The Staircase Theatre’s improvisation community provides a perfect place for creative people to connect during the pandemic
By: Kate Whitesell-O’Melia, Contributor
Photo C/O Kakerr from TripAdvisor
The Staircase theatre has been an incubator for the Hamilton arts scene since it was founded in 1998. The theatre was originally a hydro building but was converted into a 67-seat theatre where Hamilton’s improvisation community has gathered for over 20 years.
Along with housing performances of improv groups such as The Understudies, Staircase theatre has fostered the Improv Staircase community, a group of individuals that are brought together by their passion for improv.
Kristi Boulton is a voice actor, podcaster and comedian who joined the Staircase Improv community in 2013 when she graduated from McMaster University. Boulton recounted her time at the Staircase theatre and her first time performing with her group The Understudies.
“There’s just nothing like it. The laugh that you get it’s so genuine and in the moment and real that it just lights your soul on fire . . . [the Staircase] is such a safe space to play and be a total goofball. It’s scary for sure, but it’s also magical,” said Boulton.
Boulton went on to become a voice actor and podcaster with the show Civilized. Boulton said that if it wasn’t for the Staircase, she would not have had the courage to connect with other comedians.
Last year, performances and gatherings at the Staircase theatre were put on pause due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Since Staircase Improv has been teaching online improv bubbles on Monday and Wednesday nights.
Staircase Improv teacher, Bill Dunphy, joined the community in 2011 and has been teaching Zoom improv bubbles during the pandemic.
“It is very much the difference between having your seven-year-olds being able to spend two hours in the playground doing whatever they wanted to, whether it’s ball or running or talking or whatever, and then having a Zoom chat. Okay yeah, they’re still together, they still see each other, interact, but it’s a very different thing and that’s resulted in a real impact on our community members,” said Dunphy.
Many university students can relate — classes aren’t the same online as they were in person because it lacks the component of being with your peers while learning and growing together. Dunphy hopes to see a fair number of members returning once it is possible to do safely.
During the pandemic, the Staircase theatre almost closed permanently. In August 2020, the former owners announced that there were selling the venue.
“It was such a blow to the community when we realized that the theatre space was potentially going to close because it is that home for so many people,” said Boulton.
Luckily, the theatre was bought by new owners who are continuing the Staircase’s former message. Performances will continue once it is safe to do so and in the meantime, the theatre is open virtually for anyone to try improv.
“I recommend it to everyone, anyone who wants to get creative . . . The simplest thing is just come out to one of the Monday or Wednesday drop-ins. No experience is needed. We welcome everyone,” said Dunphy.
On a personal note, I had the pleasure of attending a Wednesday night improv class myself. I had no previous experience and was nervous to put myself in a situation where others could see me react with no time to stop and think.
I felt that fear melt away as the night went on solely because the group was so welcoming and accepting of my lack of improv skills. Dunphy and Boulton recommend anyone interested in expressing creativity try improv and, after participating in Staircase Improv, I wholeheartedly agree.