Worship and improv: Two groups give new life to old church building


New Hope United Methodist Church sold this unused building to the Community Alliance of Spring Garden / East Deutschtown last winter. (Photo / Kelly Thomas)

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn’t judge a building by its façade, either.

If you judged, for instance, the former Imanuel Church at the corner of Madison Avenue and Tripoli Street in East Deutschtown by its façade, you might think it’s abandoned and run down.

You’d be wrong. Although the building does need some cosmetic work, the Community Alliance of Spring Garden / East Deutschtown has spent the past year stabilizing the building, updating the heating and electric systems, repairing the roof and taking care of any other necessary structural repairs, said CASGED President Ruth Ann Dailey.

Already, two very different tenants have leased parts of the newly-renamed Madison Avenue Meeting House. City View Church rents the house connected to the church building on Madison Avenue and the actual church a few times a week, and the Steel City Improv Theater rents the basement of the building behind and connected to the church on Tripoli.

“Everybody shares the church building,” Dailey said. “We not only want it to be a vibrant part of the community’s lives, but we are also intrigued by showcasing its beauty, because that can make a huge impact on a community’s self image.”

In January 2010 CASGED purchased the church from New Hope United Methodist, which had consolidated with its sister church on North Avenue years before. Funds for the purchase and renovation came from a three-year acquisition and incubation loan from the Northside Community Development Fund.

This year, Dailey said the focus will be on beautifying and restoring the building’s exterior. CASGED is currently working with the Northside Leadership Conference and the URA to get a façade grant that would allow them to uncover and restore the stained glass windows that are currently covered up.

Although you can’t see the stained glass windows from the outside, light streams through the fiberglass covers and illuminates the glass on the inside. A pipe organ sits at the head of the sanctuary, hardwood pews arranged like two waves emanate from the center of the space in front of the organ.

The community group will also this year install a handicap bathroom in the church and a ramp on Tripoli Street.

Next year CASGED will turn its focus to a business plan for the church. Although it already has two tenants, the group would like to see even more activity in and around the church. It’s hosted short-term exercise classes like yoga and zumba, and would eventually like to rent it as a wedding chapel and possibly hold events promoting health and wellness.

Dailey said City View and the Improv Theater “fell into our laps,” and that they see East Deutschtown as an opportunity.

“Our main goal when we purchased the building was to save it from demolition,” Dailey said. “Our hopes for it have expanded beyond simple preservation.”

City View Church

City View Church started meeting regularly in January, but was in a soft launch process for about a year before that. Already it gathers between 60 and 70 people for worship each Sunday.

Co-Pastors Leeann and Wayne Younger take a casual but active approach with their congregants. They don’t care if you show up in jeans, and you might want to in case they decide to send you out into the neighborhood to do some community service.

One week the “sermon” was picking up trash on Spring Garden Avenue, Leeann said.

“The idea of this church is really about being in the community,” Wayne said.

Leeann stressed that City View was not here to “rescue” the neighborhood, but rather to celebrate it and be a part of it. One important aspect of that, she said, is having a racially and socio-economically diverse congregation.

Their congregants come from not only East Deutschtown and other Northside neighborhoods but the suburbs, too. They are black, white and Latino, young and old, rich and poor, and Leeann said they wouldn’t want it any other way.

For the time being, City View has been meeting on the church’s first floor, which is an open space that can be adapted to many uses. The sanctuary is actually on the second, and they plan to move up there in April.

The sanctuary still needs some repair work. City View plans to hold a “work day” on May 4 for volunteers to come help them make some of those repairs.

The Youngers, who live in Deutschtown, have each been in the ministry for 15 years and previously worked at Allegheny Center Alliance Church. They left because they felt called to something else, and now are doing their best to take East Deutschtown’s pulse and find their place in it.

“We want to see what people are hungry for, what’s happening,” Leeann said.

For more information, visit City View online at www.cityviewpgh.com.

Steel City Improv

Three people stand on a stage in a small theater at the Steel City Improv. The woman in the middle steps to the front and says, “Now it’s time for the next episode of Raccoon Tea Party.”

Each person pulls up a chair, sits down and positions his or hands as if holding a teacup. The man on the right takes a sip of his tea and makes a funny noise.

“You always drink it when it’s too hot!” the woman in the center, playing the mother raccoon, says.

The man looks chagrined, and moves his mouth as if he has whiskers to twitch.

The woman on the left emits a high screeching noise that sounds distinctly wild. Mother raccoon looks at her and says, “Now Mildred, you know we don’t make our animal noises when we’re having tea.”

Mildred tries to say “sorry” in her people voice several times before she succeeds and the audience can’t stop laughing.

The Steel City Improv Theater, or SCIT for short, not only hosts improve shows three nights a week, but classes and workshops as well.

Kasey Daley and Justin Zell formed the theater this winter after moving back to Pittsburgh from New York City where they were both members of the People’s Improv Theater. Although they had been working out of Lawrenceville, the lack of small, affordable theaters suitable to improv in the city led them to search for a space of their own.

“Part of good improv is just being prolific,” Daley said.

Another reason Zell and Daley, who are getting married at the end of April, decided to start their own theater is simple: They love improv.

“This is what I want to do,” Zell said. “How do I do it all the time? The best way is to start your own theater. [And] we wanted a home for sketch comedy and improvisation.”

Although there is an improv scene in Pittsburgh, it is small. Zell and Daley hope to change that. In addition to their classes, they offer Totally Free Mondays where anyone from anywhere can come and see a totally improvised, off-the-cuff performance by SCIT’s three house teams.

“It’s our little gift,” Zell said, as he emphasized the importance of community.

If watching people come up with wacky scenes on the spot intrigues you, the theater also hosts the SCIT Social every Saturday where anyone can come and try out improv in a safe, supportive environment.

That’s important because improv theater is all about learning how to love failure, Daley said. Although improv has rules and guidelines, individual performances are usually based on an audience suggestion and actors come up with characters and scenes on the spot.

“The whole thing about improv is you fail every night,” Daley said.

If you’d like to create your raccoon tea parties, you can audition for the theater this Friday. Find more information about SCIT and auditions at www.steelcityimprov.com.

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