Jeff Ash’s prolonged vision materialized on Dec. 12, when Westside Studio, a theater for improv, opened in what was formerly Front Street Dance Studio in downtown Wheaton. Ash and his business partner Brendon Culhane brought in what Culhane referred to as “one of Chicago’s best teams,” a group from Improv Olympic called Deep Schwa.
Performances have continued and during the first weekend in January almost every seat in the house was filled during both shows.
Culhane, who coaches improv at Wheaton College with his wife Amy, said that while he was a student at Wheaton, “Improv gave me a place to get in front of a group of people and rally them around something.” As a student, Culhane was instrumental in starting the program that is now Wheaton Improv and worked as a student coach during his time as an undergraduate, 10 years ago. Then he and his wife came back to advise Wheaton Improv, bringing in better experience than what he previously had as a student.
“One thing I like about Wheaton is that it is very interested in the craft of honesty,” Culhane said of his current work with improv. He explained that even if students are not preoccupied with being funny, the level of honesty that shines through brings humor to the on-stage scenarios. “Be honest, and funny comes across,” he said.
When Ash, who had recently moved to Wheaton from Los Angeles, California, attended a college improv show last spring, he approached Culhane about embarking on a venture together. Ash’s hopes of opening a theater in Pasadena had been postponed, because according to Culhane, “Opening a theater is such a local experience.” Culhane asked Ash to come coach a Wheaton improv team.
Ash spoke of working with the team as “really enjoyable from a coaching perspective. I loved the community.”
According to Culhane, by the end of September there was an opening at the little theater on Front Street. “It was the perfect location,” he said. “Right off of Front Street, and with the most amazing comedy feel.” Culhane said that he had also felt the desire to open an improv theater, and remembers discussing the details of the venture one September night.
Ash and Culhane decided to make an offer on the theater, but the space was so competitive that they were required to do a sales pitch, much like a shark tank. However, as Culhane described, what began as a somewhat nerve-racking experience became encouraging when the theater’s owner called back to express enthusiasm for their vision.
Preparing and fixing up the theater quickly transitioned into planning shows. Culhane expressed that “we have this idea in the suburbs that long form theater is hard to do, and that it’s hard to get people.” He said it was Ash’s confidence in their ability to bring in excellent performers that inspired him. “He said, ‘We’ll get them.’”
Ash said that he initially “fell in love with improv” after taking a class at Second City Studio, and stayed there for eight years. After moving to Wheaton just over a year ago, he got involved with teams in Chicago and began coaching at Laugh out Loud Theater in Schaumburg.
“A great friendship has formed (from the partnership with Culhane),” said Ash. “We’ve become pretty close, which is funny because eight months ago we didn’t know each other.” As co-owners of the theater, they open shows every Saturday night, which, as Culhane said, “is a way of putting our money where our mouth is. It would be tough to perform improv with someone you didn’t want to work with.”
Ash shared some of the effects he has seen in improv, including thinking on your feet, interviewing for a job, writing better and simply escaping life’s pressures and experiencing the joy of creativity.
He summed up the impact he hopes Westside Studio will have, by saying, “Everyone who learns, performs. It’s really about building a community of people who enjoy the art form and enjoy being and around and experiencing it.”
According to Culhane, it was the approachability of improv that initially drew him to the art. “Anyone can do it,” he said. “It’s very inviting.” He hopes to provide a source of high-quality entertainment for the community.
The theater has shows every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m., and admission is only two dollars for students.