Get a taste of Durham’s improv and arts scene with a show at Mettlesome, a theatrical group that grew from humble beginnings to find a permanent home at Golden Belt Campus
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
In a city known for its world-class research and health care, a group of performance artists opened Mettlesome theater to deliver generous doses of the best medicine – laughter. “I feel like you can’t throw a stone here without hitting someone who gets improv,” says April Dudash, one of Mettlesome’s six stakeholders. “We are in awe of the reception we continue to get from the Durham community – how this place just keeps expanding and how people turn to this space for a place for their ideas.” She says Mettlesome’s venue has been so well received that other theater companies, musical groups, even a high school sketch review have reached out to request to reserve the space for performances. “It’s like the floodgates have opened,” she says, adding that rentals this year have included plays, burlesque and creative writing groups, talent shows and stand-up comedy, among others.
Mettlesome consists of about 50 performers, writers and volunteers who create classes, workshops, podcasts and live shows. The group originally formed in 2016 inside a residential, one-car garage in the Valley Run neighborhood as friends and neighbors watched from lawn chairs. The founding members, Ashley Melzer and Jack Reitz, also created pop-up performances in various urban settings like pizza and coffee shops, bars and breweries, community centers, local theaters and the former Mothership coworking space next to Motorco Music Hall.
A permanent home for the black box theater was made possible through a fundraising campaign launched in October 2021 that raised more than $41,000. The troupe plans to throw a party this fall to thank its 224 Kickstarter donors for their support in making a collective dream come true.
Setting the Scene
Mettlesome held a soft opening for its 1,600-square-foot venue, tucked nicely between Urban Tails Veterinary Hospital and Hi-Wire Brewing at Golden Belt, in November 2022. Up to 64 people can be seated on risers and chairs that line the walls on each side of a wooden sprung floor. Performers warm up in the green room before emerging through the black curtains on center stage. Its packed schedule reflects the growing demand for improv comedy in the Triangle. Classes like Intro to Sketch and Intro to Improv sell out quickly. Live shows fill up every weekend. The theater also hosts other events, like the monthly Bull City Press reading series.
“I’m amazed at how Durham continues to shift and change,” April says. “And then the pandemic hit, and we just couldn’t do shows anymore in a safe manner. It was always a dream to reopen somewhere. … Looking at this space [now] and how far it’s come, it feels like a fever dream. I can’t believe it.” Mettlesome awaits its federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status this year, which will enable the group to pursue grants and additional arts funding to bolster its efforts in meeting demand.
In Your Head
By day, April is a communications manager with Fidelity Charitable, the nonprofit arm of Fidelity Investments, and she’s pursuing a master’s in business administration at Elon University. At night, she performs, teaches and volunteers at Mettlesome. She grew up in Florida as a shy kid who wanted to improve her public speaking skills and discovered improvisation as a junior at the University of Florida, where she graduated with a degree in journalism.
“In my first class, I wanted to throw up, I was so scared,” April says. “I tell all of my improv one-on-one students this story because a lot of folks are coming in now, post pandemic, maybe not having tried something new or met new people in a long time because they’ve been isolated, and they want to push themselves in their first improv class. [Trust] is the main principle of performing improv comedy, [and being] a continuous learner. To do it well, you have to be an active listener.
“There was a moment on stage, [for example], where I just completely blanked and didn’t know how to respond to my scene partner. It’s like when everything [moves] in slow motion. This is true improv; I am making it up on the spot, saying something and hearing that laughter. Oh, my goodness, it was such a rush. A big lesson to me [was] that I should trust myself and be able to learn something new. It’s changed my life.”
Mettlesome, which embodies its meaning of being spirited and courageous, was formed from the desire to cultivate a thriving improv comedy community in our area. “That’ll be a five-year-plus goal of being a place for groups to bring their performances to life,” April says, adding that another more immediate and physical aim is to add a full-time house manager. “We want to start offering festivals, bringing groups from all over the country here for festival weekends and events.”
“We want to be that safe space for artists in the South,” April adds. “I have a mantra: to live with enthusiastic empathy. I always want my people to feel like they’re included, valued for what they do and that their ideas can shine. That’s what Mettlesome is. It’s who we are.”