Performers steer experimental Funnies

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELDBianca 'Hazel' Siplin rehearses her skit for New Venture Theatre's upcoming production of The Funnies in the La Posh Building April 8.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELDBianca 'Hazel' Siplin rehearses her skit for New Venture Theatre's upcoming production of The Funnies in the La Posh Building April 8.

Maybe, just maybe, Seanre Harding can quit her day job after this.

Oh, not right away, but some time in the future.

Because if enough people laugh on Saturday, April 20, then she’ll know she has what it takes. From there, she can continue to hone her skills, polish them and finally think seriously about becoming a stand-up comedian.

This is what New Venture Theatre’s production, The Funnies, is about, the art of what makes comedy funny.

It’s the kind of show that keeps New Venture on the cutting edge of theater.

“It’s different, and it’s experimental,” Greg Williams Jr. said.

He’s New Venture’s founder and artistic managing director, as well as the producer of this show. Ashley Self is the director but quickly points out that there’s not much action on stage to direct.

“I’ve been working on the production side of things,” she said. “The show is driven by the performers.”

Last year, New Venture staged a program of dance called What You Believe that explored exactly what was stated in the title. This year, the experimental program focuses on the art of comedy.

“We’re taking a look at what it takes to be a comedian,” Williams said. “We’ve taken three novices and are teaching them to be comedians. We’ve been taking them out to open mic nights leading up to the show so they can test their material in front of different audiences.”

And the audiences have been diverse.

“It’s been scary,” Harding said. “But I’ve given them my material, and they’ve laughed.”

Her terminology, “my material,” is important here, because each of New Venture’s comic novices had to write their own monologues.

This also was an audition requirement.

“We asked them to perform 60 seconds of stand-up and 60 seconds of a dramatic reading that they’d written,” Williams said. “We chose three women for the show, and each of them is great.”

Performing along with Harding will be fellow novices Carissa Mabry and Bianca Siplin. Veteran stand-up comedians Arron “AO” Odom and Howard Hall also are on the program, as well as the neosoul music group Tank and the Bangos.

“This is the first time we’ve hired a music group to perform in one of our productions,” Williams said. “They were playing at an art opening I attended. They’re a band out of New Orleans, and they’re a great fit for this show.”

Hall and Odom, meanwhile, not only will be performing but are acting as mentors to the novices. They’ve taught the three women about timing, presentation and what is and isn’t funny.

So far, though, Harding has had no problem with her material.

“In fact, after she finished performing at one open mic night, some of the veteran comedians there said, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to step up my game,’” Self said.

“It’s true,” Harding said. “Ashley has a recording with them saying that.”

Harding decided to use stories from her life when developing her material. Writers often are told to write about what they know, and Harding knows about what goes on around her every day, which includes her job as an auditor for an insurance company.

The final test before the show will be a trip to an open mic night in New Orleans, which definitely will present a challenge.

“New Orleans is a different crowd,” Harding said. “It’s going to be scary, but I’m excited about it.”

Harding is a New Venture veteran, having appeared in the company’s past productions of The Color Purple, Talbot Beacon Presents His Latest, Greatest, Stage Play and Soulful Sounds of Christmas. And as fun as those shows were, none of them had her thinking about a stage career.

Not that she’s seriously thinking about going on the stand-up circuit now. But the possibility of it all is appealing.

Didn’t Whoopi Goldberg start out in stand-up? And Steve Martin played his stand-up act to audience-filled arenas before he became a movie star.

So, why not? It doesn’t hurt to dream.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s a dream that might one day come true.