Sam Haldiman never expected to come back to Phoenix.
The Arizona native first began performing improvisational comedy nearly two decades ago, studying short form improv at Jester'Z in Mesa. From there he relocated to the improv capital of the country, Chicago, where taking an intensive summer course turned into an address change. He performed with troupes around the city and took classes at the iO Theater and Annoyance Theater, on stages that were once home to famous alumni like Amy Poehler, Chris Farley, and fellow Phoenician Aidy Bryant. It was there that he was properly introduced to longform: A less sketch-like, but equally funny, take on the comedic art form.
Then, in 2008, Haldiman returned home — a decision that, he says, was ignited by the success of the annual Phoenix Improv Festival and the opportunities it presented. He initially planned on starting his own improv theater, but instead joined a local troupe, the Torch Theatre, and went on to be a teacher, student, and board member when the group opened their own brick-and-mortar theater in 2011.
Now he's starting his own.
Second Beat Improv Theater, an improv theater and school specializing in longform, opens this Saturday, January 7, at 6040 North Seventh Street, just north of Bethany Home Road. The grand opening event and open house also features a free, full-fledged performance.
Haldiman launched a GoFundMe page in September to help with the start-up costs of his new theater venture. As of opening weekend, he'd received $4,550 donations from 72 people — just a few hundred dollars shy of his $5000 goal — and plenty of support.
"I think the community kind of needs it now," he says. "The Torch has been thriving for so many years now and doing such great work, but I know that there's a lot of people who have been through the classes there and they want more. So this definitely was a good opportunity for me to branch out and start giving other opportunities elsewhere as well. Not only just for classes, but also to get on stage and perform as well, for some of those troupes that are looking for more stage time that [they] can't necessarily get at The Torch anymore."
Like the Torch Theatre, Second Beat specializes in longform improv. It's not necessarily the quick-witted, snappy scenes most conjure up when they think of sketch shows or improv work. Instead, Haldiman says, it's more about creating an entire production that builds scene after scene, originating from audience suggestions but coming into its own with every "yes, and..." reaction from a performer.
In other words, it's the gray area between short form improv and a full-length, proper play.
"We're hoping to tie back to earlier scenes and characters and things like that by the end of the show, to make the whole work seem as if it was one world created at the same time," he explains.
Though Haldiman will no longer be a teacher or board member at The Torch, he'll still perform there with his two man show, Salmon Shane and in another weekly show he produces, the Skewed News Hour, among others.
"We are working to make sure that the communities co-exist together, so we're doing things like allowing each other's students to come to shows for free at each other's theaters, and promoting each other, because we're teaching different styles of longform," Haldiman says. "They're more format-based. I'm taking what they've been doing the larger scale of, and now honing in to help performers get better scene work and better skills on stage."
"Sam has a few minor logistical choices in this curriculum that are different than ours, but I think it's too early to tell," writes Torch Theatre co-founder Bill Binder in an email to New Times. "I think there's a lot of overlap right now in terms of our common love of some of the same things, but in five years we'll probably see how our voices are different."
Haldiman says he expects to see the same kinds of people on stage, in his classes, and in his audiences as he did during his eight years with The Torch.
"We've had anybody from just people who want to try something new and get out of their comfort zone to people that are wanting to be more serious actors and using it as a training tool for that," he says.
The beginner level classes, which Haldiman is offering immediately, starting next week, are "more geared toward saying 'yes, and...' to people's choices, to sharing ideas to getting comfortable on stage and in front of people as a whole," he says. "I think it's the people who take the later classes who will be the ones who are a little more into using it as a tool for shows or for acting performances and things like that."
The first session of Level 1 classes begins at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 11, and at 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 14. Class are $180 per session and run six weeks long. Students meet for three hours each week on either Wednesdays or Saturdays, moving on to the next course after a final group performance. Sessions include four levels, with advanced classes to become available as students move through each course.
"For me, Sam's class was the turning point of taking the class as a lark to deciding this was my preferred mode of performing for the rest of time," writes Torch Theatre performer and coach Nina Miller in an email to New Times. "Sam knows when to be supportive and when to give a much needed but critical note. He has thought a lot about how to teach improv, and has the years of experience to try different things out."
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Miller, who works as a design strategist at ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination (and is married to former New Times contributor Jose Gonzalez), says she sees plenty of potential for growth within the improv community — even if some of the new spaces are headed up by familiar faces, the ones who helped build the scene's foundation.
Binder, the Torch Theatre co-founder, agrees.
"Each of the companies in town has their own vision and those visions offer an amazing diversity in the things people can see," Binder writes. "Someone could see a show at Jester'Z or NCT or ImprovMania or The Torch or Second Beat and see four totally different shows. And I think when people see that improv isn't just 'one' thing, they appreciate it more."
The Second Beat Improv Theater hosts two grand opening events on Saturday, January 7, at 6040 North Seventh Street, Suite 103. An informal open house starts at 6:30 p.m. and a longform performance takes the stage at 7 p.m. Both are free and open to the public. For event details or to sign-up for future classes, visit secondbeatimprov.com or call 602-644-1365.