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Off the Cuff 

The Blue Door Theatre is celebrating 20 years of making stuff up on the spot

click to enlarge Blue Door actor Josh Scheel - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Blue Door actor Josh Scheel

The Kardashians have been murdered. With a hairbrush. In the middle of Times Square. A corrupt cop and geeky lab technician have been assigned to the case. Their investigation uncovers few leads, except for an apartment with several revolving bookshelves and a slacker who's casually taken up residence under the floorboards. Fortunately, a police dog in sunglasses is proving to be unusually skilled in forensics and interrogation.

Bizarre as it might sound, this is par for the course at the Blue Door Theatre. This particular amalgam of unlikely locations and characters was part of a Friday-evening feature called Crime Show, a parody of CSI-style TV programs that opens by taking audience suggestions for victim, weapon and setting and then lets an ensemble of players run with it. But that loose framework is where any uniformity ends. Each performance is a snowflake, unique and evanescent. Not even back-to-back shows are the same.

For 20 years, the Blue Door has been Spokane's primary outlet for live improv theater. It's not stand-up comedy, as the players often find themselves explaining to the uninitiated. Nor is it necessarily ad-lib skits. It's better described as the spontaneous product of the players' theatrical chemistry and their individual whim. Sometimes it's an hour-long performance based on a broad premise, as in Crime Show. Sometimes it's more like Poets Up!, a recurring evening of tag-team sketches that inspires — and is simultaneously inspired by — poems penned on the spot by guest writers.

click to enlarge Jessica Carson - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Jessica Carson

The theater's origins can be traced back to 1996, when Mark Robbins — more widely known today as the relatable husband in the Northern Quest Resort & Casino commercials — returned to Spokane and established an offshoot of Unexpected Productions, a Seattle-based improv troupe. The splinter group dubbed itself Cream of Wit and venue-hopped before settling in a downtown location along Railroad Alley in the summer of 2000.

"It was this 60-seat house," says Robbins. "We had some money saved up and bought some sound equipment and a really basic lighting system. We built a stage and did a little painting." The venue's blue door engendered a lasting name change. Led by Jason and Harmony Frederick, some of the more enterprising players took that opportunity to incorporate as a nonprofit group.

Cream of Wit member Lawra Gosselin-Harris was there at the Blue Door's inception. "What was really funny is that there was a railroad right behind the theater," she recalls. "So sometimes a train would go by when we were performing." It was impossible not to incorporate it into the scenes: "We'd be like, 'It sounds like Old Smokey's here.'"

"But we weren't just improvising at that time," Robbins says. "We started off doing these themed shows that were half sketch and half improvisation. We were doing really well, and were even turning people away. And then we lost our space. They turned it into condos."

That setback prompted the theater's move to its current spot in the Garland District. The new venue opened for performances in January 2003 after three months of renovations. Although the building would prove to be a solid home, the move also came at a time when the early members were beginning to drift away. Robbins, already a father by then, soon left to focus on other priorities. Gosselin-Harris remained but stepped down in 2007, also to devote her energy to parenting.

click to enlarge Jess Lee - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Jess Lee

In the decade following the move, the Blue Door coalesced as an institution. It began offering regular in-house classes and offsite workshops, along with a standard lineup of shows that varied on a monthly or seasonal basis. Players came and went, as did its executive staff. The theater weathered these changes with the aplomb you'd expect of folks skilled at on-the-fly adaptation. The last shakeup was the departure of artistic director Frank Tano, an exceptionally gifted improv performer, three years ago.

Then, just last month, in the midst of an optimistic rush of 20th-anniversary planning, the theater was broadsided by the untimely death of its board president, Jonathan Black.

"He was kind and compassionate, a warm and caring man," says the theater's business manager, Erin O'Halloran-Foerg. Fondly remembered for his hugs and encouraging reminders that the stage is "where the magic happens," Black was devoted to the Blue Door and the wider local scene beyond it.

"When we were having our memorial, everybody started telling their Jonathan stories. It was interesting to see how he'd reached out to so many people," she says.

Though shaken by Black's passing, the Blue Door is pressing ahead in this spirit — and out of the same love of improv that gave rise to the theater two decades ago. With its largest-ever troupe of 32 active players, the entire operation remains all-volunteer; not a single performer or staff position receives a dime in remuneration. Except for small workshop meal or fuel stipends, all proceeds are channeled back into the theater's operating budget. Ticket prices are still pegged at an affordable $7.

click to enlarge Adam Tucker - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Adam Tucker

"I'm sure that if it were up to me, it would've fizzled a long time ago," chuckles Robbins. "I didn't want to run the business, I just wanted to perform. So I'm glad it got into the hands of people who were better at it. It's interesting to me that it started in a different part of town and it's becoming an iconic part of the Garland District."

"The Blue Door legacy we want to continue is in innovative entertainment, and being an affordable way for the community to experience live theater," says O'Halloran-Foerg. "Looking to the next 20 years, we want to continue our positive growth and see what we can change to make it even better. It means taking it to the next step – the 'Yes, and.' That's what we're all about." ♦

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