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In Character with Stacey Hallal

by: COURTESY OF RANDI WIGGINTON - Stacey Hallal, left, performed as Ruby Rocket Private Eye in March and April at Portlands Curious Comedy Theater. The nonprofit theater group leans heavily on improv during its performances.Stacey Hallal is artistic director of Northeast Portland’s Curious Comedy Theater, the only nonprofit comedy club in town. Which has its good and bad sides, according to Hallal, also a professional standup comedian.

Portland Tribune: Good and bad?

Stacey Hallal: It’s a good thing because we get to do these amazing programs like our Alzheimer’s program, our literacy program, our women’s comedy festival, and we’ve received grants and donations.

And it’s a bad thing because nobody’s making any money, unlike other comedy clubs.

Tribune: The Alzheimer’s programs, where you take sketch comedy into facilities for residents with dementia. Memorable performances?

Hallal: Absolutely. There’s one woman who would laugh so hard she would start weeping, which was pretty funny. There’s a man, and there aren’t many men in the facility, he would get so excited he would start yelling, “I wish my wife were here, I wish my wife were here.” And it wasn’t because he was sad, it was because he was having such a good time.

Tribune: Improv and standup, big difference?

Hallal: It used to be that improvisers and stand-ups hated each other. The nature of standup is you are alone and it’s all up to you and improv by nature is ensemble. Stand-ups think improvisers have help. The skills do translate back and forth.

Last night I was opening for Nick Cannon and the audience liked edgier material so I just stopped doing written jokes and started interacting. I was talking about Boston culture vs. Portland culture, and I asked a white guy what his ethnicity was and he said white. I said, “That’s not an ethnicity.” But in Portland it is. In Boston, even white people have ethnicities. And later, I was talking about age and I asked him how old he was. He said 28, and I said, “Oh, I thought you were going to say white.”

Tribune: There are things you can’t say in Portland, right?

Hallal: Back during the election I did a political show where I did a Sarah Palin impression, and I said outrageous things and got booed by the audience. I felt great because I was Sarah Palin and I wanted her to get booed, but later I realized people didn’t know how to feel and whether they were mad at me or mad at my depiction of Sarah Palin.

Tribune: So you can’t go as far with edgy humor here?

Hallal: You can, but you’re going to pay for it.

Tribune: Favorite audience improv suggestion?

Hallal: I asked the audience for a nickname and somebody yelled out, “Beezer butt,” which was their actual nickname.

Tribune: What’s a beezer butt?

Hallal: I have no idea, but it sounds like the worst nickname I have ever heard.

Tribune: Any other daring suggestions?

Hallal: One time at an audition a guy showed up with his kids and asked if we would mind if his kids sat and watched his audition.

Tribune: Rigging his audience for laughs?

Hallal: Or maybe he just couldn’t get a baby sitter that day.

Tribune: Improv is about taking creative risk, so what was your riskiest?

Hallal: Recently I did a solo show called “Ruby Rocket, Private Eye.” I play a drunken noir detective. And I pulled three audience members up and they played characters in my story. I improvised with them. There’s

no way to rehearse. That was the scariest I’d ever done. I had the most reluctant volunteer who didn’t want to do anything.

Tribune: Then why did she volunteer to come on stage?

Hallal: Her friends pushed her into it. And one of the characters in the story always dies. I wished I had killed her off. It didn’t occur to me until after. In my last show I had two volunteers who were so eager one stormed into the other one’s scene, and I had a moment of, “Oh my, how am I going to fix this?” And then I realized, I don’t have to fix it, this is now just how the story is going to be.

Tribune: Sounds like a crazy way to work onstage.

Hallal: It’s so fun to play with strangers.