The New York comedy scene has officially arrived at Franklin Street with the People’s Improv Theater. Southern Neighbor Contributing Editor Ismail Conze spoke with Ali Farahnakian, UNC graduate and founder of PIT, about what locals should expect from his new comedic venture in downtown Chapel Hill.
Southern Neighbor: What have you been doing since you left North Carolina?
Ali Farahnakian: I left in November of 1990. First, I went to Chicago to start studying sketch writing at the Second City with Michael McCarthy. Then I started studying improv at the Improv Olympic with Charna Halpern and Del Close. Then I was on a house team there in the early 90’s. I was a founding member of UCB, Upright Citizens Brigade, in ’91 in the fall. Then I worked at Second City as an actor and I got hired by Saturday Night Live in 1999 for the 25th anniversary season. I stayed in New York; in 2002 I started the Peoples Improv Theatre at 154 West 29th street and now we found out this space that used to be a comedy theatre was going to be abandoned. Then we got in touch with the landlord and hit it off. He said if we didn’t take it, it was going to become office space so we felt like we should try to save it and make it into a community space.
SN: Is there anything that particularly excites you about coming back to North Carolina?
AF: Well, I love Chapel Hill. I love North Carolina. I’m excited to be back here and try this new venture and see if it works. We’ll be a performance arts space, meaning we’ll be open to anybody who does performance arts. It’s going to have two basic spaces to perform so it could be storytelling, music, poetry, Ted Talks, anything. Comedy is just something that we do, but we also do a lot of other things. It’s like the Zappos guy. He said that in twenty years he wants people to say that, ‘Oh yeah, Zappos started as shoes but they do a lot of other stuff.’ We want to be open to anything that anyone wants to do here. We’ll have three classrooms in the basement and a podcast room and a bar and hopefully a coffee shop.
SN: Is there a particular reason you got the space here in Chapel Hill or did it just happen to end up that way?
AF: Everything we do is space contingent so we weren’t looking to come to Chapel Hill to do anything and we weren’t trying to find a space to build it out to be a comedy theatre. It’s because this already had some of the bones of a comedy theatre, but not as much as we thought. Once we got here we realized how much we had to do. We’re really here to save a building from becoming another office space that’s closed to the public.
SN: Are you expecting this PIT to be any different from the ones in New York because of its location?
AF: We really don’t have any expectations. Our hope is to build something cool. It was at the Varsity Theatre in the ‘80s that I saw the movie “Field of Dreams.” Now they didn’t come at the beginning when he built the field, they came at the end where he almost went bankrupt. Our hope is that eventually when we build this, people will come to see what we’re doing here and it will be a place for people to practice whatever it is their performance art is.
SN: When did you decide to start opening up places like this?
AF: I didn’t decide really. This just kind of came to me because we heard via the internet it was going to be abandoned. We didn’t have a plan for this July 1st. July 2nd we heard this space in Chapel Hill isn’t going to be a comedy theatre anymore and someone in the office jokingly said, “Hey you should look into that.” Then my wife encouraged me and said, “You should really look into it.” I said, “Why,” and she said, “Well, you’re an alumnus of UNC, you’re from North Carolina, maybe you can help these people.”
SN: What can people who come here expect to find?
AF: Our hope is that we’ll do improvisation, sketch comedy, standup solo performance, music, informational Ted Talk type shows. Our hope is that we’ll have kids in teens classes, after school classes, hopefully classes for folks of all different ages. Hopefully we’ll have the ability for people to do podcasts, we’ll also have salsa. We just talked to a gentleman today who’s going to teach salsa classes here. So really our job is to build the best space we can, the coolest space we can, and see how the people of Chapel Hill and the surrounding area utilize it.
SN: What made you decide to branch out from comedy work?
AF: Well, I’ve been doing this for over 28 years now. I guess I was an apprentice for about 13 years and then for the past 15 years I had my own shops that I oversaw. A lot of it’s just inertia. I never set out to do this. It’s just a matter of spaces came to me. They found me in different ways and shapes and forms. You get to a point when a space finds you, you have to do what you can. If it’s meant to be then you sign a lease. There’re many spaces I’ve seen throughout the years that we didn’t sign leases on, that we saw but didn’t cross the finish line.
SN: Do you have any considerations on involvement with UNC comedy clubs?
AF: I’d love to be able to help all the UNC comedy clubs further their cause and in years to come they hopefully will be able to get jobs out there in the real world of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and they hopefully would have gotten the chance to get some training and stage time here at 462 West Franklin at the People’s Improv Theatre Chapel Hill.