If all goes according to plan, Tori and Jason Tomalia will soon be the proprietors of new brewery situated between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti that will cater primarily to lovers of improvisational comedy. The brewery, which they’ve dubbed Pointless, will be just a few doors down from our friends at Hut-K Chaats, at the intersection of Packard and Platt, in what had been the Makkara Sushi and Noodle Company… Following is my conversation with Tori.
MARK: You and your husband have just gone public with your intention to open a brewery on the east side of Ann Arbor that would also serve as a venue for improv comedy. As of right now, how far along are you in the process?
TORI: Yes, we have leased a space at 3014 Packard Road in Ann Arbor. We are currently working with an architect and have started some of the small, cosmetic changes ourselves. As soon as all the architectural plans are done, we can get a permit to do the bigger work in the area that will be the brewery. We are aiming to open sometime this summer. [below: The future home of Pointless Brewing]
MARK: To be honest, since you first reached out to me, I’ve been struggling with how to approach this interview. I know how offensive it must be, as someone with cancer, to be defined by it, and I don’t want to add to that. At the same time, though, your cancer is so central to the Pointless story, that it’s kind of impossible to avoid.
TORI: Not offensive at all! I am very open about my cancer, in part because I think people get nervous and don’t know what to say, and I would prefer they just come right out and ask. And yes, cancer is a big part of why we started this business NOW (instead of “one day when the time is right”, which had been our plan). Like it or not, cancer is also a big part of my life now. The goal is that we will be able to treat it as a chronic illness, rather than a terminal illness, which technically metastatic cancer is. So far, my daily meds have been able to control it super well (knock on wood!) but I do experience side effects. I’ve been able to adjust my lifestyle to fit my physical needs, though… So if you have questions, ask away!
MARK: My friend Katrease wrote a story about you for the Ann Arbor News in December, 2013. In that story it was noted that, as someone with stage four lung cancer, you’d been given approximately eight months to live. Here we are some 15 months later, though, and not only are you still with us, but you’re planning to open a brewery. How do you explain it?
TORI: A blend of luck, perseverance, and scientific advances (and thank you Katrease for the lovely article!). I don’t want to geek out too much on you, but there are some exciting developments happening in our understanding of cancer, and I pushed my doctor to test for a driver mutation (the thing that went wrong and caused the cancer), and well, I guessed right and we found the mutation. So now I’m able to take a pill that targets that specific mutation. Pretty amazing stuff. I feel like I’ve been given this gift of more time – how much more, we don’t know, because one day my magic pill will stop working – but in the mean time, I want to get as much out of life as I can! I dreamed big that we could control my cancer, now I’m dreaming big that we can open this awesome business.
MARK: Starting a brewery, even under the best of circumstances, is a stressful undertaking. Among other things, it generally means putting in long hours, going into debt, and fighting with people at every level of city and state government. Given this, and the fact that you and your husband have three small children at home, I’m wondering how difficult of a decision it was push ahead with this.
TORI: It’s strange, it wasn’t really a difficult decision at all. Yes, it will be hard. But everything worthwhile I’ve ever done in my life was hard. Learning how to be a mom was hard. Having premie twins in the NICU was hard. Surviving childhood cancer was hard (did I mention I also had childhood cancer?). So yes, we know this will be a challenge, but Jason and I love having a project that we are working on together, and, well, life is short. May as well be bold and do something worthwhile.
TORI: As far as they can tell, no. I went through genetic testing, consulted with my childhood oncologist, and it seems like it is just some bizarre coincidence. Of course, there is still so much that is unknown about cancer, we really don’t know.
MARK: One more cancer-related question… I read in Katrease’s article that, as someone who has lung cancer, you have to contend with people judging you, as there’s a perception out there that lung cancer is “a smokers disease,” and therefore one that people bring on themselves. And I’m wondering if, along these same lines, you’re experiencing any judgment from others for you choice to spend your time and energy on the launching of a business. And, if so, I’m curious as to how you deal with it.
TORI: Well, if people are thinking that they are keeping it to themselves, because all of the reaction we have gotten is just the opposite. I mean, I’m not on my death bed. I am doing really well health-wise (there is no active cancer as far as they can tell). I think there is a funny in-between place that people with cancer live. We hear the cliche saying, “live every day like it was your last,” but if you think about it, that is kind of terrible advice. If this were literally your last day on the planet, would you go to work? Would you pay your bills? Heck no. So, even with a super scary diagnosis like I have, there is still a need to balance some forward-thinking in the mix. That said, I did go through a big shift. Prior to getting sick, I was pursuing my MFA with the goal of becoming a professor, but once I found out that I would be dealing with cancer for the rest of my life, such a long path did not make much sense anymore. Compared to that, this business has a much shorter timeline to develop, and the project does not rely entirely on one person, like my pursuit of a tenure-track position did. If/when my health starts to falter, we can hire people to do what I was doing.
MARK: You’ve recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help launch Pointless. How much are you seeking to raise, and how much have you raised thus far? [See the Pointless Kickstarter video below.]
TORI: Our goal is $50,000. We are currently at $8,594 with 31 days to go. It’s been going for about a week, with the campaign running 39 days in honor of my 39th birthday – which is today! There are a bunch of great perks, and every pledge of $75 or more gets a one-year membership that gives 10% off of all tickets, drinks, snacks, and merchandise. Plus you get a t-shirt. What a deal!
MARK: And what will that money be used for?
TORI: The money will be used to cover equipment costs, cold room and fermentation rooms, insurance, and the stage. [below: The planned layout for Pointless.]
MARK: I would imagine that the actual costs of getting up and running are quite a bit higher. How, if you don’t mind my asking, are you raising the rest of the rest of the capital you need?
TORI: We have some friends and family who have provided initial capital to get things going.
MARK: Several years ago, an attorney from Chicago, Dan Izzo, came to Ann Arbor with the intention of opening an improv club downtown, which he did. It was called Improv Inferno and it was on Main Street for a few years. I’m just curious if you’ve reached out to Dan, and, if so, what kind of advice he may have offered.
TORI: Jason has chatted with Dan a bit. From what we understand, Improv Inferno did really well and there was a lot of community support for the business, but it closed due to some interpersonal issues unrelated to the business. Dan also used to coach an improv friend of Jason’s from back in his Minneapolis days. Small world!
MARK: On the brewing end of things, I’m curious as to what kind of capacity you’re talking about… Just how big of a system are you building, and how much beer will it allow you to produce?
TORI: We will be using a one barrel brewing system, which is 31 gallons. Jason plans to brew 2-3 days a week, so we will be making 4-6 kegs of beer a week.
MARK: Can you explain how it was that you and your husband came to decide that this new business of yours would straddle the two worlds of brewing and improv?
TORI: We used to live in Minneapolis which has a huge improv community, and Jason was really involved there. When we moved back to Michigan, we were sad to see that there wasn’t much going on for improv in the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area, which seems like a lost opportunity in a college town. We have both worked in theater for years, and because of that we know how hard it is to run a financially viable theater. We looked at models that were successful, and they all had multiple sources of revenue. Maybe they had a great education division, a corporate arm, things like that. At the same time, Jason was going crazy with his homebrewing and friends who tried his beer kept saying that he should sell it. Somewhere in there we realized that the spirit of craft beer is the same as improv; they are both all about innovation, creativity, reacting to the current environment, and taking risks. It just clicked. We are kind of surprised that we are the first people to think of this. As far as we have found, there is no other brewery/improv stage in the US. If you know of one, please let us know!
MARK: What are improv people doing in the local community right now, given that there’s no real space dedicated to that particular form of comedy?
MARK: Are there plans to teach improv at Pointless?
TORI: Absolutely! We plan to have classes for people interested in studying improv more seriously, as well as folks who just want to try it out for fun. We also plan to have one-time workshops for groups of friends, similar to the “Paint and Pour” model.
MARK: I’d suspect you might also find interest in summer programs for young adults.
TORI: Yes! This summer we will just be getting started, but in future years we definitely plan to have more extensive workshops for various ages. And throughout the year we also are going to have a family series on Saturdays, with improv/play-based shows for little ones.
MARK: Are you doing anything now, while you’re working on the space, to start pulling together the local improv community, so that, when you launch, everything is ready to go?
TORI: That’s what we are working on now. Gary Lehman, an Ann Arborite who works extensively in the Detroit improv scene is part of our team, and we are gearing up for auditions in about a month.
TORI: Yeah, several of them. One of my favorites is “Yes, And” because that is the core improv rule. In case you aren’t familiar, “Yes And” means that when you are improvising, if your partner suggests something (where you are, what you are doing, who you are, etc), you should never deny the world they are creating, but rather agree and add to it. That boils down to saying, “yes, and…” The beer is an anytime ale, meaning you can drink it any time of the year, in any situation.
MARK: I probably should have asked earlier, but, speaking of names, why “Pointless”?
TORI: It came from a day when I was feeling really rotten from chemo, I was just exhausted and felt like I wasn’t sure if I could take it any more. In that dark moment, I turned to Jason and wondered aloud why I was going through all of this if it could all just end up so horrible in the end. “What’s the point? Everything just feels pointless.” And he responded so perfectly, “Okay, maybe it all is pointless. Maybe everything we do is pointless…. So let’s do this. Let’s open a pointless brewery and theatre, and make our pointless dreams come true.” He got me laughing, and we realized that it would be a great name, because everything we do is pointless when you really think about it. So you should spend your time doing what you love, and being with the important people in your life.