Researching Comedy as a Coping Mechanism
By Caroline Woodson
When all around is strife and uncertainty, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned plate of…comedy. ~ 'Noises Off'
This spring, Sam Heller and I were awarded VCUarts’ Undergraduate Research Grant to investigate this exact thing.
Our question is simple: "why do people continue to laugh in the face of great tragedy?" The answer, however, is quite complex.
Each person has to find their own way of seeing, understanding and tackling the world around them. Like finding handholds on a rock wall, people look for tangible things to hold onto and pull themselves up by. For many, comedy is that tangible thing, their coping mechanism of choice. Often, we find tragedy riding parallel alongside humor.
Researchers have consistently found that laughter truly is the best medicine. When there is nothing funny in the news, comedy must be sought after elsewhere. Since the beginning of COVID-19 quarantine, the utilization of streaming services in America, particularly within the "comedy" genre, has increased by 71%.
Each person has to find their own way of seeing, understanding and tackling the world around them. Like finding handholds on a rock wall, people look for tangible things to hold onto and pull themselves up by.
When the Ancient Greek playwrights searched for the link between tragedy and comedy, they found an element called "catharsis": the process of releasing strong/repressed emotions, thus creating relief. This catharsis, or relief through expressed emotion, will be the critical element that we will be examining when audiences respond to our project: Noises Off.
In order to investigate just how comedy is utilized as a coping mechanism, Sam Heller and I are going to use this grant to co-direct a production of Noises Off.
Noises Off (1982) is a comedic play written by Michael Frayn that has become a staple of the theatre genre. The premise centers around a team of eccentric performers and their journey to produce a comedic farce, but everything goes wrong at every turn. This “play within a play” blurs the line between character and the performer, as the audience watches the personal tragedies of the actors affect the outcome of the comedic performance. This show presents a situation that allows spectators to reflect on their own lives, recognizing moments when they may be "performing" humor through their own tragedy.
All of our hilarious cast is composed of actors, designers, and crew members who are current VCU students or recent alumni. With a cast of nine talented actors and an ever growing technical team, we are working to include as many students on this research as possible. In order to further our research of comedy, we have even added a Comedy Consultant to our production, Kate Elliott, who is committed to assessing comedic timing, choreographing physical comedy, and hosting a Stand Up Comedy Night featuring all our actors.
At the end of this coming April, Noises Off will be premiering in Shafer Street Playhouse. By creating a discourse around how humor can be used to combat tragedy, audience members will have the opportunity to evaluate how they use humor as a tool in their daily lives. This project will offer audience members the opportunity to recognize how humor can be used to combat tragedy and to create a discourse around that topic. Examining comedy in its relation to tragedy will allow audiences to understand how they use humor as a tool in their daily lives.
Sam Heller and I want to investigate why people laugh in the face of tragedy and how comedy is utilized as a coping mechanism. Theatre has always been used to examine the weird and wonderful parts of human behavior.
Please join us to watch Noises Off from April 22nd to 24th. You will have the pleasure of enjoying some sardines and understanding why we laugh in the glowering face of adversity.
Photo courtesy of Caroline Woodson