By Emily Williams
In 2005, when David Grissom sold off an improv theater he owned for a time in Chicago, he told himself: “I will never do this again.”
Luckily for Grissom, trained in the art of improvisational comedy at Second City in Chicago and current founder and chief creative officer of Positively Funny Improv, he has the skill to find the comic irony in his current situation.
In January, Grissom and his crew will be opening the doors of The Birmingham Improv Theater, at 2208 7th Ave. S next to Third Presbyterian Church. Unlike the theater Grissom sold more than 13 years ago, BIT is being born out of necessity as PFI continues to grow.
In 2010, after returning to the South to be closer to family, Grissom founded Positively Funny Improv – not as a re-do in a new city, but to build Perform-4A-Purpose, the nonprofit side of PFI. It hosts anti-bullying workshops at local schools and hosts summer camps. PFI Solutions, which offers improv-based corporate works, was added soon after to generate more funds for the company and nonprofit.
According to Grissom, the three companies had been needing their own space for a while, having outgrown their previous office spaces and the theaters that hosted their performances.
“We took the summer off after doing 800 plus shows,” Grissom said. “As we were looking to come back, we were looking for places to partner with (in the downtown area).”
Nothing seemed to fit – then a donation came in from a private supporter. Members of the group had the funds they needed to secure a space of their own. The space they selected was only the second building they considered, but when it is right, it is right.
“We thought we should just take the leap – which is what this job is all about. Improv is about taking a leap and not knowing what’s below you,” Grissom said.
The building was used for an accounting firm during the ‘50s, and when it was converted for an architectural firm, a two-story addition in the back made room for large drafting tables. It has a balcony and can seat about 110 people – almost asking to be made into a theater, Grissom said.
Nearby, the McGriff, Seibels and Williams building has plenty of parking spaces that go unused at night, which theatergoers could use.
“Nobody else wanted it,” Grissom said. “There were people who wanted the building in the back, or they wanted the section in the front but not both. So, it had just been sitting there for two years.”
Grissom said the neighborhood was a big draw for him. “There’s this incredible renaissance that is going on downtown and it just seemed like the right time,” he said.
More Comedy, More Laughs
Grissom said the company’s improv troupe has loved having the space to perform at StarDome Comedy Club, but its members wanted their own space to offer consistent improv and sketch comedy entertainment five to six nights a week.
Grissom said the venue is named for the city, rather than the troupe, for a reason.
“We’re not just looking at this as an entertainment venue for us, but for other improv troupes, other sketch troupes, anything comedic related, otherwise we would put our name on the theater. We want this to be a Birmingham community space,” he said. “We look at it as more of a creative incubator rather than just a place to go relax at a show.”
The BIT will include the theater space, four classrooms and a podcast recording studio to start.
The stage will be offered to other comedic troops and companies, with PFI serving as the resident improv company.
The theater’s first visiting performance will be from Theatre Tuscaloosa, a troupe with which PFI has had a long-standing relationship.
“We teach classes down there and we also perform in Tuscaloosa once a month,” Grissom said. “They are going to be bringing their smaller stage, what they call their Second Stages productions, up here.”
Theatre Tuscaloosa’s production at BIT will be in February with a show called “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”
“Our goal is to always have something going on here,” Grissom said.
Though the city has plenty of community theaters, he noted that major productions such as a musical, play or ballet run for about two to three weeks at a time. Grissom wants BIT to have something on the stage six nights a week, something people visiting the city can count on any time they are in town.
“You have to take into account that there is (hardly any) entertainment that happens in Birmingham five nights a week or six nights a week,” he said. “We have more than 9,100 hotel rooms and all of these people coming to town for conventions, not to mention all of these people living downtown now. You can go to TopGolf or you can go to Iron City if you happen to be here when there is music that you like, or you go to a bar that has music in it, but there (isn’t much) consistent, live entertainment, especially not on the comedy front.
Being Spontaneous Takes Training
Beyond providing consistent entertainment, the new building will allow an expansion of PFI’s educational programming, which offers in-depth training classes in improv, comedy writing, stand-up comedy and more. The theater also will begin offering a summer in-residency program, which is designed to bring improv students from around the country to Birmingham to study and teach classes to summer campers.
PFI Solutions also will be able to use the theater space during the day to host corporate workshops.
“We actually have a really great kitchen with two big stoves, which will be good for caterers,” Grissom said.
Grissom isn’t looking to get into the restaurant business, so the theater will stick to serving beer, wine and concessions and will partner with a local food truck to park outside.
An even more personal win for Grissom in terms of room to grow will be the added room that could allow Perform-4A-Purpose to fully mature.
“Our nonprofit side hasn’t really had a home to do the things we intended to do,” Grissom said. “Having a space here will help expand on what we have done.”
At the new location, just blocks away from some of the city’s more impoverished neighborhoods, Grissom wants to bring more kids into his summer camp programs and give them a space to just laugh while also exploring their creativity.
The PFI team is also working with mental health professionals to develop a curriculum for PTSD survivors.
“There’s a therapeutic value to improv as a whole,” Grissom said. “We see that all the time in the classes we teach … this is the reason we often talk about making a difference one laugh at a time. Our classes are so filled with people who have social anxiety, who take the class because their psychiatrist or psychologist told them to to get them outside of their comfort zone. Being able to expand that within our own space kind of fulfills my original goal and mission.”
PFI was able to secure the building because of a donor and raised the $15,000 needed to update the building and outfit the theater through a Kickstarter that ended on Dec. 3.
“We’re trying to think outside of the box on sponsorships,” Grissom said. “We are actually wanting to get the men’s and women’s restrooms sponsored.”
The team has pondered how appropriate it would be for a comedic improv theater to welcome guests into the men’s restroom with a lovely plaque noting sponsorship by a men’s health group or maybe a urologist.
That being said, plenty of opportunity remains for anyone who wants to get in on the ground floor.
After getting the Kickstarter finished, Grisson said the last thing to do is, “get the doors open in January and take a nap somewhere in between.”
Shows will begin at the start of the year with PFI company performances being held Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. and a special audience-judged improv competition, “Improv Wars,” the date of which is to be announced.
For more information on upcoming shows, visit bhamimprovtheater.com. For more information on PFI, visit positivelyfunnyinc.com.