ColdTowne Theater: Always in Motion - Valerie Lopez for The Austin Chronicle

January 4, 2024

ColdTowne Theater: Always in Motion

The comedy venue is home to diverse audiences and performers, but needs a permanent home of its own

(l-r): Dave Buckman, Rachel Madorsky, and Lauri Laws-Phillips, co-owners of ColdTowne Theater (photos by Jana Birchum)

"Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by the forces impressed."

– Isaac Newton's first law of motion

When Hurricane Katrina changed the trajectory of the ColdTowne Heroes, a collective of nine New Orleans improvisers, toward a North Austin FEMA hotel, their path intersected with another troupe: the Frank Mills, two pairs of married improvisers, relocated from Chicago and Cleveland to Austin.

By 2006, the two troupes, who both performed and taught comedy together, joined forces to sublease storage space from the owners of I Luv Video on Airport. Thus, ColdTowne Theater began moving (not-so-) uniformly forward, through pandemic closure and relocation in 2022 to a new home at Second and Chalmers. Whatever the address, the Best of Austin and B. Iden Payne award-winning incubator has become a place to get a foothold in the alternative comedy scene, and a home for performers seeking more than just a stage.

For co-owner Rachel Madorsky, "What has remained throughout all 17 years – and counting – is our dedication to be on the leading edge of what's possible in comedy."

Case in point: In February 2023, ColdTowne welcomed the Lysistrata Comedy Festival, an all-women-and-nonbinary comedy festival featuring sketch, improv, film, and stand-up. Co-founded by Rochelle McConico in New Orleans in 2022, the festival would be the first at ColdTowne's new location. In searching for an Austin venue, McConico observed, "Some places feel like they want to have a certain culture but have not invested the time and energy to make that culture come to fruition. ... ColdTowne seems to do the work to create a culture that feels inclusive and affirming."

From the onset, ColdTowne has created initiatives to increase gender, racial, and LGBTQ+ diversity and equity. They've earned those bona fides at a level that few performance spaces can boast. The theatre has been home to all-Black improvisation troupe Sugar, Water, Purple; Latinauts, an improvised sci-fi telenovela with an all-Hispanic cast; all-Asian variety show Y'All We Asian; and more recently LGBTQ+ stand-up showcase Texass, while its long-running and homegrown show QueerTowne is now, post-pandemic, a podcast. Even at the ownership level, ColdTowne is uniquely inclusive: When Tauri Laws-Phillips joined Madorsky and Dave Buckman as co-owner in 2020, that made ColdTowne Theater one of the few Black-owned, majority woman-owned improv theatres in the country.

Well before the dissolution of the New Movement Theater (now Fallout Theater) due to a harassment scandal, ColdTowne set an industry standard in 2016 by creating and adopting sexual and racial harassment policies and a code of conduct that applies to performers, students, faculty, and staff. "We were the first improv theatre to have a harassment policy that people had to acknowledge and sign," Buckman said.

ColdTowne has cultivated a sense of community outside its walls, too, starting with working with other Austin theatres on their harassment policies. They donate to social causes and host a community improv Thanksgiving potluck. Laws-Phillips added, "We recognize that we all share a community and how [we can] all together make that community stronger."

ColdTowne seems to do the work to create a culture that feels inclusive and affirming.
Rochelle McConico

The theatre explores social issues in ambitious ways. In 2019, Angola premiered as an improvised comedy directed by Ryan Darbonne and Frank Netscher about the prison industrial complex. Darbonne recalled, "The show, at times, was intense and uncomfortable. However, ColdTowne was great and never asked us to change anything or lighten it." Whose Life Is It Anyway? is billed as a comedy show about abortion and raises money for the Lilith Fund. The theatre "strives to support a brand of comedy that is authentically community-driven," according to Amy Knop, teacher, producer, and director at ColdTowne.

The theatre made a strong impression on actor and writer Peter Grosz (of "Two Guys" Sonic Drive-In ad fame), who's performed at ColdTowne a handful of times. "In NYC and L.A.," he said, "people are in the scene as a means to an end – a career in TV or movies. But at ColdTowne, people are there because they love the theatre and each other."

Even newer actors have profoundly deep feelings about ColdTowne: "Please do improv and please do improv at ColdTowne," proclaimed Tiana Stuart. She took classes at ColdTowne on a recommendation after her run on the highly regarded Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. Community is nice, but learning how to be successful at improv, sketch, and stand-up? Icing on the cake. Stuart, who appeared in Max's true-crime drama Love & Death, said, "It wasn't until I started doing improv at ColdTowne that I started booking [acting] jobs."

So, everything is moving uniformly forward, right?

Here comes the "forces impressed" part of Newton's law.

In February 2020, ColdTowne's management secured a lease for a much-needed expansion to accommodate growth at the Airport location, but everything shut down a month later, and they eventually lost the lease at that spot. Then, Michael Jastroch, the last managing founder, left the ownership team – not for any drama, but from the sheer exhaustion of running a theatre for 14 years. However, the community ColdTowne had cultivated helped it survive. Artistic Director Will Cleveland shared that "there were a lot of referrals and outreach from folx in our community. They had our back."

The original lease for the Second Street location was for a year, after which the existing building would be razed for, you guessed it, condominiums (cue the Joni Mitchell classic, but substitute "apartment" for "parking lot"). A lease extension until October 2025 gives the theatre more time to achieve their fundraising goal and rebuild audiences, students, and its presence to pre-pandemic levels. Yes, their classes and corporate workshops are thriving, even if the theatre isn't back to nightly shows every day of the week.

Unfortunately, a theatre in motion stays in motion (aka relocation) and will continue to do so unless ColdTowne can find permanent space for performances and classes. So far, the theatre has secured over $400,000 of the $750,000 needed to build a new theatre and ensure no more lifting heavy cardboard boxes and filing change-of-address forms.

I'm not worried about ColdTowne's future. Each time I go, the energy is electric. The theatre is welcoming, down to the outdoor picnic tables that serve as gathering spaces for audiences and performers. Moving inside, you feel like you're among friends. Someone will always say hello, making even the hardiest introverts like me feel like a part of this unique community. And when you finally settle into the modern lounge sofas in front of the stage, with candy in hand, you'll be moved to laughter. Newton was right: The action at ColdTowne Theater never stops.

Valerie Lopez is the executive producer of the Comedy Wham podcast. Find more at

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Column by

Valerie Lopez