Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Backstage Pass: Low-budget theater performs big-name production

  • By
  • | 5:00 a.m. February 19, 2014
Co-owner Mark Wolfking plays Collins and Artistic Director Alex Beach plays Angel.
Co-owner Mark Wolfking plays Collins and Artistic Director Alex Beach plays Angel.
  • Arts + Culture
  • Share

The Comic Shack is the last place you’d expect to see theater. Nestled in a strip plaza between Joyland (a country dance hall), and a nearby adult store is a small comic book store. One has to traverse rows of comic books, a table of guys playing computer games and shelves of collectors’ paraphernalia to the very back; it’s very much a “Am-I-in-the-right-place?” experience. But, low and behold, through a makeshift curtain of tattered fabric is a black box theater, or The Courtyard Blackbox, which seats 50. Currently, the theater group composed of 18- to 43-year-olds (or Avant Guard, as they call themselves) is presenting “Rent,” for which they are proud of obtaining rights. This popular show is their first big-name production.
The rest have been cabaret shows, improv by in-house troupe Shack of Fools and original works, such as “Dusk of the Dead,” a zombie parody musical. The group is as unassuming as the location.

Co-owner of The Comic Shack Mark Wolfking explains that it all started in 2011 because they kept getting calls to the business from confused people asking them who their opening comedy act was — they had no clue it was a comic book store.

“It made me think, ‘You know what? We should do a comedy show!’” Wolfking says. He’s the token oldest member of the nearly 15-member cast, at a mere 43 years. It started with monthly improv shows. But, when The Comic Shack moved to a new location in January 2012, he realized the back room of the comic shack perfectly lent itself to black box theater. It’s small, with cement walls, and it already had a quasi, built-in proscenium made of lattice. He decided to go for it and build a stage, calling it a roll-the-dice-situation:

“It was kind of like, ‘We’re going to do this, so don’t make fun of us,’” he says “And now, 40 people show up on a regular basis.”

Wolfking is in the improv troupe, was the co-writer of the zombie musical and plays Collins in “Rent.” He grew up in Temple Terrace doing community theater. The rest of the gamers, comic-book lovers and employees who work at his establishment (it has the tagline “Bradenton’s Sanctuary for Geeks”) are also community-theater buffs. They are mostly involved at Manatee Players. It all made sense, and Wolfking realized he had a market for theater, so he agreed to let Alex Beach, a 24-year-old State Farm agent, be the artistic director.

Beach (who is also playing the role of Angel in “Rent”) will direct three musicals a year, but wanted to start with a big-name production to get The Courtyard Blackbox on the map. Plus, it’s “Rent.”

“We all love ‘Rent,’” he says. “A lot.”

The love is apparent. You can see it on their faces when they sing. They might be low-budget, using flashlights as spotlights, stapling bed sheets together instead of sewing them for a prop and singing to recorded music — but their passion is their best attribute, and they lack pretention.

They wear smiles on their faces and interact with each other. There’s no apparent diva. Everyone helps out where he or she is needed. And when it’s time to perform, it’s all business.

Beach acts as a professional artistic director would. He held auditions to fill the roles. He has an experienced stage manager calling minutes until curtain. He has someone doing the group’s marketing.
And it works — they sell out productions.

It’s no wonder they all love “Rent.” They’re similar to the cast of misfits from the rock-opera they’re singing. It’s about a group of impoverished bohemian artists trying to survive and create beautiful work — flashlight spotlights and all. One song gives the perfect juxtaposition between the art and the artists’ motive:

“There’s only us / There’s only this / Forget regret / Or life is yours to miss,” they sing passionately. “No day but today!”


When: 9:30 p.m. Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through March 2.
Where: The Comic Shack, 5602 14th St. W., Bradenton
Cost: Tickets $15
Info: Call 751-4845


Related Articles

  • December 12, 2018
Scene & Heard 12.13.18