- This Ain’t the Scotiabank Theatre: Comedy Bar’s Impact on the Improvisation Community
Laughter echoes from the sold-out audience, as host Graham Wagner delivers a comic monologue, created not from weeks of rehearsal, but spontaneously on stage. With each sardonic anecdote, the laughter crescendos until Wagner shocks some in the crowd with a provocatively surreal comment about sexually deviant behaviour; during the brief pause, Wagner looks to the audience and says, “Hey—this ain’t the Scotiabank Theatre” (a reference to a massive Toronto multiplex known for showing Hollywood blockbusters). More laughter follows, revealing the audience’s keen awareness that this space sits somewhere outside the mainstream. The venue is aptly named Comedy Bar, and since its official opening in November of 2008 (with unofficial shows in the preceding months), it has created an important new space—physically and aesthetically—for the comedy community in Toronto and beyond. Though Comedy Bar hosts shows spanning various forms, from stand-up to sketch to musical, this article places particular emphasis on the impact of Comedy Bar on the network of artists and groups working in the area of improvisation.
If you build it, they will come: Creating Comedy Bar
Frustrated by the challenges in finding a consistent performance space for his Canadian Comedy Award–winning troupe the Sketchersons, comedian Gary Rideout, Jr. paired with businessperson James Elksnitis to open a venue specifically devoted to hosting comedy events. Occupying the basement of a low-rise building, Comedy Bar is located in Bloorcourt Village, an eclectic mid-town Toronto neighbourhood with a reputation as an enclave for artists and young people. Patrons walk down a flight of stairs and are greeted by a bar, as well as a sleek seating area of leather furniture, and a faux fireplace; concealed behind a long wall, the theatre space is not immediately visible. These two physical attributes—a self-contained performance space and a lively social area—play significant roles in Comedy Bar’s rejuvenation of the improvisation scene.
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With few exceptions, explains co-owner Elksnitis, “a lot of comedy troupes have to work out of the back rooms of bars. They have to ask, ‘Can we have the room?’ and hope owners say, ‘Oh sure, there are no bands booked tonight’” (qtd. in [End Page 86] Barmak). The din of bar-room debates, billiards games or, worst of all, enthusiastic fans gathered to watch playoff hockey games, provides obvious obstacles for performers by limiting their ability to share nuanced and focused theatrical work. More crucially, years of appearing as, essentially, sideshow entertainment can weigh emotionally on improvisors; tired of the regular marginalization of the form, they abandon the comedy scene and devote their creative talents elsewhere. Comedy Bar, on the other hand, is a physical space that resembles a conventional theatre, with rows of seats directed at a slightly raised stage. Walling off the theatre space from the bar helps ensure that the work onstage attracts the undivided attention of the audience. As a result, the creation of a performance-specific space not only allows for a much more dynamic engagement between performer and spectator, but also fosters the notion that improvisational performance possesses an intrinsic value, an idea that is greatly appreciated by performers. As improvisor Wagner describes, wryly yet sincerely, “When you’re performing in a bar called the Comedy Bar that’s owned and operated by a fellow comedian, you feel like you’re a part of some kind of project. Or a moment in time that will one day be romanticized in a Wikipedia page. That’s a weird spot of consolation in an otherwise harsh business” (Wagner).
A comfortable social area fulfils a less overt but equally important role in energizing the improvisation and comedy community. Unlike the sterile atmosphere and aggressive minimum-drink requirements associated with some mainstream comedy venues, Comedy Bar manages to offer a welcoming environment that invites socializing before and after performances. The relaxed interactions between performers and spectators occur with much greater frequency than traditional theatre venues; moreover, they...