Improv Theater The Nest Finds Community and Magic in Columbus

An improvisational comedy theater and training center finds renewed popularity with audiences eager for connection.

Lia Eastep
Rance Rizzutto and Tara DeFrancisco, at rear, work with students Brian Wagner (red shirt) and Dana Lavender (green shirt) during an improv class.

Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto believe in magic. Not the pull-a-coin-from-behind-your-ear kind, but the magic of humans gathered to engage in the collective now. It’s taken on greater significance as audiences emerge from two years spent in fear of gathering, now in search of reconnection. They are finding solace in The Nest, the small improvisational theater the couple founded, as evidenced by a string of sold-out performances this spring.

DeFrancisco and Rizzutto, who are originally from Columbus and the Portland area, respectively, met in 2003 at the famed Second City and spent the next 14 years performing, touring and teaching improv.

In 2016, they returned to DeFrancisco’s hometown of Columbus, where they had maintained ties with the local improv scene, and founded The Nest, offering training and performance opportunities. They operated in a few locations and were just about to open in their current space at 2643 N. High St. in Old North Columbus, which they love for its intimate, speakeasy vibe, when the pandemic hit.

With their scheduled opening thwarted, the founders pivoted into survival mode, donating their salaries, applying for relief grants, accepting donations and moving shows to the virtual landscape to stay afloat until they were finally able to reopen in February.

Now up and running at full capacity, The Nest has up to 25 shows in rotation. From this home base, the duo perform and have resumed touring their most popular show, “HERE: The Improvised Musical.” This two-person production springs from a single audience suggestion.

Shows at The Nest Theatre attract what DeFrancisco calls “a beautiful array of everyone—hipsters and college students, but also a lot of date nights and middle-aged adults looking for a sassier show.” The company is especially tuned into audiences, understanding that newcomers can feel out of place or fear being singled out. “We’re quick to say we’re not going to destroy you,” says Rizzutto. “It sets a ‘we’re all in this together’ tone.”

Everyone who performs at The Nest goes through the training program. Creating community with fellow performers is imperative. Students who have been told they are funny and are ready to hit the ground running making jokes are gently redirected. “We explain that it’s not about being hilarious but about being present in every moment,” says DeFrancisco, “which then leads to comedy.”

Becoming a performer is not the only motivation for taking a class. People come for professional development, help with social anxiety or to find community. The teaching style at The Nest is deliberately nurturing and inclusive. “We seek to amplify people in historically underrepresented groups,” explains Rizzutto. “This leads to diverse casts with diverse audiences because people want to see themselves represented on stage.”

It’s just one of the many ways DeFrancisco and Rizzutto continue to cultivate an environment of infinite possibility. As they often tell performers and audiences, “There’s magic in this room tonight—and that magic will be here tomorrow, but it will be different. Right now, this thing lives for us tonight and only for us.”

This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.