Photos by John Anderson
A small theater is much more than the sum of its nightly performances or its improv and sketch classes. A small theater is an atmosphere, and Fallout Theater has its own distinctive atmosphere.
Even the location is unique. The small black-box comedy club is housed in a former nuclear fallout shelter in the basement of the nearly 100-year-old York Rite building at the sloping sidewalk entrance of Seventh and Lavaca, just on the perimeter of Downtown Austin’s skyscraperization. Whether it’s the old-school arcade games in the lobby (where I mean centipede fix), the pounding bell announcing that the seats are vacant, the warm and inviting colors, the black light posters when entering the theater space or the “Catholic” incense that is burned to give the effect of a crazy seventies church when entering The theater there definitely has an atmosphere that has survived five turbulent years. Founded in 2018 on the rubble of the scandal-plagued New Movement Theater, it’s weathered crisis after crisis (most recently COVID), but that vibe remains as Austin comedy scene veteran Lisa Friedrich is one of the five co-owners will.
In late 2022, the theater announced a move that saw co-founder and co-owner Arielle LaGuette resign. Friedrich joins a team that has defied the odds and faced a future no one can predict. Not that Friedrich is worried. After the initial surprise of being asked to join the ownership team, the interview process began and she felt that based on previous experiences, “it was definitely a two-way interview where I wanted to make sure we all trust each other.”
Friedrich is armed with so much talent and experience. She was Artistic Director at Houston’s Station Theater and, after moving to Austin in 2013, served as New Movement Conservatory Director for several years. She has taught countless improv classes, was a longtime member of Fallout’s flagship garage troupe, and is an established stand-up comic. Combine that talent and experience with long-lasting friendships with the co-owners of Fallout Theater and that means trust. The birth of Fallout Theater came about because of broken trust at New Movement, but Friedrich said it was “a big deal” for her to take ownership with people, friends, who she trusts.
Trust is important to this vibe and always has been. Garage’s Malia Moss shared her thoughts on New Movement’s turbulent transition to Fallout in 2018: “The community around the theater was the entire social circle for a lot of us, so the stress and uncertainty surrounding the future of theater hard.”
This fallout vibe grew out of the owners and founders’ 2018 mission to treat their cast and staff differently. One of the things co-owner Aaron Walther is most proud of is that “we’ve been able to consistently pay everyone who works in the theater a lot more than we used to. That in itself created a healthier ethos.”
fltr: Fallout owner Carlos LaRotta, Lisa Friedrich, Robert Segovia, Aaron Walther (not pictured: Virgil Shelby)
You say ethos, we say vibe. Co-owner Carlos LaRotta added, “In Fallout, you can actually get paid to improvise! What a world!” Other changes introduced in 2018 included the abolition of unpaid internships (a perverse ploy that often leads to abuse of power) and the creation of a robust human resources system and code of conduct. These decisions, big and small, created an air of magic that LaRotta described as “like a Supreme Court judge trying to define porn.
What’s easy to see is that Fallout is a destination for sketch and improv performances and classes, and a hotbed for experimentation like Exploraphoria, which operates under a “free to fail” mentality. Now, this show’s creator Garrett Buss and LaRotta are at the forefront of innovation with the newly launched Fallout Theater podcast studio. But there is also consistency to support this all-important mood. One of Executive Producer Robert Segovia’s first goals as co-owner was to bring Sure Thing, a stand-up comedy showcase now in its 11th year, to the Fallout Theater where it has hosted the Friday Late since 2018. Night spot organized. Segovia said, “Getting this show has allowed us to be a home for stand-up, as well as improv and sketch.” You can see improv stars Garage (launched in 2017) and Fuck This Week (the second longest running show on Fallout). Or you can watch the longest-running show Good Fight (launched in 2014), which combines improvisation, sketch and stand-up.
“The most important thing is that we all trust her and respect her.”
– Fallout Theater executive producer Robert Segovia on new co-owner Lisa Friedrich
At Fallout, there’s not only longevity, there’s diversity, and that starts at the top, as three of the five owners are People of Color. You’ll find shows like Y’all We Asian (an all-Asian troupe led by Yola Lu), Good Pollution (led by trans performers Clara Blackstone and Ellie Winnubst), and the aforementioned Garage (headed by female and non-binary performers). It’s not just diversity in the sense of DEI, but diversity of concepts. Good Pollution describes itself as a “strange comedy for trash people,” but perhaps Laugh Track is more your pace (warning: pun ahead), where you can watch comics while running at 7 mph on a treadmill.
It wasn’t all magic, especially in 2020 and the COVID lockdowns. Layoffs were a necessity, but receiving a Small Business Administration loan (combined with the diligence of having money saved “for an emergency”) allowed the owners to reopen the creaky glass doors in spring 2021. It was’nt easy. Initially, the owners had their hands full as they served as cast members, show directors and front-of-house staff until they could be reinstated for a post-lockdown era.
Friedrich’s own full-time job (all co-owners work day jobs to pay their bills) is product marketing manager, and her expertise in marketing is where she hopes to be able to make an immediate impact. She and Brand Director Ashlee Jordan Pryor-Pitluk (married to Artistic Director Mason Pitluk) have already spoken out about Fallout’s website and – *gasp* – data analysis! Segovia praised Friedrich for having “already found a dozen small paths [Fallout] can improve.” He added, “Lisa did everything anyone can do before she became a theater owner: conservatory and artistic director, showrunner, teacher and a great performer. But the most important thing is that we all trust her and respect her.”
Mutual trust and support are necessary for the ambitious projects for 2023 (and beyond) that the theater wants to tackle. High on the agenda is the addition of a lobby bar, which levels the playing field with other performance spaces by offering the libations that audiences expect and generating income. The management team is also expanding its team-building workshops for companies, addressing a need Friedrich describes: “How many companies have come back to the office and don’t know how to talk to each other?”
Walther noted that “every company that attended these workshops had incredibly positive things to say.” Longer term, the theater is in discussions with the City of Austin about introducing a program similar to the Health Alliance for Austin musicians, but for the comedy scene.
The idea Friedrich seemed most excited about is letting the world know that “Fallout is a part of the old Austin at this point. And so really building on that and saying, ‘We’re here, we’re more than you think.'”
Fallout Theater, 616 Lavaca, 616/676-7209, falloutcomedy.com