Just Hired As Its First Theater Director, David Allison Talks Dallas Comedy House’s Future.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
David Allison wasn’t a part of Dallas Comedy House (often referred to as DCH) at its inception, but he got there as fast as he could. He first performed at the club in 2010, as part of an improv troupe. Then, he started taking their classes in 2011. And by 2013, he produced his first original show.
Now he’s about to take on his biggest role yet with the club by becoming their first-ever theater director.
DCH has thrived by offering audiences vitally original comedy, and by providing local talents a space to maximize their creative potential. Allison has had a hand in that, both as a performer and as a director of many popular shows. Starting at the end of 2015, he’s directed the pop culture-themed Roast series, where different iconic entertainment franchises are lovingly skewered in a show that pulls elements of stand-up comedy, sketch and improv.
I recently spoke with him about his new role, his past work, and tried to get an idea of what we should expect from the club with Allison in his new position.
You’re moving from the corporate world into this new role as a theater director. Did you tell people at your old job what you were leaving to do? What kind of response did you get for that?
I’m always so weird about telling people at work about any part of my life here, because my favorite thing about Dallas Comedy House is just how supportive it is, and how I can be whatever I want to be here, as opposed to putting on airs or playing a character like I kind of have to do at work or in the real world. I can make horrible, horrible discoveries and jokes and references and stuff on a stage here and feel comfortable because I’m amongst friends, as opposed to having to think of what my HR manager would think of it. I’ve definitely gotten some congratulations, because they were aware enough of me and my pursuits to know that it was my dream to do this. So everyone was super happy for me, but it’s definitely something I kept secret for the most part. [Laughs.]
Can you elaborate on what your role as theater director will be?
My role, basically, is to take on one of the four pillars that make up Dallas Comedy House’s business. There’s somebody in charge of corporate right now, somebody in charge of the training center, somebody in charge of the bar and it’s my job to be in charge of the theater side. So basically, I’ll manage the show schedule, help the performers, [manage] communication with the performers, do some negotiation with outside talent. Also [I’ll] do my best to reach out and network with the rest of the community around Deep Ellum and Dallas, so that when there are conventions and other opportunities where people would be interested in coming out and seeing an improv, sketch, stand-up, storytelling show or whatever we have to offer, they know that Dallas Comedy House has a good option for them.
With you coming in, are we going to see changes to what DCH is offering? Anything you can give us a preview of?
Man, DCH has just grown so much, over the last two years especially. Amanda [Austin, the owner of Dallas Comedy House] was running these numbers the other day: In 2014 at this time, we had 25 groups on the schedule; last year we had about 54; and this year we have 76. Plus, about 20 groups in our burgeoning slots, which are known as Playground and King of the Mountain, where these brand new groups come in. So if you add those groups in, technically we have about 96 groups right now. So with that sort of exponential growth, my biggest thing starting off is just going to be to get in there, get my hands dirty, listen to as many people as I can to identify what exactly is creating this growth, beyond moving to a new space and having more opportunities. And once I’ve identified those things then, yeah, there’ll probably be a couple of things. But I think Amanda’s got a great vision, and my job’s going to be mostly supporting that vision.
My background is all stand-up; I’m not on the performer or sketch side. What will your addition to the team mean for folks like me, who are entirely rooted in stand-up?
That’s a great question, right? Because without a full-time theater director before, it’s kind of easy to just let momentum take the theater where it’s going to take it. You have five nights a week that are improv, so you’re just surrounded by improvisers, so it’s easier to support that. I’m not as familiar with the stand-up world — I’ve done one show in Denton as myself, and one as a terrible caricature of Jonathan Lipnicki. [Laughs.] So my experience in stand-up is limited. But I have tried to create shows in the past that would support stand-up — like the Roast series, for example, where I put stand-ups in the show because it’s a world that I respect so much. And I respect the talent for it. I would love to be able to showcase those people. We’ve been creating on the schedule an On Point stand-up showcase; that’s up to I think four times a month on the schedule, maybe five. I think now, with another set of eyes, one of my goals would be to create more opportunities for all of the different artists who are here, as opposed to, “Let’s just throw another montage improv show up on the schedule!” Anything we can do to support what people love doing. Because if they’re passionate about it — and judging by the work ethics of stand-ups, of being at open mics until one in the morning, four or five times a week, they’re super passionate — there’s no concrete plans in place, but I definitely want to support everybody at this theater, not just improvisers.
Let’s talk about your experience that led you to this job. Can you elaborate on what you’ve done as a performer and director?
Absolutely. Outside of DCH, I started improvising in high school in Mansfield in 2003, and then I went to TCU and did some improv there. I did some improv at a company called Comedy Sports, if you’ve ever heard of them. This was 2003, 2004, 2005. Then, in 2006, my friends and I founded a group in Denton and we improvised together in coffee shops, or in the Christian Campus Center. [Laughs.] Any and every place that we could find. In those coffee shop shows, they would literally start a blender in the middle of the show, and it would just completely destroy all of the other volume that was there so you would go inaudible for a minute. We would practice in my apartment complex’s gym at midnight, when we knew no one else would be there. We would move the equipment to one side just because we wanted the space. I found DCH a couple of months after it opened. This was maybe summer 2010. I just found out that it existed through a friend of mine from Comedy Sports named Tim Yager. He just said that this place exists, so I submitted for a show. Amanda put my group from Denton on the list, sight unseen, for, like, a Friday at 8 o’clock or something, because those days were different. [Laughs.] So we came down here and discovered it, and I walked in the door and, like, we had been doing all of those different shows at all of those different places that could give a fuck about improv, that could give a fuck about what we were doing, what we were so passionate about. I saw a dedicated space to the sort of comedy that I appreciated and loved, and wanted to support it as quickly as I could. Shortly after that, I enrolled in classes. I graduated at the end of 2011, I started teaching at the end of 2012 and started performing on the schedule in 2010. I started organizing shows and stuff probably in 2013, with a show that me and a friend of mine, Nick Scott, created. It was called How We Met Each Other, which was a parody or continuation — kind of like a Saved by the Bell: The New Class — of a show that was really popular here, called Buddies. And that [How We Met Each Other] was the first show that I ever created, and had that sort of vision for, and it was really empowering to see it supported — both on the schedule, and by people enjoying it. Ever since then, I’ve been really motivated to create as much as I can for the theater, because that was such an empowering experience. Myself and a guy I performed with for years, Terry Catlett, created a couple of radio plays in 2013 or 2014. I created the Roast series at the end of 2015. Basically, as much stuff as I could to help the theater.
Can we talk about the Roast series? It’s something that’s pretty recent — just since the end of last year — but it seems to have really taken off. Can you explain for those unfamiliar what that is?
It started because myself and a friend named Michael Corbett were just talking about shows that we would like to put up in the theater, and we had this idea for a roast of…Star Wars was the first one, and we also really wanted to do a roast of Harry Potter, which ended up being the third show. We just thought that it was a cool opportunity to have a revolving door of a cast, where they could put in their five minutes, and their five minutes of work would allow them to be part of an hour-long show that’s hopefully really tight, and good from start to finish if everyone’s doing their part. That’s where it came from. It’s a big show that can be an event show, but it doesn’t require a lot of rehearsals or work in advance. I just have to organize it, create the cast list, set list, that sort of thing, and they [the performers] just have to create five minutes of work. The show itself, we take some universe, usually something like a geek fandom, because those are the people — like myself — who are passionate about a certain thing. We’ve done Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Disney. I can’t just call it a “Roast of Game of Thrones,” we call it A Roast of George R.R. Martin by the Characters He Created. There’ll be a central figure from that universe — let’s say George R.R. Martin in this case — and he is roasted by other characters within that universe. So we get the fun reveal of every character coming out onstage and the audience seeing it for the first time. Not only is it the audience’s first time, it’s also all of the performers’ first time to see and hear what everybody’s doing. It’s a really, really fun show to do, because you get the benefit of the pre-written material, like a lot of stand-up would be, where it’s been rehearsed solo so they know that it’s good. But you also get the energy of those really fun improvised sets where there’s just something in the room, because everybody’s experiencing it together and for the first time. That’s what the Roast series would be. Does that make sense? [Laughs.]
It does! I’ve seen your name on quite a few flyers as the director for several shows. What goes into being a director for something like a sketch show?
I love sketch so much. I’m glad it’s grown so much with the theater. I’ve had the pleasure of directing three sketch revues now. The latest one, For the Birds, was like the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. What goes into those is just going to be different from show to show. I think that one of my strengths as a director is ensuring that everybody is put in a position to succeed. It’s something I’m really passionate about, because I would hope that a director would do the same for me. I try to identify people’s strengths, and anything and everything that they can do well, and showcase those things. We did a revue called Idiot Box last year, and a friend of mine, Daniel Matthews, was in it, and I knew he’s amazing at puppet work. So, OK, cool, we’re going to have a puppet sketch in the show. We have to. Otherwise it would make no sense — this is a weird, specific talent of [his], and I’ve got to showcase it. In that same show, [was] Cody Tidmore, [an] amazing singer. Of course Cody’s going to sing in this show.
So you kind of marshal and coordinate the existing talents of the cast?
You’ve got to. Otherwise you’re just — to use that old, lame metaphor — trying to stick a round peg in a square hole. I’d rather identify the type of peg that I have, and find the hole for it. A lot of that is just education, and just finding out what people do well. That’s one thing, going back to your earlier question of what am I going to do for you as a stand-up. I would love to become more familiar with the world of stand-up. A lot of that’s going to involve talking to people like Grant [Redmond] and Christian [Hughes], who run the DCH open mic, and seeing the On Point showcases. Besides just standing onstage and walking and talking for five to 10 minutes, what do you guys do well? How can I help create a show or environment where that is showcased? However that is, I can’t wait to discover it.
So now that you’re the theater director, what is the biggest, craziest idea that you’d like to get away with thanks to the new position?
Oh! OK… craziest, biggest idea for this new position… The one that I really want to happen, and we’ll see if it does — it’s definitely not a short-term thing, it’s a long-term thing — I think it’s important to showcase as many different types of talents as we can. Some people are great at improv, some are great at stand-up, some are great at sketch and we’ve got a decent amount of storytelling on the schedule now. I feel like an artistic medium that’s underrepresented — we’ve also got the video class now — but an artistic medium that’s underrepresented, I feel, is podcasting. It’s something that’s an easy way to grow the theater, because people can listen to it on the go. It can increase your exposure nationally even, much less within Texas. It’s something that requires a little bit of a build, but we’ve got the infrastructure when it comes to the people to create the shows, to be able to do them well. That’s something I’ve got my eye on, and I would love to be able to do. No immediate plans, though.