The owners of every space where people gather have been refreshing their newsfeeds on the regular in recent weeks as the state slowly starts to reopen, wondering when and how they’ll be able to resume normal business. In this respect, Kickstand Comedy, the nonprofit theater that took over the Brody Theater downtown last year, is like every other concert hall, coffee shop, or bar: waiting patiently until they can safely throw open their doors and stage to comedy fans and performers.
“It looks like we are going to be some of the last to reopen in terms of physical space,” says Kickstand’s artistic director Dylan Reiff. “So we’ve really had to think a lot, as a community, about how to keep our mission alive when so much of it revolves around being a gathering space for comedians and audiences.”
Kickstand is in a rather enviable position. With the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan, they've been able to pay their staff and are receiving enough community support to help pay the rent. But over the past month, the Kickstand crew have been itching to resume normal business as soon as they can, especially after they received the news last month that they received a $150,000 Community Livability Grant from Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency. The plan was to use that infusion of cash to help improve seating and lighting, revamp the façade of the building, and finish turning an unused walk-in freezer into a podcast studio.
“That was an amazing beam of light from the sky as this was all going down,” Reiff says of the grant. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to really deep-dive into a lot of the renovations that we’d been planning since we started. We weren’t sure how many years it was going to take to do that. We feel like we’re in a good position to hit the ground running as we come out of this pandemic.”
Some of Reiff’s positivity about how the theater will survive is fueled by how he’s seen his cohorts continue to make new comedy, even in lockdown. To that end, Kickstand has been hosting a number of shows and podcasts online. That includes Last Show Ever, their weekly improv showcase; live recordings of Nariko Ott and Dan Weber’s beloved podcast What’s More Metal?; and Thirst Traps, a trans-centric comedy show hosted by Roland Mechanik and Jones Pitsker—all streaming on Facebook Live and Twitch.
Kickstand has continued its work training the next generation of improvisers and stand up comics, with all their regular classes now happening as Zoom meetings. That may seem like an awkward way to learn a new skill—especially one like improv comedy, which works best when you’re interacting with other people. But Reiff views it as just another way that this artform is adapting to the tone of the times.
“Instead of seeing it as an obstacle,” he says, “we’re taking advantage of the technology more and trying to lean into it. Our improv teams are creating a new shorthand language for communicating online. A lot of it is experimental, but I’m starting to see some really cool stuff emerge.”
Kickstand has also been able to bring in comedians and improvisers from outside Portland as guest instructors, including Rachel Van Nes, Dean Evans, and Emmy-nominated writer Charity L. Miller—something that might not have happened without everyone having ample free time on their hands.
Reiff remains cautiously optimistic about the future of Kickstand Comedy, and the Portland comedy scene in general. Even with all the work that he and his crew are doing, and the plans they have going forward once their renovations can begin in earnest, he’s concerned that without some additional help, theaters and clubs around the city could vanish before this is all over.
“It would be a really scary world where all live music venues and art venues and museums are denied some form of aid,” Reiff says. “The domino effect of that would have such incredible repercussions, both in terms of cultural value [and] the economy that we support. We were lucky to have been able to get a PPP loan so that helps us buy a little time and helps us continue to pay our staff. But we’re just waiting on so many question marks to be filled.”