Woodstock High grad returned home to open comedy club
Published: 02-09-2024 9:01 PM
Modified: 02-13-2024 9:44 AM
In Paulo Coehlo’s novel “The Alchemist,” the protagonist Santiago embarks on an arduous quest to find buried treasure that appeared to him in a dream only to discover that the bounty lay where his journey began.
Comedian and native Vermonter Collen Doyle’s story follows a similar trajectory. Determined to forge a career in the performing arts, Doyle spent nearly a decade acting and doing stand-up in New York City before moving back to Vermont to open the Woolen Mill Comedy Club in Bridgewater.
“Getting on stage was never a hard thing,” Doyle said in an interview. “Almost easier than everyday life where you have to be serious.”
But in the midst of making jokes, Doyle has done something serious: Woolen Mill Comedy Club has cemented itself as a fixture in the Upper Valley’s and northern New England’s comedy scene.
From an early age, Doyle was drawn to performing. At 3 years old, he thought up a joke and pretended to read it off a gum wrapper to get his nana laughing. His mother, Marcia Doyle, recalls that he was constantly putting on performances at home. In the middle of one, she remembers thinking, “He’s not just being silly. … He really had that comedic timing. He really knew how to be funny at a very young age.”
In his teens, Doyle performed in plays at Woodstock Union High School and produced a show at the town’s Little Theater. During free periods, he would act in short films shot by his friend Tim Buttner, with storylines ranging from a mafia heist to a documentary about the senior class’s affinity for competitive games of four square.
After graduating from WUHS in 2006, Doyle set his sights on New York City, where he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to study acting. As Skyler Pinkerton, the comic’s long-term friend and roommate from his New York days put it: “(Collen) was a go-getter. It really motivated me to go out and do things that I probably would have waited on.”
While still a student, Doyle opened for Jim Gaffigan at the Broadway Comedy Club, a far cry from the cabaret shows he’d organized in his middle school cafeteria.
In the years that followed, Doyle kept auditioning for acting gigs and doing stand-up. He favored bringer shows, which require comics to invite a couple of friends in exchange for stage time, at prominent clubs like Carolines and Stand Up NY, to performing at open mics rife with under-rehearsed newbies.
Doyle also reunited with high school friend Buttner, this time to launch the production company One Forest Films, which hosted its own film festival in 2011.
After landing a couple of roles in indie films and commercials, Doyle’s years of hustling finally seemed to be paying off. But something wasn’t right.
“I was in a really good place and a lot of great things were happening for me, and I was very unhappy,” he said. The restless quest for “real” success, which lurked eternally out of reach, had leached the joy from performing.
“It was always more. … People rob you of a lot of moments of happiness because the bar is set so high,” the comedian noted, referring to the culture of comparison endemic to New York’s acting scene.
Doyle needed to get back to basics, so in 2014 he agreed to take on an ensemble role in a Pentangle Players’ production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
He had just finished acting in a campaign for FedEx and part of him wondered, “Why am I going to go back and do community theater?” But Pentangle was special to him: “This organization gave me a scholarship when I was starting out (in high school) and I hadn’t done anything. They were here to support me, and now this (was) my opportunity to come back and support them.”
Once rehearsals began, Doyle embraced his role with enthusiasm. The play’s director, Sharon Groblicki, remarked that “he made the show. You couldn’t watch anything but Collen Doyle. That was just the kind of charisma he had.” She cited one instance when the cast took a bow at the end of the show and Doyle “comes out and does a somersault. … He just sparkles.”
It seemed that much like Santiago, the answers Doyle sought were waiting at home. Away from the pressures of the big city, joking around with kids in the cast, it occurred to him: “It doesn’t matter where I am, my love of acting will be the same. It doesn’t matter where I perform comedy, my love of comedy will be the same.”
That year, Doyle opened the Woolen Mill Comedy Club in his hometown of Bridgewater.
Since moving home, Doyle’s community pride has formed a pillar of his character. When a friend dressed as him at a Halloween party, he showed up in the comic’s customary track suit and flashy chains, raving emphatically about how much he loves Vermont. In many ways, Woolen Mill — which started in Ramunto’s Brick & Brew Pizza in the Bridgewater Mill and has since migrated to its own space upstairs — is an emblem of that hometown pride.
“Even when we look simple, we’re still sophisticated,” Doyle said of his fellow Vermonters. At first, not everyone thought opening a comedy club in a small town like Bridgewater, where the majority of local businesses reside within the mill, was a good idea.
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘Bridgewater doesn’t want comedy.’ ‘No, Bridgewater just hasn’t had that,’ ” he countered.
Doyle and Matt Vita, his collaborator since the pandemic, are out to prove that even rural neighborhoods like Bridgewater are worthy of top-notch comedy.
Their plan? Build a club that’s on par with the biggest spots in New York. If the city’s comedy scene has taught Doyle anything, it’s how to design a great club. Walking into Woolen Mill on a Saturday night, you could easily mistake it for one of Brooklyn’s buzzing comedy venues, were it not for all the flannel-clad patrons (although these days you might find those in Brooklyn, too). From the black tablecloths and tightly packed seats to the cool temperature and rustic brick wall behind the stage, a relic of the mill’s original skeleton, Doyle has considered every detail. “It was just so ingrained in my head what a club should look like and how a club should operate,” he said.
Post-pandemic, Vita had the idea to schedule weekly shows on Saturday nights, and the club began to trade in open mics for showcases featuring comics from all over the country. Many of the comics Doyle found through his connections in New York, where he still performs and lives part-time. Past acts have done stand-up at New York’s Comedy Cellar, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and on Comedy Central.
Vita and Doyle met during a virtual comedy show hosted by Woolen Mill and quickly bonded over their mutual love for stand-up and snowboarding. Their collaborative work developed organically from there. “We’re cut from the same cloth,” Vita said. “It was definitely meant to be.”
The switch to weekly shows had a big impact, and Pinkerton said he was amazed when the club started drawing in big-city talent: “People are really traveling as part of their tour to come out to this spot!” As the roster continues to grow, Woolen Mill is on its way to becoming what Doyle hopes will be the “Comedy Cellar of the North.”
In early December, the club celebrated a milestone when it hosted the second annual Vermont Comedy Festival, a four-day event with over 50 comedians, including SNL veteran Colin Quinn, who performed for a packed house in Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre. The festival was intended to highlight Vermont as a site of great comedy and celebrate the passions of local residents, with Woolen Mill partnering with over a dozen local businesses in Bridgewater and Woodstock.
“One of the great pleasures of my life has been getting to help other people,” Doyle said. For him, performing is a way to conjure some levity for the people around him. As a kid, he cracked jokes at the dinner table to alleviate some of the stress from his mom’s day. As a club owner, he gets to do the same for his community.
“It’s so great that he’s able to do all the things he’s destined to do, but he’s doing them here. It makes things rich for all of us,” Groblicki remarked.
Even in a place like Vermont, where there’s not a skyscraper to be found and the trees outnumber the people, locals still need a way to relax. Doyle understands this. “People are here to have fun,” he said of Woolen Mill. “You’re here to offer a level of escape.”
Marion Umpleby is a freelance writer. She lives in Tunbridge.