When the Focus Theater first got the message that comedy group Big Grande was interested in doing a workshop and show at their location in Rochester, improv instructor and performer Cody Jones did a double take.
In the comedy world, Big Grande—made up of Dan Lippert, Jon Mackey, Ryan Rosenberg, and Drew Tarver—is a big name. Members of the team have reached national renown through work on their own shows like Teachers’ Lounge, Man Dog podcast, Live on Set; as regular guests on other podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang; and acting in shows like The Other Two.
Focus hosting Big Grande’s Nov. 3 tour stop in Rochester was a big step for the emerging comedy theater.
“They’re such phenomenal talents,” says Jones. “It blew my mind because (they) reached out to us. We didn’t set out to bring in national talent, but we had it happen. Everything kind of just fell into place like that.”
While Big Grande features established comedic voices, the Focus Theater is a recent startup that’s going through a “soft reset.” The comedy theater was open in the South Wedge neighborhood from 2016 to 2019, but pandemic-related shutdowns caused it to close its doors, only restarting classes this spring and fully reopening in the fall.
The time off from performing did allow Focus members to find a new space in the Sibley Building, develop their curriculum, and listen to the desires of the community the theater had built, Jones says. Similar to large theaters like the Upright Citizen’s Brigade or Second City, Focus offers a series of eight-week classes primarily in short- or long-form improv, but also in comedy forms including sketch, stand-up, writing and performance for all experience levels.
“In the early portion of 2020, we had these conversations of ‘What do we want the next iteration to look like?’ ‘How big a swing should we take?’” Jones says, adding that the space at Sibley allowed them to take a big swing, nearly doubling the seat capacity in their theater to 90.
“The founders wanted to make sure we were teaching the right way—making it a supportive, safe environment. The word I keep coming back to is ‘clubhouse,’” he continues. “The improv scene in Rochester is still really young, but it’s also really rich. In the last Level 1 (class) and the one now, there’s such a wide range of age, abilities, backgrounds, genders and race.”
Part of that community building includes opening the space to other creators, something Focus was able to do at the Fringe Festival. Rochester performers like the Innerloop Blog, stand-up comedians Dario Joseph and Sara Shipley, and a drag show by Ms. Golden Delicious were among those featured in September. Other featured talent include Ants to Gods, Rochester’s premiere all-Black long-form improv comedy trio.
That diversity, which was not historically present in many comedy scenes, is very important to Focus, whose members want to be collaborators, not gatekeepers.
“I would love to be a part of how the improv scene grows in the future. It does feel very siloed sometimes. There are people who do improv only at Focus, or only at (Comedy @) the Carlson, or only at MUCCC (the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center),” says Austin Scott, a performer with Ants to Gods and co-owner of the Focus Theater. “I would love there to be more mixing of communities. People getting on each others’ shows—that’s the easiest way for everyone to grow their audiences, by exposing people to new things.”
“Focus Theater is in a great position to offer opportunities for people to come in and produce all different types of shows,” he continues. “We don’t have a schedule that’s jam packed years in advance. We’re still in the stage where someone can put up a show relatively quickly and relatively easily.”
Beyond the improv shows at Focus, upcoming performances this month include “Solo: A Show About Friendship,” which debuted this year at the Soho Playhouse by comedian Gabe Mollica, and a Christmas show with returning performer Ms. Golden Delicious.
Jones, himself an alumni of Focus, sees value in learning the rules of improvisation just for life, which is offered to companies through the Focus@Work program. Active listening, team bonding and group mind can help anyone with interpersonal skills as well as how to take criticism and feedback.
“If you’re in a scene, you have to listen and internalize and then ‘Yes and’ whatever your partner is doing. I can’t think of a better description of a work day than that,” he says.
Still in its first year of reopening, Focus Theater is weighing other possible steps to expand, beyond a tavern license to highlight Rochester breweries and Mercantile on Main eateries. Already, though, it has made strides in growing the comedy scene.
“I am honored to be a part of cultivating and participating in the comedy scene here,” Jones says. “(Instructors at the Focus Theater) are all part time, but we do it and make that time for it because we love it that much.”