Historic Downtown McKinney Now Houses the Funny! Wheeee!
Downtown crowds are getting up close and personal with the wacky world of improv.
I am having a great time highlighting the fab peeps who are helping to make Historic Downtown McKinney, Texas, so cool. In this post I focus on Von Daniel, the owner of the still relatively new The Comedy Arena, where improv is KING. Only open since spring, The Comedy Arena already enjoys a swelling fan base that can’t get enough of this smart, FAMILY-FRIENDLY brand of comedy.
I decided that Von Daniel—whom you might have spotted in one of downtown McKinney’s coffee nooks sporting his signature black The Comedy Arena t-shirt and yet another pair of crazy socks—could be trusted on the subject of comedy when he agreed with me that Carrot Top is NOT funny. #yuck
Previously a stand-up comedian and art director for Amazon and other landmark companies, Von is now leading the charge to entertain and educate downtown locals and visitors on the world of improvisational comedy. Being part of a team of “funny,” he says, is a whole helluva lot more rewarding than being up on stage by one’s lonesome. He loves its “we” mentality.
The Key to Great Improv
Silly me, I thought improv was just a bunch of players trying to grab the spotlight. But it’s actually the opposite: improv is about putting your trust in the players on stage with you, and handing them the opportunity to grab the laugh if it keeps the skit going.
Bottom line: there ain’t room for divas on the improv stage. In fact, says Von, you can only succeed at improv if you have a team mindset, can give generously to other players, and have deeply developed the skill of listening.
(All skills, by the way, that Von and his ComedySportz® troupe are often hired to hone in employees at companies such as JCPenney, PepsiCo, Southwest Airlines, and AT&T during team-building sessions or corporate events.)
Improv, adds Von, also focuses on “making high percentage choices versus low percentage choices.”
Patiently, as if I were a rookie student enrolled in one of the Arena’s Improv 101 classes, Von explains. “A high percentage choice,” he says, “would be for a player to choose to be a dog speaking. A low percentage choice would be for the player to choose to be a dog scooting its backside across the stage.” A dog itching its behind, you see, is a bit boring—and low to the ground, which is hard for audiences to see. But a dog that talks?? Well, now, that’s both interesting and helpful in shepherding the skit to a rollicking finish.
Improv’s Secret Sauce
One of the first habits Von often has to break in newbies taking The Comedy Arena’s improv classes (offered to both high school students and adults) is, in fact, to not be thinking how to steal the scene. Hey, if they want to shine on their own, they can go brave the cutthroat world of stand-up.
Despite his natural talent for getting laughs (“I was a funny kid,” says Von), Von’s only thought on stage these days is “What gift can I give the other players to elevate them in the eyes of the audience? How can I help them to build a scene?”
“For example,” says Von, “if I walk on stage and say, ‘Hi, Mom!’ then the other players know who I am and their relationship to me. They now have something to work from—as do I, based on what comes out of their mouths.”
Does that mean players must stick with a storyline that is obviously not working? Nope. They hate bad “funny” as much as their audiences. But in keeping with their premise of Yes, and…, the players cohesively transition to a new story arc by building on the new suggestions they toss out. Nothing is gonna tank these funny guys and gals. Their mission: find the funny, and share it STAT! Think of a leaf flowing downstream; it might momentarily get held up by a rock or twig, but soon it is, again, merrily bobbing with the steady current.
When I tell Von that I don’t think my brain can be that nimble, he assures me that improv is a learned skill; that ANY of us can excel at the game if we HANG OUR TOES OVER THE CLIFF’S EDGE and practice enough. Go on, he urges, prove me wrong: take the class. Lol! #ack #notyet
In observing Jessa Berger, one of The Comedy Arena’s talented players who has been with Von for about a decade, I track just how much eye contact she gives the other players on stage. It’s nearly constant. She even tracks them with her body language, and her impish grin, clearly conveying to both audience and players alike that she’s part of their safety net. You can almost see it in her eyes: “Let’s have a blast! We got this!”
Curiosity Brings Them….
At my first visit to The Comedy Arena, however, when I nervously plunked down onto one of the vinyl chairs in the darkened performance space, I had no clue about all that. I was just hoping the performer(s) wouldn’t be uber crass or boring or, worse, heckle me from the stage. I had no inkling of the trust and creative cooperation it takes to create the “improv magic.” Or that a primary goal of The Comedy Arena players is to make every audience member feel valued and safe. #whew
It was only after I had observed five shows—and chatted with Von a bit—that I began to realize just how hard this “family” of improvisers is working on stage to show us a good time.
And please note that “good time” doesn’t necessarily mean we’re laughing non-stop. Improv is smart comedy. By that I mean you have to use your brain and pay attention to sometimes get the joke. Get savvy enough about improv, in fact, and you’ll begin to notice “the game within the game” when the players bring it.
The potential hurdle the players have to face each time they take on the challenge? Being able to work with the suggestions tossed to them by the audience. But without audience input, is there really improv?
I’ve been at The Comedy Arena when the audience suggested really silly ideas for a skit’s parameters: the who, where, and what. So, for example, the audience might suggest that the players are on Noah’s ark. Oh, wait. I suggested that. Scratch the silly! Color me amazed at what this quick-thinking team came up with. And they had enormous fun doing it.
The wonder of improv, at least for this gal, is how quickly a skit’s “story” comes together. It’s as if the players secretly huddled for a minute; as if they are being directed by a voice only they can hear, moving the action to a known destination. In reality, they haven’t a clue. They are as surprised as the audience at how a skit plays out. ;-D
The Fun Experience Brings Them Back
Mostly from word-of-mouth, The Comedy Arena has been steadily building its fan base. Audiences are liking that they have options. They can, for example, on Friday and Saturday nights choose the FAMILY-FRIENDLY 6pm and 8pm shows—or the decidedly more mature “After Dark” 10pm show. NOTE: Do not even try to add a whiff of the risqué to the early shows, or you’ll find yourself wearing the rather uncomfortable toilet seat dubbed the “CSZ Potty Mouth.” #beentheredonethat #itakethefifth
Having personally attended all three time slots, I’d suggest starting with an 6pm or 8pm show because of their competitive, high energy. Sporting his black-and-white striped shirt, Von does a smashing job as the referee of two chomping-at-the-bit teams of players. Go, Red! No, Blue! #winnerwinnerchickendinner
With Von calling time and fouls, the players have roughly an hour to perform numerous improv games, including “Refresh,” “Countdown,” “Four Things,” and “Forward/Reverse.” The audience members decide the winning team of each round, which they signal by holding up a red or blue glow stick available for purchase for a nominal fee before the show.
In “Forward/Reverse” Von gleefully makes the players move the scene back and forth, much like we do at home when scrolling through a taped TV show. It’s one of my favorite improv games to watch, because it really tests the mental nimbleness and recall of the improv players.
Other improv games I like include “Dr. Know It All” and “Good, Bad, Worse.” In “Good, Bad, Worse,” three players also answer audience questions, but must stay in character. So to address the question of “How do I tell my neighbor I don’t like them?” their answers ranged from sweet (“Oh, just get along! Love! Peace!”) to passive/aggressive (“Post it on Facebook!) to downright nuclear (“Take the direct approach: put animal excrement on their doorstep at 3am and shout ‘Fire’ so they come out and step on it.”). The audience loved it!
The appeal of the “After Dark” show is its looser, non-competitive structure and potentially more ADULT subject matter which, again, launches from audience suggestion. By the way, The Comedy Arena is BYOB, so if you started your party before you get there you can keep it rolling. Just don’t be a jerk.
Whatever the mental alertness of the audience, I’ve yet to see an audience that didn’t end up laughing. Improv is experiential comedy. Improv is community comedy. You really feel, as you sit there in the cozy darkness, that you’ve helped to create a bright moment of comedic history. A moment that will never, ever, be repeated. It’s that mystery, of no scene ever being duplicated, that is turning visitors into returning fans—and keeping The Comedy Arena troupe hyped about their next performances.
“We get up on stage, with no plan in hand, and see what happens next,” says Von. “Who wouldn’t love that?”
Why Von Said “YES, and….!” to Historic Downtown McKinney
Until Von decided to lease the downtown space this spring—after a McKinney realtor came calling—this talented bunch of bananas had no permanent performance space to call home.
Fortunately for us, McKinney, Von liked the undeveloped Virginia Street space, and fell in deep like with our historic downtown’s homey, welcoming feel. Says Von, “It only took an hour of my walking around the Square to realize that McKinney is special.”
So Von got to work on the build-out, using his art design skills to configure the stage, seating area, concessions, and entry ways. (He also designs all of the The Comedy Arena’s promotional materials and created its website.)
Combining his artistic touches with upbeat dance music that greets you at the door, he created an intimate space that is eclectic yet cozy. And even cozier when the audience swells to fill every seat.
Granted, The Comedy Arena isn’t situated right on the Square, so wooing audience members is a bit harder than simply opening the door and shouting, “Show in five minutes, people!”
Says Christie Connell, owner of Azure Photography located at 113 S Tennessee St., “I’m not on the Square, either, but I have the traffic from Emporium Pies next to me. I hope McKinney fully embraces The Comedy Arena, because it’s fantastic. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. And it’s helping to bring entertainment options to downtown, which we need.”
Here to Stay—With OUR Community Support
As Von works to ignite our delight in improv, he’s keeping a second goal in mind: make The Comedy Arena a smashing success by adding tons of value to our already fab community.
Only at the Virginia Street address for about six months now, Von has already built partnerships with some of downtown McKinney’s yummy eateries (Butcher Board, Sugarbacon, Eclair Bistro, and Mom & Popcorn), with plans to build more win/win connections over the coming months. This collective spirit of support among our downtown merchants is just one reason I love our historic town so much.
A year from now? Von wants The Comedy Arena to be “an established McKinney destination.” His vision for The Comedy Arena in five years? That it becomes a place that the community uses, from high school students taking improv classes and performing, to people renting the space for private parties, to people coming to enjoy a performance. “The Comedy Arena,” he says, “is a safe, fun place to hang out, for adults and students.”
YEAH, IT IS!!!
If you haven’t yet visited The Comedy Arena, put it on your to-do list for this coming weekend. Even if you’re not yet brave enough to take an improv class (NO JUDGMENT FROM ME, PEOPLE!! LOL!), consider volunteering to jump on stage to assist with a short skit. Trust me, Von and his troupe will make you look GOOD—and they just might gift you with a free ticket. ;-D
The Comedy Arena. Where the laughs are big, the brave get rewarded, the audiences make all the difference, and Von is SUPER TALL! Lol!
p.s. #1 Don’t let Von’s towering frame scare ya. I knew Von was cool the second we came to the agreement that bullies *totally* suck wind and that The Fifth Element is among the best Sci-Fi flicks ever. See? He’s a pussy cat. Lol!
p.s. #2 If you’re thinking that you’re already good enough at improv to join the troupe on stage, keep an eye out for The Comedy Arena’s periodic Facebook postings for open mic tryouts. You just might earn a spot in the Minor or Major Leagues! #whoot #goyou
The Comedy Arena
305 E. Virginia #104, McKinney TX 75069
Von Daniel, owner