Thursday, July 29, 2021

Brick by Brick: Happy Valley Improv’s new downtown theater is built on trust, community, and a whole lot of laughter

With everything we’ve been through over the past year and a half, who couldn’t use a good laugh? After all, nothing beats the sense of community that comes from being in a crowd of happy people, laughing together.

Opening just in time for people to come together again this July, the Blue Brick Theatre, tucked away at 209 West Calder Way in State College, is just the place to make the laughter come alive again.

The space is the new home of Happy Valley Improv, which has grown brick by figurative brick with a lot of community support since the company was founded about five years ago. Now, they have a place to grow even further, making Happy Valley an even happier place.

Dim the lights and let the good times roll.

Blue ball of energy

Among the four founders of Happy Valley Improv – Andrea McCloskey, James Tierney, Sam Tanner, and Nate Rufo – there is a chemistry that can only be developed over time and many funny, shared moments.

For them, it all comes down to trust. Trust built upon their humble beginnings, meeting in the basement of a church as they looked to bring improv comedy to Happy Valley. Trust elevated through their many performances at The State Theatre and Arts Fest, sewn by numerous workshops, classes, and community outreach events, and strengthened with the growth of their company to include nine other members. Trust forged as they navigated a pandemic, trying to keep making each other smile as they found a space for their company to call home.

“The more you do improv together with a specific group, the more trust is built,” Tierney says. “The four of us, we were the four that started it in the basement of Saint Andrew’s Church, so we have been weekly doing improv for about five years, and with that, you just get so much trust about what could happen. I know Sam’s boundaries, Andrea’s boundaries, and we can go up on stage and we don’t have any fear at all.”

That trust shows in their performances and interactions. Tierney might introduce a certain situation, and the free-flowing Tanner will play right along, imaginatively building upon the hilarious premise that Tierney created. The mischievous McCloskey might egg them on as the malleable Rufo stretches his face to find a character to add to the scene. They play well together and their generosity uplifts everyone in the room. It works because they believe.

“A lot of people think that improv is about being witty, or being funny, or quirky. But really it is about believing and creating a reality together, and then usually what the audience is laughing about is that they are so surprised about the things that come out of that belief, that sharing of energy,” says Tanner.

With his hands outstretched as if he is holding up an object, Tanner adds: “One of the hippie things we do … is the idea that one of the rules that we have is that while you are working together, you are sharing a blue ball of energy. It is an imaginary blue ball of energy. … The idea is that you share energy together; that is part of improv.”

In the company’s new brick-lined open theater space, one brick is painted blue, connecting the space to that energy while acting as a visual representation of the theater’s name.

“It will be a great selfie opportunity,” Tanner says. “Then we think it is a nice homage to the idea that improv is about sharing energy together. Improv is like an in-person way to connect with others, which feels desperately needed after the pandemic, and part of that is actually sharing in that energy together.”

“And believing in that blue ball together,” adds McCloskey.

Stars aligning

“We have worked really hard over the last five years, weekly, with discipline, both in the business aspect and in the aspect of doing improv,” Tanner says. “That led to this unexpected place that we are in, opening an improv theater. Which is what improv is all about – you follow a process and see where it takes you, and it has taken us here, which feels very natural.”

Rufo adds that because they invested in the community, by offering free classes, participating in events and donating proceeds to organizations in need, that same community has supported them as they grew. Through the years, they have partnered with The State Theatre, 3 Dots Downtown, and the Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania to offer regular shows, classes, workshops, and other community events.

“How we built this place is really on the back of our community. Our community supported us and lifted us up. … We have built so many great relationships with community members, I think it really allowed us to move into this space with all that great support from around,” says Rufo.

“Improv is in and of itself a really radical way to build community with others; so yes, we have relied on the community that has emerged around us,” Tanner adds. “But I also think we have contributed to the building of a community. Improv is an art form that actually helps support the building of a community that has emerged from us and has led into this.”

Tierney notes that “improv is about making the other person on stage look like they are the best improviser ever. And if we spent more time in life making our friends and family look like great people and everyone was doing that, everybody has to be building the house together brick by brick, then that is where we see things growing.

“The State Theatre was absolutely wonderful, and everyone should go see their shows. … They allowed us to grow. At the beginning, we had no fan base; we had nothing. We were able to get a small grant and do shows there and they have been super-supportive.”

Through the years, the entrepreneurial-minded Tierney often thought about the company having its own space, but, he says, “I never imagined it would be as perfect as this location, being downtown, in a back alley, with exposed brick, taking over from an organization (The Makery) that we have a relationship with.”

Through that relationship with the former tenant, company members are already familiar with the location. They’ve done a First Friday show there in the past and they also hosted their free community improv class there every Sunday night, pre-pandemic. So when The Makery moved to a smaller location, its old space was the perfect fit for the theater.

“I am not a person who believes in fate and stars aligning, but this is as close as I have come to believing that,” says Tierney.

As the company continues to grow, community members and businesses who support HVI’s work to build a robust improv comedy scene in State College will be honored with a personalized nameplate on a brick in the new theater, along with other perks, depending on how much is donated in The Brick by Brick Initiative.

Staying connected

The past year-plus of isolation was difficult for a group of people so used to being connected with others through performances and classes. But Zoom helped them stay close, with weekly meetings between all 13 members of the team; they even held events online.

“The Zoom weekly meetings … were not the same as meeting in person, but I think it really mattered that we kept it going, because now that we are emerging and getting to interact together in person, I notice that I still feel connected to all of us,” says McCloskey.

Now, with their new home in place and restrictions being lifted, they are ready to hit the ground running with summer camps, workshops, and performances.

All four founding members work at Penn State and have a background in teaching.

The company plans to open the new theater over the weekend of July 9, and will continue with one show every Friday night, says Tierney. They are planning the first annual Happy Valley XS Improv Festival on September 2, and a larger festival next spring.

Once they open the doors this month, they hope to continue engaging the community in various ways.

“We will start doing classes pretty much soon thereafter; a wide range of youth classes, adult stand-up, adult improv. I think as we start to grow and we get to the fall, I hope we start to get to two shows on Friday every week, or Friday and Saturday,” Tierney says. “We will just continue to grow and see what the community wants. If the community wants more open-mic nights for stand-up, then we are going to give them that. If the community wants more nights of classes and only one show a week, then that is what we are going to give them. We very much want the community to be involved in this.”

With any classes and workshops that have a cost, the company will work with people who can’t meet the financial requirements. It’s all part of their commitment to building a stronger community through improv.

When the house lights go down opening night and the founders are on stage with the rest of their company, ready to perform again, they expect to be emotional as they look back at how they have grown.

“Just thinking about that first night, holding my emotions in check will be difficult,” Tierney says. “I still always get nervous or have anxiety before a show. … There are butterflies that still happen, and I think if that were ever to stop, I would probably stop doing the performative thing.

“But thinking about that night…” Tierney says, his voice trailing off.

All agree they might be needing tissues.

For Tanner, the emotion is already there, just being in the place with the people with whom he has built such a connection.

“We have had a practice in this space with our company members, and it was the first time I facilitated in-person improv activity in 14 months. … And even having people do a simple character walk, that felt emotional to me,” he says. “I have spent 14 months staring into a screen, and while I certainly think Zoom is better than not having done stuff … I think there is a lot of pent-up emotion over the past 14 months with what we have all just come through. And I think being in person and sharing that in a community is so important. I think improv promotes that, so I hope there is crying and gnashing of teeth and laughter, because that means that we are connecting with each other.”

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.