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It’s show time in Bloomingdale again.
Tomorrow afternoon, the Unified Scene Theater will host its inaugural open house at 80 T St. NW, formerly a storefront church. The theater, cofounded by DC Improv alumnus Shawn Westfall and his wife Kathy Baird Westfall, will provide Bloomingdale with a multi-use performance space designed for shows, training classes, art, and local meetings. It’s the first space of its kind in the neighborhood, steps from the strip of restaurants near First and T streets NW.
“What we have is an intimate space that punches above its weight class,” says Shawn Westfall, who’s taught improvisational comedy for the past 12 years. “There’s a lot of energy in the neighborhood, but there’s really not much by way of entertainment. It just made perfect sense to go in there.”
At roughly 800 square feet, the space will be able to seat about 45 to 50 people per show and 60 to 70 people for standing-room-only events. The Westfalls are renting the storefront for $2,000 a month since signing a lease in March. Shawn says when they went to visit the spot in February, it wasn’t in great shape; previous renters had tiled over the preexisting floors, amounting to 20 years worth of old layers. “It was almost like we were anthropologists going to excavate,” Westfall says. The pair ripped up the floors and refurbished the space with white walls and bright lights.
The Westfalls haven’t planned much programming yet, but the theater will put on a show Sept. 25, featuring nine-person “indie improv team” The Haddington Club and Westfall’s own duo, ShawnMichael(s), which has staged sold-out shows in Columbia Heights for the past 30 months or so.
On Aug. 13, the theater space hosted an art show featuring the paintings of local artist Andrew Cressman. In that vein, Westfall describes his vision for Unified Scene Theater as a “comedy locavore” in Bloomingdale that will tap into, and be a catalyst for, the neighborhood’s artists. The name of the theater comes from the lyrics of the Hold Steady, an indie-rock outfit from Brooklyn; in the song “Stay Positive,” frontman Craig Finn sings about a utopic “unified scene” in which various “scene leaders” will “forget where they differ and get [the] big picture.”
“Our space is the edgier cousin you had, who probably spent some time in juvie,” Westfall says. “We’re taking greater chances, doing more eccentric things with our comedy. If we throw something up and it doesn’t work, we’ll clean up the mess—that’s where we’re at right now.”
Unified Scene Theater will be Westfall’s first foray into running a full-time business. Previously, the Indiana native spent four years in the Air Force and otherwise led what he calls a “peripatetic life.” (In Utah, for example, he once took acting classes with Kent Bateman, Jason and Justine’s father, at which point, Westfall confesses, he didn’t know anything about improv.) Since then, he’s pursued a career in advertising and communications as a day job, teaching nights at DC Improv, one of the city’s most visible comedy clubs.
The theater will eventually charge for tickets to pay performers. Westfall also hopes to partner with local restaurants like nearby Boundary Stone, Big Bear Cafe, and Pub & The People to advertise classes and shows. He says he has no current plans to get a liquor license.
“We’re improvisers; we don’t make money doing this,” Westfall says of his UST business plans. “If you go into it wanting to make money, you’re an idiot. All we’re hoping to do is break even.”
The first 50 people who show up at tomorrow’s event, scheduled to take place from noon until 6 p.m., will get a free T-shirt with Unified Scene’s logo. There will be beer, snacks, and music on vinyl. The Westfalls are promising the theater will be “a buttload of fun and awesomeness.”
Photos courtesy of Shawn Westfall