Class by class, Vegas Theatre Hub helps our city’s performers develop and grow

Aunty Entity (Natalie Shipman) rules with an iron cowbell.
Photo: Miranda Alam / Special to Weekly

It’s straight-up, post-apocalyptic improvisational comedy war tonight at Vegas Theatre Hub. The hardscrabble theater instruction school—housed in a former VFW hall across the street from the Neon Museum—is hosting “Funderdome,” a recurring Mad Max-themed improv night that has two teams of thirst-struck comics going head-to-head. Gags are deployed; bombs are alternately lit and defused. And Darren Pitura, garbed in a lacrosse helmet and carrying a bullwhip, is in the middle of it all. At one point, a sound cue goes off at the wrong moment—a whip-crack sound—and Pitura shrugs, “It just went off.”

The nimble thinking that produced that quick, effortlessly funny throwaway is what Pitura, his partner Derek Shipman and their fellow instructors—Liz Allen, Shannan Calcutt, Philip Faiss, Paul Mattingly, Benedikt Negro and Derek’s wife Natalie Shipman, who’s playing Aunty Entity this evening—teach here at the Hub. Pitura, an on-call performer with Zumanity and, like Derek, a veteran of the Flamingo’s late, lamented Second City show, started doing this for just the reason you’d expect: because no one else was.

“I realized that a lot of local performers here were going to LA to take workshops on their days off,” Pitura says. “After Second City left, improv slowly went away. There were drop-in classes here and there, but no leveled courses. You couldn’t really get from point A to point B.”

Pitura, the Shipmans and the other instructors now offer three levels of improv classes through the Hub, along with courses in clowning, sketch writing, miming and even some advanced theater disciplines like bouffon. (Simply put, bouffon is a freewheeling, subversive, in-your-face style of clowning—think Sacha Baron Cohen.) Some of the Hub’s students are already working performers looking to widen their skill sets (“Cirque du Soleil comes here for some of their workshops, because a lot of the acrobats want to branch out,” Pitura says), but many are neophytes who want the confidence that improv provides.

“We’ve had people taking these courses that work at MGM in the catering department. There’s lawyers, there’s marketing people—and they’re all in the same classes with someone from Blue Man Group and someone from Cirque,” Pitura says. “I love seeing people come into that first class; they’re nervous and too awkward. A year later, they’re hopping up onstage every chance they can get.”

Our chat ends when Pitura has to go crack the whip. But before he goes, he rolls out a carpet to the wasteland. “I like doing non-traditional theater, physical theater,” he says. “There’s traditional theater classes out there, but I wanted to do something different, like bouffon. People really don’t know what that is, but they take a chance, take a class, and they love it.”

Vegas Theatre Hub 705 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 702-569-9070.

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