The Ledge opens a stage for improv actors of color from LA

In 2020, with ACME Comedy shutting down due to pandemic concerns, Shaun Landry wondered aloud — via Facebook — if anyone was going to give her money to create a theater house for people of color. It was a harmless question for the most part, but her network of friends, colleagues, students and more took her seriously and urged the improvisational actress, author, teacher and mentor to keep working toward that dream.

“The #MeToo movement hit, and then [Black Lives Matter] and to grapple with what was going on in improvisational theater and also in comedy in general and how we were treated in certain institutions. That went on — and then came the pandemic,” Landry said.

These cultural upheavals seemed to partially hamper improv theater in Los Angeles (Landry is a member of many improv groups) as people struggled to figure out what needed to be done to keep the art form alive. The response to Landry’s online inquiry and the stagnant nature of what was going on around her inspired her to take action.

“I have attended numerous meetings online and on Zoom. There were many conversations and many stories. Hearing the stories is a good thing and it’s cathartic,” Landry said. “Stories are great, action is better.”

A lady is on the stage

Shaun Landry, founder of The Ledge, LA’s first black owned and operated improv/sketch comedy troupe, takes the stage at Skiptown Playhouse.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“I kind of knew in the craziness of the ’90s that they weren’t going to give theater to a 30-year-old black woman. This was the time. I am old enough. My reputation is good enough. [She points to a wine refrigerator.] I’m a classic drunk.”

From that determination, the Ledge Theater was born. Landry and the members of the Ledge perform and teach impromptu drama and practices in school, theater or corporate settings. Founded in Spring 2021, the name grew out of a conversation between Landry and Kim Howard Johnson, author of Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation. The Monty Python fan and actor wanted to support Landry but hadn’t improvised in a long time. Landry said she would “put him on the ledge” to help him hone his rusty improv skills. The encouragement and the name stuck.

But did that really catch on in LA? Places like Chicago revere improvisation as an art form, but LA, with all of its diversions and other entertainment offerings vying for attention, may not have properly embraced it. Improvisation is more than just comedy. It’s obviously not a script, but there are many structures and templates under which it can be run. It’s not stand-up comedy, but there’s ample opportunity for riffing. It is communication, and while it can be classified as theater because of its staged presence, it has applications backstage and in the real world.

“Most people when I started in Second City were attorneys who wanted to speak better in front of their clients and in front of a jury. It was doctors who wanted to communicate better,” Landry said. “I have done drama therapy in prisons before. What it does is it grounds an underprivileged community. Even if it’s a disadvantaged community of Caucasians, the theater can be a guide to get out of places.”

An improv couple who have been married since 1991, Landry and her husband Hans Summers, along with people whose skills keep things moving, make up the Ledge’s board of directors. Summers and Jeffrey Thompson handle finances, Stephen C. James is director of education, Marshall Givens and Royce Shockley handle programming, and Becky Brett oversees fundraising.

Vincent Carubia, owner of Skiptown Playhouse

Vincent Carubia, owner of Skiptown Playhouse, stands in a living room.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Programming and fundraising during a pandemic is challenging. The group found a temporary home at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre, but as shows ramped up – including recent musical The Streaming-Verse of Madness: An Unauthorized Musical Parody starring Aidan Park – The Ledge had to reconsider that arrangement. The group recently relocated to Skiptown Playhouse, but their goal is to have their own theatrical and educational space.

Despite business woes like an unstable theater base, an uncooperative California Arts Council (the group is too new for funding), a rollercoaster ride of a pandemic (a COVID spike propelled the Ledge’s opening online), and constant attempts to ensure that Artists being paid, the board members remain focused on what brought them all together.

“Not many comedy theaters are nonprofit because there’s a stigma that comedy is worth it,” said Brett, who lives in Hawaii and is always looking to raise funds for The Ledge. She has seen how improvisation can help people and understands that “representation matters”.

“When kids can see their life played out on stage and see that it can end well, it can change their entire trajectory,” Brett said.

While the board of directors attends to the business of the Ledge, members of the group perform and teach theater to children, youth and adults. They have developed a full arts curriculum for schools – improvisational theater that goes beyond comedy and drama – and targeting the POC and LGBTQIA+ communities is just one step on a larger corrective path.

“We basically – all of us who are on the board and who are performers – have all had the experience of being the only black performer in a group of white improvisers or performers and wondered why there aren’t more people who like us on stage or in the seats,” James said.

A man on a ladder and a woman looking at him

Hans Summers strikes a deal with Shaun Landry in a backstage room at the Skiptown Playhouse in Los Angeles.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“When Shaun shared that post on Facebook, I was like, ‘She figured it out.’ That’s what we do. We’re opening a theater that’s ours and we’re inviting everyone and normalizing the notion that the leadership is a black woman. That the faculty is made up of all different races and genders and backgrounds and we basically make it where it just isn’t – no offense [them] – a bunch of white guys in hoodies and New Balance shoes. We spread the word by opening up the world.”

Shockley, too, quickly recognized the importance of Landry’s idea and offered his help.

“Because I’m also the director of [the Pack Theater]what I’m learning in one place, I take that knowledge and just think, ‘Where can I help somewhere else?’ Be it “Hey, I have this contact” or “Hey, here’s an idea on how to do this business,” Shockley said.

“I loved the first show because it was a little bit of everything. That’s basically what we want from theatre. Comedy is for everyone; it shouldn’t just be done by a group of people.”

“That’s essentially what we’ve come to expect from theatre. Comedy is for everyone. Because it’s for everyone; it shouldn’t just be done by a group of people.”

– The Ledge board member Royce Shockley

This spirit of pushing it forward is also at the root of Ledge’s educational philosophy.

“For the kids who are coming through, the goal of a lesson on the Ledge is – yes, we’ll get you on the stage – but the goal is to leave so you can create your own theater and your own voice and you can be your own leader.” will. Take it and carry it on and give it to someone else,” Landry said.

It’s still early for the Ledge. His most impressive show to date was Marsha Warfield (of Night Court fame). It was a full house, and Warfield told Landry that she planned to return. Landry became friends with Warfield through their shared upbringing: They, along with Bernie Mac, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Chaka Khan, all hail from the same general Chicago neighborhood and share great talent and big personalities.

Landry may not want to hear it, but the theater company’s success may depend on her. As a founder, she has the drive, knowledge, connections and charisma that could drive growth. She opens her home to any creative who needs it and is just as generous with her gift of teaching and performing.

“If you’ve ever been on stage with her, she makes you feel right at home,” James said. “And then when you’re backstage with her, she feels like home. She basically carries it home everywhere.”

“Contrary to popular belief, I hate performing at the Ledge. I love performing there, but I hate it because it’s not The Shaun Landry Show,” Landry said. “This isn’t about me, it’s about all of us, so I prefer not to have myself or Hans perform. I prefer to teach.

“I want this to be inclusive, with different voices and different viewpoints.”

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