A few years ago, Briana Haynie compiled a series of oral histories about the founding and development of Sea Tea Improv. Over the past year they ran the most successful kickstarter for a comedy theater ever and on August 20th they officially opened their doors to the public! We spoke to Julia Pistel, a founding member and managing director of Sea Tea Improv, in the fleeting calm that would follow opening weekend…
As a founding member of Sea Tea, how does it feel to come this far?
Amazing. It has been so intense for the last year—the founders and owners are just trying to catch our breaths and enjoy what we’ve done. It’s funny, I was going through some old emails—someone was asking us for milestones—and I don’t remember this, but some of our founders were talking about opening a theater one day. Back in 2010 that was unrealistic, so it’s really something we’ve been working slowly but very steadily towards for seven years. It’s really exciting to have those doors open and get to work.
I imagine the role of Managing Director changes from theatre to theatre depending on size and content. Describe your role as the Managing Director for those who may not know what that is.
Let me start by not answering your question and describing the Artistic Director first, and then I’ll describe the difference between the two, because that’s where it gets interesting.
The Artistic Director, as we see it, is to make sure that everything that is happening within the theater is excellent. Of course, that can mean a number of different things. It can be the best improv you’re ever going to see, it can be some really experimental stuff, it can mean including a lot of people. His job is basically to make sure what happens on the stage is reflective of the quality that we want to see and bring to Hartford and Connecticut.
My job as the Managing Director is very different. It’s to keep the doors open, keep the place running and make sure we stay alive. What my job covers right now is a really interesting question because I’m in transition. Until last week, the main focus of my job was to make sure the construction project got finished. Now that it is done, my job is managing the staff that’s working and running the theater; building community relationships and connections to help build out the audience; to keep an eye on the big picture, making sure everything under the umbrella is getting done; and making decisions about what our priorities are as a company to make sure we are fulfilling our mission.
Were you still building the space until the last minute?
Oh my god, yes. It’s sick. You don’t want to know. We got the certificate of occupancy the day before opening. We thought we had some last minute delays –it’s funny because I was so obsessed with them, and now that I’m sitting here I can’t even remember what they were. We had a couple of things that were really holding us back—one or two electric or fire code things that had to be fixed up, construction things. One thing that people do not understand is that when we say “building a theater,” we mean literally building a theater. Before we were in the space it had been empty for 20 years. It was a hole, a dirty hole. So we had to put in plumbing, HVAC, walls, electrical/fire systems, everything. It’s been really interesting because when I got into this, I was an improviser, and now I have managed a major construction project.
Basically, the theme for the theater for me is everyday we’re learning something new. Now the journey is going to be learning how to put on shows every single weekend.
How did you pick this dirty hole as the space to turn into your theater?
We didn’t just want to open a theater anywhere, for a couple of reasons. We’re very committed to improving Hartford and giving back to city that has made a space for us. We wanted a space that would accessible to a lot of Hartford residents, and that’s good for us because [the new theater] is very visible. The location’s right off Main Street, right by a big bus hub at the center of downtown. It couldn’t be at a better location.
The real reason that made us pick this exact spot is that our landlord is very invested in filling empty spaces in Hartford. You probably don’t know this, but Hartford has a lot of real estate issues where everything was bought up by big companies a long time ago and now there are a lot of empty spaces just fucking sitting there. Our landlord was really onboard with our mission; he gave us a nice deal on our rent so we could get in there and start working. At the end of the day, it comes down to money. It was a great deal, based on how much we all wanted to see this space built.
Now I’ll tell you one more thing about this space that’s really interesting: Everything in Hartford used to be something. Everyone’s obsessed with what things used to 50 years ago or 100 years ago. About 30 to 40 years ago, [our space] was an old janky bar called JP’s. They did all kinds of stuff in there—reggae nights; people put up sketches; there was a little brick stage off to the side. There were all kinds of businesses in that spot. So once we started building a lot people came up to say “Hey, I used to get drunk underage here!” or “Hey, I used to play music here!” or “Hey, I put up a sketch here once, 35 years ago!” That has been so cool. Reactivating the space has reactivated the community’s interest in the space. Starting in a few months, we’re going to do Time Travel Tuesdays where we will try to remount some of the stuff that was going on down here in the dirty hole that was JP’s.
That’s very cool.
The reason we want to do that isn’t just because it’s cool and fun, but if we’re going to make it, we have to connect with the community that’s here. Tapping into people’s memory and nostalgia is a great way for us to do that.
You were saying your position now means making sure you’ve got something in the space every weekend. How do you strive to do that? Just looking at the events list on your website you have so much already set up for the month ahead.
[The owners] decided that we were going to do six shows a weekend: two on Friday, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, if we want to do more, that’s fine. Once we decide that we’re going to do a certain number of shows, it’s up to the artistic team to start scheduling things in there. We have very close relationships between the two departments, so anyone on the team can pitch something to the artistic team. In fact, anyone in the community can.
Just yesterday a friend of mine who writes comedic short plays emailed us and said, “Hey, could we do something like this…” We’re in a stage where we’re gathering whatever we can and putting on a whole bunch of different stuff and seeing what works. In three or four months we’ll evaluate and see what works, what didn’t, what the community connected with, what drew a big audience [or] what didn’t draw a big audience but still has potential. Then the artistic team will decide what goes in what slot.
What’s something you wish you had known going into opening weekend?
We did a soft open, started using the space weeks before in hopes of avoiding something like this, but there’s no way we could have done anything. Since the space had been empty for almost 20 years, as soon as we started using the plumbing it activated a 40-year-old clog. We made it an hour and a half into our opening before the bathrooms were totally unusable. It was a nightmare.
What is wonderful is that all of the businesses above us—we’re in a basement, [so] all we had to do was go upstairs and say, “This is happening. Can we send our customers upstairs to use your bathroom?” They’re so excited that we’re there that they were like, “Yeah!”
What I didn’t know was that the building has a life and mind of its own and it will do whatever it wants. What I also didn’t know was how quickly and kindly the community will rally around you to save your butt. We’re really cashing in on a lot of long-term relationships we’ve had, which is something I’m really proud of. We’re under a sushi restaurant–we’ve known them for years, we’ve eaten there. As soon as we started looking at the space, we said, “this sushi restaurant and us, we’re going to be buds,” for exactly these kinds of situations. The next day after got the plumbing fixed up, we sent 20 people up there for dinner and drinks so they made some of their revenue off their kindness to us.
Aside from plumbing, how did opening weekend go as a whole?
It went well. It was really, really, really fun. It was exciting to see all the people who have been so excited about the space rally around it. It was wonderful to see the teams that got to perform put on their first show in the space. Hartford is really excited right now. It was a night of celebration that felt more like a transition than a beginning, with references to all we’ve done so far and all that good stuff.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned from the process of opening your own space?
You can’t do this alone. No one can do it alone. Two or three people can’t do it alone. We spent years and years building up great relationships, building teams, building the art form. Nothing can be done quickly, and nothing can be done alone. You’ve got to lay the groundwork, and it will be so satisfying in the end when you get to open those doors and enjoy what you’ve made.
What are your plans for the future of space?
We’ve got all these other nights of the week that we get to play with and experiment, Monday through Thursday. We’re going to shows for our classes in there. It’s available to rent for the larger community. We’re going to do more collaborative artistic works, bringing in a jazz orchestra that will do an improv music set, and we’ll do an improv acting set. We’re going experiment as much as we can. Try everything: That’s our goal for the first year.
People are very excited and interested in the space. We have a community college across the street from us, and they don’t have a theatre program, so they’re considering renting our space to teach their entire theatre program. That’s a great community partnership: it’s great for us, it get a rental in the space, it gets people in the space, and it gives them a chance to connect with the community and have their students take lessons in a real theater.