Nestled in East Washington Avenue’s charming strip of exposed brick condos, hip restaurants and cafes, Atlas Improv Company has quietly grown from a small troupe in a coffee shop to one of Madison’s largest improv institutions.

Founded by Mary Parmentier and Bryan Judkins in early 2004, Atlas Improv originally began as ComedySportz-Madison, a subsidiary of a nationwide short-form improv franchise, current company director Kristina Martinez said. Parmentier and Judkins, however, soon realized they wanted more creative freedom, particularly to expand and do more long form improv.

Seeing the potential, the other then-active members of ComedySportz-Madison followed the pair in their quest for something new. After a few years in a coffee shop that didn’t fit the bill, Atlas opened its doors in its current East Washington Avenue space and they haven’t looked back since.

“East Washington is a really up and coming area that has totally embraced Atlas,” Martinez said. “We are sponsored by Cargo Coffee and High Noon Saloon and Roman Candle provides pizza for our class shows. We’re lucky to have a lot of small business support.”

As it stands today, Atlas functions as both a performance space and one for learning, Martinez said.

Atlas Improv Company aims to draw national attention to Madison sceneNestled in East Washington Avenue’s charming strip of exposed brick condos, hip restaurants and cafes, Atlas Improv Company has quietly Read…

Home to a 15-member company, Atlas performs four shows per weekend. The 8 p.m. shows are always family-friendly, while the 10 p.m. shows can go anywhere the performers take them.

For Martinez, what’s interesting about performing is the fact that the audience is just as important as the performers. Every scene in an improv show is based off of an audience suggestion, so without audience members actively participating in the shows, there would be no performing.

With this, however, there is always a chance that some scenes will flop — or as Martinez said, “fail with a smile.” But this sense of risk and the unknown is what keeps audiences coming back for more.

Aside from weekly shows, Atlas also offers classes ranging from beginner to advanced levels along with corporate training to the greater Madison area and throughout the Midwest. But whether they are performing or teaching Martinez emphasized that Atlas is constantly working to improve as a group.

Since joining the company in 2008, Martinez has been amazed personally by the growth Atlas has experienced. This has manifested in the theater having sold out nearly all of their fall classes and their expanding roster.

One of those new members will come via their competition “The Cut” starting in October. Over the course of six weeks, eight improvisers from Atlas’ classes will compete for a spot on the company.

While these accomplishments are exciting for the veteran members of Atlas, they are not content to rest on their laurels. Rather, their new ambition is to further Madison’s improv’s reputation to its greatest extent.

“Recently we’ve been having some independent improv groups in the area practice on our stage and use our space to get better,” Martinez said. “The overall goal is to put Madison on the map for improv.”

This desire is also manifested in one of Atlas’ biggest events “The Endurance Improv Festival.” The festival will showcase improvisers from across the Midwest for 12 hours straight. The entire festival is completely free and, as Martinez put it, is “an exclamation point of what we’re all about.”

As Atlas continues expand, Martinez and her fellow performers will always treasure the chance to evoke confidence in their students and the community as a whole.

“The nicest thing someone could say to a person who has just performed in one of our class shows is, ‘Wow, I could never do that,” Martinez said. “Improv is a way to cement self-confidence in your everyday life and when people leave our classes and shows, I hope they feel that.”