Last January, as DSI Comedy Theater founder Zach Ward waded through the organizational details of the NC Comedy Arts Festival (which would go on to soldier through February's ice storms), an even bigger challenge landed in his lap: DSI was about to be homeless.
Ward says he was notified mid-January that Carrboro's Carr Mill Mall would not be renewing DSI's lease in the interest of expanding an adjacent restaurant, Venable Rotisserie Bistro. DSI had six weeks to leave, though the lease was later extended for six more. (Carr Mill's property managers did not return phone calls to confirm Ward's account.)
"We probably outgrew that space in the last two or three years, but it was still our home," says Ward, for whom the news came as a shock. "I think the most frustration a person can feel is when a decision is made for them, even if it's maybe good for them. Moving was on my radar, but not for spring 2014."
DSI secured 462 W. Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, a bigger, more accessible location that opens May 1. It shows an organization accustomed to improvisation turning a stroke of bad luck into a gamble for an even wider reach.
In 2005, after four years of producing shows wherever it could, DSI moved into the 1,500 square foot loading dock on the back of Carr Mill. "After being the comedy version of a pop-up Halloween shop," Ward says, "it was exactly what we needed for that time."
The new location fills three floors and 7,000 square feet, reflecting DSI's growth. On the main floor is a lobby, bar and separate performance space. The second floor has offices, finally bringing the staff together in a dedicated space. And the basement houses green and rehearsal rooms.
While the old theater could accommodate 84 patrons, the new one can handle a seated occupancy of 153 or a standing one of 249. There will be comedy five nights a week instead of three—two shows on Tuesday through Thursday, three on Friday and four on Saturday. "This creates opportunities for traveling comedians that Cat's Cradle has created for musicians," Ward says. "Comics with weekend shows in D.C. and Atlanta can do a weeknight here in between."
With two beer taps, many local craft beers and a wine selection, as opposed to the former theater's handful of bottles, DSI has the potential to become a hangout spot, not just a venue. You can even watch the shows in the theater on monitors out in the bar.
Formerly occupied by a bar called Mansion 462, the space needed considerable renovation. DSI worked with an architect to put in a box office, stage and tech booth, and to build out the office and rehearsal rooms. About half of the work is being funded with a Kickstarter campaign, currently nearing its $35,000 goal.
With its nationally renowned festival and Ward's success working for larger theaters such as ImprovBoston, DSI is likely the Triangle's leading comedy organization. Ward says he got many emails with offers of help when the news of DSI's plight broke.
"In order to open a space that we and the community would be proud of," he says, "we didn't want to cut the corners we might have been forced to by moving when we weren't financially expecting to."
To celebrate opening weekend, Ward booked New York musical comedy team Pop Roulette, who weren't able to make the festival because of the ice storm. Like the theater itself, it seems like a symbolically triumphant way to close a turbulent chapter in DSI's history.
This article appeared in print with the headline "On the fly."