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My partner recently held a talent night for his birthday – open stage for all, he said, comedy, music, mime, ribbon – everyone is welcome. Of the ~70 people that came, I was astonished only one of the 12 performers was not a straight white dude. I was then surprised at my own surprise, because in just over a year, I had forgotten about how long it took for me to throw my own hat onto the performance stage.
When I was 19, my ex and I would talk of moving to Melbourne and “doing comedy” – neither of us had a performance background and we didn’t know where to start. It was something that we dreamed of while we pursued safe study pathways as a homage to our Sri Lankan parents who’d migrated to Australia for a better life. Perth did not have a big comedy scene back then, so we downloaded all of the comedy content we could get our dodgy little virtual hands on and dreamt up exceptionally stupid skits.
We continued to voraciously consume comedy as our safe study pathways turned into safe career pathways and took us overseas. After we parted ways at 28, I forgot about comedy. No one ever explicitly told me I couldn’t do comedy on my own, it just never occurred to me that I could, or should. I’d always thought of my ex as “the funny one”, and what we watched was written, produced and led by (mostly white) men – back then, Mindy Kaling was holding up the fort as the only brown female on screen.
When I moved to Melbourne at 30, I watched Kitty Flanagan slay as MC at a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show. I started going to free comedy nights and, as I watched woman after woman be hilarious, an idea started to form - perhaps, I didn’t need a dude, or to be a dude to be funny? When I later watched Nazeem Hussain make a room full of white people laugh, the idea started to expand – perhaps, I didn’t need to be white to be funny? Is it possible that I could be female and brown and funny all on my own?
It took another year for me to sign up for RAW Comedy and even on the way to my heat, I was still badgering myself at my audacity – was I seriously trying this? My brain tried to tell me off: "Get a kebab and hop the tram home you absolute lemon"... but I didn’t go home - after 12 years of self-censorship, I told myself - just try this. Lucky too, because I went through to the Victorian State Final.
RAW opened up a world that I would never have known if I had hopped the 96 home – it was stand-up that led me to improv. I was a storyteller for The Remix at The Improv Conspiracy and I was blown away by the talent, skill and diversity of the cast. Again, it never occurred to me that it was something I could try. When a friend posted about The Improv Conspiracy's Diversity Scholarship, I double-checked with her – Was it for someone younger? With more of a performance background? More in need of funds? Shut up and apply? Phew, okay. Female and brown and learning to be funny for free – this is the dream, there is no catch and gone are all the reasons I’d made up for myself to not “do comedy”.
If I hadn’t found improv, I would have stopped doing stand-up long ago – it was improv that enabled me to continue stand-up. The latter is a nerve-wracking, sometimes isolating form of comedy that does not come with the structure and support innate in the improv community. Staying in improv training for as long as possible is much advised – it builds your core knowledge in what is funny and why it is funny – meaning that one bad gig in a bar with a heckling omelette head can no longer decimate the new, fragile confidence in my ability to make people laugh.
Aside from the invaluable confidence that improv nurtures in its performers – it also entrenches a belief that when you step out on stage, you will go on a journey with your partner(s) and the audience and something ridiculous and funny will happen – there is a magic in that, that no other form of comedy can come close to replicating. I’m now learning The Harold in Improv Level 4 at The Improv Conspiracy and I am grateful to the teachers, the classmates and the community for the safe space I depend on every week to be creatively foolish in.
Until the talent night, I’d forgotten it took 12 years for me to just try something – and that I almost missed out on this incredible community full of wonder and mischief. That night spoke volumes of innate confidence levels – every person who performed that night was hilarious, but I wondered how many others talked themselves out of stepping on.
I want to do more to help people get started. I can’t teach improv (yet!), but I can share what I learned – about comedy and about confidence, as widely as possible. I wish I could go back and give my 19-year-old self a boot up the butt to try something sooner. As I can’t, the best I can do is give a boot to someone else in need of one, and hopefully, shorten their own internal dialogue of not being good enough to just-freakin'-try. Step out on stage more. You’re funny – allow you to allow you to try.
Sashi Perera and Rose Bishop held a stand-up comedy workshop for women, trans and non-binary folks at The Improv Conspiracy on November 17th – it sold out, and was obviously in the past, but don't worry... we'll be announcing another one soon!
For information on The Improv Conspiracy's scholarship programs, click here.
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