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Ten Tacoma area women use stand up comedy as mental health therapy

Final bow. L to R: Lori Colbo, Laurel Lemke, D'ARcy Figuacion, Shari Gylling, Ann Rider, David Granirer, Ja Cee Moon, Cat Barnaby, Stacy Suinn, Joanna Free
Final bow. L to R: Lori Colbo, Laurel Lemke, D'ARcy Figuacion, Shari Gylling, Ann Rider, David Granirer, Ja Cee Moon, Cat Barnaby, Stacy Suinn, Joanna Free
Renata Dunkle

Recently, on March 28, 2014, ten, brand-spanking-new, women comics, each with a mental health diagnosis, were ushered on stage by emcee and fellow comic, David Granirer, at the Tacoma Community College Auditorium. It was a packed house - standing room only - and for ninety minutes Granirer and we ten, brave, and hilarious women kept the audience howling. Sides were splitting, heads were thrown back, and knees were slapped, as raucous laughter filled the auditorium.

The show was the culmination of a twelve week class we ladies participated in through the organization Stand UP for Mental Health, funded by Optum Health Pierce Regional Support Network. SMH founder David Granirer, from Vancouver B.C. facilitated the class via Skype each week. For twelve weeks, every Wednesday, we met at TACID (our greatest supporters, thank you TACID) for two hours learning the fine art of stand up comedy. This included writing and brainstorming joke ideas, set-up's and punch lines; practicing timing, delivery, and physicality - and we laughed ourselves silly. The camaraderie and encouragement we gave each other was very inspiring and meaningful.

The performers were D'Arcy Figuracion, Gina Tkacs, Joanna Free, Cat (Cathaleen) Barnaby, Stacy Suinn, Laurel Lemke, Ann Rider, JaCee Moon, Shari Gylling, myself (Lori Colbo), and David Granirer, who performed between each act.

Highlights of the evening performance

After Granirer's hilarious opening set, D'Arcy Figuracion took the stage with bold confidence. "I love to help people," she said, "so I donate blood. Last time as a thank you gift they gave me a Tee-shrit - EXTRA SMALL. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Yeah, I put it on, and a pair of pajama bottoms, and headed over to Walmart TO GET ME A MAYAAN!!!," she said with an exaggerated southern drawl ( sides splitting).

Nicci Tina (played by Joanna Free) is a butt kicker (someone who stopped smoking) and was donned in a long, fluorescent orange wig. She hails from the planet Tangerine. Nicci has attitude, always with a hand on her hip. "For me, smoking was a love-hate relationship. I loved cigarettes, and they stole my money and threatened my life... Yeah, I've unfriended people for less than that!" (knee slapping).

Gina Tkacs brought along her boyfriend Charlie (played by a formed head one might use to model wigs) who had wild hair and a smudged face. With her deadpan style, Gina told all , "He's just like a regular guy. He doesn't shave, comb, or pay his bills. He also ignores me when I'm talking to him...At least he doesn't leave the toilet seat up; he won't hog the remote; and he's pretty good at playing catch with the dog," (people rolling in the aisles).

Cat Barnaby told an unusual childhood story: "How many of you have heard of twinkle twinkle little star? (big applause). "Yeah, I never heard that version - I learned the abridged version. It goes 'Starkle starkle little tink, who the hell I are you think. I'm not under the influence of inchohol like some thinkle peep I am.' I think I was the first kindergartner to get a breathalyzer" (hooting and howling).

Shari Gylling said her family recently got a dog, noting that dogs and people take on similar characteristics. "After we got the dog, my son began eating out of a bowl on the floor; licked my face instead of kissing me...and every night he circles three times before laying down to sleep. And now, instead of sending him to his room, I send him to his kennel" (doubled over).

Stacy Suinn shared very candidly about her stay on the psyche ward. "One time I was in the hospital and was suicidal. Someone yelled 'JUMP!' - I didn't know candy stripers were allowed to say that" (Gufaws).

Ann Rider, with all seriousness, and a striken face, related how devastating it was to get her first mental health diagnosis - "You never expect to hear that from your hairdresser." (you're killing me).

Laurel Lemke, our SMH alumni shared her experience of being a comic: "Doing stand up comedy changes the dynamics of one of my significant relationships. I've started telling jokes to my counselor to cheer her up. However, she thought it was unethical when I started asking for a cover charge and a two drink minimum" (in stitches).

Ja Cee Moon regaled us with dog tales: "People ask me, 'Do your dogs shed? I say yes, it is not only a fashion accessory, it is also a condiment" (Chortling).

I was the last act. Most of my acts were physical, so they won't work here in print. But I did share about my frustration with my poor hearing combined with mental health issues: "It's bad enough having a mental health diagnosis, but now I'm having hearing problems. It's so frustrating. I knew it was getting serious when I had to ask my voices to speak up. It really hurt my feelings when the voices screamed back, ' WE WEREN'T TALKING TO YOU!!!"

Western State Hospital Performance

Earlier in the afternoon, comic Laurel Lemke, Director of Consumer Affairs and Volunteer Services at Western State Hospital, arranged for us to perform there. Nearly one hundred patients and staffers filed into the WSH ampitheater ready for a refreshing change and chance to laugh. The wonderful sound and sight of laughing people cheered and encouraged us. We felt so blessed to bring good cheer to our friends there. Laurel is a go getter and never does anything half way. Full speed ahead she arranged for Mary Kay Consultants (thank you ladies) to come to WSH to do our make up and also arranged for a delicious lunch for we starving comics (thank you Rosemary). It was much appreciated. We needed our strength for a very long day.

What we learned about ourselves

The things we each learned about ourselves through this experience were vast. "I learned that I can share about touchy subjects of my past and gain healing," said Stacy Suinn. Gina Tkacs found it a way to overcome fear: "I learned that I was funny to most people and I could actually overcome my fears of being on stage in front of a large audience." I think we could all say "Ditto" to that.

Ann Rider has done a lot of public speaking before about her recovery without any discomfort. "But stand up is hard!" she declared. Peer support was a huge blessing for Ann (and the rest of us). "I also re-learned how much I need the support of my peers, as I truly value the group of women during this time."

Laurel Lemke, as an alumni, was our mentor, encourager, and example (she really is a big ham). "I learned that I could mentor a group of new comics and organize a show at the hospital. I was able to develop a new routine for the show." She admits this time around was much less pressure.

I, personally always thought the world would come to an end if the world knew I struggled with mental health issues. So this was a public "coming out" sort of experience for me about having a mental health diagnosis. The world is still turning, and the people who love me, love me for my uniqueness, as I do them. Those who might look down on me, I've learned I can live with that and need not be ashamed. That's huge for me. And besides, statistics say one out of every four people has a mental health challenge of some kind. That's a lot of people, so I'm not alone.

How this experience changed us

Oh, the changes this experience has brought about. I believe each one of us changed in how we see our value, our gifts, and our abilities. Laurel is thrilled that people have started identifying her as a comic rather than a job title, volunteer status, or diagnosis. Many of us got discouraged, doubtful, or fearful along the way and wanted to back out (thankfully no one did, we wouldn't let each other).

Ann, who states she is relatively fearless, admits this experience was terrifying. "I think it makes me proud that I still have that kind of courage. I thought about backing out many times - even the morning of the show - but I showed up and kept on doing what I was doing. I think it's made me even more fearless, and move excited about doing new things." Gina says she feels more confident overall and about her ability to be accepted by the general public.

Stacy, a woman of faith, said, "Everybody can develop a humorous side because of Yeshua, My Lord."

Performing as a stand up comic for the very first time is scary. Very few people in this world would even consider doing it. For the ten of us, who all deal with depression and anxiety, it was one of the greatest challenges of our lives. We would all agree with Ann that "it was terrifying," and yet at the same time exhilarating. What made it easier was doing it together. We gathered strength through each other.

"I awoke at 3:00 the morning of the show," said Ann, "and my first thought was 'I'll go to the show, but I won't perform.' Then I decided I couldn't do that to the other comics. I was on the edge of a full blown panic attack from 3:00 a.m. right up until show time - and once I got started I had fun! Afterword I just felt a huge relief, and an enormous grin on my face."

Ann took the words right out of my mouth. As soon as I got up on stage I just relaxed. I don't remember much about the audience except that they were having a good time. But most of my focus was on "This is really fun." When I stepped off stage the adrenaline started pumping, I started shaking, and I thought, "Good heavens, what did I just do. I must have been crazy." EXACTLY!

Gina admitted, "My experience just prior to and during the performances was of not being laughed at or extreme anxiety taking over my body and not enjoying myself, which would also make the audience uncomfortable." Undeniably, the audience was not uncomfortable at all with Gina and Charlie's act. People were laughing all over the place.

Friends and family reaction

I'm not sure which is worse, being critiqued by your friends and family or an auditorium full of strangers. It was a mixed bag for all of us. Laurel says her family has not had the opportunity to see her perform since they are out of state, but some have seen the video and appreciated it. "They are proud of my career, volunteer work and helping persons with challenges and are glad that I have fun with this."

One of Ann's good friends told her "Your life? In stand up comedy? I am SO going to help!" She did come and brought her family. "My family," Ann states," has been completely silent about this - I can't wait to hear what they say when they see the tape. I hadn't thought about it until now, but it's actually typical of my "birth" family that they're at arms length from anything having to do with my story...this is why we have families of choice. And this group of comics has just become like a new set of sisters."

Gina exceeded all her family's expectations. "My friends and family members were not surprised that I would take this type of class, because they think I'm funny," she says. "Their reaction after seeing me perform was that it was much better than they expected." Stacy's family said she was courageous. "They were very supportive," she said.

The crowd went wild

The greatest pleasure of the show was the enthusiastic crowd. They were killing themselves laughing, and some even called out comments (no heckling). When Cat Barnaby was relating a story about Sister Mary Joseph, one audience member was struck funny by the title and laughed out loud and shouted "Sister Mary JOSEPH?" Which only made the crowd laugh harder.

Audience member Marcie Fisher, from Gig Harbor, was very impressed with the show and the comics. "I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and thought the comedians were very funny. They all did a great job presenting their acts. It was a very worthwhile evening of entertainment." At the final bow the crowd went wild and came to their feet. It was the icing on the cake.

David Granirer, our beloved mentor and encourager, did a "stand up" job throughout the night as he performed. His high praise means a lot to us. "I was honored to work with such a great group of talented women. They were hilarious and put on an amazing show. Their material was great and really delved into their experiences around recovery. Each one of them brought a totally unique perspective to the issue. It was also incredible the way they were able to take such a serious subject and find the humour in it. "It was also obvious that what they had to say really connected with the audience by all the applause breaks and the standing ovation at the end of the show. And all the comics had people come up to them saying what a great show they put on. I was totally thrilled!"

Stand Up for Mental Health

SMH is a ground-breaking therapy for people struggling with mental illness. Personally, comedy has now become my leading treatment in my recovery. It has transformed all our lives - lives that have been broken in many ways; lives that have suffered, and felt the stigma of mental illness. The word "stigma" is often defined in dictionaries as "a mark of disgrace." "EH!" The buzzer sounds. Through SMH we have found a voice to say to the world, "We are not a mark of disgrace, we are brave and hilarious and quite remarkable, and don't you forget it!"

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