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Arts & Culture

People are laughing at ArtsQuest's new performance venue

ArtsQuest Comedy 3
John J. Moser
The room inside the Bethlehem Visitor Center on the SteelStacks campus that ArtsQuest is using for comedy performances.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — When, months ago, ArtsQuest started presenting some of its comedy shows in the Bethlehem Visitor Center on the SteelStacks campus, it might have seemed like a silly idea.

But nobody's laughing now — except for patrons attending the comedy offerings.

  • The Bethlehem Visitor Center has become ArtsQuest's regular location for comedy shows
  • The center's intimate 100-seat capacity lends itself to comedy, officials say
  • ArtsQuest is eyeing a dedicated comedy venue in the planned cultural center that will replace the Banana Factory

ArtsQuest has held scores of comedy shows in the space, with nearly 30 more scheduled through spring and summer.

And now ArtsQuest has plans for its first venue dedicated to comedy — in the new cultural center to be built on the site of the Banana Factory in Bethlehem, ArtsQuest Senior Programming Director Ryan Hill said.

Virtually since the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks opened in 2011, comedy shows have been booked there, but in the same rooms as music — and movies, as in the center's Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema.

"Our comedy shows were being produced in our cinemas — meaning, obviously, we couldn’t show movies during that time," Hill said.

Comedy also was offered in the ArtsQuest Center's smaller Blast Furnace Room, "which is often a room that is rented out for private events and such," Hill said, and the main Musikfest Cafe, where the 500-seat capacity is too large for any but the most popular comedy shows.

'It made a lot of sense'

Nearly a year ago, ArtsQuest officials hit upon a novel idea for presenting of some of its comedy shows: the Visitor Center — the restored 1863 Stock House, the oldest building on the SteelStacks campus.

An exhibit had moved out, opening up the building's main room to be used for other purposes.

"One of the big rules of producing comedy is that distraction is the enemy of comedy, and some of the spaces, just because of the natural dynamic nature of the ArtsQuest Center, there’s often a lot of things going on."
Ryan Hill, ArtsQuest's senior director of programming

"When we were looking at ways in which we could use it, I think one of the ways that came up that seemed to be probably one of the best for the organization, in general, was to move a fair amount of our comedy shows in there," Hill said.

The visitor center closes at 4 or 5 p.m. daily, and isn't used for other events "all that often," Hill said.

"The visitor center also doesn’t have nearly as much going on around it," Hill said. "One of the big rules of producing comedy is that distraction is the enemy of comedy, and some of the spaces, just because of the natural dynamic nature of the ArtsQuest Center, there’s often a lot of things going on.

“So it made a lot of sense to move into that room."

During its operating hours, the visitor center still is the place where people check in for historic tours or shop for souvenirs.

“During the day, it is still very much a visitor center that people can come and visit and get Bethlehem Steel merchandise and things like that," Hill said. "But then on the weekend nights, we turn it into a small comedy room.”

Now comedy's usual location

ArtsQuest's biggest comedy shows still are held in the bigger rooms at ArtsQuest Center.

Recently announced shows include comedic actress and "Last Comic Standing" finalist Rachel Feinstein on April 21, actor/comedian Brian Posehn on April 28, and national radio personality Jim Norton on May 19.

The Blast Furnace Room, with a capacity of about 250, also continues to offer comedy shows. Recently announced was an April 15 show by Earl David Reed, who has appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Comedy 1.jpg
John J. Moser
Bethlehem Visitor Center on the SteelStacks campus has become a location for comedy shows.

But the visitor center has become far more ArtsQuest's usual venue to present comedy.

Two thirds of all comedy shows now scheduled for SteelStacks venues — 27 of 40 — are set to be held in the visitor center.

On Saturday, March 11, it offered Synched Up, an improv comedy group that appears regularly, and the comedy duo The Mister Sisters for a karaoke comedy show on the same night.

Similarly, on March 31, it will offer "Spoiler Alert," a show in which comedians Matt Candio and Jon Lunger take the audience through largely improvised versions of classic movies, at 7:30 p.m., and "The Sequel Show," a film-centric improv comedy show, at 9:30 p.m.

In April, there will be the improv show "We're Good, You're Great," also a recurring offering, and The Improv Jam-ber-EE, a free, monthly event for would-be improvisors.

'We have had rave reviews'

Tickets for most other shows are $10 or less; headliners usually cost $16.

Recently announced headline shows at the visitor center are Zach Zimmerman, who has appeared on "The Late Late Show," on April 1; New York-based comedian Tina Friml on April 14; and New Jersey comedian Glen Tickle filming his next special "Glen Tickle Against the World Crime League" on April 22.

In all, 12 comedy shows are scheduled in the visitors center during April.

“That room also lends itself to a very, I think, intimate setting. ... So shows that we know will be in that range, this is a good spot for them."
Ryan Hill, ArtsQuest senior director of programming

Hill said the center's smaller capacity — about 100 — means “that room also lends itself to a very, I think, intimate setting. ... So shows that we know will be in that range, this is a good spot for them.

“And we have had rave reviews from the comics who have performed in there about just the overall vibe in that room, too. Definitely from comics or improv teams who have performed in some of the other spaces, too, that this one just feels a little bit more conducive to what we’re looking to do."

Comedy Club at ArtsQuest
John J. Moser/LehighValleyNews.com
A sign inside the Visitor's Center at ArtsQuest directs visitors to comedy shows.

Cultural center's dedicated comedy space

With success at the visitor center, ArtsQuest is looking to establish its first venue dedicated to comedy.

“The end goal [is] when we build the cultural center to replace the Banana Factory, that will have a dedicated comedy space inside it," Hill said.

The proposed $22 million, five-story arts center, for which the Banana Factory's six buildings in the first block of West Third Street would be demolished, would contain studios and classes, much like those at the Banana Factory.

Bethlehem City Council in August voted to approve the project.

ArtsQuest also has said it would include a 125-seat black box theater for educational classes and comedy shows.

Hill emphasized the commitment to a comedy space at the new cultural center.

“Our comedy community deserves that space," he said.

"They deserve something that is dedicated to them, to the art form of comedy specifically, so that they’re not feeling that they’re, basically, kind of infringing or kind of squatting, essentially, on some other art form’s space.”

ArtsQuest has said previously that it hopes to break ground for the new center this year.