Comedy Crusaders: Jeromy Barber
The most beautiful part in a city like Houston, is that it’s filled with so many different types of people with so many of the same types of goals. If you look at Jeromy Barber from Beta Theater, you might be intimidated by his seaworthy beard and intelligent demeanor. He looks like that professor that flunked you for not trying hard enough in college. However, anyone who’s met him would find that he’s far from intimidating, and the desire to create, to entertain, and celebrate the art of the performance is what he’s all about. Barber’s Beta Theater has become the go to spot for up and coming comedians, artists, and performers who also wish to form a scene built around performance. Built from the ground up, and housed in an old schoolhouse, Beta Theater has gone from an idea to a thriving home for creativity. It’s this ability to nourish, teach, and house such people that makes Jeromy Barber a Comedy Crusader.
FPH: Where are you from?
JB:I was born in Pasadena, and I moved around that area a lot before graduating from South Houston High School.
FPH: You have a storied past full of the performing arts, can you elaborate on that a bit?
JB: Well, I got my start being a smart ass to my 6th grade English teacher Mrs. Humphries. Poor lady. I was well acquainted with the principal’s office. Musically though, I took some piano lessons as a kid and played French Horn in jr. high. I marched in band my freshman year at La Porte. After moving to South Houston, I discovered singing and performing in choir under Sally Schott and Glenn Sharp. These two educators were my earliest mentors. I studied voice on scholarship at Baylor University. Most kids in high school show choir hang up their cumberbuns after graduation. Not me. I performed show choir right through college in an ensemble called Baylor Showtime! with the lovely and talented Dr. Leta Horan. This won’t mean anything to most, but at Baylor I created an organization called Sing Alliance that organized students (mostly non-Greeks) to perform in a musical competition at Baylor called All University Sing. It was the first time anything like it existed there, and the organization still exists today. After college, I worked in Student Activities at Baylor producing student performances.
On January 1st, 2000, after the world didn’t end, I packed my car and moved to NYC to do musical theater. Very quickly, I landed a day job in Times Square as the Administrator of The Lambs Theater Which has since been sold and renovated into a luxury hotel (The Chatwal). I studied improv with Second City and took all sorts of commercial acting and dance classes. I did all the typical actor things - mailed head shots, networked, went on auditions and made a real go of it. The job at The Lambs provided housing, the flexibility to audition when I needed and performing spaces to produce my own shows. It couldn’t have been a better job for what I was trying to do. If I booked a commercial, then it was really easy to take time off to go shoot it.
FPH: You did commercials?
JB: Yeah! I booked a handful. I was lucky to impress a casting director named David Cady, and I actually booked some pretty big commercials.
FPH: You worked on a movie too, right?
JB: Somewhere in there I realized my passion for producing. After having some mild success with the commercial work, I was asked to produce a film for my friend Matthew Diffee. That was a real turning point where I realized I loved producing and had been producing in some way for most of my life. I started producing more films and live shows. I got to work closely with Tony Hale, Jim Gaffigan, Jeanie Gaffigan, A Bunch of New Yorker cartoonists, Evan Gregory of The Gregory Brothers… others. I really found my calling.
FPH: How did you end up in Houston?
JB: I moved to Pollok, TX after my grandfather died to live with my grandmother and great grandmother. That was around 2006. I started a company there producing local commercials. It was way different than the producing I did in NYC because, I alone, was directly responsible for the writing, shooting and editing. On most shoots I was the entire crew. I grew a lot in those 6 years in East Texas. I even produced some interesting interactive projects on YouTube that I could go on and on about because they are super nerdy. In 2011 my partner Vicky Lynn landed a job in Houston so we moved. She worked at PWC and I worked for Comcast as a commercial producer.
FPH: How did Beta start out?
JB:Well, I really missed New York. I didn’t miss the expensive side of it, but I missed the vast creative community that worked really hard to make awesome stuff. After turning in my notice at work and consulting with people like Amy Birkhead and John Mills-McCoin, I decided to start Beta Theater. Right out of the gate, we formed a sketch group, a house improv troupe, a competition format called The Beta Bracket, and several classes in Animation, Stand Up Comedy, and Improv. These classes were taught by industry pros like Saurabh Pande, Dave Merson Hess and John Wessling. Before renovating our humble classroom into a humble theater last January, we did shows at Rudyard’s, AvantGarden, Clutch City Squire and Double Trouble. We produced around 30 shows in 2013.
FPH: So, who is the Beta Theater?
JB:Well, when you call Beta Theater, it rings my cell phone, so it’s basically just me. That said, Beta has been shaped by people like Amy Birkhead, John Mills-McCoin, Peter Zama, John Wessling, Dave Merson Hess, Antoine Culbreath, Saurabh Pande, Brian Zeolla, Robert Price, and Shannan Scarselletta.
FPH: This is an odd place to put on a show, how did you come across this space?
JB:I was actually teaching a Sketch Comedy class in a room down the hall, and I inquired with MECA if Beta could rent a room. Now, we run Beta Theater out of a 500 square foot former jr. high class room. It’s ironic, because it’s where I got my start in comedy. Seriously, that’s hilarious. I’ve never put that together til just now. My first stage in comedy was a jr. high classroom when I was 12 years old.
FPH: You guys have a different approach to how you charge for shows with a “pay what you can” policy. What made you go that route?
JB:We want to give everyone an opportunity to see shows and/or support local performers. Not only are the shows mostly Pay What You Can, but we split the door with the performers 50/50. When you come to a Beta Show, it doesn’t have to cost you anything, but if you like what is happening you can pay what you like. That money goes directly into the pocket of the performers and the space.
FPH: You guys have a bit of everything from Open Mics to the Make A Movie Night, was it always the plan to be so diverse?
JB:Well, the idea forMake A Movie Night started on my birthday in 2011. I had been creatively frustrated not making any movies, so I threw a party where we wrote, shot, scored and edited a short in one night. We did it, and it was terrible and fun; but I loved the concept. We do that the first Monday of the month at Double Trouble, and it’s great. Starting at 7, teams write, shoot and edit movies to screen at 10pm sharp. It’s not a competition, and it’s a lot of fun. It helps demystify the process of making movies. The open mic night is new, but part of a process for comics to get stage time. Start off doing open mics. Build a set to twenty minutes and do Triple Header. Eventually they get their own headlining show at Beta.
FPH: Are there new classes in the works?
JB:Yeah, we always have a Level 1 Improv class about to start. The Improv program at Beta is 6 levels of 8 week classes. We are offering an Animation class this summer, and a Sketch Comedy class in May.
FPH: What’s the future for Beta Theater?
JB:We’d like to have a space that at least doubles our square footage. 50 people in here is a bit tight. For improv, we are honing our curriculum. With stand up, we are setting up a tiered show system so comics can get better on stage. Media Production classes are in the works. We are developing relationships with industry pros so our training can honestly become world class. There’s a kids improv program slated for the summer. Beta is providing a much needed stage for local producers. Eventually, we’d like to see Beta become a Houston institution similar to 2nd City in Chicago or UCB in NYC. We feel like the talent is here, and it just needs some incubation and performance trials. Beta is offering that.
Much like the old saying, “there’s always work at the post office,” there’s always something going on at Beta Theater. From the Choke! comedy gameshow on May 3rd, the Mills’ & Amy’s Favorite Things show featuring Mills McCoin and Amy Birkhead every Friday in May, or the comedy of Zac Brooks on May 10th; Beta has you covered. While Barber prepares his army of working actors and performers, you can check out their comedy open mic every Tuesday from 7:00 to 9:00 and their improv jam every Sunday also from 7:00 to 9:00.