Built upon brick foundation and passion for unscripted performance, Happy Valley Improv will showcase its acting talents on the Blue Brick Theatre’s stage, the company’s newfound home.
The Blue Brick Theatre at 209 W. Calder Way in State College, will open July 9 for a number of improv classes, programs and performances.
After opening, the Blue Brick Theatre will host improv shows at 7 p.m. every Friday. Improv classes will be available Tuesdays and Saturdays, a youth program will be held Wednesdays and a free community improv session will be held Sunday nights.
James Tierney, one of the founders of Happy Valley Improv and an economics professor at Penn State, said Happy Valley Improv prides itself on being a “community-based organization,” similar to a nonprofit. The business was founded by three Penn State faculty members and one staff member, all of whom currently run the organization.
The name of the new theater refers not only to the amount of exposed brick inside the building but also to the organization’s common metaphor for building a scene “brick by brick” and the “blue ball of energy” shared by the actors when they’re performing, according to Tierney.
“The idea of a back alley with exposed brick really makes the vibe exactly what we’re looking for,” Tierney said.
Most shows at the theater will be open to about 40 people, with special shows expanding to 60 or 70, Tierney said.
The classes will focus on stage presence, character development and cooperation, with additional classes in stand-up comedy and comedic writing. All will be open to anyone 18 or older.
Happy Valley Improv arose from humble beginnings, with members originally performing in the basement of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in State College, according to Andrea McCloskey, another co-founder. The group then performed often at The State Theatre on College Avenue, where it rented stage time, usually in the attic.
The founders saw a need in State College for improv open to adults since the student improv scene at Penn State was already well-developed, according to Tierney.
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Tierney also said they saw a lack of affordable theatre in the area, which is why Happy Valley Improv’s ticket prices generally range from $7-12 for a show ranging from an hour to an hour and a half.
McCloskey said one of her favorite parts of improv is creating inside jokes with the audiences and returning to the jokes throughout the show.
“We attempt to create an extremely inclusive environment — a safe environment for people to be vulnerable — to create and connect with other people,” Tierney said. “I love teaching our level one class, seeing students for the first time and showing them what improv is.”
Tierney, McCloskey and other company members voiced their excitement for the opening of Blue Brick Theatre, because during the pandemic, Zoom was the only way to perform.
Tierney said one of the benefits of Zoom was people tuning in from London and Australia, and he said he thinks Happy Valley Improv will continue virtual shows in the future.
However, founders and members still prefer in-person audiences.
Jason Browne, a 2006 mechanical engineering graduate from Penn State and a Happy Valley Improv company member, said he was frustrated at not being able to see audiences’ expressions on Zoom.
“We created the best solution for Zoom, but it’s still nothing like the real thing,” Browne said. “After a year of staring at a screen, there’s nothing better than to laugh in person with others.”
According to Tierney, the Blue Brick Theatre will adhere to current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which allow fully vaccinated individuals to remove their masks in most indoor settings.
Tierney encouraged Penn State students to take classes with Happy Valley Improv and said student improv groups will also be able to use the Blue Brick Theatre’s stage.
And, McCloskey said she likes the history of the building and said there’s been many businesses there before — the theater is at the former site of State College’s arts and crafts studio The Makery.
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Founders and members said participating in the improv group has helped their lives outside of performances. Browne said improv requires clearing one’s head, which is a meditative process. He also said improv develops listening skills, and both practices have proven useful to him.
“This has helped me find the opportunity to put myself into situations that aren’t typically comfortable for me but in an environment that creates a safe space to practice being a human,” Luke Streich, a company member, said. “It has been a long time since I experienced that sort of spontaneity, collaboration and unconditional acceptance.”
Browne said both entertaining and being in the audience is one of his favorite parts of improv.
“Having an audience to go along for the ride through all that is incredibly satisfying — from both a performance point of view and audience point of view,” Browne said.
McCloskey, who teaches math education at Penn State, said improv provides her a break from the analytical life of academia.
“It gets me up and moving and out of my head and into my body. It helps me quiet the critic. . . this helps me be not critical but accepting — open to newness and more joyful.”