“The right side of the brain gets us through life,” David C Jones explains to a group of eight sitting in swivel office chairs. “It remembers passwords, phone numbers, parking spaces…
“The left side is reflective,” he continues. “Exercising the left side of your brain stimulates the right side when it’s adapting to the anomalies of life.”
Jones has been attempting to resuscitate queer improv in Vancouver with his Bob Loblaw Queer Comedy Troupe and a series of improvisation workshops which he began running in late May.
The name Bob Loblaw spoofs the phonetic spelling of “blah, blah, blah,” which was how Jones and co-founder Pearce Vissers referred to the troupe while it was still being conceived.
Laughs aside, improvisation is a useful skill to have in every day life for those of us without aspirations to the stage.
“Improv teaches you how to manoeuvre in a structured environment. In a courtroom, a lawyer has to know how to practice the law with the right side of his brain while the left side deals with whatever curve balls are being thrown at him. Soldiers are taught improv to learn how to apply what they’ve learned in basic training on the battlefield.”
Jones pauses. “Not that I endorse war,” he adds.
As a participant in the introductory workshop, I can understand where Jones is coming from.
Improv involves making eye contact and listening to people-the two things I hate most. It teaches you to abandon pre-conceptions and forces you to relinquish control of a given situation.
An exercise in “yes” statements is particularly liberating. In pairs, we have to create a scene starting every line with the word “yes.” As soon as the word “but” is inserted into a sentence the scene grinds to a halt; by agreeing to the previous statement and incorporating it into your own ideas, the scene flourishes.
It took a while but I got the hang of it. I could see where these kinds of skills could come in handy: at a job interview or picking someone up in a bar.
Improv isn’t about the individual, however. At its core, improv is about teamwork and making the other guy look better.
As the workshop continues, I challenge myself to step outside my comfort zone and stop censoring myself, letting the pieces fall where they may.
I leave the workshop invigorated, like I had just worked out.
Jones, who has been working as an openly gay entertainer for 12 years, says he’s wanted to “do something aimed specifically at the gay community for a while” but never had the time.
“Comedy is anger,” he explains. “In most cases comedy points out the weird, scary, hard, stupid things in life. From Jon Stewart to Chris Rock to Dame Edna, comics tend to speak truths from a place of indignation.
“Most gay people have so many things that try to oppress them-media, religious groups, parents, politicians, strangers-that if we don’t turn that experience into a joke, if we don’t try to fight it with laughter, we run the risk of becoming bitter and hard or crumpling into tears.
“Laughing is way more fun. Laughing in a community of like-minded people is very powerful.”
Until now, he says, he hasn’t had time to teach improv to the gay community. Now, he says, he’s ready and able to make the commitment.
And he’s hoping the initiative yields a fresh crop of gay recruits.
Part of the purpose of these workshops, he says, is to foster new talent for his Bob Loblaw troupe. “Stand-up comedy is still a boys school dominated by straight males,” he notes. “Gay comedians make up about two percent of the acts that are out there. ”
While Jones doesn’t hide his own sexuality from straight crowds, he says he prefers to perform to gay audiences. “You have to avoid certain gimmicks and phrases that don’t go over with heterosexuals. It’s like watching Will & Grace with your parents: you have to explain everything to them.”
By that logic, the troupe’s first appearance at Pride last year should have been a great, explanation-free success. It wasn’t. By Jones’ own admission, it was a bit of a bomb.
“The act before us was a band and we didn’t adjust the microphones. Our voices kept reverberating over the next line and no one could hear the jokes.”
Using his finger as a pointer, Jones adds, “Lesson number one: singing mics aren’t the same as speaking mics.”
Undaunted, the troupe then accepted an invitation to perform at last year’s Out On Screen film festival.
“The crowd was mostly women, so we asked a lesbian what her day was like and then we re-created it for her. They loved it!” Jones recalls, nearly falling off his chair with enthusiasm.
Similar success was had at Altitude earlier this year where the Bob Loblaw troupe opened for comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer. “I knew I had a hot property on my hands when a friend asked me if I had heard of something called Blah, blah, blah,” Jones smiles.
Now, he says, he wants to provide an alternative to drag shows and karaoke nights at local bars.
“We have some brilliant drag queens in our midst, but are drag queens all we think of when it comes to queer comedy in Vancouver? Why haven’t we been able to sustain an equity theatre company like Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto? Why is it whenever the Arts Club mounts a gay-themed play, no one shows up? What are we doing wrong?
“Theatre groups like the Screaming Weenies and Raving Theatre spring up all the time but we need to sustain them,” he insists.
One thing Jones has noticed about gay audiences in Vancouver is that it’s hard to get people to go see live entertainment unless it’s a fundraiser. Playing to a gay crowd usually means working for free, which is good for experience when someone is starting out, but in the long run doesn’t pay the bills.
I asked Jones what advice he has for people looking for an alternative career in the arts. “Read lots of books on business,” he says. “And expand your network outside of your social group; go to workshops and seminars.
“Don’t hang around with your friends whining about why you’re not an artist.”