Nest Theatre founders learn how to reconnect, add second location

Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto struggled through the first couple years of the pandemic. Now their improv theater is expanding in the Old North and adding an Olde Towne East location.
Nest Theatre founders Tara DeFrancisco (left) and Rance Rizzutto
Nest Theatre founders Tara DeFrancisco (left) and Rance Rizzutto Courtesy the Nest Theatre

In addition to upsetting virtually every aspect of society, the pandemic also created a sort of social amnesia, leading to situations where a number of people forgot how to read social cues or engage in small talk in the wake of countless hours logged in solitude. The New York Times even published an October 2021 article headlined “How to Talk to People Again,” which collected everyday advice for those who were looking for practical ways to re-engage.

Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto, co-founders of the Nest Theatre, experienced a degree of this in returning to improv comedy – an artform that relies heavily on communication – after more than a year of pandemic-related closure.

“We make our primary living as performers and educators and dealing with the public,” DeFrancisco said. “To walk back into that space and be like, ‘We’re all in the same boat here, remembering how to put sentences together and not act robotic’ was totally new. … Since the pandemic, a giant portion of people taking [improv classes] said they’re doing it for social anxiety and to remember how to interact and communicate and connect with humans.”

“Everyone was so out of sorts, so it felt as much like a community service at that point, helping people get acclimated to other people again,” Rizzutto said. “And remembering how to be people.”

In December 2019, the Nest co-founders signed a lease for a new space at 2643 N. High St. in the Old North, moving from Franklinton, where the lease was set to expire in April 2020. And then March 2020 hit, and the coronavirus spread, and the new space remained empty until it opened for carefully moderated classes in the late spring/early summer of 2021. The months between were fraught, DeFrancisco said, the pair wondering if they could make it through the closure and what things might look like on the other side.

“It was a lot, obviously,” DeFrancisco continued. “We have friends who run theaters worldwide and they have been through the ringer in trying to keep their doors open. Our community worked really hard to support us, but it was still kind of day-to-day, like, ‘Let’s see this month if we can still make it happen.’ And it was like that throughout the lockdown.”

Recently, however, the theater has again started to find its footing, announcing both an expansion of its current High Street space (the plan is to soundproof a small classroom and convert it into a Studio Lounge for more experimental shows) and the opening of a second location within the artist community of 700 Bryden in Olde Towne East.

“Luckily we both cut our… cut our… What’s the phrase I’m looking for?” Rizzutto asked.

“Cut our teeth,” DeFrancisco answered.

“I love when I start a phrase and can’t remember the end of it. We both cut our cheese in Chicago,” Rizzutto said, and laughed. “But we were there for 15 years, and being a part of the bigger theaters there, we’ve sort of seen what it looks like to have a theater run as sort of a machine, and we understand the logistical things that go into having a space thrive and grow. And we’ve been looking for a second space for a while.”

At least initially, DeFrancisco said she envisions the OTE space playing host to introductory classes such as the Sampler, described by DeFrancisco as improv for those who might be interested in the form but remain wary of “how goofy it can be.” But the two are also keeping an open mind, content to see how the Columbus improv community helps give the location its own shape and definition. “I think that’s exactly what it is: letting it be what it needs to be,” DeFrancisco said.

Since opening in 2016, circumstances have forced the Nest to be more mobile than its founders might have initially anticipated, with the theater logging time downtown on East Cherry Street and Lynn Avenue, respectively, before relocating to Franklinton for a couple of years. “We’ve learned we can build the functioning skeleton of a theater – lights, sound, chairs – in 24 hours,” Rizzutto said. “Give me a day, and I can make something theater enough that someone will go to it.”

But the hope now is to put down deeper, more established roots. Indeed, the 2020 move to High Street was, in many ways, a full circle moment for the pair, who first signed a lease for the exact Old North space that the theater now occupies before moving to Columbus in 2016.

“Except then, the lease was only for about a third of the space, and the rest was going to be a Quiznos,” said Rizzutto of the initial deal, which fell through amid development-related red tape. “Then we got our check back in the mail and it was like, ‘This isn’t happening.’ … And then we took a looping path five years later to get back to it.”

“It was the chance to build out the kind of theater we really wanted, which was a Chicago-style cabaret, where it feels cozy but it’s weirdly expansive and it feels like you’re in on something,” DeFrancisco said. “It’s that Chicago storefront energy of ‘something cool is happening in there,’ but you could walk right past it. I’m really enjoying how speakeasy it feels.”

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