High time for some laughs: Happier Valley Comedy returns for in-person events and expands its space

  • Scott Braidman, right, artistic director of Happier Valley Comedy in Hadley, works with Jim Young, Sally Ekus and Kate Jopson during a skit. Gazette file photo

  • Happier Valley Comedy members Mandy Anderson, from left, Jim Young, Kate Jopson, Sally Ekus and Julie Waggoner work on a skit at the group’s space in Hadley. Gazette file photo

  • Pam Victor, back right, the founder of Happier Valley Comedy, works with her friends Moe McElligott and Laura Patrick in pre-pandemic times; the three were members of the long-running Valley improv comedy team the Ha-Ha’s. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2021

Laughs have been harder to come by for many in the past year and a half — and for improv comedians, shut out of performance spaces because of the pandemic, it’s been an especially trying time.

But Happier Valley Comedy (HVC) in Hadley, which had to close its doors in March 2020, has now restarted its in-person classes and shows, and the organization is taking another step to make laughter — and happiness — a key part of life in the area.

In what HVC founder Pam Victor calls “The Experiment Next Door,” the comedy troupe is expanding its operations to a vacant space immediately next door to its 1 Mill Valley Road location, the former home of The Taproom, which served wines and beers from western Massachusetts.

That space is now being called the Next Door Lounge and will serve as HVC’s box office, lobby and a small performance area. More importantly, said Victor, she and Artistic Director Scott Braidman hope the new space can be a sort of community hub where people who have come to see a HVC show can hang out, have a drink, and relax before and after a performance.

And if things go well, added Victor, the two adjacent spaces, which currently are not connected internally, might one day become one complete space for Happier Valley Comedy, with a larger stage and seating area.

“Scott and I have always wanted to have a gathering space for people to come together,” she said during a recent phone call. “Building a community and having people connect with each other has always been a central part of our mission, and our hope is that expanding our theater will let us do that.”

“This is a bit like improv,” Victor added with a laugh. “We take a leap of faith and trust we can pull it off.”

She notes that HVC itself began as a leap of faith on her part several years ago — a belief she could make a living as a comedian and by organizing shows and workshops with other performers. That experiment paid off, Victor says, and the next leap of faith came in 2018 when HVC, which had previously performed in various venues around the region, opened a real home in Hadley.

“That part of the journey was going well until the pandemic hit,” Victor said.

She said thanks to the generosity of HVC’s landlord and some grant funding, HVC has committed to renting the new adjacent space for 20 months. They’ve also stocked the former Taproom with board and card games, tables, comfy chairs and other furniture to give people options for mingling or being a little more private.

A small stage has been added for a community-focused show, “More Improv, More Better,” that will be staged at 9 p.m. on Saturday nights following the regular show next door.

Victor and Braidman are also applying for a liquor license, and they say people waiting in the Next Door Lounge for a show at HVC will be able to order food from outside vendors (HVC will not be serving any food itself).

Hours at the Next Door Lounge will be from 5 to 11 p.m., strictly on show nights at HVC and strictly for audience members for those shows.

Back in black

The opening of the Next Door Lounge coincides with stepped-up programming at HVC, which returned for in-person work in September but is expanding in November. Victor says registration has opened for several additional classes in HVC’s original space.

Two standup/storytelling classes, to be held in the Next Door Lounge, will also be added to the lineup, and a monthly storytelling/standup open mic will also be offered later in November in the new space.

A number of comedy and improv shows have returned to HVC’s original space, such as “The Understudies,” in which five performers, with a little audience help and backing from a musical accompanist, have to create a Broadway musical from scratch: The premise is that it’s opening night for a production that’s never actually been written or rehearsed.

On Saturday, Oct. 30, HVC will also offer one of its periodic “Fifth Saturday Fundraisers,” a benefit that takes place whenever a month has five Saturdays. On those occasions, all proceeds from a show are given to a local nonprofit group. For the Oct. 30 performance, the funds will go to Tapestry, the western Massachusett community health group.

In March 2020, after COVID-19 forced HVC to close its doors, the group tried to continue running comedy workshops and shows online. But Victor and Braidman closed those down in May 2020, saying it was too difficult to present a physical, improvisational subject via computer screens.

“When I’m doing improv, I’m working off what the others in the group are doing,” Victor said at the time. “I’m reading people’s eyes, I’m reading their body language.”

With increased vaccinations and a slow easing of the pandemic’s worst effects — despite the rise of the Delta variant beginning in late summer — live events are possible again, Victor said, though the audience size for shows and classes has been reduced for safety reasons. All attendees must be vaccinated and wear masks, though performers do work mask-free since they’re far enough away from the audience.

“It’s really encouraging to be back,” said Victor, who has spent much of the past year running online professional development workshops for various organizations to improve their communications and collaboration. “It’s still a work in progress, but it’s also exciting to imagine where we might be a year from now.”

The Next Door Lounge opens Saturday, Oct. 30, and Happier Valley Comedy will stage a fundraising “All Star Show” on Saturday at 7 p.m. More information on Happier Valley Comedy and the Next Door Lounge is available at happiervalley.com.