In December, we were treated to a performance of Don’t Grab My Pussy at the Skylark Lounge. The edgy, raucous, and raunchy performance with a powerful message raised $3300 for Restore Sexual Assault Services, a program through Planned Parenthood. The show was created and organized by Kelsey Claire Hagen, a young comedian and dramaturg who graduated from Brighton High School and Carnegie Mellon University, returning to Rochester after living in Brooklyn.
A few weeks later, I had the chance to watch Kelsey Claire and other women comedians perform the Yuletide Peril at the Pillar on Mt Hope Avenue. As at Skylark, Kelsey Claire entertained us with her unabashed feminist humor that made serious fun of I.U.D’s, porn, and menstruation. I also caught the recent show she produced, The Hateful Eight, also at Skylark.
Turns out — like myself — Kelsey Claire graduated from Brighton High School, she in the Class of 2010. So, we met up at the Starbucks in Brighton.
Kelsey Claire is a whirlwind of creative activity involved in drama and comedy all over Rochester. Besides Skylark and the Pillar, she has performed at Three Heads Brewery, The Bug Jar, Boscoe’s Restaurant and The Comedy Club of Rochester.
Next month Kelsey Claire will doing Don’t Grab My Pussy Open Mic on March 3 at Brue Coffee, Two Feminists Walk Into A Bar with Andrew Youngblood on March 9th at Skylark, and Don’t Grab My Pussy Buffalo On March 11th at BT&C Gallery.
Brighton High School has produced its share of artists from Shirley Jackson in the 1930s to Steve Cohen in my time who went to California to make movies and Kristin Wiig who made the cast of Saturday Night Live. In Kelsey Claire, BHS may have another of those distinguished alumni plaques that decorate the school’s main lobby.
Kelsey Claire very much represents the many “young creatives” who enrich Rochester’s culture. At the same time, even as we talked about the vibrant local comedy and theatre scene, we also discussed how difficult it is for artists to make a full time living in our mid sized market. For Kelsey Claire, Rochester is an ideal starting point for her career. But she realizes within the next few years she will, most likely, need to move to a larger city.
While Kelsey Claire is here — like watching a hometown prospect play for the Red Wings — we should enjoy the energy she and other young creatives offer, even if en route to the big time.
Q and A with Kelsey Claire at the Twelve Corner’s Starbucks
Much of your humor revolves around the female body and female sexuality. You mentioned that from birth the female body is burned, waxed, tweased, cut, painted, covered, corseted and controlled. As such, your humor is an act of empowerment. Can you elaborate?My comedy is meant to be an act of speaking out. I like to make people uncomfortable about things women aren’t “supposed to” talk about in public (periods, porn, etc.). I also hope to give men and women an opportunity to laugh at themselves, and the very humiliating things that make them human.
At the Skylark and at the Pillar, I saw a lot of funny “women’s/feminist humor.” You think that stand up comedy is perhaps the best medium to express the contemporary feminist movement? How so and how what makes stand up a richer medium than, say, documentaries or the visual arts?
I think that comedy is a great medium for women to express themselves and how they feel about modern feminism because standup comedians are not required to come up with an answer. They’re just responsible for making an observation, or a hypothesis, and it’s got to be funny. There are a lot of different forms of feminism now. Sometimes it’s hard to have “an answer.” True feminists support any woman in any choice she makes so long as that choice is to ultimately better herself and love others, but people have misinterpreted the ideas of feminism for their own benefit many many times.
In Rochester, is there a clearly defined community of women comedians? Is it important for the comedians to perform as groups like at Skylark and Pillar? We know that women comedians have long been underrepresented. How do you see that changing?
There is a comedy scene which has women in it, but no, there is not a definitive women’s comedy scene. That’s good. It’s great to have our own shows and promote ourselves and our feminist humor because we like to be around each other and we love to show how strong we are as individual comedians. However, there are so many supportive male comedians in Rochester. Don’t Grab My Pussy could not have could not have happened without a lot of my male friends and their support.
Women are underrepresented in nearly every profession in the US. But yes, women are especially underrepresented in comedy. There is a clear reason for that: there is this idea that women aren’t funny. We saw the huge uproar that came about when Ghostbusters came out last year. A good sense of humor requires a sense of control. When people see women owning themselves, owning a stage, speaking, uninterrupted, onstage for twenty minutes at a time, they become threatened or confused. Rochester is a pretty welcoming place for women, with a few exceptions here and there. I’m lucky to have started my career in this city.
You have been active in the arts for most of your life. When you were at Brighton, were you involved in drama and comedy? You majored in Dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon. What exactly is dramaturgy?
I was in the drama club at Brighton, Judy Shomper was my favorite teacher. I ran the improv troupe “Highly Improvvable for a year after joining my sophomore year, I was in most of the plays/productions, I directed the Baronettes for my senior year as well (the all-female a acapella group), and I played Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird my senior year. I loved acting and singing and just playing around. I think I became more confident in my comedic voice when I was in “Forbidden Broadway” my senior year.
Dramaturgy is literally the study of drama. A dramaturg will assist in historical research, contextualizing a play, finding a theme and “point” of a play and determining its cultural relevance, writing program notes, and running tailbacks. Mark Bly once said of being a dramaturg “If you took a knife to this play, it would bleed me.” A Dramaturg’s work intangible in many ways but it is invaluable. I do work for Ralph Meranto at the JCC often, and l, right now, I’m working on “The Recolutionists” for Lady Parts Theatre.
As a free spirit, you say you definitely have wanderlust. Where have you been and how have your travels influenced your art?
I loved in East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda) for the better part of a year and I have traveled to most of Europe. I love to travel, meet new people and constantly change my view of the world. I worked and lived with many successful intellectuals in Africa. Even so, I was able to see something new and real, and my boss and co-workers helped me understand the terrible consequences of colonialism. I understand that colonialism and sexism have a lot in common: power. And that is a very valuable lesson.
Since returning to Rochester, you’ve explored the city in ways you never did in high school at Brighton. I’ve heard other young people who return after college say they never knew how much Rochester has to offer. It’s not Brooklyn where you lived for awhile but what about Rochester do you like?
I was not planning to move back to Rochester but it just so happened that I’m still here! I never thought I would, but I have trouble leaving. People here are unique and proud to be here. There are also so many amazing activists, intellectuals and artists. It’s amazing to live in a town where I can know It’s amazing to live in a town where I can know almost everyone who shares similar ideas and interests in me. The sense of community that moving back here has evoked in me is amazing. No, I cannot be a full-time dramaturg or comedian, but I’m happy here for now. I plan to move to NYC or Chicago at some point. I think the next two years will be a crucial time for me to cram in as much stage time, producing, volunteering, and “turging” before I move to a bigger city.
Most of your peers at Brighton and Carnegie Mellon are probably on more conventional paths. When I was your age back in the 80s, it seemed that young people were more willing to take career risks and use their 20s as times of self discovery. Am I being nostalgic or are millennials just as likely to follow their artistic callings?
I think millennials have a lot of free reign right now to explore an artistic or “unconventional” career path. We are constantly criticized, unrightfully so, for doing so on our parents dime or for contributing little to society. I don’t know many people my age living in an apartment paid for by their parents, but even if they were, isn’t that the point of finding success? Isn’t the point to help your children pursue their dreams and avoid working at a job they hate?
Finally, I just wanted to add a little about Don’t Grab My Pussy. We raised $3300 for Restore Sexual Assault Services, a program through Planned Parenthood and one for which I proudly volunteer. I was happy to make a stand against sexual violence and direct that stance right on Donald Trump’s direction. No one should ever Grab anyone ever without their explicit consent. Ever. Our culture needs to change in that regard, and, hopefully, by doing so, being a female comedian won’t be so tough, or a female anything for that matter. I’m glad I took this stand in Rochester. All of the women involved in the show were angered by Trump’s words and the constant fear women have to live in. We’re pissed and we aren’t going to lay down and take it anymore. I hope I inspired women and sexual assault/rape survivors of any gender in this community and the other communities I plan to take this show, to stand up for themselves and give a big “F-U” to those assholes who try to threaten their power.