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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Feature: Dying is Easy... (from stand-up to theatre)

Staying Alive
by Martha Chaves

Staying alive, besides being the title of  that Bee-Gees tune and the John Travolta movie, has been one of the main motifs of my existence. Not only because I'm from Nicaragua, a war-torn country plagued with poverty and social injustice. Not only because I was born in the midst of a fundamentalist Christian family, in a macho-oriented society and I am a lesbian. Not only because I am an uprooted immigrant who was sent away to Canada by her parents, all alone, at the ripe age of 17. But staying alive has been my quest also because I am a stand-up comedian dammit! To stay alive is the name of the game in stand-up comedy as much as it is in bullfighting. 

The stand-up comedian is like a matador: every audience is a different bull that has to be  slaughtered. It's no coincidence that the main terms associated with stand-up have to do with either killing or dying. If you make the audience eat out of the palm of your hand, you KILL, you SLAY, you DESTROY; but if the audience gives you nothing but silence - the  silence that resonates with the strength of a thousand explosions in the epicenter of  your crumbling ego - you DIE, you BOMB  you get ANIHILATED. Granted: Nobody ever said  that it would be easy. There's even that famous quote, “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But nevertheless, I have been doing it for almost 18 years and if I were to die tomorrow...I would still be very pissed off about being mortal and  about not dying as a famous millionaire (like, say, Jerry Seinfeld) but I would die with the satisfaction of knowing I was one of the few lucky people in the world who spent most of her life doing a job she loved. 

“Is it my masochistic streak?” I've often wondered. I don't know; but  I do love my work and all the risks that it implies because comedy is hard but not as hard as, oh I don't know, brain surgery. 

When go out to do my job -whistling a joyful song and mentally dressed in full matador regalia including my red cape - I am thinking how lucky I am. Honest. 

I may be on my way to a gig in a little town located in the cozy confines of the devil's rectum - northern Alberta - to play for an audience that is not remotely used to seeing a woman on stage - let alone a woman whose mother tongue is not English and still... I know my job will never be as hard as being Josey Aimes, the character of Charlize Theron in “North Country”. 

Of course there's the risk that I may be humiliated and that I may even be putting my physical integrity in serious danger but the other side of that coin is that there's a bigger chance that I may be able to slaughter that “bull” and that those people who may have  never thought they would give the time of the day to someone as “different” as me, may partake in the greatest equalizer: the sacrament of laughter which says their minds are opened even if just a little bit! I don't mean to sound like the pompous ass that uses “sacrament” and “laughter” in the same sentence nor do I mean to imply that in the great scheme of things our contribution to society is as grandiose as we, comedians, may be inclined to believe it is...but there's indeed an undeniable healing power in the elixir of laughter and that healing may not be as potent for the audience as it is for ourselves. As Carol Burnett said it, “laughter is tragedy plus time”  and I happen to subscribe to that motto with the same zeal that I have subscribed to all the other substances that make tragedy bearable. Mind you, when imbibing the magic potion of laughter one may still pee one's pants, one may still wake up with a sore jaw, but. unlike wine, laughter will never get you hungover.

Now, having said all that, I also must confess that lately I have  realized that the audiences, the comedy bull, is getting more ferocious. Not only do they still have the potential of behaving as the drunken asses they often are but now they also have electronic gadgets! And they are attached to those gadgets as if to an umbilical cord that connects them to the womb of God. Some of them even sit in the front row as if they purposely want to dare US, the schmucks up on stage, to try to stop them from being connected to their electronic bliss. The comic may be delivering the most heart-felt, hilarious, knee-slapping bit or the most incisive social commentary and the arsehole audience member will not stop texting! He or she may as well be texting LOL LOL LOL but to us it's annoying to the point of wanting to kill them slowly and not only metaphorically. In my 18 years of experience I have never seen such disrespect and I sure hope with all my heart that comedy club managers unite in the effort to stop these texting brutes. I hope someone comes up with an invisible electromagnetic field that zaps anybody who dares to use their IPods while at a live comedy show. Zap them or burn them to a crisp, that'll teach them! 

But in the meantime...I felt the need to develop a plan B. At one point in 2010 I started thinking, “my career is almost eighteen years old. If it were a person that I had given birth to, I would be getting ready to tell them, 'get out of the house and get a real job.'” Well... I did. I sent out my stand-up comedian self to become a legit playwright. I made it apply to  the De Colores Festival of New Works and what do you know! my stand-up comedian ass got accepted! When I got the letter of acceptance I jumped for joy for about 20 minutes and then it hit me: “I have to write a play, this is work - work!? - this may as well be brain surgery” and then I got busy panicking. 

Luckily, one of the perks of getting into the De Colores Festival was that I would be provided with a  fabulous dramaturge; all I had to do was figure out the story and I had nine months to do it. Piece of cake! I had to first decide what I wanted to say,and that was as easy as passing a kidney stone through an eyeball. Then I had to be honest; go dig deep into my psyche, enter into the proverbial dragon cave, kill the dragon with my bare hands and emerge triumphantly holding its three heads for all to see. That wasn't easy, but it was certainly easier than letting go of my imperious need to get a laugh every 30 seconds... The dramaturge would have nothing to do with any stand-up format shenanigans. I either learned to tell a story in the theater format or else! I am proud to say that  I accomplished it. The first draft of the play was read last October  as part of the De Colores Festival and  it got chosen to be the play to be read again next October in the same. It cost me a lot of blood, sweat and fears to come up with it but I did. According to the people who know, it will cost me a lot more the second, third and fourteenth draft but- hey! - they trust I will be able to endure that endeavor's labor and I guess I may just be. 

It is, after all , a semi auto-biographical play. It's the story of my alter ego, Joanna D' La Cruise (named after the genius Mexican lesbian nun-poet of the 16th century, Sor Juana Ines De la Cruz), this Nicaraguan lesbian stand-up comedian who has managed to survive the pain that life can inflict, in spite of her penchant for self destruction. It's about the journey that implies to go through tragedy plus time and it's called, as you guessed, “Staying Alive”. I hope I see you on opening night and that  you're not sitting in the front row, texting...

See clips of Martha's stand-up act here
Her own website, launching soon, will be at

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