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New digs? Comedy troupe pitches in, natch

ImprovBoston supersizes space, with some regrets

Volunteers Michelle Barbera and Robert Woo work on the walls of ImprovBoston's new home in Central Square. Volunteers Michelle Barbera and Robert Woo work on the walls of ImprovBoston's new home in Central Square. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Victoria Cheng
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2008

Clutching a stack of blueprints, Elyse Schuerman enters the former Japanese grocery store in Central Square and gestures at the outlines of a future showplace for local comedy.

Drills whine and steel beams clatter as workers transform the space into two theaters that will be the new home of ImprovBoston. The comedy club, which was formed as an itinerant group for improvisational theater in 1982 and has since established itself as a breeding ground for such comedic talents as Jane Curtin and Steven Wright, plans to move from Inman next month.

The new lobby will boast a bar serving alcoholic beverages; the entrance and bathrooms will be accessible to wheelchairs; and the main cabaret stage, which will line the long wall of the rectangular theater, will comfortably seat 100 people.

All of this is a far cry from the club's current digs, says Schuerman, the group's managing director. The lobby now is a phone-booth-size space that allows for little more than ticket sales. "There's no way we could ever have served beer and wine in that space," she says.

The Central Square location, at 40 Prospect St., is "between triple to quadruple the size" of the old one. But the biggest difference is the addition of a 700-square-foot room off to the side of the main theater. That space, which Schuerman notes is only slightly smaller than the entire theater at Inman Square, will serve as an additional classroom and stage, where the club can hold rehearsals, classes, and an extra show on its busy Friday and Saturday nights.

With the last Inman Square show scheduled for Thursday, ensemble members are already looking back fondly at the current theater's quirkier attributes, says artistic director Will Luera.

The old space is full of architectural secrets that "most of the audience doesn't even know about," including a trapdoor in the lobby and "the scary stairwell" that's used as a theater entrance in the back.

"It's dark and it looks like it's falling apart," Luera explains. "There used to be flypaper hanging down, and back when we had a rodent issue, you would see rats scurrying back and forth."

Still, at last Sunday's seven-hour retrospective, which recapped every show to have appeared on the Inman Square stage, "people were already becoming nostalgic about the scary stairwell," he says.

The packed weekend shows, which force the club's staff to bring out extra chairs and sometimes turn away some disappointed ticket-seekers, highlight ImprovBoston's need for a bigger space.

The tiny theater has kept the audience close to the actors and cultivated ImprovBoston's innovative style "because the audience is right there and they don't forgive you for much; they see everything you're doing," Luera says. "But, we're still limited, and we need more space to get these shows to people."

"Our classes were at capacity," Schuerman says, "and some of the shows were selling out and we knew we could sell more tickets."

There had been discussions about updating the old theater, but the organization opted to move and make a complete overhaul.

"We could have soundproofed, but it was really expensive, and it didn't make sense," says Schuerman. "But it is very sad because ImprovBoston has been there since 1994, and it'll be a tough thing to leave."

The move also presented financial challenges, with expenses initially estimated at $150,000 to account for a new liquor license as well as construction and moving costs. "It's gone up a bit because of the engineering costs and the heating and air-conditioning system - all the nonexciting and unglamorous things ended up costing a lot more than we had anticipated," Schuerman says, noting that the figure now stands at $185,000.

But, she adds, the cast of performers and volunteers willing to take on as much grunt work as they can, as well as a generous head architect working pro bono, have helped hold down costs. "The general contractor's been great about saying you can do some of this work, it's kind of easy - painting, prepping the walls, prepping the ceiling, building the risers, all that kind of stuff," she says.

The organization has embarked on a fund drive that has raised almost $115,000 so far, through donations and events such as a mustache-growing marathon and auctions for shaving-cream pies to throw at actors during shows.

At a Mainstage performance last weekend, an audience member crept up behind special guest Julio Varela and planted one of those pies firmly in his face. Varela soldiered on, taking on the guises of E.T., a male porn star, and a tap-dancing member of a musical, all through a mask of shaving cream.

Weston teenagers Colleen McDonald and Peter Lichtenthal, who were accompanied by Lichtenthal's mother and stepfather, expressed their admiration for the performers over ice cream at Christina's after the show.

Noting the cramped conditions as well as the audience's palpable enthusiasm, Lichtenthal observed, "It's definitely a good idea for them to move to a larger stage."

Speaking of the performance, he said, "I liked how they kept coming back to things, their consistency, and how fast they thought. It got better and better by the second."

McDonald, who had called out a number of suggestions incorporated into the evening's skits, also gave her approval: "It was better than 'Saturday Night Live' has been lately."

ImprovBoston will perform at the Central Square YMCA Feb. 1 to 9, and performances begin at its new location on Feb. 15. A grand opening is scheduled for early March.

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