Komedia's origins can be traced back to one Spanish-English secondary school text book.

It was this bestseller which gave writer Colin Granger and co-founders Marina Kobler and David Lavender of Umbrella Theatre Company the funds to realise their dream and open the very first Komedia in Manchester Street.

“We were all based in Brighton,” says former teacher Granger, recalling his days as part of Umbrella.

“We were a touring company – almost an import/export business, exporting English theatre to Europe and bringing in really interesting things that had never been done in this country from Germany, Denmark, Sweden and France in translation.

“We felt there was a need for a different kind of venue in Brighton, putting on a different kind of programme, inspired by the sort of venues we had toured in Europe.”

At that time Brighton’s theatre scene was dominated by big spaces such as Theatre Royal Brighton and the Dome, although The Marlborough Theatre, in Princes Street, and The Nightingale, in Surrey Street, were also in existence.

Even back in 1993 the team had their eyes on the former Tesco in Gardner Street, which as Jubilee Hall was home to market stalls.

But as that space wasn’t on the market they settled on a derelict 1810 Grade II listed former billiard hall in Manchester Street – now the Latest Music Bar.

It was the first of many major building projects the Komedia team were to undertake – taking nine months to create a 100-seater theatre and cabaret space.

“It had been abandoned for five years,” says Granger. “In a way perhaps it wasn’t ideal – and it was a listed building which meant it cost so much to do up.

“It was also off the main drag, which we realised when we were over there. People don’t tend to cross over the Old Steine, especially at night – it seems to be a step too far!”

The venue opened on May 1, 1994, in time for the Brighton Festival and Fringe. Among the acts they invited down were Singapore’s Wyang Wyang, Poland’s Wierszalin Theatr and a then-unknown young British theatre company Ridiculusmus, last seen in Brighton in March as part of the Sick! Festival. Despite the limits of only having a theatre and cabaret space which couldn’t be operated simultaneously, the Komedia built a name for itself, and attracted many stars of the future.

“We got everybody in the world of comedy at that time,” says Granger. “They were unknown figures who became very famous. We had a lot of good music there too. It was training to run a bigger venue.”

Among the names who came down to perform at the Manchester Street venue were soon-to-be household names Graham Norton, The Mighty Boosh, The League Of Gentlemen, Armstrong And Miller, Matt Lucas of Little Britain, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and an Iranian actor performing a piece about a historical Persian massacre accompanied by a set of conga drums.

“It was a strange bit of history in this one-man show,” recalls Granger, who remembers the young Omid Djalili decided to make a radical change to his career in 1994.

“He did his first bits of comedy with us. He was just trying it out – he wasn’t surviving as an actor.”

Later that year Djalili took his stand-up show to the Edinburgh Festival where he won the Spirit Of The Fringe award. But he still remembered his time at Komedia – as he told The Argus in 2000 after achieving a higher profile through appearances in cinematic hits Notting Hill and The Mummy.

“Brighton is one of my favourite places,” he said. “I used to play at the old Komedia when it was in Manchester Street. Brighton is my kind of audience, they’re more culturally aware, more comedy literate – you go to some places and they’re not.”

And Djalili kept up his relationship with the venue, performing two benefit gigs in 2009 to help Komedia when it was struggling to survive – of which more later.

Another old favourite set to return as part of the 20th anniversary Brighton Fringe programme is Al Murray, who is bringing a new work-in-progress Pub Landlord show to Gardner Street on Tuesday, May 13.

“We were very much interested in character comedy,” says Granger. “Al Murray’s Pub Landlord is such a brilliant character – what you see on television is absolutely not what you see on stage.

“Our partner and shareholder Richard Daws started Komedia Entertainment with Count Arthur Strong – another funny character. We help represent them as well as host them.”

Count Arthur, the creation of Steve Delaney, is another of the venue’s recent successes, having graduated from a cult BBC Radio 4 series – frequently recorded live at Komedia – to his own sitcom on BBC Two opposite Rory Kinnear, which was re- commissioned midway through its first run last year.

International inspiration

When it came to running the Manchester Street site Granger, Kobler and Lavender had planned to follow a structure they’d witnessed in Scandinavian and Dutch venues they had visited.

“These venues didn’t get Government funding or Arts Council funding,” says Granger. “They ran a programme which was popular and made a lot of money on the bar, and they would use this money to do other things. It was basically self-sufficient.

“We tried to do it in Manchester Street – subsidising a broad programme from the most popular parts, but we couldn’t do it with only 100 seats.”

The time had come to leave Manchester Street – and it so happened the Jubilee Hall was up for sale. But there was a problem. A sale had been agreed with a superpub.

“We had to work very quickly,” says Granger. “We really wanted this building, even though it was also pretty derelict.”

Luckily the superpub hadn’t yet been given planning permission – so Komedia teamed up with North Laine Traders to start a campaign against it.

When planning permission for the pub was refused, Granger admits they were left with a problem – they had promised to buy the hall at the same price the owners were asking for, and the collapse of the planning permission happened before they had obtained the support of a bank.

Luckily the CEO of Dutch bank Triodos happened to pop into Komedia’s cafe in Manchester Street, and recognised the inspiration the team had taken from a cafe he knew in his Amsterdam hometown.

“The Dutch bank was interested in social and cultural projects,” says Granger. “They agreed to support us in buying the building and doing the first renovations.”

It took a total of five years and more than £1 million to complete the overhaul the Gardner Street building needed, with new sections being added bit by bit, starting with a bar, then a cabaret space, a restaurant, a studio space and a cafe. The biggest departure was the upstairs theatre space, which was designed for international theatre and big stage performances.

It was at this time that Komedia launched the brand which has proved essential to its ongoing existence – Krater Comedy Club.

Having started as a once-a-month stand-up club, it now has four or five shows every weekend, and celebrates its 15th anniversary in June with many of its previous stars returning. Compere Stephen Grant is still at the helm, booking many of the big names of the future.

“Krater was hugely important for us,” says Granger. “The model started to work when we got this really successful comedy club.”

Unfortunately, as it turned out, Komedia had begun to accept Arts Council funding and outside subsidies, despite initially being told they wouldn’t receive any when the Manchester Street venue opened.

“The council gave us some subsidy for our children’s theatre at first, which they now can’t do,” says Granger. “After we were open for a few years we were offered Arts Council funding for theatre – we didn’t even have to apply for it! They said they wanted to give us money for international theatre so we could continue what we were doing with young companies.

“We became pretty much what we had feared – we started depending on the subsidy.”

In 2008 £150,000 of Arts Council funding was withdrawn, at the same time Komedia embarked on a third ambitious building project, taking the brand to Bath in a derelict listed cinema.

“The economy collapsed,” says Granger. “It was the worst possible timing.

“We had to redesign the business model – and one of the first things we decided was we couldn’t do theatre any more. We acted very quickly, and probably saved ourselves by doing it.”

The decision meant founding director David Lavender left, and Komedia’s headcount and programme was reduced.

They also stopped operating the theatre Aurora Nova during the Edinburgh Fringe – a project which they had started with Berlin theatre owner Wolfgang Hoffman – which had led to many acts coming to Brighton after Edinburgh was over.

Fortunately the Dutch bank Triodos stayed with Komedia through the dark times.

“Our bank wanted us to survive,” says Granger. “It meant we could carry on and get to the position where we really feel we are successful. The model now works, which is a great feeling.”

Silver screen saviour

The road to financial stability was helped in part by the sale of the large theatre space to Picturehouse Cinemas, which opened the two-screen cinema Duke’s@Komedia in December 2012.

“Duke’s taking over the upstairs space coincided with the economy getting better,” says Granger. “We couldn’t programme our upstairs space – we could get large music events in there, but we could also do that in our cabaret space.

“We got lots of offers from people wanting to take the space over, but we really wanted a cinema. It’s really benefited us by having more variety in the building.”

The partnership has caused them to look at new ways to expand the Komedia brand, picking up on their abandoned plans to create new venues in 2007.

“Picturehouses are committed to opening new venues in this country,” he says. “But they’re also looking for new partnerships rather than doing it all themselves.

“I think our building days are over – we certainly don’t want to be in a situation where the bank is giving us huge loans again.

“We are looking now in terms of partnerships – we have programming skills, we’ve got the hugely successful Krater which we use to support our programme. We’re looking for more partnerships to run that model. The future really is in partnerships.”

In recent years Komedia have enjoyed more successes with regular events such as the regular children’s event Sundae Club, and the new comedy coming through its doors thanks to the Jill Edwards Comedy Workshops which began at Komedia in 2005.

Among her previous students now making it big on the national circuit are Seann Walsh, Simon Evans, Angela Barnes, Ingrid Dahle and Romesh Ranganathan.

“I saw a Channel Four show a couple of months back which had five comics who had gone through Jill’s comedy workshop,” says Granger.

“They have been so beneficial for us – students can learn the craft of comedy, and then there are different levels they can go on, from Jill’s New Act Night to competitions, to Jill’s monthly Comic Boom for more experienced comics with a bigger name headliner. Then they get a chance to do ten minutes at Krater. It’s a bit like an educational system, which is what we wanted to do, finding new performers.”

This year’s Fringe programme underlines the corner the venue has now turned – inspired by a trip to last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

“We knew we could afford to do a more ambitious programme with new stuff, which is a risk,” says Granger. “We programmed things we saw and liked. Red B****** knocked us out, we thought it would work in Brighton. It’s a mix of comedy and very physical theatre, its alternative, controversial – all the things we like.

“From the beginning we wanted to encourage and nurture new talent – and you lose money on those things unless it is subsidised.

“We won’t make a lot of money on the programme in May, but we want to do it, which wasn’t possible until the beginning of last year.”

  • Komedia: 20th Anniversary, Gardner Street, Brighton