What should you know before you visit the Black Box Improv Theatre in Dayton? Improvisation theaters and comedy clubs are NOT the same thing. In fact Justin Howard, Black Box’s founder, calls his theater’s brand of entertainment “smart funny” and believes it requires a totally different and intelligent audience.

“People leave our shows amazed,” shares Howard. “These are spontaneous, smart, funny shows; completely made up and usually with a point of view that an audience may not fully understand until after the laughter stops.”

Born and raised in northern Miami Valley, Howard attended Wittenburg University and took an improv class as an elective. He intended to be a salesman, but his professor thought otherwise and encouraged Howard to move to Chicago or New York and develop his natural talent.

Howard was skeptical and “got a real job” for a few years while maintaining an interest in the innovative form of comedy. After getting married, he and his wife moved to Chicago and attended shows at the infamous Second City. Howard began to wonder if an improv theater could be successful in Dayton.

After researching other theaters in the area, Howard gained appreciation of what he calls the “hole in the wall intimacy” that improv theaters are famous for and learned how to structure the business.

But it wasn’t until a getaway to Colorado, a minor concussion and a few days of wondering that Black Box was born. “Probably not the best time to consider opening a new business, especially one that would be so foreign to Dayton audiences, but I believed it could be really successful and I believed that there was talent in Dayton that just needed an outlet.”

And so it began.

Located in the former Cannery Building on East Third Street, Black Box hosts five shows a week with reasonable $5 and $7 tickets per show. The theater also offers three levels of six-week-long improv classes ending with a student-performed show.

“We have people taking classes for all sorts of reasons: to gain confidence, become better at public speaking, as well as folks who are interested in a career in comedy or acting,” says Howard.

With a minimal $100 fee, the classes are a real bargain. Similar programs at Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade, Amy Poehler’s improv theatre in New York City, are $400 or more. And we get to keep the talent here, at least for a little while. “There is no other improv theater within a five-hour drive of Dayton,” says Howard. “I would love to see Dayton producing talent like those theaters do. I mean, this city started with innovation. What’s more innovative than generating great comedic talent?”

Howard says the future is bright. Black Box is adding a new sketch writing program starting in 2014 that will be structured by the developer of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s similar program. In addition, Howard is working with a group of actors and former students to develop a web sitcom for YouTube and expects more video productions to come.

In the meantime, Howard will be a featured speaker at the upcoming TEDx conference and is working to be the change that Dayton needs. “We have to come together to get back some of what Dayton has lost. The world spins. If you don’t keep up, it passes you by.”