Colleen Breen always wanted her All Out Comedy Theater to stay in Oakland. Breen founded the not-for-profit black box theater in 2016 on Telegraph Avenue in the KONO neighborhood, offering a variety of live stand-up and improv shows in addition to classes. But not long after the pandemic started, the theater began to lose revenue, and Breen could no longer afford to pay the rent. Like many other businesses during that time, she was forced to close the space. 

All Out Comedy was just one of a number of businesses along Telegraph and Broadway that shuttered during the outset of the pandemic; among them were The Uptown, Luka’s, and Piano Fight. Another black box theater, Oakland Theater Project, pivoted to outdoor shows in 2021 and resumed indoor shows on a smaller scale in 2022.

Although disheartened by the closures and other impacts the pandemic was having on the small-business community, Breen was determined to find a new space for her theater. “I walked around everywhere, all over Oakland, talking to people,” she said.  

The search, she said, wasn’t easy. The cost of renting commercial space in downtown Oakland had remained expensive, even as office vacancy rates grew during the pandemic. But in early 2021, after a tiresome search, she secured a lease for a ground-floor commercial space—across the street from the theater’s previous location—at Telegraph Arts, a mixed-used building on 26th Street and Telegraph Avenue built in 2019. The space was listed below market rate—something Breen said was key to making it work for her financially. And because it was still under construction, she could more easily build it out to suit her needs. Today, it boasts a 109-seat theater with a lobby and classrooms for teaching improv classes. 

All Out Comedy Theater 08
All Out Comedy Theater offers comedy shows every weekend. Credit: Amir Aziz
All Out Comedy Theater 07
All of the furniture and artwork inside the All Out Comedy Theater was donated by former students and supporters. Credit: Amir Aziz

Even before the pandemic when the theater was at its prior location, said, Breen, it was never profitable enough to pay for both performers and staff. That’s still the case, she said, with rent and utilities alone currently running around $13,000 a month. “I’m the janitor. I’m the accountant. If I need to do it, I’ll learn it,” she said. 

After a year of negotiating the terms of her lease with the property owners, Breen thought she was all set to move into the still-under-construction space. Then, in February of last year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine made oil prices rise, intensifying global supply chain issues that had already caused construction costs to balloon. Breen said the initial estimate for the build-out rose from about $500,000 to roughly $900,000. After a lengthy back and forth with the property owners to debate the shared costs, she said construction began in September 2022.

As the months passed and the build-out took shape, she moved equipment into the space. Then, last February, a break-in happened. The thieves walked away with nearly $50,000 worth of equipment—everything from the soundboard to manual tools.

Disheartened by how much debt she was accumulating, Breen launched two fundraisers: one to help cover the costs of the build-out and another to replace the stolen equipment. The theater community, she said, flocked to help out. People began donating equipment, furniture she needed for the lobby, and cash. “I don’t know how I’m so lucky,” she said. “The love is insane.” 

By last March, the construction was completed, and the theater began a soft opening, offering improv classes and weekend shows. A proper grand opening followed on April 15, which sold out.

The interior of the theater reflects Breen’s love for her community and the female figures in her life who, like her, fought through challenging circumstances to succeed. “I named two rooms after my grandmas because they are badasses,” she said of the two rooms where she teaches improv classes.

The “Grace Room” honors one of Breen’s grandmothers, who survived cancer twice, and two strokes. The “Leona Room” honors her other grandmother, who survived a Japanese internment camp and lived until she was 103 years old. Finally, the theater room is named after Breen’s mother, Sharon, who ran a successful business for 30 years while navigating being a caregiver. 

The improv classes Breen teaches provide a significant portion of the revenue needed to run the theater. On average, Breen hosts 80 to 90 students every two months in her beginner and advanced improv classes, puppetry, and other classes. 

All Out Comedy Theater 04
Colleen Breen founded All Out Comedy Theater in 2016. Credit: Amir Aziz

Providing access to improv classes isn’t Breen’s only goal; she also wants to support more diversity and inclusivity in live theater. “Our classes are about 80% non-white males, which I love,” said Breen. She also offers scholarships for those who can’t afford to pay. “That money comes out of my pocket,” she added. “I rather do the work to help bring in more diversity and lose the money.”

The classes also allow her to help up-and-coming comedians and support students who may be shy or introverted to overcome their fears and come out of their shells, which, as a teacher, she loves to see. “I’ve had students tell me, ‘You changed my life, Colleen. I didn’t know I had this in me.’ I’m a real cheeseball. I love teaching,” she said. Some of the students she has inspired through the years later gifted her original artwork, which now hangs on the lobby walls.

Besides the improv classes and weekend comedy shows, Breen wants other local artists who need a show venue to know that the space is available for them to rent. After receiving so much support from others, Breen said she wants to reciprocate that same community spirit.

“The theater is artist-friendly,” she said.“I want this to be a place for people from all races, all backgrounds. To me, that’s what community is. That’s what art is.” 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.