Stage Presence

By Marylee Stephenson

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Now, let’s welcome to the stage: Vancouver’s only 65-year-old lesbian comic with a PhD!

This long introduction gives me several “hooks” to hang my comedy on. You need that for your act - a main topic, what’s happening with it, and how you feel about it. Like, you say, “well, 65 is the new 64!” Or, “I don’t care about all this equality rights, gay marriage and all. I have yet to find someone who could put up with me for more than three months!” It works.

I’ve been doing standup for about six years, which isn’t very long in the comedy world. If you look a little deeper into the history of overnight comedic sensations, like Russell Peters, you’ll find they were going from café to club to bar for 18 years before they struck gold. And most of them never do.

So, why take it up in the first place - and at 59 years old? Scratch a comic and they’ll always say, “when I was a kid, I could always make people laugh.” I can remember the exact moment when that realization struck. I was nine years old. We’d moved to a new town, new school, new church, and there were no friends my age. But my 13-year-old sister quickly gathered a group around her, and I was allowed to hang around with them. I couldn’t talk about clothes or hair styles or boys, but when I made smart remarks, they laughed. It was a lesson I’ve carried with me.

And I’ve always been a show-off, or the star of the school play. I even sang in a folk song trio my senior year of high school, in the only coffee house in town. Those were the Beat Generation days, well before the hippies. Not that I could sing, mind you, but I was the only girl who played a string bass and it quickly became apparent that what I didn’t have in vocal skills, I made up for with a pretty solid stage presence. And I could joke now and then, though it wasn’t standup. I shudder to look back on it now.

But six years ago, I saw an ad for an evening class in comedy, at Langara College. I signed up and learned the basics, though I’ve had to un-learn much of them because even if there is a formula, you have to twist and tweak it to fit you, or it won’t work. That assumes, of course, the “you” is someone people want to hear and share a laugh with. With you - not at you.

Useful, also, was finding out about the comedy scene in Vancouver. There is a constantly moving collection of “rooms” that comics will start up in some café on a Monday night, a slow night where the owner will do anything to get live bodies in the door. The comic will emcee and rustle up six or eight other comics and the show goes on - and on, and on. Comics never have enough stage time.

Sure, there are the big national chain clubs, and they have weekly “pro-am” nights, which are a nightmare of losing what little confidence or self-esteem a comic may have had. Lining up at the door hours ahead, first come/first served. I did that for awhile, but eventually became known enough to be booked at one of the rooms, or even to do a fundraiser or showcase of comics.

Of course, I’m not your typical comic - not at 65, lesbian and the PhD. I think comics, as a group, probably have above average intelligence, but they tend to be undereducated, poor and generally living at the edges of art, work, school and family. And it is very male-dominated. I estimate 10 male comics for every female. And, somehow, they all seem to be 22 years old, with uncertain facial hair, wearing toques, pants down to their knees, and every other word is unrepeatable. So, I fit right in!

Well, I don’t fit in as far as being typical goes, but I’m always welcomed by the fellows. Hugs all around, complimentary comments if my set goes well, exchanges about a new room opening up, or one closing. And the women are mostly the same, though sometimes I feel a bit of a competitive edge there. Not sure why, maybe it’s just me.

People ask me how I get the nerve to perform. It’s true that, at first, comedy was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Sure, I’ve taught classes of 250, given lectures at conferences, run workshops, led team-building exercises. It’s work, and I’m judged on it, but I’ve never found it difficult. Comedy is another matter – it’s four-dimensional: me, the audience, the content, and the stage setting that I move about in. They all have to be taken into account, and any change in one affects the others. You don’t get a laugh on the content? Try to interact with an audience member. People’s attention is flagging? Move a bit closer to the edge of the stage, lower your voice rather than raise it. Keep going, don’t laugh at your own jokes to fill up space, concentrate on that one person who seems to love you.

I’m used to it now, so it has stopped being hard. It takes a lot of effort, and there are shows where I wish I could run from the stage, but it’s not scary.

And I’ve learned that it’s better to turn down some gigs than to take every one. Comedy is contextual, and I’ve bombed in front of an audience that was one-quarter new Canadians, whose first language was not English. What I said had no meaning. How can you make a funny comment about some silly sign, if the audience doesn’t understand why it is silly? (“mud-wrestling for Christ” sign on a church, or “body piercing, while you wait” sign in some sleazy neigbourhood).

I’ve learned that even if I may not fit in, being a senior comic has some advantages. I get a lot of attention whenever I say I’m a comic. It’s a social connector, and what seniors don’t want to keep expanding their social world? I make sure my material is upbeat and doesn’t make fun of ageing. No jokes about Depends or Viagra from me! I talk about how I’ve taken on the role of “Elder,” where I can finally legitimately tell young folks what they should and should not do. It’s my time in life to do that (not that I haven’t been doing that since I was five years old!). So, I warn them about tattoos. Sure, you start out as a young person, you get some giant tattoo that’s “crouching tiger, leaping dragon” and as your skin ages it becomes “wet kitten, dead lizard.” And those barbwire rings around the bicep? It turns into a bad case of varicose veins! It works every time.

I’ve also expanded into storytelling, to have more opportunities to be a show-off. Storytelling is different, but I love it. There’s more time to talk, more stage time, and it can be very serious. I write the material as a “vignette” and then practise telling it and acting out some parts. I’ve even had some of the vignettes published, and have been asked back a number of times. Even the sad ones that leave the audience (and me) teary-eyed work because they reach out and connect with people.

And I’m working on becoming a motivational speaker, whatever that may be. As a senior, I’ve been through enough, and continue with the struggles of keeping up my courage in the face of an aging body and a shrinking budget. The things I’ve learned to do to carry on are worth sharing. I may inspire someone, give him or her a bit more courage, and even give some back to myself.

Age doesn’t have to slow me down or stop me telling stories, or making people laugh or cry. Age is my storehouse of bridges.

So, finding these bridges, and walking across them with others, is surely a good survival strategy for a 65 year old - comic or not, lesbian or not, doctorate or Grade 5. I’m finding a place where I do fit in.

For more info, please e-mail Marylee at


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Showing 1 to 3 of 3 comments.

In spite of your advice, I'm getting a tattoo- barbed wire, and it'll say Marylee rocks!

Posted by John | April 7, 2010 Report Violation

This article is great! Marylee Stephenson certainly has the "wisdom' that comes with age and has found a wonderful platform to share that with us. I've recently met Marylee and she has already enriched my life. I hope I will have the good fortunate to interact further with Marylee as time goes by.

Posted by Joanne Emerman | February 28, 2010 Report Violation

LOVE LOVE LOVE IT! Marylee, you're amazing! The message for me....always pursue your dreams and never give up having a dream....

Posted by Tracey | October 13, 2009 Report Violation

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