Avenue Theater's new era begins with 'ComedySportz of Denver'

by John Moore | Oct 21, 2017

'ComedySportz of Denver' opened last night. Photo courtsey The Avenue Theater.
'ComedySportz of Denver' opened last night. Photo courtesy The Avenue Theater.

Jane and Dave Shirley promise to bring laughs and an educational component to venerable boutique theater. 

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The ever-resilient Avenue Theater has a new lease — and a new lease on life — even as the neighborhood surrounding it on 17th Street continues to burgeon into one of Denver’s hottest commercial and residential districts.

The 32-year-old boutique theatre that moved into its current home off Logan Street in 2003 has re-emerged this week as a home for comedy and comedy theatre, said Jane Shirley, who became president of Avenue Theatre Group in 2012 with her husband and business partner, Dave Shirley. In something of a Dickensian miracle, the family that owns the building is holding the rent stable even though the going rate in the neighborhood has skyrocketed. That means the mighty little theatre that has had more near-death experiences than Harry Houdini lives to fight and frolic for another day.  

ComedySportz Jane Shirley.  “Dave and I have been involved with the Avenue Theater for a long time now, and we have always felt like the brand here has to be comedy,” Jane Shirley said. “That's what it once was, and what it wants to be now. So we want to continue with that.”

The Avenue’s new era officially launched last night with the opening of ComedySportz of Denver, a popular improv-comedy format that pits two teams of comedians against one another like in a sporting event. “It’s a fun, fast-paced comedy show that's great for the whole family and great for groups of all types,” said Dave Shirley.

Each night features six improv experts competing for laughs and points, with Jane Shirley serving as the referee. It’s her job to keep things going at a fast clip by essentially stopping improv gone wrong, right in its tracks. “The referee gets to say, ‘OK, we're done with that,’ and move on,” she said. “It’s up to me to keep the energy going forward and to create an entertaining show for the audience.”    

Anywhere from seven to 12 games will be played during each match, drawn from a pool of more than 100 improv games. Every show is different, with different players, different games and different audiences supplying suggestions. The fans judge the scenes and games, and ultimately they decide the winners and losers.

ComedySportz was started in 1984 by a group of Milwaukee comedians including Dick Chudnow, Bob Orvis, Brian Green and others. The Shirleys were part of the group that introduced ComedySportz to Denver at the Wynkoop Brewery’s legendary Impulse Theatre in the early 1990s. The Shirleys went on to open the Rattlebrain Theatre – now known as the Clocktower Cabaret — in the D&F Tower.

“This format has been polished and perfected by other ComedySportz theatres around the country, so all we have to do is plug in some of Denver’s best improvisers and we’ll have an incredible night of comedy,” said comic Jessica Austgen, past president of the Denver Improv Festival, a DCPA Teaching Artist and writer of the recent Galleria Theatre hit comedy DragOn. “I think it’s a perfect fit for The Avenue.”  

The Denver roster will expand and rotate depending on actor availability. The roster includes Kerstin Caldwell, Michael Collins, Heather Curran, Chris Gallegos, Adrian Holguin, Leanne Jewell, Jeff Kosloski, Allison Learned, Brian McManus, Royce Roeswood, Dave Shirley, Skip Stewart, Sara Vandas, Meredith Winfield, Jon Wilkerson, and Cult Following veterans Austgen, Nanna Thompson (pictured below and right), Sara Vandas and Chris Woolf.

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As a pioneering female improv comedian who cracked into ComedySportz at its inception in Denver, Shirley was shocked when she auditioned actors to join her in ComedySportz of Denver.

ComedySportz“When I was at Impulse, I was the only woman most of the time,” she said. “But when I showed up for our auditions, half the place was women. Things have changed so much. The other thing that amazes me is that the comedy scene isn’t as cutthroat or competitive as it used to be. It’s clearly become a community. So what we have the opportunity to do now is show how all these diverse and talented people who have such different backgrounds and experiences can come together and create something unique.”

The Shirleys hope ComedySportz catches on and becomes a permanent but flexible offering at The Avenue. For example, the Shirleys have now been staging their twisted holiday sketch comedy Santa’s Big Red Sack for the past nine years now. When they bring it back to The Avenue from Dec. 1-24, ComedySportz will move to a temporary late-night slot, then return to early evenings in January.

Moving forward, the other huge programming emphasis for Jane Shirley, a former principal at Aurora’s William Smith High School — better known as “Last Chance High School” — will be to introduce a robust educational component that will provide area students who have little or no previous exposure to arts education with both the encouragement and the tools to simply create. Shirley’s day job is as President of a company called Catapult Leadership, which exists to fix problems in education and transform schools into dynamic learning communities.

“I want kids to come here who have never had an opportunity in the arts before,” she said. “They've never had piano lessons. They've never had anyone take them to the theatre. It doesn't matter how good they might be — they will never get into a dance program because no one has ever taught them how to audition. So the idea right now is to use The Avenue very intentionally as way of connecting with these schools and to craft a core program that becomes part of their DNA. Because right now we are graduating kids who are trained to take tests, to replicate somebody else's work and to comply. There is no risk-taking. There is no living with an unfinished product. You go into schools today and you see all these kids who are being told to sit down and get on a computer and practice some (bleep) stuff. Which means there are a lot of people out there now who can't create anything, who can't think for themselves and who can't have a conversation about anything.”

Shirley is already forming programming partnerships with nearby Rise Up Community School and Denver Public Schools’ DC-21 High School. There will also be a high-school league component of ComedySportz, which will allow improv teams from schools across the city to compete with one another.

“The questions we are asking are, ‘How do we engage our youth? How do we elevate their voices?’ ” Shirley said. “Because they are the ones who are going to be in charge someday.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

ComedySportz: Ticket information

  • Presented by The Avenue Theater, 417 E. 17th Ave.
  • Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 25; 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Dec. 1-24; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 29-30; 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Dec. 31
  • Prices: $15 - $20
  • Tickets: Call 303-321-5925 or go to http://www.avenuetheater.com
Upcoming: Santa's Big Red Sack, Dec. 1-24

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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