Comedian, improv pro and storyteller Deanna Moffitt is undoubtedly funny, so The Chicago Funny Women Festival is a logical fit. This Thursday she and Chicago favorite Robyn Okrant will join forces to tell titillating tales and shameful stories. Our Town spoke with Moffitt about comedy secrets and how to turn humiliation into humor.
Our Town How did you first get interested in improvising?
Deanna Moffitt In 1999 I was living in Portland working as an IT Project Manager and doing some community theater. I didn't even know improv existed; one of my co-workers who had seen a couple of my plays and found me funny in the workplace kept telling me about this show called ComedySportz and that I should go see it. Finally, after months of his encouragement I saw a show and immediately fell in love. They were just big kids, playing on stage. I convinced a friend to take classes with me and on the way home from our first class I told her that I would be playing in their ensemble in six months. She laughed and and said, "maybe you should get through your first level of classes.” But sure enough, almost six months to the day I was called to join the ensemble. The choice to take that first class completely changed the trajectory of my life. I met [my husband] in that class and a few years later, I quit my well paying, insurance providing, secure job, as an IT Project Manager, sold my home and moved to Chicago. So, Tom Hassell, if you're out there thanks for encouraging me to go see that show.
OT Any comedy secrets to share?
DM When I first moved to Chicago nine years ago from Portland, I had a fantastic improv instructor named Liz Allen. She explained that the inverse of laughter was tension and the more tension you create the bigger, richer laughter you'll get from a release the audience needs to have. That just clicked for me, so I enjoy playing the silent tension of comedic situations.
OT You co-founded This Much is True. Why do you think Live Lit is so hot right now?
DM It's been fun to see the change happen and be involved. When we first started This Much is True the only other story show we knew about was 2nd Story which was a long running well-oiled machine. There are probably several reasons for the popularity. There's a great book "The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make us Human" by Jonathan Gottshall that asserts we are creatures of story. That from the beginning, stories were how we learned and how we were entertained. I think the key element of a Live Lit show has to do with the connectedness we feel in the room with a person willing to share their vulnerabilities and failures. We're learning from them what we would or wouldn't do if were put in that same situation. With a good story our minds are totally connected. It's not a passive act to be in the audience; our minds are visualizing and connecting dots in a stimulating way. It's a different experience than seeing something for pure comedy or entertainment.
OT As a storyteller, when something happens to you, are you thinking, this will make a good story?
DM It's not like I'm searching out bad things to happen but now in the moment I tell myself this will be a good story one day. A couple of weeks ago my car died in the middle of an intersection on Kimball. I wanted to cry for about 30 seconds and then I pulled myself together, saw the comedy around me and called a tow truck. It will probably be part of a story one day about my love/hate relationship with automobiles and how a good tow truck driver can feel like a white knight with more body odor.
OT Are there any experiences you’ve had that you’ve tried to make into a story for performance but somehow they didn’t translate? If so, why?
DM I think a storyteller's success is dependent on their willingness to be vulnerable and the audiences ability to get into their skin and understand the reasons behind what they did. It took me almost six years to write a story based on a trip I took to Italy with three friends. That trip ended a friendship I had with one of the women. Someone I had known for 25 years! I have about 15 versions of the story on my computer, but I was finally able to shape a part of the story for last month’s This Much is True. Sometimes a story just has to ferment for awhile before it can come pouring out.
OT You and Robyn Okrant will be telling shameful secrets at the Chicago Funny Women’s Festival. What’s the best part of performing together?
DM I think one of the best things is that we trust each other’s strengths and what we bring to the stage. We just like each other so much and that translates to the audience; they can feel the genuineness that is between the two of us. We've both been doing comedy and writing for so long that if we can make each other laugh we know we've got something good.
OT If something’s humiliating when it happens, what makes you willing to share it with a group of people in a performance setting?
DM Time will usually do that, and the need for new material. And there's just so much comedy in humiliation. Not right away certainly, but if I let those situations compost for awhile they usually turn from garbage to rich, fertile comedic soil with a little perspective shift.
OT What can audiences expect from your show with Robyn?
DM We're both treating this as an opportunity to show a variety of our comedic skills. It's billed as a show featuring two of Chicago's popular storytellers and there will be stories - along with a few other surprises. I think our audience will walk away saying, "I like those ladies, they're really funny and I'm so glad that wasn't me."
Check out Moffitt and Okrant at 9 p.m. Thursday June 6th at Stage 773.