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New Frogtown Theater Focuses on Collaboration and Experimentation

Nonprofit Elysian Theater seeks to push comedy boundaries without making anyone feel othered.

Zack Zucker, a white man with brown hair, stands on a stage, looking sweaty and disheveled with a black suit, a button down shirt and a loosened tie. He holds a mic and gestures with his hands towards the crowd.
Zack Zucker losing it to the music of Lenny Kravitz. (Photo: Kate Gallagher)

Zack Zucker twirls around the microphone by its cord, tosses up an apple, smashes it with the mic, and watches the pieces fly across the stage. Then he makes a finger gun, as “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz blasts from the speaker system. He continues this bit at length, and threatens to destroy the apple over the audience. The audiences winces and groans, but he spares us. At the Elysian, a typical comedy show is playfully absurd, and there is always the threat of potential audience interaction.

“It’s experimental,” says the Elysian’s executive director Kate Banford on the space. “It’s pushing people. It’s for someone who’s into going to a performance art show but also like, ‘I wanna laugh.’” The theater had a soft opening on October 25, and a “live birth” on October 30, both which featured clown performances and a wide array of talent. Upcoming shows include Whitmer Thomas, Jamie Loftus workshopping some sort of hot dog show, Natalie Palamides in her iconic egg getup, poetry, and musician Jason Mraz. Palamides is on the theater’s board of directors along with Banford, Alex Plapinger, Jocey Florence, Ian Blair, and Kimberly Stuckwisch.

The Frogtown-based theater is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a five-person board of directors, which Banford — who founded and co-owned the Good Good Comedy Theatre in Philadelphia — says allows the theater more leeway to take risks: “We can put money towards people taking risks, and not worry about having to monetize the space. It’s about supporting the space, the community, and paying performers and the people who are working at the space.” Banford says that the setup has also given the comedy theater access to people whose time and expertise would not otherwise be available. “With my last theater company, we didn’t have a lawyer … A lawyer wouldn’t be down to donate their services if we weren’t a nonprofit. They’d be like, ‘give me 10k right now.’” 

Three people with white clown makeup stands on a stage. One, dressed like the Biblical Eve, turns away from Adam, who reaches toward here with pursed lips.
Clowns wordlessly extolling the history of Los Angeles comedy. (Photo: Kate Gallagher)

The Elysian came together quickly beginning in March of 2021, which Banford says is “the most insane timeline I’ve ever dealt with with a theater kind of a budget — it was like making a movie.” Technical director Isaac Taylor introduced Banford to Alex Plapinger. “He really champions subversive and groundbreaking performance stuff,” Banford says of Plapinger. The theater — which may have been built sometime in 1927 — was previously a children’s theater academy, and there are leftover set pieces, like a huge church window on the middle of the wall.

Comedian Robin Tran holds a microphone and stands on a stage with a black background. Tran wears glasses, a black coat and a red shirt underneath.
Comedian Robin Tran with a banger of a set. (Photo: Kate Gallagher)

Banford says that she wants the theater to be an alternative to Los Angeles’ comedy club scene. “Some people are saying really fucked up othering things that like push people away and make people feel ostracized,” Banford says. “And I hate that … It’s not the entire comedy club scene, but it’s a portion of it.” Banford also clarifies saying that the comedy at her theater will still push extremes and boundaries, but not in the way that would make individuals feel targeted and unwelcome. She also sees the theater as less focused on individual acts and showcases, and hopes it can be a space for collaboration and group process. “That’s really exciting to me, to see different people meld [their work] together.”

Banford is excited by other more experimental arts and performance spaces in Los Angeles, and encourages people to check out other spaces like Coaxial Arts, The Yard, Pieter Performance, Non Plus Ultra, and Heavy Manners Library