Trust Is the Vibe at Fallout Theater
The Downtown comedy club celebrates its fifth anniversary by looking to the future
By Valerie Lopez, Fri., Jan. 27, 2023
A small theatre is much more than the sum of its nightly performances or its improv and sketch class offerings. A small theatre is a vibe, and Fallout Theater has its own, distinctive vibe.
Even the location is unique. The small, black box comedy club is located in a former fallout shelter in the basement of the near-century-old York Rite building at the sloping sidewalk entrance of Seventh and Lavaca, right on the periphery of the skyscraper-ization of Downtown Austin. Whether it's the old-school arcade games in the lobby (where I can get my Centipede fix), the booming bell announcing that seating is open, the warm and inviting paint colors, the black light posters as you enter the theatre space, or the "Catholic" incense burned to create an effect of a weirdo Seventies church, when you enter the theatre there is definitely a vibe, one that has survived five tumultuous years. Founded in 2018 on the rubble of the scandal-wracked New Movement Theater, it's survived one crisis after another (most recently COVID), but that vibe remains with Austin comedy scene veteran Lisa Friedrich becoming one of the five co-owners.
In late 2022, the theatre announced a change, with co-founder and co-owner Arielle LaGuette stepping down. Friedrich joins a team that has defied the challenges thrown at it and faces a future no one can predict. Not that Friedrich's worried. After the initial surprise of being asked to consider joining the ownership team, the interview process kicked off and she felt that, based on previous experiences, it "was definitely a two-way interview where I wanted to make sure that we all trusted each other."
Friedrich is armed with so much talent and experience. She served as artistic director at Houston's Station Theater, and after moving to Austin in 2013 she was New Movement's conservatory director for several years. She's taught countless improv classes, was a longtime member of Fallout's flagship Garage troupe, and is an established stand-up comic. Layer that talent and experience with longtime friendships with the Fallout Theater co-owners and that spells trust. The birth of Fallout Theater occurred due to broken trust at New Movement, but Friedrich said stepping into an ownership role with people, friends, that she trusts "was a huge thing" for her.
Trust is important to that vibe, and always has been. Malia Moss of Garage shared her thoughts about the tumultuous 2018 transition from New Movement to Fallout this way: "The community around the theatre was the entire social circle for a lot of us so the stress and uncertainty of the theatre's future was rough."
That Fallout vibe was born of a mission by the owners and founders in 2018 to treat their performers and staff differently. Among the things that make co-owner Aaron Walther proudest is that "we were able to, across the board, pay all who work at the theatre much more than they were formerly paid. That, in itself, has created a healthier ethos."
You say "ethos," we say "vibe." Co-owner Carlos LaRotta added, "At Fallout, you can actually get paid to do improv! What a world!" Other changes instituted in 2018 included eliminating unpaid internships (a perverted ruse that often leads to abuse of power) and creating a robust human resources system and code of conduct. These small and big decisions have created an air of magic that LaRotta describes as "like a Supreme Court justice trying to define porn. One may have a hard time describing the magic of Fallout Theater, but they know it when they see it."
What's easily recognizable is that Fallout is a destination for sketch and improv performances and classes, and a hotbed of experimentation like Exploraphoria, which operates under a "free to fail" mentality. Now that show's creator Garrett Buss and LaRotta are leading the charge in innovation with the newly launched Fallout Theater podcast studio. Yet there's also consistency to help that all-important vibe. One of executive producer Robert Segovia's first objectives as co-owner was to bring Sure Thing, a stand-up comedy showcase now in its 11th year, to Fallout Theater, where it has held the Friday late-night spot since 2018. Segovia said, "Getting that show allowed us to be a home for stand-up as much as improv and sketch." You can see improv stalwarts Garage (launched in 2017) and Fuck This Week (the second-longest-running show at Fallout). Or you can watch the longest-running show, Good Fight (launched in 2014), which combines improv, sketch, and stand-up.
There's not just longevity but diversity at Fallout, and that starts at the top, with three of the five owners being people of color. You can find shows like Y'all We Asian (an all-Asian troupe led by Yola Lu), Good Pollution (led by trans performers Clara Blackstone and Ellie Winnubst), and the previously mentioned Garage (led by female and nonbinary performers). It's not just diversity in the DEI sense but diversity of concepts. Good Pollution describes itself as "'weird comedy' for trash people," but maybe Laugh Track is more your pace (caution: pun ahead), where you can watch comics perform while running 7 mph on a treadmill.
It hasn't all been magical, certainly not during 2020 and the COVID closures. Staff layoffs were a necessity, but receiving a Small Business Administration loan (combined with the diligence of having saved "in case of emergency" money) allowed the owners to reopen the creaky glass doors in the spring of 2021. It wasn't easy. Initially, it was all hands on deck for the owners as they served as performers, show directors, and front-of-house staff until they could rehire for a post-lockdown era.
Friedrich's own full-time job title (all co-owners have day jobs to pay their bills) is product marketing manager, and her expertise in marketing is exactly where she hopes to make an immediate impact. She and Brand Director Ashlee Jordan Pryor-Pitluk (married to Artistic Director Mason Pitluk) have already discussed Fallout's website and – *gasp* – data analytics! Segovia gave credit to Friedrich for "already finding a dozen small ways [Fallout] can improve." He added, "Lisa has done everything someone can do before being a theatre owner: conservatory and artistic director, showrunner, teacher, and a great performer. But the big thing is that we all trust and respect her."
The mutual trust and support are necessary for the ambitious 2023 (and beyond) projects the theatre plans to tackle. Top of the agenda is adding a lobby bar, leveling the playing field with other performance spaces by offering the libations audiences expect and generating income. The management team is also building up their corporate team-building workshops, addressing a need Friedrich describes this way: "How many companies have come back to the office and don't remember how to talk to each other?"
Walther noted how "every company that has participated in these workshops has had incredibly positive things to say." Longer-term, the theatre is in talks with the city of Austin about launching a program similar to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, but for the comedy scene.
The notion that Friedrich seemed most excited about is letting the world to know that "Fallout is part of old Austin at this point. And so really building that out and saying, 'We're here, we're more than you think we are.'"
Fallout Theater616 Lavaca, 616/676-7209
Valerie Lopez is the executive producer of the Comedy Wham podcast. comedywham.com.