One of the first events Mettlesome staged was almost rained out. The show, in honor of local comedian Paula Pazderka, took place in Ashley Melzer and Jack Reitz's Durham garage, where they hung black shower curtains from the rafters. A makeshift tarp sagged under the deluge, threatening to drench the audience seated below. Melzer stopped the show to flip the stage perpendicular and move the audience inside the garage. It was hot and stuffy, but the show not only went on; it was a resounding success.
"Those weren't Mettlesome shows; they were just our community getting together," Melzer says. "But they made me realize the need for community-organized theater."
Mettlesome—which means "full of spirit"—began in 2016, when Melzer, formerly a performer and an employee at DSI Comedy, saw the need for a safe, positive space for local storytelling. (DSI infamously closed this year, following sexual-misconduct allegations against owner Zach Ward.) Comedy, in particular, seemed to exist only in partitioned communities: there was little overlap between theaters like DSI and ComedyWorx. Melzer wanted to connect different creative people through shared projects.
"Too many people who were in power were running comedy theaters like it was a gym system," Melzer says. "You pay your dues, you get your weekly show. For better or worse, it was life coaching in the form of improv. My hope is that, with Mettlesome, we can recognize that we have strong perspectives and creative possibilities, and we can begin to tell a story about the new South."
Melzer began working with Rose Werth, also formerly of DSI, and Reitz, who is now Melzer's husband. They reached out to people throughout the Triangle to talk about collaborating on new projects and hosted whiteboard meetings where they discussed new ways to build artistic communities, including giving more power and flexibility to performers, untying them from a single theater.
Now, what started in a home garage has grown into a full-fledged collective and small business that produces eleven ongoing shows, podcasts, and projects in the Triangle.
"Mettlesome is at the forefront of redefining comedy in the Triangle," says Shane Smith, one of the hosts of The Dangling Loafer, a stand-up showcase in Raleigh. "Not only that, they all have an enormous heart. They are all smart, compassionate, good people."
Mettlesome regards itself as a bold voice redefining the front porch, with a commitment to both diversifying the stories they tell and cultivating a distinctly regional voice of North Carolina and the South.
"People have found power in being where they are from and having a regional voice. Merge Records is Merge Records because they are in Durham," Melzer says. "Comedy has that same power!"
Mettlesome is not tied to a physical space. Instead, it works across a host of venues, ranging from Monkey Bottom Collaborative to The Vault at Palace International, from the Pittsboro Youth Theater to Kings in Raleigh. This is a deliberate strategy to draw in different communities, a thoughtfulness that is apparent in everything Mettlesome undertakes. The Racket is a monthly showcase for improv teams, where Werth tries to book a team from each of the major cities. In Golden Age, Melzer and Werth invite special guests from outside of the comedy scene, including bands such as Hardworker and writers such as Crystal Simone Smith, to perform alongside an improv team. These shows draw eclectic audiences.
This summer, in the wake of DSI's closure, Mettlesome organized a "Yes, And No" panel at Manbites Dog Theater to discuss how to create safer, more equitable spaces in comedy. It also hosts a monthly show called Improv Noir at the Vault that features an all African-American team.
"The root of why [stereotyping and harassment] happens is that so much of improv is based upon pinpointing and identifying something that is unusual, then heightening it," Reitz says. "And if the base palette is straight, white, and male, then anyone who doesn't fit that is going to come off as unusual. We need to make sure our palette is diverse enough that we are able to identify actual unusual things, not act like being a woman or being black is unusual."
Reitz says they drew a lot of inspiration from places like Backroom Shakespeare in Chicago, which takes untraditional approaches and lets performers control their own projects.
On September 2, 2016, Mettlesome hosted its first show outside of their garage, the Racket, at The Shed in Durham. Since then, they've produced it every month on First Friday.
This year, Mettlesome has produced seventy-nine shows at ten different venues. Next year, they plan to go even bigger: while continuing their high volume of shows, they want to offer more classes and facilitate a network for improv performers who want to join teams, find coaches, and get stage time.
"We're creating it as we go," Werth says. "Not everybody has to have a single building that they go to in order to feel like they are part of the collective that is Mettlesome."
It is an exciting time for comedy in the Triangle, as old silos fall away and new ones emerge. Mettlesome has taken the lead in facilitating the Triangle's independent comedy scene at a time when it is healing from the DSI debacle and warily eyeing newcomer The PIT, which has some of the same problems (see the INDY's exposé from last week). Still, Mettlesome's core team is too humble to say they're here to save local comedy, even though they probably are.
"We're not here to be the saviors or caretakers of a community," Reitz says. "We're just trying to do good work."