Communing With Comedy at the Commonwealth Sanctuary

Commonwealth Sanctuary brings laughs and a sense of community to Northern Kentucky.
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Collage by Ryan Olbrysh

The sacred and profane co-exist at Commonwealth Sanctuary, a renovated church turned comedy club in Dayton, Kentucky, celebrating its first anniversary on July 14. The club’s origin dates back to a fateful dog walk, when owners Jacoba Wells and Nathan Kroeger—programming director and artistic director, respectively—noticed a “For sale” sign. The pair moved to Northern Kentucky in 2019 and bought the property in April 2020, looking to make an investment in the community.

They sat on the building for a couple of years and, in the meantime, befriended Shawn Braley, who was hosting a monthly comedy showcase at Dayton’s now-closed venue The Garage. Once those shows halted, the three had the idea to turn the church into a permanent comedy club, which finally opened last summer.

Braley, now Commonwealth’s creative director, says that Dayton is growing, and the trio is trying to be a part of that development while remaining inclusive and affordable. “We’re connected to all the other business owners here,” he says. “Any time a headliner comes through and we take them to one of the restaurants, I just feel like I’m Ray Liotta in Goodfellas walking through the kitchen. We’re finding a strong community of people trying to do something in this town. And then, within the comedy community, we’ve been strongly embraced as a unique space where they can try things a little more, go out on a ledge, and not have to always be perfect.”

That ethos is captured in weekly Comedy Labs, a Sunday evening open-mic night when newcomers, veterans, and everyone in between can try out new material. The venue also hosts other events, including movie nights, pop-up vintage markets, and concerts.

Commonwealth has attracted regional and national names alike in its first year. Upcoming dates include NYC-based Jay Jurden on June 7 and 8; Michael Ian Black of Wet Hot American Summer and ’90s sketch comedy show The State on June 14; and Hari Kondabolu, creator of The Problem with Apu, on June 21 and 22.

According to Kroeger and Wells, the original building on their lot was built in 1855 as the Methodist Church of Dayton. It fell into disrepair, leading to construction of the current building in 1914. “All of the stained glass is dedicated to parishioners here, but their family members are still alive in our community,” says Wells. “People come in and they’re like, Oh, that was my great grandma.

Show attendees can get food via Kate’s Catering, another Dayton business. Each table is set up for silent ordering, an idea that came from visiting other comedy clubs, including The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Indiana, and Planet of the Tapes in Louisville.

As they’ve learned about their audience and space, the club owners have tweaked the layout to encourage intimacy and resounding infectious laughter. “We’ve heard from a lot of comedians who have performed here that, even with 20 people in this room, on stage it feels like 100 people laughing just because of the way the sound reverberates in here,” says Kroeger. “This building feels theater-like, but it’s intimate at the same time. Those are two hard things to get together.”

Besides being a stand-up comedian Braley was also a pastor at one time, an experience he’s used as source material. “Now I’m the creative director of a comedy club that meets in a church,” he says. “It feels like I inverted my life, but essentially I’m still creating programming that’s helping people experience something transcendent and building community.”

As they approach the first anniversary, Kroeger says the three owners have heard from early-career comedians that they feel they’ve found a footing at Commonwealth. “When we opened up, they tried us out and told us, Oh, this feels really good. They want to hang out here, and they do, which is really, really lovely.”

Commonwealth Sanctuary, 522 Fifth Ave., Dayton, Kentucky

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