As with all things in improvised theater, predicting what that moment will look like is impossible. It could be a long bout of uncomfortable silence from the audience or the roar of laughter if a plot pays off. Do improv long enough, seasoned comedians and actors say, and you’ll know it when it happens.
Amanda Austin, chief executive officer and founder of the Dallas Comedy House (DCH), describes a similar feeling she had on the last full weekend of shows at the Deep Ellum comedy club. The coronavirus outbreak was shutting down businesses and sending people home to work. Then the South by Southwest Festival in Austin announced it would cancel the 2020 festival. On March 11 came the cancellation of Dallas' Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which Austin learned from a text alert on her phone as she left a meeting with a corporate client.
DCH had showcases scheduled the following Sunday for its graduating improv classes. Austin also had to iron out travel for some of the headlining acts for the 2020 Dallas Comedy Festival, though that became moot the following week when Austin and her staff decided to delay the festival for the first time in its 11-year run.
Even before Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued stay-at-home orders the following Monday, Austin says they chose to start social distancing. They had several sold-out shows on the schedule, so comedy club staff reduced each show’s seating capacity to 50 percent; half of the crowd could see the show while the other had an intermission on the club’s patio.
The shows ran on schedule, and people kept their distance even during a night of heavy rain. Austin closed for the night and started to drive home as she’s done in the early morning hours for the last 11 years. That night, she says, she decided to circle back and take a picture of the place on Elm Street.
“At that point, without knowing, because none of us really knew that might have been the last time we were really open even with a smaller capacity,” Austin says, “I wanted to capture it because it felt like this was gonna be longer than a two-week break.”
Her hunch was right. The two-week break turned into six months with only a couple of dates in the middle when DCH reopened its doors just before riots downtown during Black Lives Matter protests prompted the city to issue a temporary nighttime curfew.
Then came the cut.
Last Friday, Austin announced on her social media pages she was closing DCH for good after 11 and a half years, three venue changes and hosting thousands of performers on its stages.
“We’re all treading water and doing the best we can,” says David Wilk, the co-founder of the Four Day Weekend Comedy Theater, which recently opened its second location in Dallas on Greenville Avenue. “We all know what’s happening. We all know it, and when we lose one of our own communities, it’s like, oh shit, it’s a canary in the coal mine type of time. It broke my heart. I have so much respect for what she built.”
What Austin, her staff, volunteers and many performers, writers and technicians built was more than a place to catch a show and a few drinks. It was a community for creative types and people who want to do more than watch comedy. DCH didn’t confine creators’ imaginations, and it didn’t stage only what sold the most beer and chicken fingers. Several people who spent many nights and weekends there say they learned how to be funny by being themselves and found acceptance and friends who like them for themselves.
"I found a place where I belonged,” says DCH performer Sallie Bowen, who also worked as a bartender for the venue. “I found something I felt I was really good at. I learned a lot about myself and how to feel confident and be the best, weirdest version of myself that I felt like I had to hide in other places, and I met and got to form friendships with other people who were like me.”
A Fickle Little Mistress
Dallas’ comedy scene started growing at the end of the 2000s, expanding outside touring stand-up acts and familiar comedy hotspots like the Improv clubs in Addison and Arlington. Comedians would set up a mic in any open space they could find in bars, breweries and coffee houses before DCH came along.
"There were different people doing things here and there," Austin says. "It was just a much smaller scene than what, in my personal opinion, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex could have. There was a lot of room for a lot of things to exist."
The first iteration of DCH started in 2008 when Austin offered improv and comedy classes and two shows a month in a room at Ozona Grill and Bar on Greenville Avenue.
“I had been taking some classes locally, and as a lot of people do with improv, I just instantly fell in love with it,” Austin says. “I guess I could say I’m an eternal learner. I love to learn and dig into things. I just wanted more of it and started checking out other comedy scenes in other cities and thought it was really cool how cities the size of Dallas-Fort Worth have really nice comedy scenes. Maybe I could do this.”
In 2009, she found a building on Commerce Street with one large room for a small theater and some adjoining spaces for private lessons and rehearsals.
“It was almost like starting from scratch,” says Clifton Hall, one of the theater’s first performers and students. Hall left Dallas in 2015 and moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he founded The Asheville Improv Collective. “With Ozona, we had people we knew were gonna be there anyway and a lot of walk-in stuff. Then we move into this building in Deep Ellum, and there’s not a whole lot going on in Deep Ellum at the time, and the more you’d show up, the more would be done. A wall here, lighting there. It was a fun transition for us because the stakes were low as performers, and I’m sure it was nerve-racking for Amanda since it had to be done on the cheap.”
Austin’s brother Kyle co-founded the company and worked as lead facilitator, and his wife, Maggie, performed and was DCH’s chief operating officer. All three laugh when asked how they sold the concept of long-form improv comedy to a new audience.
“Nobody wants to see long-form improv,” Amanda says. “You don’t sell it to people. It’s always been one of the biggest uphill battles, selling this idea of what some people call a short funny play on the spot and charging people to come watch you do this like with a 60 percent success rate.”
"Sometimes that was an advantage and sometimes that was a disadvantage," Kyle adds. "The touristy crowd, that was a disadvantage. Somebody's who's open to the art would fall in love and sign up that night. It's such a fickle little mistress."
One of DCH’s first big successes started playing about six months after the venue’s opening. Roommates had Kyle, Amanda, Landon Kirksey, Cody Dearing and Tim Yeager in a weekly, improvised parody of a ’90s sitcom. It started attracting regular viewers and nearly overflowed the venue’s 70- to 75-person capacity, Hall says.
“That show was the first show done at DCH that really highlighted the possibilities you could do with improv in terms of putting on a good show and having fun with it,” Hall says. “It was just packed.”
The growing audiences prompted the comedy house to start the Dallas Comedy Festival, an annual gathering of local and national stand-up, sketch and improv performers. Over time, the festival would offer appearances by innovative groups and comedians. Among them were recognizable names such as Keegan Michael-Key, Tim Meadows, Lauren Lapkus and Maribeth Monroe, who appeared on Comedy Central’s Workaholics as foul-mouthed office manager Alice Murphy. She also played the coke-jonesing Middle Place dweller Mindy St. Claire in NBC’s The Good Place.
“You can just tell the ones that are struggling and the ones that are unhappy, and DCH was always thriving and always happy and that starts at the top and trickles down,” Monroe says. “I really feel like Amanda is the main reason that theater did so well.”
A Different Kind of Venue
DCH moved its third home in 2015, a much larger building on Main Street. The club expanded from one theater space to two and more than doubled its capacity, which helped since it was selling out shows nearly every weekend.
“As the years went by, we all kept getting better and challenging and inspiring each other, and that drive is what makes people want to come back,” says David Allison, who started attending DCH’s classes and shows in 2010 and was the theater’s director in 2016-’18. “It’s why they have repeat customers, why they want to bring friends, why they want to celebrate their birthday party or bachelor or bachelorette party.”
The new space also offered opportunities to expand its offerings. They could hold open-mics, stand-up shows and improvised and scripted sketch shows at the same time. The club created original musical parodies based on bizarre subject material like the TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and horror films Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
“The comics just hung out and everybody went. It was a fun vibe and very friendly, and I saw a lot of people I didn’t always see because everybody just kind of went there.” – Linda Stogner
“It was a different kind of venue,” says Dallas stand-up comedian Linda Stogner, who co-owns the Back Door Comedy Club in Richardson. “It wasn’t a big club. The Improv is big and a brand, and Hyena’s is a brand, and back then, they had three headliners, a middle and an opener and the showcases didn’t start happening until recently. DCH reminded me of an Upright Citizens Brigade or someplace like that.”
Stogner says DCH started to become a regular attraction for new and top stand-up talent because of the atmosphere it provided on and offstage.
“It was friendly and supportive,” Stogner says. “The comics just hung out and everybody went. It was a fun vibe and very friendly, and I saw a lot of people I didn’t always see because everybody just kind of went there.”
The place gave seasoned comics a chance to try different formats for comedy. Comedian Paulos Feerow started in stand-up and took an improv class consisting entirely of stand-up comedians. (Some consider stand-up comedy the mortal artistic enemy of improvisation.) Feerow and several other of his fellow stand-ups found they like improv’s freedom and spontaneity and became some of DCH’s most recognizable improvisers.
“A group of stand-ups decided to do Level 1 Improv as a joke,” says Feerow, who starred in the comedy house’s SVU-sical and founded DFW’s first all-Black sketch comedy group, The Wrong Party. “I think I stuck with it because I noticed now natural guys like Clifton Hall and Brian Moody were as stand-up comedians. They attributed that to practicing improv for so many years.”
Inaction Is Poison
Shows were selling out, and classes sometimes maxed out the training center’s capacity, but Amanda Austin says the club was always struggling uphill.
“You’re going to have hurdles in a business,” she says. “… You have to take that whole philosophy off stage, and you have to just do it. It may flop. It may not work the way you want to, but you just have to get through it. Inaction is poison, especially in comedy.”
One large obstacle arrived in 2018 when Black Market Investments, which owns Terry Black BBQ restaurants, became DCH’s new landlord. The company tried to buy out Austin's lease. She refused, but before she could make a counteroffer, notices arrived about alleged lease violations. Then the fire marshal showed up to do inspections because of false red flags raised by the new landlord.
“It was an incredibly stressful time,” Allison says. “That pressure you put on yourself as somebody in a leadership role in that community and that theater and everything, just knowing you need to take care of everything with that landlord issue or else it could affect the place that all of your friends call home. It’s very taxing.”
DCH remained in the space for six more months until they were forced to move out the following year. Austin found a new place just a block north on Elm Street that became their “dream space,” Maggie says.
"It may flop. It may not work the way you want to, but you just have to get through it. Inaction is poison, especially in comedy.” – Amanda Austin
“This is everything we ever wanted,” she says. “We had been closed prior to that from April until August of 2019 in the construction phase. So there was the excitement of a grand opening but also for rebuilding the community coming back into that space.”
Just months after the club’s third official grand opening, it would close because of the coronavirus outbreak in early March.
“It was a busy time,” says performer Ashley Bright, who worked as DCH’s director of talent and programming in 2019. “Personally, it felt chaotic and confusing like most people felt. I think we were hitting a good stride in that location, and it really just hurt. Amanda sacrificed a lot for that place and put her whole self into it, and it just hurt to watch, but I also don’t think we thought it was gonna be this long.”
A closure predicted to last two to four weeks extended into months. DCH had an almost brand new home, an outdoor patio for drinks and food, more shows and plenty of classroom space. Instead, the comedy house had to figure out a way to replicate online what they do on stages and in classrooms, a challenge next to impossible for an art form that relies on spontaneity and emotional energy in a closed space.
“I can see how stand-up and sketch maybe would work over the internet, but improv is such a personal thing,” Bowen says. “You really need to be in person for it.”
Austin had to lay off her staff and run the operation alone at the start of the shut-down. She was able to rehire only two staff members thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan in May. Staff members and fans did several things to help keep the club afloat, including a GoFundMe crowdfunding drive Kyle organized that raised over $17,000.
“You can’t call a vendor and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna turn on the ice machine and only pay you a percentage of what my sales are,'” Amanda says. “You have to turn it on. You have to use these services at full capacity even if you’re not making money. That’s where the entertainment industry and restaurants and bars will continue to struggle.”
Actress and comedian Jaime Moyer has played roles on ABC’s Modern Family and the FOX animated series Bob’s Burgers and performs nationally in a traveling two-woman improv show with Monroe. Moyer says DCH’s challenges during the pandemic are being felt all over the country in cities with comedy communities and theaters.
“I know the theaters are really hurting to find ways to stay afloat even barely by doing workshops online,” Moyer says. “I gave this advice to a friend of mine who was asking what to do to help. If you have a home-based theater, go on the website and buy a T-shirt or a gift certificate. It’s going to take tiny, little bits of help to keep them afloat.”
A big part of DCH’s success was built by its performers. Improv is easily the least profitable form of comedy even in the form’s higher echelon. Several of DCH’s staple performers say the camaraderie and experience are worth more than a handful of crumpled tips.
“My biggest takeaway was very much that community feel and that vibe of you walking in and you pretty much know everybody there and you can talk and say hey to everybody,” Hall says. “It always felt like such a warm, safe place, especially when you walk in and know you’re going to do a 30-minute performance, and you don’t know what’s going to happen or what the suggestion is going to be. That confidence and lack of fear of failing is the biggest takeaway.”
Comedy can be a competitive industry on its worst day, but members say DCH was a place where acceptance was valued as much as talent.
“I think it was a place where I felt like I could be myself and a place where I could help other people be themselves and find this empowering version of themselves, which in turn was empowering for me.” – Ashley Bright
“I think it was a place where I felt like I could be myself and a place where I could help other people be themselves and find this empowering version of themselves, which in turn was empowering for me,” Bright says.
Austin’s work also brought more to Dallas than just improv.
“They really tapped into the need for community, and it was remarkable. … As a performer, artist and business owner, it breaks my heart,” Wilk says. “Anytime you lose a creative entity, it’s a blow to the city, especially DCH because they were the improv community.”
DCH achieved a level of fame and respect beyond the city’s borders. The comedy house became a renowned training and performance space among improvisers and comedians alongside the likes of older establishments like Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City and the iO theater in Chicago, which closed its doors for good in June.
"When you're an improviser, you're in the know," Moyer says. "I was in Copenhagen, and I met a student named Mimi who lives there and used to live in Dallas. … During one of her classes, she said, 'I've seen you perform at DCH.'"
DCH's reign may not have been as long as other comedy institutions and theaters, but Monroe says it made its presence known.
"I would go to improv festivals in Detroit, San Francisco, Portland, North Carolina, and I would just say we actually just performed at DCH," Monroe says. ''’Oh my God! That theater is amazing!' was everywhere we went. People would look to [Amanda] as an example of how to find success running an improv theater, which is very difficult to do. So like those big three: iO, UCB and Second City, right under that would be DCH."
Austin says her decision to close DCH was purely “part of a business decision” but the payoff for 11 years of work extends beyond her pocketbook. She and many people who’ve walked through the club’s recognizable red door walked out with friendships and relationships that sometimes turned into marriages.
“Everything that was created in that space was improv, so are all those memories we enjoy and love,” Maggie says. “That’s the legacy and feeling you get from DCH and so many friendships, marriages, careers, connections. So many things have taken off from that special place in those 11 and a half years. It’s sad. I was crying reading everyone’s responses and reaching out but mostly, I was crying tears of joy. How wonderful it is that people have been touched by this place and these people.”
“I met my wife, and I have two children,” Kyle adds. “So yes, it was worth it.
“I’ve had several thousand children over the last 11 and a half years, and I didn’t have to change any of their diapers," his sister adds.
And … cut.