On any given night at the Lyric Hyperion, there might be a stand-up set performed in the dark, a community theater project featuring astrology readings and healing rituals, a student comedy act organized by a fictional university, or a stage show based on a podcast about fear. At least those are some of the 15-plus performances slated for this week alone at the black-box theater, where experimentation is prioritized above consistency or notoriety. Credit owner Mark Sherman for the chaos. Since he took over the reins a little more than two years ago, the long-standing Silver Lake venue and cafe has become ground zero for actors, comedians, puppeteers, performance artists and clowns looking to stage their weirdest material for the first time. (And, yes, there’s a clown workshop on-site, taught by the theater’s creative director, Phil Burgers, better known to students as his alter ego Dr. Brown.)
“We don’t care if it’s Mayor McCheese or someone covered in glitter on a pogo stick,” Sherman says, referencing the range of performers they’re willing to host. “As long as it’s servicing a community and as long as it’s pushing boundaries, that to me is the only two things that need to be done.”
Unfortunately, there's a long list of less exciting things that also need to be done around the Lyric Hyperion. The theater just installed a new air conditioner; the old one broke last week, right at the start of the city’s first heat wave of the year, resulting in what felt like triple-digit temperatures inside the theater. There are also walls and ceilings in need of renovation, doors that need to be replaced and lighting grids that need work. The building, after all, is about 70 years old, Sherman says, and long overdue for a facelift. He estimates that the repairs will cost up to $7,500 — money the theater doesn’t have, in part because Sherman typically opts to lend the space to risk-taking performers for free or cheap rather than accepting more lucrative offers from “people who want to turn our Saturday nights into a comedy club kind of thing,” he says.
Now, he’s looking to that same community he’s fostered over the years to help him raise the money needed for repairs through an online crowdfunding campaign launched last week. Its main selling point: There’s nowhere else in L.A. like the Lyric Hyperion.
“We’re looking at what all the other theaters are doing, UCB and iO, and they don’t really cater to individual artists as much as an idea, and we wanted to continue to get these weird unique artists and shows out there,” says Sherman, who hopes to turn the theater into a nonprofit by the end of the year so that it can pursue grants and accept donations. “There’s no system for this thing. Finding the weird unique artists is like fishing every day and hoping you catch the right thing.”
The Lyric Hyperion isn’t a school that offers formal classes, like UCB or iO, But Sherman and Burgers approach it as a training ground where artists can try out an idea for a show that they wouldn't necessarily have the space or the creative freedom to perform anywhere else in town. It’s also the place that even well-known artists such as Michel Gondry (the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director is a regular at the cafe, according to Sherman) turn to when they can’t find another venue to show their projects. “He said, ‘OK, I have a movie that no one wants to buy, maybe I’ll just screen it here. And he came and he did,” Sherman says. He says Gondry donated the ticket sales from the 2015 screening of Microbe et Gasoil back to the theater.
Live shows at the Lyric Hyperion that have done well and garnered a strong following, such as the queer-focused salon Sorority, have gone on to perform at places like the Hammer Museum before returning to the Lyric Hyperion to produce new material. Other shows, like Modern Vaudeville, comedian Ian Abramson’s new spin on an old-timey variety show, have quickly attracted high-profile fans like Patton Oswalt, who Sherman says liked the show so much that he performed in it, alongside acts such as the so-called Human Tackboard, a guy who staples notes to his body.
“Anytime you do anything in L.A., there is this idea that it could get ‘seen.’ That someone may want to turn it into something else, or have it help you jump from one place to another,” Abramson wrote via email. “But at the Lyric Hyperion, you feel compelled to make something for the sake of it. To try to actually have the work be fun. The work is to have fun.”
Sherman and Burgers see themselves as artists and producers above all, occasionally going so far as to give unsolicited notes on individual shows, which can sometimes rub performers the wrong way. “People looked at me like I was crazy. I gave notes on people’s shows and they were like, ‘Who are you?’” Sherman says. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not trying to hurt you. You have to understand I benefit from your shows doing well.’ We really want to guide.”
Sherman says he worried that he sometimes alienated performers by pushing them too far with constructive criticism, but the outpouring of support with the IndieGoGo campaign, which raised more than a third of its goal within the first two days, has proved otherwise.
Barbara Gray, who earlier this month performed at the Lyric Hyperion’s Blunt Force stand-up night, is one of the comedians who, along with Abramson, has been promoting the campaign online. She says she met Burgers randomly at a cafe during a time when she was feeling uninspired and burnt out on comedy. Burgers’ invitation to attend his workshop, during which “these brilliant people create a show from nothing over a week’s time,” Gray said via email, helped change her outlook. “They really want to foster a community and push people out of their comfort zone as performers,” she says.
Before Sherman took over the lease on the building — and ownership of the business — from its landlord in April 2015, the theater was struggling to book performers and find its niche. It was known then as the Lyric Hyperion Theater and Cafe (Sherman shortened the name, which is taken from its cross streets); prior to that, it was the Company of Angels Theater and the Frog Pond dinner theater before that. One of the few shows that has survived the theater’s changes over the years, Sherman says, is Piano Bar, an old-school cabaret show with a dedicated elderly crowd.
The Lyric Hyperion in its current form is experiencing something of a creative renaissance, even if it’s not one that’s particularly profitable. Sherman hopes the soon-to-be-created nonprofit will help solve some of its financial woes by allowing the theater to encourage a suggested donation for its free shows and legitimize larger donations from people like Gondry, in addition to chasing grant money. He’s already started to assemble a board and involve a lawyer, but he’s preparing himself for the long road ahead.
It wasn’t too long ago that he first took on the project, and remembers telling himself, “I’m not gonna make a buck off this place for a while, but if I could break even for a little while, eventually it will turn into something awesome,” he says. “We’re now on the verge of getting there.”