From the outside, it looks like any other gritty storefront along N Armenia Avenue. On the inside, plans are under way to create a hub for feature-length comedy shows and improv.
James Vale and his sister Laura Lamon opened Asylum Theater to give comedians and improvisers a place to develop their material and perform in front of small audiences. They hoped to fill what they consider a void in the local theater scene.
"We're open to the word 'yes,' '' Vale said. "A lot of places and theaters for artists want to weigh stuff and judge things. We're not here to judge your art, we're here to experience your art.''
Asylum celebrates its grand opening Friday and Saturday with performances of Annoyance Productions' Splatter Theater, a gory tribute to slasher flicks. Last weekend's soft opening drew full-house crowds of about 50 people, who shrieked and laughed as fake blood flew on stage — but not on the audience.
Co-producers Vale, Lamon and Matthew Kish built the theater in a former bar on the outskirts of Seminole Heights. They painted the walls black, built a stage and set up rows of metal chairs. The result: a no-frills theater featuring art not shown in big, mainstream theaters.
Lamon, 45, floated the idea about five years ago while at downtown's Fly bar with Vale, who was visiting from Chicago. At the time, he was working for Annoyance Theatre, a comedy house and bar on Broadway.
A few years ago, Vale, 44, moved to Tampa and worked as a technical stage manager at Busch Gardens, where met Kish. After going to a sing-along show they thought was so bad, they vowed to start their own theater group in Tampa.
This spring, Asylum produced Splatter Theater at Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City with a cast that included Brooke McCarter, who played Paul the vampire in the movie The Lost Boys. The show drew mixed reviews, but sellout crowds on some nights. It cemented their desire to pursue their own space for fun, affordable shows.
"We're the theater that gives the audience what they're looking for,'' said Kish, 27, who also works as a stage technician at Hollywood Studios in Orlando. "Too many theaters seem to do the same stuff over and over again. It gets boring.''
Tickets are $7 per person, intentionally set below the cost of going to a movie. The theater has no high-priced concessions or drinks. Just comedy with some edge. Actors perform for free.
Silver Meteor director Michael Murphy said Asylum's shows could appeal to people who might not go to theaters otherwise. The interactive nature of some of the performances will be a good addition, he said. Upcoming shows include The Grand Guignol, Doublewide Lust, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Lamon, who plays Ingebor Schnay in Splatter Theater, said they have one requirement for picking shows. They must be funny.