A special comedy class blossoms as it challenges conventions

One morning this week in a downtown nightclub, Wes Borg led a sing-a-long about bears.

“Some folks say there ain’t no bears in Arkansas,” Borg sang.

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The song, popularized by Lyle Lovett, is a funny one. Meet a bear and take him out to lunch. The 10 people in the choir smiled as they sang.

When Borg suggested they “take a bear solo,” a few growled and laughed.

“Nice and loud,” Borg yelled. “This has gotta be a loud one!”

The singers are in a groundbreaking program that teaches comedy-performance skills to adults with developmental disabilities.

The 17-member class, launched last month at the Victoria Event Centre, is hosted by Lifetime Networks, a non-profit support organization.

It is unique in Victoria, said Borg, a professional comedian (and former member of the Edmonton-based comedy group Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie). He teaches with university trained actor Cyllene Richmond. Participants have cognitive disabilities — autism, for instance, or Down syndrome.

Kathy Henshaw, 57, a gregarious participant in a purple jacket, said she’s a fan of Hogan’s Heroes, I Love Lucy and Laurel and Hardy. She welcomes any chance to perform. “I like dancing. At home, when I have the kitchen to myself, I turn on the radio. I dance to the music,” Henshaw said.

Genevieve Chandler, 26, also enjoys the comedy class. “I’ve always loved acting. I always thought it was a lot of fun,” she said, grinning.

The comedy course runs Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It culminates with three public performances at event centre, the first slated for January.

Lifetime Networks also offers instruction in such subjects as art, cooking and yoga. The organization — serving about 250 participants and family members — was founded by parents. They wanted to create opportunities for their children to make real friends, as opposed to socializing only with paid companions.

Before being hired for the comedy class, Borg taught computer skills for Lifetime Networks. He was enthusiastic about the new venture. But the comic made clear he didn’t want to patronize his comedy protégés.

“I didn’t want to do a thing where anyone feels sorry for us or any of that crap,” said Borg, taking a cigarette break in the alley behind the Victoria Event Centre. “What they’re doing is like junior Atomic Vaudeville [a local comedy cabaret], really.”

It’s not a standup comedy class. Students sing funny songs or perform sketches. For one routine, they use sock puppets they’ve made to mime to a recording of Man or Muppet from the Disney film The Muppets.

Borg said getting students to engage can be a challenge.

Sometimes participants refuse to take part. They can be shy, lacking in confidence or simply fearful of trying something new.

“Some people are pretty non-verbal, like that other [student] you were talking to. He doesn’t talk a lot. He’s got fear in his eyes,” Borg said.

“Some people are like, ‘I can’t go onstage.’ And I’ll go, ‘Well, can your puppet go on stage?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, the puppet can go onstage.’ ”

Unorthodox methods can get results. Early on, Borg spoke to an instructor from Vancouver’s Theatre Terrific, which offers drama courses for developmentally disabled people. The instructor told Borg they had one participant who couldn’t stop pacing.

“They put him on a box [in performance],” Borg said. “And once he was on a box, he didn’t want to pace anymore.”

Theatre Terrific has offered theatre classes for the disabled since 1985. Artistic director Susanna Uchatius said Borg’s approach — treating participants in a respectful manner — is a key to success.

“Someone deems you worthy. They recognize that you can do the work,” she said.

Program manager Nicki Allan of Lifetime Networks said Borg interacts with students in a genuine way and encourages them to “blossom and grow.”

The comedy class has triggered positive changes in participants’ lives, Allan said. One, in particular, has become more confident and outgoing.

“She’s usually fairly reticent, sort of steps back often, watching the world from a distance. Ever since the class, she’s become a key player in the theatre troupe here. We’ve noticed in all areas of her other programming she’s starting to really come forward. She’s blossoming and has a bigger voice now. She’s advocating for her needs more often.”

Alison Stoodley, whose 21-year-old son, Grant, takes the comedy course, agrees. Grant is a high-functioning autistic who took theatre at Oak Bay High School. But after high school, there was no theatre program that “quite fit.”

“He gets to creatively express himself, he communicates, he’s building self confidence. He’s building friendships. This is an all-around wonderful program,” Stoodley said.

“He says it makes him happy.”

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