Tucked between a hot pot place and a nail salon on the corner of Broadway and Rural is something new, something exciting. The Bridge Improv Theater is a space to provide entertainment sure, but also a space to learn, to grow, and more importantly a place for opportunity – we’ll explain that more later. I sat down with David Raftery, co-owner of the Bridge Improv Theater in Tempe, and learned about the art of improv, and the power of a place like The Bridge.
The Bridge Improv Theater, offering Clean & Clever Comedy (as their doors proudly state), is sure to be a communal fixture for years to come. Clean comedy means no low brow stuff, not going for the raunchy, racy, and expletive riddled content of many comedy specials. More Jim Gaffigan, less Sarah Silverman. It’s not just a venue for shows, it’s a school for would-be comedians and improvisers, a space for anyone to rent, and even boasts podcast studio space. But the bread and butter? That’s the improv.
What’s improv exactly? We’ll let the expert tell you in his words.
“Improv is very welcoming, ‘Raftery explained. “It’s all about agreement, it’s all about saying yes, it’s all about positivity and just having fun… Stand-up comedy you have to be funny pretty much. Improv, you don’t have to be funny, you just have to be creative and everybody has the creative part of their brain.”
“Improv inherently is funny. but (…) improv in itself doesn’t have to be only comedy,” Raftery explained. “Improv in itself has many different forms and many different formats.”
Improv can be comedy, it can be drama, it can be 20-minute musicals or performers writing songs together on stage. Improv as it turns out, is a lot of things.
There’s short-form improv, where the improvisers play games with structures and rules for 3-4 minutes, like Whose Line is it Anyway? There’s longform which takes those structures and demands the improvisers execute them longer, upwards of 45 minutes.
“As a creator or an artist the long-form is a lot more rewarding when executed properly, and short-form is just fun.”
The Bridge Improv Theater started at a fairly innocuous time: March 13th, 2020.
In late 2019, David and fellow improviser and cofounder Travis Johnson decided they wanted to open their theater, getting their business plan together right on March 13th, 2002
The theater was able to open as the environment would allow. But after a few weeks of rehearsals and a show, they’d close down for a few months. Repeat for the next year.
The timing of the pandemic certainly hurt many businesses around the world, but The Bridge surprisingly benefited from the change, much to everyone’s delight.
“In a strange way it’s been a blessing in disguise – no other business gets to operate for a few weeks, see what worked and what didn’t, and then go back and like all you can do now is analyze that. While you’re operating and going 100% you might miss things,” David said.
While their first year in business may be marked by starts and stops, this isn’t the first year of improv for David. He’s been learning, performing, and teaching improv since high school.
“I found improv in high school, fell in love with it,” he reminisced. David ran troupes in Yuma after high school, then in Phoenix, and continued to study improv every way he could – through books, workshops, and the Phoenix Improv Festival. “Any knowledge that I could get I was just taking in.”
Then he got into JesterZ Improv in Mesa, and learned a new angle for improv.
“They were like the quote-unquote “big time”… But they were a clean theater. I was so used to doing whatever on stage and I didn’t know how I felt about clean comedy.” David rose to the challenge. “The most challenging thing is can you be funny for everyone in this audience. Can you get to a point where your improv ,or your play, on stage is like yeah this kid enjoys it but the adults are like man he’s good.”
It was at JesterZ where David received further experience in both education and the business. “I became Education Director there, I wrote a curriculum and being Education Director there I saw a lot of the business side of owning a theater. ”
Running troupes was one thing, but running a theater was bigger and he couldn’t do it alone.
“I had been performing with Travis at JesterZ for years but he also had had the same feeling so we kind of united and opened this place.” And they brought Clean and Clever with them. “We love the message of clean and clever… in the comedy scene I see from stand-up comics to like improv troupes who go there first, their fundamentals and technique are just not as good.”
The other thing they’re bringing to their theater? Opportunity.
Raftery and the Bridge Improv are taking that decade plus of experience and opportunity to pay it forward. If the Bridge Improv is about one thing (other than making folks laugh) it’s opportunity.
“We have scholarships up on our website to increase diversity inside of comedy. It’s very dominated in a certain way, so we have scholarships to increase the footprint of diversity within comedy. But also, my favorite saying is the best improviser in Phoenix, the best comedian in Phoenix? Is walking around somewhere and they don’t even know. Because they’ve just lived their life without the opportunity.
“So that’s a big part of what we do here. We want to increase that opportunity and have people discover what they may have been missing from their life,” says David.
Rafety and the Bridge Improv have one message for anyone who has even the slightest interest.
“Welcome to your new pastime, welcome to your new home away from home. You’re gonna love this place. We’re all about providing as much opportunity, whether that’s opportunity to better yourself or see a show.”
The theater has a number of other surprises that I’ll leave for you to discover when you visit. What Travis and David have done with their space is truly something special.
Check out The Bridge Improv, give them a call at (602) 460-3303 or visit them at:
937 E Broadway Rd Ste 4
Tempe, AZ 85282