Audio by Valerie Lopez, Words by Lara Smith
Have you ever seen that beautiful sign (it’s actually called a blade) on Congress in downtown Austin that says Paramount in beautiful shining lights? Better yet, ever been to a show there? Well, you can thank Chief Programming Officer Lietza Brass for the fantastic show you experienced there. We recently sat down with her, deep in the back rooms of the Stateside Theatre on a busy Saturday during SXSW, to find out about how she got her start in programming great performances and became the mastermind of Moontower Comedy Festival.
A graduate of The University of Texas, Brass got her degree in interior design, and while that’s a far cry from theater production and programming, it was a very natural segue into becoming a prop buyer for The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Brass lived there for several years and would eventually become the company manager for The Old Globe, where she really started to learn the business. However in 2002, the Capital City beckoned her back and into the arms of the Austin Theater Alliance, housing the Paramount and Stateside Theatres, which were primarily doing musical theater productions at the time. For a time she was the event manager there, but when her supervisor left, she began the intense on-the-job training of becoming the booking agent for the Paramount.
After Brass took over programming in 2004, the theater began to shift focus from the musical theater format to a wider variety of productions. Priding themselves on catering to the entertainment savvy and highly educated audience goers of Austin, they began to move toward a balance of commercially viable and artistically significant programming. These savvy audiences “like to learn and laugh at the same time,” and the Paramount offered a perfect venue for comedy. In addition to comedy being an easy set up for the venue, comedians love the space. Alone on stage, a velvet curtain behind them, Brass explains, “they also have all of this beautiful architecture surrounding them so they have instant intimacy and it fills in the atmosphere so they don’t feel so alone.”
Seeing it become a natural venue for comedy, during Thanksgiving break of 2011, the seed was planted for a comedy festival to be the next logical jump. Booking one venue was one thing, but an entire festival required much bigger resources. Who else would Brass turn to for such an endeavor? None other than Cap City Comedy Club’s Margie Coyle. Having been in the business herself for over two decades and with partners, Colleen McGarr and Rich Miller to reach out to, it was a natural next step. Within weeks they were all in a room together. As it turns out, a festival was something the team from Cap City had frequently discussed, but lacked a large venue to anchor the monumental undertaking. Like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of comedy proportions, each had something the other needed to make the perfect festival come together. Paramount Theatre (let’s call them the chocolate) and Cap City Comedy Club (the peanut butter) each brought something to this symbiotic relationship to make the ideal festival for Austin.
In its seventh year, Brass says the Moontower Comedy Festival has fine-tuned the logistics of the festival and created badges that cater to the needs and desires of the hardcore comedy fans they’ve identified and dubbed “The Warrior.” But this festival isn’t just for the fans, when organizing the festival, Brass states their mission was to take “the best possible care of the comedians” so that the festival would be a success. It’s a philosophy that has paid off. Comedians now refer to it as “Comedy Camp” because it’s so much fun to work and attend. Each year following the festival, surveys go out to see how people enjoyed their experience and to give feedback on how to make it even better. Identifying these metrics, taking care of the talent, and responding to feedback has made the festival an ever-improving success.
Looking forward to the 2018 Moontower lineup, which runs April 18-21, they have added even more podcasts, such as Raised by TV with Lauren Lapkus and Jon Gabrus and Jackie Kashian’s The Dork Forest. Brass is looking forward to the hilarious and talented Tiffany Haddish, whose career is red hot right now (in case you hadn’t heard). Moontower has also added the new venue of Palm Door on Sixth Street, which will be host to Nikki Glaser’s new SiriusXM show You Up. One more new and exciting change this year is the new Netflix Lounge at the Aloft, which will serve as the lounge for comedians and festival goers, as well as host this year’s after party. With the return of the old favorites such as SHEBANG!, the proprietary Moontower all-female showcase, and Ping Pong Slapdown hosted by the Sklar Brothers, Brass is confident that the combination of new and traditional shows will make this year’s Moontower Comedy Festival truly unforgettable.