August 11, 2008

A History: Roving Imp Theater

The exciting conclusion to the history of the Roving Imp Theater straight from the fingers of John Robison:

The Imp Creation Story, Part 2:

I searched for an appropriate building for a long time. I looked in all parts of the city. My target area at the time was somewhere around 75th & 1-35. However, it soon became apparent that any type of commercial property in that area was going to be WAY out of my price range. I found a building I really liked that was just on the Kansas side of Westport. I loved the building. It was perfect. It was $400,000. The only building I was able to find that both had potential and was in my price range was on the main street of Bonner Springs, about 20-30 minutes west of Kansas City. However, I wasn’t able to reach a deal with the owner that we were both happy with.

So I decided to chill out for awhile. It was the beginning of November. My thinking was that if I waited until after the first of the year, the market would have changed enough that more buildings might be available for better prices. After a month, just after Thanksgiving, I got a call from the owner of the building in Bonner Springs, a man in his mid-60s originally from Italy. He said, “I haven’t heard from you… what’s going on, you don’t like foreigners?” I shot back, “Foreigners I’m OK with. It’s the Italians I’ve got problems with.” Within another two weeks we’d hammered out a deal. It turned out that time had done a lot of the negotiating for me, and it was a lot easier this time. The only real consideration at that point was that the building wasn’t in the center city. However, it did have two apartments connected, with potential space down below, so there was a guarantee of income. I decided to go ahead, reasoning that if you have a quality product, people will come to see it no matter where it is located. Also, Bonner Springs was something of a cultural void… ready for the planting of cultural seeds that will one day be ready for harvest. (By the way, so far, the “build it and they will come” approach has worked out OK…)

We were scheduled to close on March 1, 2007. I was super freaked at this point, as everything that had before been a pie-in-the-sky fantasy was suddenly terrifying stark reality. It was all going down, and I was the one in charge of it. At that point, my thinking was that we needed to get up and running as soon as humanly possible. We would have the building, and we needed to start the operation of the business so we could start revenue streams. (or at least revenue trickles.) I set the completely insane “what the hell are you thinking” deadline opening date of April 7, 2007. That’s right. One month. One month to remodel the inside of the building, do marketing, assemble a performance team, advertise for classes, and implement the business plan. It was the most thrilling, frightening, exhausting, exhilarating month I have ever lived. It was terrible, hard work, as we had to completely gut the interior and rebuild it in our chosen image. Once we decided on the final layout (we chose our third option), we started working in earnest. I’ll never be able to repay my two brothers, sister, or wife for that month. Two walls came down. Three walls went up. Two bathrooms materialized. A new ceiling went up. The seats got moved in and attached, despite the guy at the U-Haul threatening to burn my house down in the middle of the night because I had the gaul to complain that he’d overcharged me. (Yes, that really happened.) A big complex light box went up into the ceiling. The stage got built. The sound system went in. Advertisements went into newspapers and online. I talked to everyone I knew. Some really kind people came in and helped construct and paint. Rehearsals happened. I remember a few of those early rehearsals when we rehearsed in a small corner of the room because it was the only space that was clean enough in which to exist.

On some level I must have known that it was possible to do. Because we did it. There were a ton of weird city-specific regulations that nearly hung us up at the last minute (it was boring enough living it… no need to re-create it here), but we opened with three mini-shows followed by snacks and chatting. It was a great night all around. Were the shows great? Probably not. But they happened. Everyone has to start somewhere. Not bad for a group that had virtually no experience doing improv. The original group of six included me, my sister, two people I’d met doing a musical the previous summer, a friend that I’d met doing a show, and he later performed in something like four improv shows, and some random teenager that happened to wander in. That first show was fun and energetic, if not the most artistic thing to ever hit the world. The important thing is that we have gotten better since then, by several magnitudes.

I’ve learned a lot about everything since then, not just about the art of improvisation. For example, I’ve found that newspaper advertisements for me are just as useless as posting flyer's. Both are activities I really pursued with gusto in those early three months. Neither produced as much as a single audience member. I’ve learned that I need to not indulge my artistic temperament… just because I’m excited about something doesn’t mean I should immediately devote all resources towards that goal. Nowadays I put forth the idea, sit on it for a couple weeks, and then make plans to implement it two or three months down the line. This is the reason that I plan all my shows and activities at least three months in advance. It prevents me from getting excited and jumping into some foolish and fun notion.

I’m sure there’s a ton more for me to learn. As long as they aren’t painful lessons, I welcome them. Even though it was a really tough time, there’s nothing like watching a dream come true to feed your soul. Even when my soul was covered in drywall dust, paint, sweat, and more blood than I care to remember, it was still smiling. Even though financially I will certainly never be the same, one day when this theater is rolling along at an acceptably successful level, I’d consider opening another one - at a much slower, more careful, better planned and better funded pace. Don’t tell my wife. She’d leave me.

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