Since originally opening under the name Mojo Dojo more than four years ago, the Milwaukee improv outfit—now called Ampersand Theater Company—has taught the comedic craft and hosted performances at a wide variety of locations around town. Through the years, they’ve had shows in bars, community centers, radio stations, hotels, barns, and even a few outdoor venues. Their most frequent performance site was at Urban Harvest Brewing Company in Walker’s Point, which has an intimate theater space that proved to be a suitable location for many Ampersand productions.
After a largely-nomadic existence in its early years, Ampersand Theater Company finally has a place of its own. Last September, they announced the business will be moving to the former location of In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theater, which is located at 628 N. 10th Street. The theater is in the lower level of Calvary Presbyterian Church, an iconic 150-year-old church that’s just west of downtown.
Following a successful crowdfunding campaign to help them get over the financial hump and countless hours of renovation work, the improvisation operation is ready to officially open its doors to the public this week with a Thursday night “Stress Test,” followed by performances on Friday and Saturday. Though the transformation of the space they’ve occupied since last August has been fairly fast, the road to this point was a long one for Ampersand Theater’s founders.
“We’ve been looking for this space for four years,” Ampersand’s creative director Joel Zawada says. “Literally, since we started, we were looking for a permanent space.”
Over their years of searching for their forever home, Ampersand’s owners confronted a number of dead ends, a sea of prohibitive “red tape,” and a few occasions where they were outbid for a property. Finally, as a result of persistence, good timing, and an endorsement from an improv fan who’s connected to Calvary Church, Ampersand wound up taking over a space that was already well-suited for performances.
“This used to be a theater space. In Tandem had basically cleared everything out, but the bones were still here and we knew how it worked as a theater,” Zawada says. “This has been like a dream, just having it all sort of fall into place with an existing space that completely fit everything we needed.”
While “the bones” were in place, the Ampersand crew still needed to flesh out the space and make some modifications to fit their needs. Since getting the keys last summer, the new tenants spent hundreds of hours cleaning, planning, building, and transforming the longstanding theater space into something that’s altogether their own. Many of those changes are evident upon entering the lobby, which features a fresh paint job (along with some ampersand accents), brand new light fixtures, house speakers, a donor wall lined with photos of supporters, a cluster of tables and chairs, and TVs that we’re told will play slideshows composed of photos from past performances. The section of the property also features three ADA-compliant restrooms.
Also in the lobby is Ampersand’s newly-installed bar. The so-called “Cantina” will offer show-goers a selection of exclusively canned beverages, including wine, local beer, mixed drinks, cider, and a variety of non-alcoholic options as well. There will not be a drink minimums enforced at any Ampersand Theater events.
The lobby leads into the theater, which has been painted completely black except for the refinished tan flooring. There’s a new tech booth, new risers, and updated lighting. Ampersand improvisor and handyman Erik Koconis built a brand new stage and set up a “psych screen” to allow scenery to be projected behind performers. Ampersand’s capacity is currently 99. That figure includes performers and staff, so the theater will usually plan to seat approximately 75. That’s a noticeable increase in capacity from their shows at Urban Harvest, which usually topped out at 52 people. Zawada says Ampersand was selling out more than half of its shows at its former location.
The new space won’t only increase the number of people at Ampersand’s shows, it will eventually allow the theater to host more shows in general. No longer held under the limitations of Urban Harvest’s hours of operation, Ampersand plans to eventually add a second show on Saturday, a recurring Thursday show, a possible family-friendly Sunday matinee, and special one-off performances when the opportunity comes along.
“We grew as much as we could within those constrictions, but this opens up every possibility,” Zawada says. “Now we get to flex a little and see what we can come up with.”
Zawada says that, in addition to using the space for lessons and as a site for its current roster of shows, Ampersand is open to bringing experimental sessions, sketch comedy, alternative comedy, and all forms of improv comedy to the theater.
Tonight’s “Stressed Out” soft opening will feature improv by Said And Done and Thrift Shop. The fun will continue into the weekend’s grand opening festivities. Friday night offers installments of The Journal, Hassenpeffer, and Professor Merryweather’s Time Traveling Improv Show. Saturday, Ampersand will bring state representative Jonathan Brostoff to the stage for an installment of their I Should Know This comedy quiz show. Expect other Ampersand efforts, such as its Dungeons & Dragons-themed No Dice show, its film-focused First Five, the sci-fi improv of Ex Machina, and The Duel to also make the move. You can check out all of Ampersand’s upcoming shows here.
YES, Ampersand Theater Company is opening a new, improved location AND it’s going to be awesome.