In this crucial time of development, where Grand Rapids’ identity is shifting toward something more definitive, the landscape for innovation in all forms is becoming more tangible. Spaces like the Comedy Project
, an idea that planted itself only two years ago, is able to exist, and is set to open just after New Year’s. The site, which will also serve as a LaughFest venue, is located at 540 Leonard St. NW, and essentially, will be the only venue in Grand Rapids whose sole focus is on the art of comedy.
“The space essentially has three areas: there’s the classroom space, the main theatre, a space we’re calling the comedy cubicles, and we’ll be having a pretty thorough curriculum –– one for improvisation, one for comedy acting, and one for comedy writing,” says Comedy Project co-founder and artistic director Joe Anderson. “We’re going to really be pushing that training center as a way for people to either experiment to see if this is something they want to do, or if someone already does think they want to do it, it’s a way to challenge them and push them to be better.”
Anderson has been doing comedy for over 15 years. He has traveled across the country to perform, both alone and with his sketch comedy group the Don’t We Boys. Anderson’s management of the Comedy Project will draw from his years of experience, both good and bad, technical and comedic, the things he has seen, and the things he wishes he would have seen.
In addition to workshops and regular comedy performances, the venue will also be open to hosting corporate and private events and retreats. It will be open every day, with varying price admissions and hours depending on the day. The main acts will consist of a core group of six to 10 performers, whereas an opportunity will be given to newer, less frequent performers to fill in remaining slots. Additionally, there will be certain nights designated for student-only shows for those who are practicing their craft.
One of the hopes is that people who practice comedy in this space will grow more comfortable experimenting with their form.
“I feel like with a lot of art disciplines, but specifically comedy right now in Grand Rapids, I feel like a lot of people are worried and they’re being careful, and what I have been saying is you can’t do careful comedy,” says Anderson. “You should be doing responsible comedy, but there’s a big difference between that. You can talk about awful stuff, and you can play awful characters but as long as you’re doing it for a reason –– because if you’re just going to be an awful character saying awful things, then you’ve lost me.”
One of the expectations, however, is that each of their staff members can get paid doing what they love, even if that means going beyond the definition of what their actual job title is.
“Grand Rapids in general doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for people to do something like this as their job, and the truth is that for that job to exist, even with the Comedy Project, it’s going to mean doing some of the parts of the work that just aren’t fun,” says Anderson.
Alongside Anderson, the Comedy Project’s management is made up of four other individuals: Ben Wilke, Eirann Betka, Amy Gascon, Stevie Sahutske, and Cara Powell. In addition to their backgrounds in comedy, they each possess other valuable skills or are willing to contribute their time to tasks other than the comedy itself.
For example, Sahutske has experience in tech and event production, and Betka and Gascon have experience teaching at Civic Theatre and other organizations.
“Our goal is if less people are doing more duties and one of those duties is performing, then that group of people can make more money. Some of them, they’re gonna make money because they were also helping with the garbage, but we can either pay someone else to do that, or we can keep it in that little circle, so that we're at least making something significant.”
In part, this financial structure is necessary to maintain the space for something like the Comedy Project to exist, but the true end goal rests in delivering quality shows, which tends to reflect the likelihood of an audience continuously paying to support and maintain a venue like this.
“...I guess I would say because of the growth of the city, I do think artists are feeling emboldened, maybe because there’s potentially more support for it –– and by support, I really mean money,” says Anderson. “ If there’s more buildings, there means there’s more walls, and those walls need murals and art. So if that’s a true cause and effect, then that’s promising for artists.”
Images courtesy of the Comedy Project.