x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Aspiring comics take up comedy courses

As two professionals lead celebrations for arts group Dubomedy's third birthday, we meet novices who just want to make you laugh.

A participant in the improvisation class describes the workshop as the equivalent of comedy 'bungee jumping'  - just dive in and feel your heart pound.
A participant in the improvisation class describes the workshop as the equivalent of comedy 'bungee jumping' - just dive in and feel your heart pound.

DUBAI // International stars of comedy will perform tomorrow night in an April Fools' Day gala show to mark the third anniversary of the arts training group Dubomedy.

The event will be headlined by two American comedians, Dean Edwards, of Saturday Night Live fame, and Remy, the creator of comedy videos such as Saudis in Audis.

Dubomedy's rising prominence reflects a booming interest in comedy - as does the Dubai group's growing number of courses on stand-up and sketch performance.

But the course in improvised comedy, or improv, might seem a step too far. Working without scripts, performers create scenes inspired by suggestions from the audience. How could anyone teach that?

But at an improv class at the Favourite Things children's centre in Dubai Marina Mall it soon becomes crystal clear. The venue is perfect to encourage a sense of play, says Dubomedy's artistic director, Mina Liccione.

First to turn up is Omar Ismail, whose father is from Al Ain and his mother from Newcastle in north-east England. He grew up watching improvised television shows such as Whose Line is it Anyway? and Have I Got News for You. He has quit his IT job to pursue his comedy dreams.

He hopes to appear at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the annual event held in the Scottish capital each summer that has been a crucible of comedy talent for decades. "I'm going to the festival this year to observe. Next year I hope to put on a show with a friend," he says.

The class kicks off with word association. One student says a word, then each in turn follows with another linked term. If someone says "red", the next might say "balloon".

Saying the first thing that comes to mind is the first rule of improv, says Liccione, a New Yorker and professional tap dancer and comic, who appeared in the Broadway stage show Stomp. "Don't edit yourself, don't judge yourself, just say the first thing that's associated that comes into your head," she says. But what if you blurt out something rude? "It's OK. What happens in the improv room stays in the improv room."

Some of the students are serious about their comedy, while for others the lessons are a welcome contrast to their day jobs. Pawan Manghnani works in his family's steel and property company, but hopes to perform part-time as a comic on the international circuit. He has already appeared at the Macau Playboy Club.

For others, the benefits are more prosaic. "The class helps my English," says Sophie Barre, a bank worker from France, "though it's very hard to be funny when it's not your native language."

Back in the improv room, the next exercise has one person saying a sentence and another saying "yes - and", followed by something linked to the phrase. This helps comedy partners build a scene. "'Yes - and' is the second rule of improv," says Liccione.

Another exercise involves the name of a celebrity being passed on using only mime.

One student somehow mistakes an impression of Mr Bean for Elvis Presley.

In the final session, a student describes a scene from their life, while the others act it out.

The students agree the skills they have learnt have boosted their confidence and helped them deal with business meetings and interviews.

Brent Jenkins, from Austin, Texas, moved to Dubai two years ago when his wife Shelley was offered a job, but has been unable to find work. He started attending comedy classes and writing material a year ago, and describes the lessons as invaluable.

"This stuff is comedy bungee jumping," he says. "You never know how it's going to go down on stage."

Yes, and it seems that it is possible to teach improv after all.

Dubomedy Turns 3 is at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre at the Mall of the Emirates tomorrow at 7pm. Tickets cost from Dh175.

csimpson@thenational.ae