Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A sign seen Nov. 21, 2020, announce the departure of ImprovBoston from its theater on Prospect Street in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The ImprovBoston theater company and comedy school is dissolved, leaders of the nonprofit said late Monday.

The decision ends more than 40 years of improvisational comedy in Cambridge that enlivened nightlife with clubs in Inman and then Central squares before being shuttered by the Covid pandemic.

The board of directors will wind down operations and activity over the coming months, according to a press release. Regular operations will end Dec. 31.

“We’ve been trying – though the pandemic and post-pandemic – to get new space and revitalize our shows,” managing director Matt Laidlaw said around the time of a final meeting with leadership. “We’re just not going to survive fiscally through the year.”

Around 35 people are directly affected, including five full-time employees and the instructors who were paid to teach classes in stand-up, sketch comedy, musical improv and the former club’s bread and butter: classic improv that trained the curious through exercises and experience to take audience suggestions and turn them into comedy with a beginning, middle and end. The school offered a free introductory class and leveled students up through Improv 501. (There was a sideline in corporate trainings, as well.)

Numbers waned, though, the longer ImprovBoston lacked its stages on Prospect Street in Central Square. Warm-weather performances at the open-air Starlight Square complex and a monthly residency at The Rockwell in Somerville’s Davis Square didn’t make up for the closing of theater doors in November 2021.

“Since we don’t have our own theater space – there’s no space for just our people to perform every week or weekend – that does dilute how we can offer what we do. When somebody goes up the levels, they now want to perform somewhere, and they want to see us perform,” Laidlaw said. “Not having a place and not being able to do that is really, really hard.”

History back to the 1980s

ImprovBoston was founded in the early 1980s and used small bars and restaurants in Boston and Somerville for its first shows. When moving into its Inman Square space in 1990-1991, it consisted of a relative handful of performers doing two shows a week, recalled Mat Gagne, a board member in 2013. It moved to a space five times the size in Central Square in 2008, and soon hundreds of people were doing 15 shows a week.

As the coronavirus lockdown arrived, the theater was putting on as many as 30 shows a week with up to 150 performers, drawing perhaps 1,200 audience members – all told, bringing some 2,000 people weekly into Central Square.

The Central Square theater also hosted annual staples such as “GoreFest,” an immersive Halloween experience – so immersive that front-row audience members needed to be draped with a tarp to avoid getting their clothes soaked in blood – and The Naked Comedy Showcase, as well as The Boston Comedy Arts Festival, the College Comedy Festival and Women in Comedy Festival.

Students sagged to about 1,000 in the past couple of years, Laidlaw said, and there was nowhere for the annual shows to return to.

Losing the creatives

After the Covid closing, ImprovBoston remained working out of a few classrooms and a small performance space across the street on Massachusetts Avenue.

“Our office was right across the hall from them. There used to be tons of people who would come in – you would hear laughter in the hallways,” said Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Improvement District, caretaker of the state-designated, eternally struggling Central Square Cultural District. “You would see all walks of life, and they’re cool people. They’re creatives. And when we lose them, what do we have left?”

A lack of audience equals closings, Monestime said, which means fewer artists and audience members coming through Central Square to grab a pastry at Paris Baguette or a pint at The Phoenix Landing.

“If the city wants to help keep Central Square a cultural district, the city’s going to have to find ways to be creative so creative uses can find a home here,” he said. “The effects of Covid are still playing out. Small, creative institutions are still struggling.”

Looking to the future 

Some instructors will go on to share their talent and experience at instructions such as Somerville’s Union Comedy and Boston’s Improv Asylum, and Laidlaw said he considers ImprovBoston to be “dormant.”

Yes, and?

“If somebody wants to revitalize it a few years from now, great,” Laidlaw said. “We’re more than happy to give them the playbook and say go for it.”

It’s notable that the Central Square theater space at 40 Prospect St. went on to become the new ManRay, Monestime said. That iconic nightclub closed on Brookline Street some 17 years earlier.