Village Theatre oozes comedy onto Decatur Street: A conversation with co-owner Blair Holden

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Village Theatre oozes comedy onto Decatur Street: A conversation with co-owner Blair Holden
The storefront of the two-month-old Village Theatre looks out across Decatur Street toward the railroad tracks and the train yard that have for so long set the backdrop for the Lenny’s Bar shows upstairs. Since Lenny’s moved into the dilapidated shopping center at the Boulevard intersection, it’s been up to the arts alone to bring any color into the immediate surroundings, and in October, a new venue arrived to help light up the evenings. Friends Blair Holden and Mike King co-founded the new improv theatre along with a large group of other actors, the majority of which performed with them at Atlanta’s Whole World Improv Theatre, and with their reduced ticket prices and the welcoming atmosphere they’ve created, they hope to spread improv comedy to their new neighborhood.

I met Holden at the theatre space in the middle of the afternoon, and even on a cold winter day, the empty place felt warm and inviting, its exposed spray insulation dripping unmoving from the rafters and a life-sized Chewbacca cutout practically waving from the corner behind the bar. The stage fronts an area filled with comfy couches and folding chairs, and local artwork graces the walls. That afternoon it was silent inside, but the very room oozes welcome and laughter, like so many spray-insulated pipes or the paint running down the theatre’s logo.

We sat down, and perched on the front of the stage, before I could even ask a real question, Holden began telling the Village Theatre’s story:

Holden: I’m in commercial real estate. I have kind of a yin and yang personality, and that’s my day job. A lot of the guys around here, probably about half of us have serious day jobs. We have a doctor, a lawyer, we’ve got actors, fitness instructors. My girlfriend actually works for the Sunday Paper. [Co-owner Matt King] is the Hawks’ in-game host.

We all came from Whole World theatre. A lot of us wanted to kind of do something different. I really respect what Dad’s Garage does; every year they have probably ten different improv shows, and it’s not just your standard “give me a suggestion”; it’s creative and kind of cutting-edge. And that’s what we set out to do here at Village Theatre, was just have a place where we could play and do new and creative things. We wanted to be very involved in the community. I live in East Atlanta, and go to Grant Park and Cabbagetown all the time, and it was getting to the point at the old place where ticket prices were too expensive. A place like this, albeit a lot smaller and some would say in a shadier area-- I actually kind of like it-- our tickets are all $10 for every show that we do here.

So there are about 15 of us right now that are actors here at the theater. We perform a straight-up, standard improv show on Friday nights. We created our own show that’s going to run for the rest of this year called “Improv Asshole!” which is kind of based on the card game “Asshole.” Someone’s the asshole; we don’t go so far as to have a president and a vice president and that sort of thing, but we’ve incorporated the rules-- like I don’t know if you remember, but there’s the nose rule, the thumb rule, any time you swear you have to take a drink, that sort of thing. We do an improv show, and we allow the audience to tell us who they hated the most.

Paste: So it’s an actual drinking game?

Holden: Absolutely. It’s a lot of fun for us; it’s our time to just cut loose and whatnot. We’ve also picked up Chicago-style improv-- long-form improv-- which is basically you get one suggestion and the piece is just inspired upon itself for about 20 or 30 minutes. We do that at the beginning before we play “Asshole” to balance it out, so we’re kind of being creative and intelligent, yet sophomoric and stupid on the other hand. We’ve got those two shows running right now, and we’ve got a third group, they’re friends of the Village Theatre called Playing in Traffic, who kind of take over on Thursday nights, and they’re a fantastic troupe.

Paste: How has it gone, it being a grassroots operation as opposed to working for somebody else and performing for somebody else?
Holden: We run all the nuts and bolts of this place. Most of the time when I’m at work, I’m working on a little Village Theatre stuff on the side, because as you know, the real estate market’s a little slow right now.

I love running everything. And maybe I’m a control freak, or maybe Mike is too, but Mike and I split it up. We’re both owners, and we share the artistic direction and the business aspects with the cast, who are all really good friends. It’s very rewarding. When you mop the floor, you’re mopping your own floor like you would at your house. It’s something to be very proud of. It’s been a focus, getting people to know actually who we are. We came from doing sold out shows to 125 people every weekend, where you said “Whole World,” basically wherever you were and people knew who you were. That’s been a challenge for us, just to ramp up that over the last month and a half.

Paste: Do you see any progress with that? Do you think people are catching on?
Holden: A fantastic amount of progress! We’ve been trying to be as involved in the community as we can, doing things like the Chomp and Stomp; we’re painting the Krog Street Bridge, offering discounted tickets. We do a thing called movie night once a month, where we have this enormous projector screen that we bought at like a yard sale for whatever, and we play just free movies in here, and it’s free to come in.

Paste: If you’ve got such a buttoned-up day job, how do these two things play together for you, personally? And for the other people that have similar situations?
Holden: It kind of lends itself to being able to think on your feet, and all of those kinds of traits you hear when you hear about an improv class, it really does ring true. I think it’s a good balance. It’s a really addictive hobby. You start doing something creatively like painting or playing music or improv or something like that and it just kind of-- it becomes a part of you without being who you exactly are.

Paste: What do you think of the state of Atlanta’s improv scene as a whole? Do you think it’s got enough exposure?
Holden: I think that the community is definitely growing. I wish it got more exposure, but there’s a lot of great theaters out there. I’d like for the arts community and the theatre community specifically in Atlanta to get more exposure because there’s such great stuff going on. We’re actually working with a group that’s going to be here in March called Out of Hand Theatre, who are just fantastic. They’re doing a play here that’s going to be called “Stadium 360.” I think it’s great that Atlanta has so many improv theatres in so many different areas. I’m only familiar with the ones that are here inside of Atlanta, but there are some that are out in Cobb County, things like that.

Paste: Do you think that there’s enough audience in Atlanta to support everybody?
Holden: Absolutely. There’s different price ranges and there’s different things that you want to see. I think we appeal a lot to students just because of our location, and because of how fun this show can be. It’s a very interactive show. You can get yourself very involved. There’s a lot of after-partying and that sort of thing.

Paste: If you were go out and watch a show, where would you go in Atlanta?
Holden: Actor’s Express is fantastic for theatre. I like going to The Earl. Lenny’s, of course, just to see music and things of that nature. Music seems to be a lot more popular around Atlanta than the theater right now, and I think that’s a little unfortunate. Atlanta’s got a great music scene-- I’ve been so happy in East Atlanta just to have the Icehouse open. Dad’s Garage is fantastic. They’ve always got so much going on. That’s the sort of thing we’d like to do, is to have different shows to appeal to different people. We’ve got two shows in the works right now for 2009. One is “The News;” it’s a completely improvised news show. It’s audience suggestions, and we create a news program for 45 minutes directly on the spot. It’s going to be fun, but the great thing about improv is it’s hit or miss. We’ve also got a show we’re working on called “The Dirty Rappers,” which is myself and another kid called Chris Clabo, and that one kind of speaks for itself; It’s kind of a “Behind the Music” type of show about the rise and fall of two foul-mouthed rappers.

Paste: Is there anything I should know that I haven’t asked?
Holden: We’re not non-profit. We’re a for-profit theatre. But we have started a non-profit foundation called Village Theatre Foundation. We have some youth and teen programs we’re going to be working on for kids in the community. Benefit shows, that sort of thing. We’re very competitively priced as far as renting the space out for private shows or things like that. I kind of want to get that out to a lot of charities and organizations to let them know that this is a place where you can come and we’ll help you with that sort of thing. Have a fundraiser here with a show, cater it yourself, and we’ll work it out so that it’s beneficial to everybody.

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