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Alumni Profile: Directing in the Dark

Actor and comedian Tim Stoltenberg ’01 is preparing for the comeback of the theatre industry to live performance after a year waiting in the wings and revisiting his Wisconsin roots.

“We have to keep walking up that hill,” says the interim artistic director of top improv venue Dad’s Garage in Atlanta. “We’re going to have a learning curve of coming back to that in-person connection with the audience and we have to keep doing the work virtually to prepare for it.”

Stoltenberg is currently leading the Dad’s Garage ensemble of 30 actors to create two improv shows every weekend, including an improvised soap opera, “Scandal,” a new children’s show and other projects. The venue’s online courses and corporate improv training are continuing while the performers focus on being ready for a five-minute call back to live shows.

“Improv when you’re not in the room together is tough,” says Stoltenberg. “That intimate relationship with the audience is not there and the audience plays such a huge role in improv shows. But we’re all doing our best as performers. I just tell myself I’m talking in my living room like any other day and people get to watch and the audience can participate in the chat.”

What else has changed in the past year? The things we want to laugh at and even think about, perhaps.

“Society and culture are reviewing topics that might have been used for jokes in the past and might not be considered appropriate right now. Theatre and comedy always reflect society. And as culture changes and grows it’s reflected in our art, what we talk about and make shows about. Everyone is tired of COVID so the goal is to find topics that bring people in and connect them. It’s the biggest challenge we have in theatre right now.”

Stoltenberg is about to head back to Georgia to prepare for reopening at an unspecified point in late spring or early summer. “The theatres are talking to each other about how we can come back. We are all desperate to return to live shows, but it has to be done carefully and slowly, in line with whatever the local conditions and requirements are.

“At Dad’s, we’re figuring out outdoor options and smaller houses inside and we hope we can soon see what that will look like, and we’re hoping it won’t be too much longer. We might not immediately have the big audiences that we had before, but the people who do come will be committed to that live connection and it means it’s possible for performers to go on doing their art.

“Online performance is definitely here to stay in some measure and at Dad’s we’re building our own streaming platform. The early days of our Zoom performances were a rollercoaster. How the online audience feels about your show depends if they’ve had a good week or a heavy week. People get very tired of life online, if they have to be online for their jobs. You have to make it worth their while.”

Regrouping while an industry shuts down
Last spring Stoltenberg had a busy actor’s life in LA, booking jobs in film and commercials while teaching at Second City, the top improv academy in the U.S. When the pandemic hit, he returned to his family’s small farm near Plymouth, Wis. “I was talking to a fellow actor about how our industry was shutting down and everything was out of our control, and we decided we had to shift focus for a while, and go home and be with our folks.”

He found solace amid the upheaval in woodwork, while resuming teaching online. “I went home, built a shop in the barn and my father, my brothers and I all hung out and made things. I made table tops, benches, cutting boards and picture frames from old barn wood. I sold some locally but really the point was to be doing something artistic with my time; I felt so lucky to be able to go back to where I grew up and give the place some TLC. We fixed things we had been talking about fixing for years.”

The appointment at Dad’s Garage in late 2020 meant he didn’t have to shift focus for long.

He became part of the Atlanta theatre scene after graduation, having his big break while he was still a theatre studies major at St. Norbert. The last show of his senior year was “A Shayna Maidel” by Barbara Lebow, playwright in residence at the Academy Theatre in Atlanta. He first met Lebow when she spent a week at SNC to work with the cast and crew.

“I told her I wanted to be an actor and she said I should apply for the Academy’s Theatre for Youth tour. I made an audition tape (I sent it in the mail on VHS, it was a long time ago) and they wrote back and said ‘No thank you.’ Thankfully Barbara was kind enough to say, ‘I really believe in him, let’s have him come and audition in person.’ So I toured the South from Atlanta for two years doing theatre for youth with a social conscience, on topics like bullying.”

The improv roots he had developed in St. Norbert helped him establish his career. “I got hooked up with Laughing Matters, an improv company in Atlanta, and got taken to Dad’s Garage where I really felt at home. For actors, improv is like going to the gym. In an improv show you can do Shakespeare, mime; everything people think theatre is. I’m dyslexic so I have a hard time reading scripts and improv can come straight from my mind.”

Improv has also brought him back to De Pere every year to perform at Comedy City and watch the Green Knights compete. He’s hoping normal service will resume there soon.


Editors Note: Comedy City is once again offering live improv in De Pere and, since our interview with Stoltenberg, the Green Knights have returned to competiton.

April 27, 2021