His dream business remains in flux, but Ash has a community behind him
Jeff Ash thought he was building his dream business. It turns out he was building a community.
That community has helped to sustain the business through a difficult last 20 months.
Ash opened Westside Improv, an improvisational theater and training center, in the basement of a building in downtown Wheaton six years ago. Think Second City on a smaller scale for the suburbs. In fact Ash performed at Second City in Hollywood, among other places, before moving to the suburbs when his wife took a job here.
He started with seven or eight performers, building a theater that was strong enough to move to a bigger space in a ground-level storefront in the building next door. By March 2020 it had grown to 50-60 performers and close to 150 active students.
He also opened Westside Studio B for corporate training. Although he worked with local businesses, his biggest client was the U.S. Army, which sent him to bases all over the world to work with soldiers and their families. The soldiers learned to work with each other to improvise and solve problems. With their spouses they learned how to build trust and improve communication using improv techniques to break down barriers, frustrations and preconceived notions.
"And it's effective because it's all in play, so they have fun with one another," Ash said. "They're engaged, they're enjoying it, we're laughing. It's a very safe space. It creates a safe place for them to slowly be vulnerable, and then all of the sudden we have this deeper-level connection."
Ash estimated he's worked with well more than 1,000 Army personnel.
Then, of course, came the COVID-19 pandemic. No laughing matter for so many businesses that had to shut down. Ash had to learn to improvise in ways he hadn't needed on stage just to keep the business on life support.
"There were, I would say, several, half a dozen to 10 different instances during the pandemic when I thought the business was done," Ash said. "I didn't have the money to keep it going. Bills were piling up. I had applied for grants, but I was denied for various reasons."
His work with the Army was put on hold; his next assignment isn't until March in Hawaii. Like so many other businesses, he turned to Zoom for his workshops. It helped that one of the teachers he employed and her husband started a GoFundMe page for the theater. Over the course of the pandemic, Ash estimated it raised about $35,000. It's just one instance in which the Westside Improv community stepped up to support the theater.
"(The GoFundMe) was hugely helpful. That ended up covering a percentage of my bills. Not a big percentage, but it was part of the overall scramble to keep revenue coming in," he said.
Then last spring, sitting down with his accountant, he decided to take the leap and move into that bigger, street-level space despite the ongoing pandemic. He applied for a Shuttered Venue Grant and was awarded "a pretty substantial amount of money that was going to cover everything. So I was like, all right, all bets are off. Let's get the work going."
Then, he said, the government decided to pay only half of what was awarded, he said.
"So all of a sudden I'm like, I've pledged all the money to the contractors and I have all the work started, and I'm short," Ash said.
He found investors to make up the difference.
One more problem arose. A project scheduled to take six weeks lasted nearly 12. The busy summer months, a time when downtown Wheaton was humming with activity, were lost.
"So it's been quite an adventure to say the least," he added.
The adventure took a step forward with Westside Improv's grand reopening in late October. The space is 2.5 times the size of the former space, with a larger stage and higher ceiling too, and there is a bar where audience members can purchase wine and beer, thanks to the new liquor license.
The bigger facility means Westside Improv could open safely with some social distancing. It also means he can open more often to corporate clients for outings or training sessions.
But now is not the time to judge how well Westside Improv will do in its new space. It will have to bide its time until January, when business usually begins to pick up. The shows in January, February and March often sold out pre-pandemic, then summer is when classes would fill, with waiting lists required. The improv classes, like the Army training, have yet to resume.
"Profitability ... that's going to be kind of a four-letter word for me for a while because of all the costs that I'm covering and everything else. It's going to just take a little while to get there," Ash said.
In the meantime, Ash, who has a day job as a business coach for a Nashville-based company, accepted help from his theater's community again.
He brought a leadership team together to help him through the process of the reopening. While he managed contractors and worked with city government, volunteers worked to design the lighting system, sound system, the bar and other aspects of the new facility. They donated their time and resources. They did it because they love the theater, want to support it and see it succeed.
Truthfully, it's the same way for Ash. The theater is more labor of love than business, considering he hasn't paid himself from theater revenues.
"I love seeing people do something they enjoy, get fulfillment from it and have a victory," he said.
So while the business might be on shaky ground, mostly because of the pandemic, the community is stronger than ever.
"The real truth of the place is that it's outgrown me," Ash said. "I'm so lucky to have the people invested in it who just do stuff and who want to do stuff and support. That's really what makes the community great."