ALL-INCLUSIVE COMEDY | JEST Improv Delivers Comedic Relief in a Safe Space – VC Reporter
ON THE PICTURE : JEST Improv cast members, left to right: Rey Galindo, Hendrick McDonald, Alex Tron and Jonny Andrews. Front: Dawn Balk. Diversity Collective Ventura County, August 10, 2022. Photo by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer.
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
There’s some weird business going on at the Diversity Collective Ventura County.
The DCVC Community Resource Center, home to the Ventura offices of the organization which aims to “strengthen, support and connect our LGBTQIA community,” is also the home base of local comedy troupe JEST Improv. And while there’s plenty of laughter echoing through the building, the attendees aren’t just having fun.
“The founders of JEST decided that improv should include everyone and anyone who is open and willing to do seriously silly work that develops quick thinking, memory skills, creative connections, and (hopefully) passion. ‘comedy gold,” member Dawn Balk explained.
JEST Improv was co-founded in the summer of 2018 by Alex Tron and Alex Sattler, two veterans of the local improv scene, along with a few other early members who have since moved away from the area. The band’s name was coined by Tron, who was inspired by a line by James Joyce Ulysses: “There are many true words spoken in jest.”
Noting that the comedy scene in Ventura County was largely “a cis, white and het dominated realm”, Tron explained that “we wanted to create something new and more deliberately inclusive”.
“We really felt there was a need for an LGBTQ+ improv comedy group in Ventura County,” Sattler confirmed. “We noted the controversies that have occurred with all of the major improv comedy theaters in terms of favoring white cisgender people in leadership and show opportunities and we really didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. We believe that roles like these should belong to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. . . We also wanted to create a space where people from the LGBTQ community feel welcome and can enjoy comedy without worrying about being discriminated against for who they are.
JEST Improv isn’t affiliated with DCVC per se, but the two organizations share a similar mission, and the Community Resource Center has proven to be the perfect place for classes and workouts. In return, JEST made an effort to support DCVC’s efforts. Although the troupe will not be performing during the Ventura County Pride festivities this weekend, members will be in attendance at the festival and will perform in various Pride-related performances. In the near future, the two organizations will also partner for fundraising to benefit DCVC programs.
“It brings a lot of life to the center,” Tron added. “It creates a young and spontaneous environment. It’s very silly!
Many different backgrounds
Today, JEST Improv has eight actors: Jonny Andrews, Dawn Balk, Jamie Himan, Hendrick McDonald, Rey Galindo and Chris Howard, in addition to Sattler and Tron. The band performs at venues around Ventura County, such as Paddy’s Bar and Lounge and the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, and also performs at fundraisers and corporate events. The next one will take place this weekend, Saturday, August 20, at the new immersive Wonderhouse event space in Ventura.
The acting troupe meets every Wednesday evening, where they perform drills that emphasize quick thinking, adaptability and stage partner acting. These are crucial skills for an improv performer, who takes the stage without a script and is meant to be smart and hilarious with nothing more than the audience’s suggestions.
The members all have different levels of experience. Sattler, for example, hails from Ojai who developed his comedy chops doing stand-up comedy in Los Angeles and has also worked with Second City, the Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).
Tron is from Camarillo who recently graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. He admitted to having no formal training, but explained that growing up he would improvise with his family and write and perform skits with his sisters. When he started doing improv in 2018 (which is how he met Sattler), he read books and watched UCB. But most of his experience comes from simply embracing the world of improvisation.
“I love it,” he said. “I love teaching it. I love doing this stuff because it brings me a lot of joy.
Dawn Balk, a Chicago native, has been involved in acting and theater since a young age and has worked in video production for many years. She’s been with JEST Improv since moving to the St. Louis area; she was part of the second class of the troupe ever offered. Today, she holds the position of Chief Operating Officer.
During the day, Hendrick McDonald works in science in an environment that he describes as “very corporate”. Playing with JEST allowed him to find another part of himself and “to express the weird ideas that I have anyway. I have found an inclusive environment here where I can express my own madness.
“By being honest and open, you find the funny and the sad,” added colleague Jonny Andrews, describing JEST Improv as “a safe space” in which to explore both. A University of Tennessee graduate who did improv in college, he came to Southern California when her husband got a job in Santa Monica. The two moved to Ventura during the pandemic.
Rey Galindo, a behavioral health professional, isn’t just a cast member; he is also the first recipient of JEST’s new Diversity Scholarship.
“We currently offer it to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures to help them achieve their comedic goals during these tough economic times,” Sattler explained. “We saw that the majority of improv groups in the area were saturated with mostly middle-aged white people. We find so much value in having a diverse group of cultural backgrounds.
Funds for the scholarship are collected from class fees and show income. Those interested in applying can do so at www.jestimprov.com.
When JEST Improv players aren’t delighting audiences with their onstage antics, they’re teaching classes to those new to the art form. Free classes are currently offered every Saturday afternoon. Although there was a temporary shutdown during the pandemic, Andrews said attendance has definitely rebounded.
“People were hungry for it -” give me the funny! “”
Classes tend to have a dozen students who run the gamut in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity. The exercises consist of a variety of games and scenarios designed by members of the acting troupe to make the students feel comfortable with the space and with each other. In a game, for example, players can choose an attitude from a hat that they must act out, with the other students trying to guess what emotion is being expressed. Another has students pretending to be a detective who doesn’t speak, but has to describe a particular murder scene in pantomime – like charades, but more silly.
So what brings someone to an improv class? It’s not just for fun.
“At first it was just something fun to do,” said Bridgette Tolerton, who has been taking the walk-in classes for about six months. “Now it’s more of a healing space for me. . . Depression lives in the past; anxiety lives in the future. But improv is in the present moment. If I do improv, I can’t be depressed or anxious.
Hana Moon is a theater lover who hopes to become an actress. “It’s one of the only things that brings me joy.”
A student new to the program, who preferred to remain anonymous, said she started coming at the encouragement of her mother.
“I want to improve my interactions in public, get over my anxiety about being put on the spot,” she said. “I’m comfortable here, I feel like I can be myself without being judged.”
It’s not just college students who find healing through comic relief. Members of the acting troupe also testify to the beneficial qualities of improvisation.
“It’s about being honest,” Balk said. “It’s not just about acting. It’s communication, teamwork.
Galindo, the Diversity Scholarship winner, said, “It’s something I want to get involved in because it’s so therapeutic. It relieves you. It turns a serious situation into a lighter one because you find the humor in it.
Tron agreed wholeheartedly, adding, “I’m going to deal with a situation [in my life] it’s boring or crazy, and then I’ll do it on stage and people will laugh. This allows him to find humor in a bad experience, and sometimes even takes away his power to upset him.
Tron believes it’s this blend of comedy and adaptation, along with JEST’s diverse, inclusive and supportive environment, that has allowed the group he co-founded to thrive. “It’s a low-stress, low-risk way to get your name out there.”
JEST Improv classes are held every Saturday, 2-4 p.m., at the Diversity Ventura County Collective Community Resource Center, 2471 Portola Road, Ventura. Classes are $15. For more information or to book a classroom, visit http://www.jestimprov.com.
The cast of JEST Improv will perform Saturday, August 20 from 7-9 p.m. at Wonderhouse, 2359 Knoll Drive, Ventura. Tickets are $15 at the door, $10 presale through JEST Improv’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/jestimprovgroup, or Instagram, @jestimprovgroup.