“By round of applause, who’s never seen queer-prov before?” A few meek hands, including my own, are raised in the air accompanied by a spattering of applause.
“Who has seen queer-prov before?” The room erupts with noisy cheering, shouts and whistles as the majority of the people seated in Heaven’s Door show their love for the ragtag group of actors lined up onstage.
It’s a telling moment for queer improvisation group The Bobbers, who, after two years away from their home in the Davie Village, are reclaiming their turf at the newly refurbished Bute Street restaurant that once housed J-Lounge and before that the Jupiter Café.
It’s been a rough couple of years for the eight-year-old comedy troupe. For five years, they enjoyed local fame and a loyal fan base in the West End, performing their Tops & Bottoms show, a sort of improv training camp involving members of the audience. That ended abruptly in 2011, when J-Lounge went into sudden receivership and left The Bobbers homeless and scrambling for a venue.
They spent the next two years drifting from venue to venue around the city, from Granville Island to Kitsilano; there was even some downtime when there wasn’t a show at all. The experience was challenging, but it wasn’t entirely a bad one.
“Our troupe has grown,” says Dan Dumsha, improviser and current president of the Queer Arts Society, which runs the group. Their year at Granville Island’s Improv Centre, in particular, marked a valuable growing period for the group; they had access to a proper stage, props and lighting and had the chance to learn from other improv pros who perform there regularly. But they did lose much of their audience.
“Our hardcore fans are in the West End,” explains Lee Ann Keple, The Bobbers’ “original woman.”
“We really are excited this time. Everything’s kind of synched,” she says. “We’re in our neighbourhood, in the gay village, back at the place where we have so many good memories, and everything has come together for optimal performance.”
Keple, who also performs standup with the Laff Riot Girls, should know. She’s been with the group since its first audition in 2006. “From starting from this disparate bunch of improvisers, we’ve been able to accomplish a whole lot, working together,” she says. “At the beginning, it was so empowering to get together with a bunch of other queer-identified performers. I think we’d all, in our different ways, carried our closets with us to other comedy that we were doing, where it would almost be this small subversive victory, if you did 15 scenes, to have one where it was a same-sex couple.
“So it was very empowering to be with a troupe where we were all queer-identified and it was okay if every single scene was reflecting aspects of our own lives.”
When Bobbers’ founder David C Jones, who started Tops & Bottoms, retired from the group in December, the remaining members decided to change the format to pure improv. “We said, ‘Let’s do what we’re good at; let’s do improv,’” Dumsha says.
Back onstage at Heaven’s Door, troupe member Amy Wilder has a task for the crowd. “I want you to look to your left and scream out that person’s name as if you just slept with them,” she says, “and chances are, with this queer group, you probably did sleep with them at some point.”
The crowd laughs in what can only be described as a tone of agreement, reinforcing the significance of The Bobbers’ homecoming. It’s the pleasure of performing for an audience that gets it, that, together with the players, forms an intimate queer community close to home.
“There are queers everywhere, of course, in Vancouver. When we were on Granville Island, people came out. It’s great to have queer presence elsewhere,” Dumsha says.
“But there’s something about being in Davie Village that’s especially special and unique. And it feels really good to be in the heart of the Village doing queer improv with a queer troupe. It’s a really significant thing because there’s a community of people around this show that come out on Monday night, and we’ve restarted it.”