How to Build a Creative Community:
An interview with Station Theater’s Katy Manning

Katy Manning (left) at Station Theater in Houston

Katy Manning (left) at Station Theater in Houston

If the city of Houston, Texas, is a comedy garden, Station Theater is a greenhouse: providing an incubator for new performers and projects to grow roots. Station teaches and showcases mostly improv.

Recently, Katy Manning — one of Station’s staffers and the person who books acts and builds the theater’s calendar every month — answered a few questions about how a successful improv theater is built and supported from the ground up. Read her practical insights into the hard work of building a creative community…

Hi, Katy. Thanks for answering some questions about Station Theater. Pitch us on the Houston improv scene. What’s going on there?
In one word? Growing.

In more words: it’s hard to keep up with the amount of new students, at least for us at Station Theater. We offer new classes as often as we can with the amount of space we have, and without fail they are filling up, meaning there are people we don’t even know about who are excited about long-form improv. We just built a new classroom in order to add new classes so that we could keep up with demand.

There are a lot of great things about this growth: new faces, new ideas, new audience members, and more people than ever spreading the gospel so to speak. The challenges for us as a theater include growing at a manageable pace when the community is exploding. For example,Station has had shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m for a long time. I think it was September of 2014 when we decided to add Friday late shows into the mix. Station Theater wants to grow in a smart, manageable way, so admin and staff wanted to make sure we were logistically ready to add another set of shows.

The Station admin and staff kept talking about how we weren’t logistically ready to add another set of shows – as anyone who runs a theater knows new shows means you need marketing, someone to work door, tech and host, clean up, paying for power…etc. Knowing how to pace ourselves while still keeping up with the growth is a really exciting learning process.

I know you asked about improv, but the stand up scene is starting to blow up as well. Two new stand up festivals emerged within the past year, and there are more consistent open mics and recurring curated shows than I can remember in the past. It’s really cool to see people owning their scene!

Now tell us about Station Theater specifically. What kind of shows do you produce?
Lots of kinds! Mostly we focus on long form improv, but we also bring in sketch, stand-up, and musical comedy every so often. As a whole, we are known to embrace whimsy and absurdity, while using a strong focus on game to keep things from going to Crazy Town (although we’ve definitely been there too).

A fair amount of our troupes experiment with creating their own forms, which definitely informs our scene (e.g., The Mockumentalists; The Crash Atlas).

Nearly all the local troupes who have shows at Station include students and alumni. Lately we have also had the opportunity to host some awesome out-of-town troupes from ColdTowne and The New Movement (and hopefully The Hideout again soon!).

We also have signature shows that occur monthly or semi-monthly, including:

  • CAN Film Festival, a monthly film showcase hosted and produced by Ned Gayle
  • The Nocturnal Amusement Hour, a variety hosted and produced by Kelly Juneau show featuring local talent
  • SynCHRONization, Houston’s first lip-sync competition hosted and produced by Amy Grisbee and me

As we continue to grow, our artistic direction will become a little narrower and more defined. Still, no matter who is performing at Station, the feedback we get most from visitors is that there is a vibe of belonging and super supportive audiences.

Mid-scene at a Station Theater show

Mid-scene at a Station Theater show

What ideas from other cities’ improv theaters have influenced things in Houston?
Station originally sprouted from The New Movement Theater (TNM), so their influence was super evident in the beginning. Within the past few months I’ve reached out to improv theaters in Austin and New Orleans to learn how they handle artistic direction.

Station’s set up is unique, in that I create the schedule but I don’t actually teach. Our directors are all teachers and coaches, and they definitely have a voice in the schedule but don’t create it.

Having the opportunity to hear from artistic directors who’ve been doing it for a long time has been immensely helpful in shaping the way we accept submissions to the schedule and decide who gets stage time:

  • When I first started doing Station’s schedule, Lisa Friedrich, a teacher at TNM Austin, was extremely helpful. She used to book Station’s shows so she had a ton of insight. She helped me see that it’s not just about who’s the funniest. It’s also who speaks to your audiences and who promotes shows. That was really awesome advice once Station started receiving more troupe submissions than slots available.
  • Roy Janik, Artistic Director of Hideout Theatre was also very open to talking about Hideout’s criteria for booking shows. For example, he tries to give a lot of troupes the opportunity to perform, meaning more troupes get less stage time. That’s definitely something Station has also done up to this point – aside from our house troupes, the most any troupe will perform in a two month period is twice.

Do you think Houston has — or is developing — a “style” of comedy? How would you describe that style?
OMG. Houston is obsessed with puns. Personally, puns aren’t my favorite, but if there was one unifying factor across all forms of comedy in Houston, it would have to be puns.

Aside from that, Houston is known for being diverse in almost every aspect of its existence. The people, food, communities, vast, sprawling suburbs…. each has its own personality. It’s hard to pinpoint anything that spans all our comedic styles. I think that diversity can make it tough for people outside the city to see the thriving scene within. It may look like random blips on the radar to some, but it’s part of a greater whole.

Station Theater is pretty young — opening officially in 2013. What does that mean in terms of the day-to-day management of the theater? What are the primary challenges in running a successful comedy theater?
My take: Station is young but thriving.

We are so lucky to have one of the most giving communities I’ve ever been a part of. One example is remodeling. We had the opportunity and good fortune to work with Dan Grimm on remodeling Station. While Dan’s plans, know-how and execution are phenomenal, we needed more man-power. There isn’t a wall in that theater that wasn’t painted or touched in some way by volunteers. And we’re still working. I keep waiting for our community to get tired, but every time someone posts in our internal Facebook group reaching out for volunteers, they show up. People love coming somewhere that they can learn, make each other laugh, and grow as performers. I think that’s why our students and alumni are so invested in Station’s constant improvement and growth.

Katy, you work to build the schedule of shows every month. How do you pick who gets stage time, and what can troupes do to increase their chances of getting onstage at Station?
This is such a tough question. As you mentioned, Station Theater is young. We have a strong team of directors with Roger, Jessica and Steven. At the same time, we are still developing our voice.

Our goals are always for shows to be funny and for audiences to feel welcome. That guides me in selecting troupes. It’s not easy, and it’s very subjective. Last time we opened submissions we received 60 responses. There weren’t close to that many slots available. When that happens, it really falls back on what will make people laugh, and what will make first-time improv audience members want to come back and see more or take classes.

Check out Station Theater online and check out a show next time you’re in Houston. 

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