SOMERVILLE — Funny. Dark. Smart. Great. Those are the attributes that Deby Xiadani, the new artistic director of the Rockwell, wants audiences to note. They are the pillars of her philosophy for making the Davis Square space something special in the months and years to come. She figures if a performance is funny, dark, and smart, it’s probably going to be great.
Funny is important, whether it’s music, a play, or something explicitly comic like a stand-up act, because it helps the performer get into deeper subjects with an audience.
Dark, Xiadani says, can mean “grotesque” or “taboo,” but also something more personal. “It doesn’t have to be morbid — ‘dark’ is the stuff that doesn’t really get to see the light of day very often.”
And “smart” applies to performers who have practiced their craft and approached it thoughtfully. “There are so many types of humor that are just easy, low-hanging fruit,” she says. “I want us to elevate and think more about what we’re doing.”
She acknowledges that greatness may be a lot to ask of local artists. “But that’s coming from the point of view of: Don’t waste the audience’s time. Don’t waste this precious moment of gathering people together. Make this great. Treat this seriously.”
The Rockwell, which has a seating capacity of up to 200 people, had been home to some notable shows before Xiadani’s arrival. ImprovBoston’s mainstage cast was a staple at the venue before that organization suspended operations recently, and a number of comedy albums, including Kathe Farris’s new “Have You Seen This Woman?,” have been recorded there.
Xiadani produced several editions of her own show, “Comedy X Music,” in the theater. But it was more of a rental space. Artists would pay a fee up front and sell their own tickets. Management wasn’t involved in creative decisions. That’s the first thing Xiadani wanted to change when she started last August.
“I said my one stipulation about this is I’m not a managing director,” she says, “I’m not managing the space anymore, we’re going to become curated.”
Xiadani has been booking a mix of local artists with unusual shows and touring acts from around the country. She lured the “Raaaatscraps!” improv show from New York for what will be a regular place in the schedule. Boston singer-songwriter and author Ezra Furman has a monthly residency with “Ms. Ezra Furman Does What She Wants.” On Feb. 28, Jack Simon returns with a third installment of their “Cloud Nine” talk and stand-up show, where comedians are all onstage at once and talk between sets.
Xiadani’s feedback and hands-on approach has been invaluable in developing the show. “She clearly has a vision and an eye and just a willingness to be involved like I’ve never experienced at any venue I have worked with so far,” says Simon.
Xiadani is looking to help more local artists find their feet with residencies. Having a regular show, she says, will help performers find “a rhythm, and they know that they can do something experimental every week or every month.”
A Cambridge native, Xiadani, 30, was president of her improv group at Dartmouth College and trained at Second City in Chicago. She produced her own offbeat shows in New York, where she lived for seven years, including one called “Good Cooks,” in which a chef or restauranteur would prepare food for the audience, and a group would perform sketches based on their work.
Her biggest strengths, she says, are spotting talent and inviting that talent to dig in and create. And she’s thankful to have the Rockwell as a venue where she can apply herself. “If I can identify that and then give space for that person to grow,” she says, “it just feels so rewarding to build people up like that.”
When the previous manager left in 2023, Xiadani had mixed feelings about applying for the job.
But when she started thinking about the possibilities for what the Rockwell might be, she was energized. What was supposed to be a roughly 30-minute job interview with Tania Dunham-von Magnus, director of operations for the Rockwell Restaurant Group, stretched into an hour-and-a-half conversation.
“I was obsessed,” says Xiadani. “I knew if they didn’t like what my vision was then it wouldn’t be a good fit, but they loved it. And they hired me on the spot.”
Dunham-von Magnus says the Rockwell had taken a back seat to Foundry on Elm and Saloon, her other two Davis Square ventures. But Xiadani’s enthusiasm and penchant for dreaming big hooked her. “I didn’t think I wanted to do that much with the theater,” she says, “until this person in front of me made me want to do this and made me really want to be involved … in [this] area of our business, and actually grow it.”
The Rockwell is still a work in progress. Xiadani would like to add workshops and classes with performers and move the space to a seven-day-a-week schedule. She’s also mindful of the spaces and institutions around Boston brought down by the pandemic, and hopes the Rockwell can help to make up for those losses. “I think what is next could be really powerful,” she says. “We have the chance to really re-envision this landscape before us. And I feel like that’s what I take as a responsibility, to not let this venue go to waste.”
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.