ON A MONDAY NIGHT, I sneak behind the bar at Velo Cult, descend stairs covered in holey carpet, turn a corner past a wall of bikes, and find my spot in the second-to-last row of theater seats in a room painted black, where a growing crowd of local comedy performers waits for an open mic to start. And no one can seem to stop saying that everything about this is so Portland.
Tonight's shows—an open mic hosted by Lez Stand Up, a podcast recording of Reading the Bible with Dan, and Comedy Write Now, an open mic for writers—are the first in a two-week soft-open lineup of mixed-format comedy programming at Kickstand Comedy Space, Portland's first and only comedy venue underneath a bike shop. It was launched this month by improvisers Dylan Reiff and Garrett Palm, with co-founding performers Nick Beaird and Dan Weber, and after a hiatus over the holidays, the schedule will be permanent.
Already, the 45-seat space is nearly full. Soon, host Caitlin Weierhauser will "break the pack," starting the show with a story about the worst thing she's ever done. This will prompt the performers who've signed up and had their names sequenced to share their worst moments, too, in a beautifully human chain reaction. There will be a dirty song performed on a ukulele, kazoo tunes from Aurora Owen, and Wednesday Weiss will describe Arrowhead water as "the HRD of waters." But for now, there's just complaining about Carrot Top ("He makes more money than Oregon!" someone says), a rumor that Kickstand's seats came from the neighboring Hollywood Theatre, and wondering how we got here.
So Portland, though? Sure, but probably not in the way you think. Wednesday night, I sit down with co-founders Reiff and Palm in the empty performance space, before the lineup of Wednesday night shows begins. After confirming the rumors about the seats (the Hollywood was renovating), Reiff gets into how he and the space's co-founders came up with the idea for Kickstand. They'd identified a need, he says, for "an alternative space that wasn't a traditional theater [where performers could] develop work and get better," and then ultimately take that material to bigger venues "once they've failed a bunch of times here." In this sense, Kickstand would be the comedy equivalent of a startup incubator or a shared studio space, or, as Reiff said, "something like a comedy gym."
"In New York," says Palm, "there are places like this everywhere—little nooks [turned] into theaters."
In Chicago, too, says Reiff, there are plenty of comedy spaces available for testing out new material. What these places have in common is that they've been carved out from what's available, not necessarily what's expected. "Portland has done that with art, always!" they say, citing the precedent set by house shows and pop-up galleries. And they're correct—from Northeast Portland's now-shuttered Dekum Manor to recent pop-up art shows in empty storefronts for First Thursday to Post5 Theatre's recent move to an old church in Sellwood.
Portland has no shortage of creative solutions to the problem that arts spaces often come at a premium. This was something Reiff says he and his co-founders considered in locating the new space. They were seeking a partnership, he says, not simply a business relationship and an exchange of costly rental fees. This way, he says, they can ensure that Kickstand remains performer- and volunteer-operated, with donation-based admission prices. In this sense, Kickstand seems not twee, but eminently practical.
Reiff says the timing's right for an alternative space for comedy, anyway. "To use the comedy as punk rock analogy, we just started having house shows," he says.
Of course, there are potential drawbacks, sometimes impossible to foresee, when it comes to nontraditional performance spaces. Earlier that Wednesday, Reiff emailed to say that the night's shows had all been pushed back to later times—turns out when you operate below a bike shop like Velo Cult, you have to work around existing programming. "While our shows are happening downstairs, there is a national Bike Theft Summit happening upstairs, followed by a last-minute corporate party holiday rental," he wrote. "So it'll be a fun experiment in crowd control."
When I come back a few hours later for the late show, Earthquake Hurricane (hosted by Bri Pruett, Alex Falcone, Curtis Cook, and Anthony Lopez), the corporate party is in full swing upstairs. And downstairs, there are concerns that attendance has been impacted by the last-minute changes to the schedule. Reiff and one of Earthquake Hurricane's co-hosts stall a little, adjusting the text projected behind the mic stand. Still, by the time the show's underway, nearly every seat is taken, and what follows is one of the best comedy performances I've seen since I moved to Portland. On my way out, Palm introduces me to one of Velo Cult's owners, who asks Palm how people are responding to the space. "Someone called it a comedy speakeasy," Palm replies, with a note of satisfaction in his voice.
I should mention that Kickstand's founders have one more goal in mind: to bring together comedy performers of all experience levels and format preferences (sketch, stand-up, improv), and improvisers both from independent teams and those housed in the city's larger theaters. Reiff calls it a "utopian vision of improv," where everyone knows each other. "There is a change happening [in Portland comedy], but there's not as much space as is needed," he says.
As Portland's comedy scene grows, spaces for practice are as much in demand as theaters. And while Reiff and Palm are quick to point out that there are plenty of other venues in town for mixed-format comedy, "We're the only one in the basement of a bike shop."