Five years ago, Dallas Comedy House founder Amanada Austin risked a cushy job at a Lexus dealership to follow a dream of bringing Chicago-style improv comedy to Dallas/Fort Worth at a time when its comedy scene was still in its infancy.
"When we opened, I was really more concerned with just getting opened so I didn't plan for the next five years," Austin said. "I hadn't thought much about it until now, so it's nice to have five years under your belt. I'm hoping that this is just the beginning."
The Commerce Street club has made quite a wide stride from its humble beginning. The club opened with just six students in its first improv program. These days, Austin and company work to find time and space to instruct 172 students this semester. The club houses shows and improv classes just about every day and holds an annual comedy festival that welcomed comedians such as Key & Peele's Keegan Michael Key and Raising Hope's Lucas Neff to perform on their black-painted stage.
This week, they are celebrating their "Five-Year Birthaversary" with a block of reunion shows that will reunite some of the theater's long, lost comedy troupes, and a massive batch of cupcakes.
Some of those who are returning for the anniversary week are graduates and former regulars who have moved on to places like Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles where they plugged themselves into the local comedy circuit with the skills they picked up from DCH, Austin said.
"A lot of them are performing regularly in the Chicago improv scene," she said. "A lot are out in the LA doing bit parts on television shows and movies. We don't have a Tina Fey yet, though."
The most impressive part of the club's rise is how fast it has grown in such a short period of time from its humble days in a free space at Ozona Bar & Grill in Upper Greenville. Austin said the last two years alone surpassed the first three in enrollment totals for its improvisational classes.
It's also managed to find an audience of regulars who regularly pack the joint in a town that some thought wouldn't take to long-form improvisation.
"In the beginning, it was really hard because nobody had seen long-form improv done in Dallas for quite some time or really ever," Austin said. "I can't confirm if there was ever long-form theater here in the past, but we kept sticking with and getting good at it. Then people start to notice you for it."
DCH performer and Franzia and Local Honey troupe member Christie Wallace, a graduate of the theater's second class, remembers the hesitation other DFW comedy clubs felt about trying to bring long-form improv to local audiences.
"I was in the middle of debates with other people from other comedy clubs that long-form [improv comedy] would never have a place in Dallas," Wallace said. "People wouldn't receive it well and it was too complicated for other people to understand. If you look at crowd attendance, especially over the past couple of years and how that's increased and the repeat business that DCH gets, I would think that totally squashes that. Dallas is really starting to understand that type of comedy and appreciate it for the type of live performance that it is."
Off-stage, DCH has also created a community of close friends and even steady relationships that started when two people decided to take a class together or jump up on stage during an open mic or "free jam" session.
"Some of my best friends are people I've met at DCH, and I still get to hang out with them at DCH," said comedian Clifton Hall, one of the club's first students and oldest performers. "Doing shows is very relaxing to me and something I enjoy and I can get out of my head if I'm having a bad day or something. There's a great sense of community there."
Austin said she hasn't had much time to enjoy the club's rise because of that old, stupid cliche.
"It went by really quick," she said. "I know it sounds stupid and cliched to say 'Time flies when you're having fun,' but it's the truth."
Kyle Austin, Amanda's brother who is also a regular DCH performer, said her big sister doesn't give herself nearly enough credit. There wouldn't be a five-year anniversary without her.
"She's truthfully one of the smartest business people I've ever met and definitely one of the hardest workers I've ever known," Kyle Austin said. "She's a great improviser but the place exists because she has busted her ass and I get to kind of ride the coattails and come up with cool show ideas and come up with some new workshops. I don't have to pay the bills, secure the permits and all that stuff and as much as I hate that that's a part of comedy, it is and she's damn good at it."