Gary Lehman (right, with Peter Jacokes) performing at the recent Detroit Improv Festival at Go Comedy Improv Theater in Ferndale. Photo: Heather Sejnow

Finding Acceptance Through Improv

By Amy J. Parrent

Gary Lehman (center) performing at the recent Detroit Improv Festival at Go Comedy Improv Theater in Ferndale. Photo: Heather Sejnow

Gary Lehman (right, with Peter Jacokes) performing at the recent Detroit Improv Festival at Go Comedy Improv Theater in Ferndale. Photo: Heather Sejnow

Gary Lehman has a theory why so many people, including so many gay people, are attracted to the world of improv comedy.

"I think it's all about acceptance," he says. "No one cares if you're gay, straight or trans, as long as you're not a dick.

In improv, Lehman explained, you have to accept what is given to you or it doesn't work. "The more you study, the more you perform, the more there's that sense of acceptance."

Lehman has been performing at Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale since it opened, and also, for the past four years, he's been teaching teaching improv there. "We have a lot of openly gay men and women teachers and performers at Go," he says. "We've had gay weddings at the theater. That's the type of place it is."

Part of learning comedy is what's actually funny and what you think is funny, Lehman said. "People can come off as making inappropriately racist, sexist, homophobic comments, maybe not meaning it in a mean way, but trying it out for a laugh."

Lehman likens the teaching of improv and comedy to teaching the difference between making fun of something and commenting on it in a satirical way. "It's being sensitive to what the audience is responding to. They don't come and pay $15-40 to get insulted about their race, sexuality or gender.

"A big thing in improv in North America is the perception that it's only a straight white male genre," he continues. "That's been slowly and quickly changing to more women, more minorities, more gay people. A Second City show that just opened has two openly gay men for the first time, including John Hartman from Detroit."

Lehman has been using humor to deal with life since middle and high school. "I went through some bullying," he says. "I was a late bloomer, always smaller than a lot of the guys. I was not much of a fighter. Humor became my only outlet and weapon to deal with it. I remember hearing Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy talk about getting out of fights. I thought, if I can make them laugh, they're less likely to punch me. But I never 'laughed it (the bullying) off.' I always knew it sucked and hurt."

Lehman grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and attended college in the U.P. at a time when there weren't that many outlets for theater and comedy.

"I remember performing in a school circus in first grade," he says. And I'd invariably get up and perform at church camp talent shows. There's a picture of me dressed up like 'The Church Lady.' I was obsessed with 'SNL' starting in high school, right when it got back into to its prime with people like (Dana) Carvey and (Phil) Hartman."

The young Lehman was always willing to take center stage doing impressions. "I was well known for my Muppet impressions," he deadpans. "I liked Fozzie Bear. He's a comedian, if not a good one."

But then I got out of performing. "My high school did one show a year. A senior who'd graduated the year before came back to direct it. So the same people got cast."

Meaning he didn't? "I made the mistake of learning how to run the light board," he said. "I was the only one who could."

The arts-related dry spell continued at Lake Superior State, where he earned a bachelor's in business administration, with minors in marketing and computer science. Afterward, he received a teaching certificate from Northern Michigan.

"I got my practical degrees. The fun came later," he said. "I got back into performing when I moved to Ann Arbor."

He was part of an improv group at Performance Network and also studied in Toronto, then went through the entire program at Second City Detroit.

At Greenhills, an independent school for grades 6-12, he's the technical director and adviser to the student theater, and he also runs the improv club and coaches forensics.

Wait, back up. There's an improv club in his school? Yes, and they love it.

"When I teach improv to middle school, it's their favorite moment when I tell them, 'The less you think, the better you'll be at it.'"

And then there's the teaching at Go Comedy!

"Nyima Funk (now a Los Angeles actress) was my first improv teacher" he says. "Now I'm teaching one of her nieces."

He's also studying for a master's in children's theater. "I began working on an M.F.A. because I got more interested in theater in general. I want to teach theater and direct shows. The M.F.A. would allow me to teach college or work at a theater that has a training program as the educational director.

"I rediscovered theater in my 30s," he said. "Now I want to make that more of my life."

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