They're making up funny stuff in Ferndale

By Donald V. Calamia

With a steady stream of bad news coming from every possible direction these days, one thing Metro Detroiters could use right now is a good laugh - or possibly two. And that's exactly what will be served five nights a week at Go Comedy! Improv Theatre beginning Nov. 12 in fabulous downtown Ferndale.

"It's amazing how excited people are," said artistic director Chris DiAngelo, one of Go Comedy's four founders. "When we first decided on this (location), Pj (Jacokes, producer and co-founder) and I went door-to-door down the street right behind us, and everyone was so excited that we're here. And every improviser - it's awesome to see them reignite the fire of wanting to do this again."

Go Comedy! fills a void left in the wake of the closure of Ann Arbor's Improv Inferno in 2006 and The Second City's recent decision to drop its resident company in favor of mostly touring productions. With the exception of Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre, that left no theater that the tightly knit improv community could call home. So with fewer opportunities to practice their craft, many improvisers packed their bags and left the state. Now there's a reason to stay - and a motive for others to return. "There are a lot of chances to be on stage here," producer Jacokes said.

So much so, that out of a talent pool of 105 improvisers who auditioned recently, 37 were selected. "It wasn't easy," Jacokes said of the casting process. "There were people we cut who could have easily been on stage. We cut some very strong people. We had an overabundance (of talent to choose from)."

The improvisers were picked to fill three separate teams. The Resident Company, populated by some of the area's best known artists, will perform twice nightly every Friday and Saturday night. The House Team, which will serve as understudies, will perform Thursday nights. And The Launch Group, consisting of up-and-coming improvisers, will be seen on Wednesdays.

The remaining slots in the schedule will be filled by various improv troupes and sketch comedies. Stand-up comedy, however, will not be a regular part of the schedule - despite DiAngelo earning the title Detroit's Hottest New Comic in 2001.

Performances will be held in the former Michigan Secretary of State office on Nine Mile Road just east of Woodward. "We've got tricks and neat things in pretty much every room," beamed technical director Tommy LeRoy, including an applause meter and poured-concrete bathroom sinks embedded with the company logo. "We're going to be as high-tech as we possibly can with our lights and sound system, with full video capabilities, too."

A complete, full-service bar will be available in the lobby, with snacks, local and specialty beers, and house-made infused vodkas. "There WILL be a 'dare list,'" LeRoy teased.

Starting a new business from scratch isn't all fun and games, however.

"It's amazing how quickly things can go over budget," DiAngelo laughed. "Like, maybe we could get the REALLY good seats - so we got the really good seats. Or we could get the space we REALLY wanted, or we could get the ok space. So in the long run, sticking to a budget is impossible."

The idea to open their own club began taking shape in October 2007 after Jacokes received a response to an e-mail he sent out inviting friends and former improv students to a show he had directed at The Second City. "It came from Gerald Knight, and it said 'Let's have lunch and talk about opening a theater,'" Jacokes recalled. "That would be a dream, but that doesn't ever happen."

Except this time it did. Knight, a retired high school teacher, is currently co-owner of Heat Controller, Inc. and president of Speckhard-Knight Charitable Foundation. The other partners, Jacokes, DiAngelo and LeRoy, have years of theater and improv experience both locally and regionally. "The vision, I think, is very on-target, and what we want to do is quite clear," Jacokes said.

In fact, they refer to their shared vision as their "I" Philosophy.

"One of the things we want is integrity," DiAngelo explained. "We're sick of the integrity of shows going downhill, where people get sloppy onstage, or performances don't start on time. Another is inspiration - whether it's inspiring someone who sees a show to take classes, or inspiring someone who's been doing this for 15 years to re-find their love of it."

The third and final "I" is innovation, DiAngelo continued. "I'm sick of losing people to Chicago. No, I want this town to be the cutting edge of improv. I want new forms to come out of here. And I want people to start coming to Ferndale to learn good improv."

The Detroit suburb is the perfect spot for the new theater, Resident Company member Brian Lark believes. "Even before it opened, it seemed like a lot of the (improv) community had gravitated to Ferndale. And to have a place to play and have more opportunities - it's fantastic."

Suzie Jacokes - Pj's sister-in-law - agrees. "I've lived here all my life, and for this to be happening is really surreal and amazing. It's where I got my first license!"

Added brother-in-law Pj, "We still get at least one person a day come to the door asking to renew their license."

Ultimately, the founders' long-term goal, Pj Jacokes said, is "to become a fixture in Detroit; to become what Second City is to Chicago - to really forge our own way, so that any (improviser) who comes through here and goes to California and says they're from Go Comedy! - there will be meaning to that. And in 50 years, people can still come here and see a show."

It's going to be huge," Suzie Jacokes concluded. "So wouldn't you want to be a witness to it?"

PREVIEW:

Go Comedy! Improv Theatre

Opens Nov. 12 and runs every Wednesday through Sunday at 261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale. Tickets: $5-$15. For information: 248-327-0757 or http://www.gocomedy.net.

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