taking care of each other and that all ideas are usable,” Anderson said. “I’m so excited for people to see what really good sketch writing and improv can do in terms of storytelling, commentary and satire.”
Sahutske added that comedy can be a means of communicating about difficult subjects and hard truths.
“Comedy helps with that,” she said. “Yes, it is being goofy and making people laugh and everything like that, but good comedy does that by talking about the hard things. Giving people those tools and how to use them helps the community out in more ways than just people laughing at you.”
Visit the thecomedyproject.com for information on events and classes.