Every Thursday night Capitol City Theater hosts an open mic night starting at 7 p.m. (Saphara Harrell/ Salem Reporter)

Every Thursday night a crowd of 60 or so sits at tables in the dark at the Capitol City Theater, listening as comedians spend five minutes on stage trying to elicit laughter.

“I was going to do a set full of dirty jokes,” Lars Soderlund said on stage earlier this month.  

But then, while standing in line to get water, Soderlund saw a guy had Jesus as his phone screensaver. He devoted most of his set to talking about the savior’s earthly father, Joseph.

The space is intimate. For comedians and improvisors, it’s a dedicated audience, not a bar that happens to have a comedy night.

People are intently listening -- which can be great when you’re getting chuckles, and well, terrible if you’re not.

Salem comedian Dash Thompson described stand-up as public speaking on steroids.

“What does it feel when you bomb? Oh my gosh, I could write a dissertation about that,” Thompson said. “The feeling is horrific, especially if it’s joke that you rely on that has been good before.”

After a bad set, he said you can start to question why you’re subjecting yourself to the practice of telling errant thoughts to a room full of strangers in the first place.

But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to perform.

Thompson said in the four years he’s been telling jokes at the comedy club – which has been around for nearly a decade – he’s seen it grow drastically.

“The thing I’ve always appreciated about this theater especially and kind of the comedy scene in general is everyone’s trying their best to bring their best quality to the art,” Thompson said. “Instead of trying to placate or do what we think the audience wants, we do what we think is funny and we try and strive for quality performances and I think that’s true of all the comedians here.”

Thompson said he’s always running into people who were unaware Salem had a comedy venue.

“At least once every other show I’m on someone’s like ‘we didn’t know this was here. This is so amazing, this is our first time, we are totally going to come back,’” he said.

Years ago, the comedy club was housed on the second floor of the Reed Opera House before moving to its current location in 2013.

Two years later, Julie Shadlow and Jared Richard took over the theater.

Despite self-diagnosed stage fright, Shadlow can remember gathering the courage to do a roast of local comics at a Salem bar.

“And that was the only time I’ve ever been funny on stage. The other times we call it performance art and how not to host an open mic,” Shadlow said. “That’s why I stay behind the bar.”

As the operations manager of the Capitol City Theater, Shadlow keeps things running behind the scenes alongside Richard.

“When we both watched shows, neither of us were like ‘we’re going to own this place someday,’” Richard said.

“It feels somewhat surreal,” Shadlow added.

Shadlow was looking for something to do after moving to the area to work on an iris farm and ended up becoming a regular at the open mics.

“Over that year we were doing a lot of the leg work for free anyway, so we decided to see if the previous owner wanted to change hands,” Shadlow said.

They started improving the building incrementally. They put in a new stage and better equipment. They expanded the programs and added new, creative shows.

“We’re trying a lot of new things and that’s why we’re in it ­- to bring different kinds of comedy to Salem,” Shadlow said.

Like a live “Dragons and Dungeons” show, in which eight performers and a game master did live role playing amid cheers and clapping from the audience.

“I’ve never seen such a niche crowd,” Thompson said. “And I‘ve never seen that many applause breaks.”

One of the theater’s most popular shows is called “Missed Connections.” Performers read and re-enact personal ads on Craigslist that arise after two people meet, but are unable or unwilling to exchange contact information.

In addition to expanding programming, Shadlow has made it a priority to make the theater a safe space, specifically for female and queer performers.

Comedy has historically been male-dominated, but a growing number of prominent female comedians like Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman have increased the visibility of women in the profession in the last few years.

Shadlow said that acceptance increases other women’s confidence that they can do it too.  

“We want women to feel really empowered here and on our stage,” she said.

Tina Hogstrom first came to an open mic after religiously attending improv classes at the theater.

“I thought that it was going to be like American Idol,” she said. “and I showed up to watch and I was like ‘Oh, I could do this.’”

Several months later she said she got up the nerve to do a set.

Now, she said she feels safe when she’s performing.

“I feel like in this room I have control and even if someone were to say something in response to my comedy, like a drunk dude were to yell stuff out, I have back up. People who are going to have my back and take my side. Which is so nice I feel safer here than a lot of other places,” Hogstrom said.

She said it’s different than performing at other venues that aren’t specifically dedicated to comedy, because people are actually there to watch performers.

“It’s different than being like ‘here’s a coffee shop with three people, do some comedy.’ It’s like ‘here’s full room of people, a mic, lights, a great sound tech.’ It’s amazing,” Hogstrom said.

Richard said people start performing at the theater after attending a show or improv class.

“A lot of people have the same story but from different angles. The idea of watching a show and being like ‘I don’t know how I could ever do that.’ And we provide the tools to show you how and also give you the opportunity to do it on your own,” Richard said.

Both Richard and Shadlow said the venue is an important space for those just starting out.

“What I try to tell people what makes Salem different, especially among comedy but just businesses in general is: anywhere else you can be a part of something, but Salem you can build something,” Richard said.

Shadlow said, “I think having places like this is really important for small-time comedians because you’re not going to get to a big venue unless you start at a place like this. It just won’t happen.”

When asked how the theater has helped foster her, Holgstrom laughed, “You’re asking for novels.”

She said the whole view of the theater is: It’s not about me, it’s about us.

“They have your back and that’s an improv manta is “I got your back,” you’re supposed to always have your improvisor's back,” Hogstrom said. “And everyone in this theater has each other’s back.”

Open mics are held weekly at 7 p.m. on Thursdays. Comedians can sign up for stage time by messaging Capitol City Theater Open Mic on Facebook between noon and 5 p.m. Thursday or by seeing the host at the end of the bar at 6:30 p.m. if space is available.

Open mics are free but require the purchase of two items. Capitol City Theater is located on 210 Liberty Street S.E.. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, saphara@salemreporter.com or @daisysaphara.

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