The last six months have been kind to the Baltimore Improv Group. The nonprofit comedy organization has settled into its newly renovated home in Station North, seen upticks in attendance at shows and a steady stream of revenue from paid classes and workshops, and even earned a “Best of Baltimore” nod from the readers of the city’s paper of record.
With more eyes on BIG now, managing director Terry Withers said he figured making shows free for May—a proposal that drew some “weird looks,” he admits—seemed like a good way to get even more people into the building.
“We’re doing great work at the Baltimore Improv Group, and we want more people to see it,” he said. “We want to get their attention. We don’t want anything to be a barrier between them and us.”
“We have often tried to balance our ticket revenue with the cost of operating a theater,” he adds. “This month, we’re sort of taking a break from doing that. We’re saying, ‘Hey the theater that we’re creating is not about the bottom line. It’s about creating art with everyday people in Baltimore.’”
The May lineup includes more than 50 shows, including “Shakespeare Out of the Park,” an improv rendition on some of the The Bard’s hits (May 10) inspired by cues from the audience; “We Need a Hero,” spoofing on Marvel’s latest superhero thriller “Avengers: Infinity War” (every Saturday at 8 p.m.); and “BIG TIME” interviews (Fridays at 8 p.m.), in which noteworthy locals—this month’s includes the Lyric’s director of education, Denise Gantt, so-called “mayor of Hampden” Lou Catelli and WYPR-FM digital producer Jamyla Krempel—agree to converse with BIG’s comedians onstage.
Baltimore Improv Group has seen noticeable, positive changes since it left its much smaller, rented space in Remington’s Single Carrot Theater for the old Everyman Theater space on N. Charles Street. Seats are getting filled. Classes are filling up. And the nonprofit doesn’t have to sacrifice stage time to host workshops and classes, offered to corporations and schools—think team-building exercises—as another revenue source.
“We’ve got like 20 times the space,” Withers said. “We’re able to hold performances while conducting three to four classes or practices at the same time. The space has become kind of an artistic home for a lot of us.”
It doesn’t hurt that their new home got a considerable facelift. Donors kicked in tens of thousands of dollars to help the group renovate 1727 N. Charles Street with HVAC fixes, new signage, lighting, sound equipment, a new lobby and more.
Performers have noticed the influx of attendees.
“We’ve definitely seen our numbers go up,” says Justin Brashear, part of the rotating cast for “BIG TIME” and a BIG member of two years now. More community members are also successfully pitching their own show ideas, expanding BIG’s audience and volunteer base.
“I think people are a little more willing to come when they know somebody is doing something special,” Brashear said.
Sheila McMenamin, who took her first class with BIG about two years ago, said having a crowd is uplifting: “I’d say for the performer and the audience member, it’s a way more special experience when you have a lot of people to share a laugh with.”
Breaking with norms is part of improv’s history, he notes. He recalls one day while living in New York in his early adulthood, he found an improv show for $5 (“It blew my mind how good it was,” he says). He also highlighted the role of The Compass in Chicago, a student-led group that in 1955 held what’s widely regarded as the first improv show, and was geared toward working-class people, according to Withers.
“It just seems like the right thing to do,” Brashear adds. “One of the founding principles—if not the founding principle of improv—is saying ‘yes.’ In a way, we’re saying ‘yes,’ we’re letting anyone in who wants to come and look at our silly art form.”