Monday, March 9, 2015

Chris Parente Is A Queerbot

By Drew Wilson

Chris Parente is about that life
Emmy-award winning Chris Parente has been a fixture of Denver's entertainment and gay scenes for years. Now he's combining the two with his latest project, the Queerbots. The Queerbots are an LGBT improv comedy troupe who have been doing monthly shows at Hamburger Mary's for the past year and their next one is coming up on Saturday, March 14.

Drew: You’ve been out and openly gay for a long time but now it sounds like you’re doubling down on gay with the Queerbots.
Chris: Doubling down on gay? Sounds like a new casino game in Vegas. I want to double down on the gay!

I’d be at that table.
Let it ride! You haven’t been to a Queerbot show yet, have you?
No, but it sounds like my kind of show. How did Queerbots come about?
Well, Queerbots started about a year ago. I studied improv many years ago with Second City in Chicago under a guy named Martin Demott who has since passed away. He was a brilliant teacher who was also gay ...

Does that mean sometimes he was under you?
How do you think I got in the school? It was eye opening. Improv is probably my greatest passion. I love it. I love the freedom. I love the mindset of creating something out of nothing. But I’ve found that gays and lesbians aren’t very well represented in the improv world. Especially the women. It’s kind of a guy’s thing. I wanted to start a troupe that could explore the gay experience – what it means to be in the LGBTQ community - and do it through improv and have all the players be either gay, lesbian or transgendered. So I got together with probably the best improviser in Colorado, Sarah Kirwin, and we got together and started figuring out how we could make it happen. And that was the birth of the troupe.
Sarah Kirwin is better at improv comedy than you
We started doing shows last September and have been doing them monthly ever since. We have four lesbians and two gay guys in the troupe right now and our keyboardist is a gay Asian. That’s right, a gay Asian. Even the gaysians are represented!

Ooh, the elusive Colorado gaysian!
That’s right. That’s like Bigfoot or a UFO; a gaysian keyboard player. We struck gold! And I really wanted the troupe to have more women than men because I think women are doubly underrepresented in improv. Even in the gay community the lesbian perspective isn’t always out there as much as it needs to be. So it’s really cool to have that mix in the troupe.

One of the things I like about the troupe is we’re not trying to hit people over the head with the gay experience. It’s more like life filtered through someone who happens to be gay. The last four shows we’ve done the audiences have been largely straight audiences, which I love because it’s a real chance to really have some understanding through laughter. It’s hard to hate somebody when you’re laughing. We have a lot of fun doing sends ups of all the clich├ęs and dismantling the stereotypes by exploring them.

The human experience ain’t that different whether you’re gay or straight or lesbian. At the end of the day we’re all faced with the same struggles and ups and downs and that can be explored through comedy, I think, more easily than any other venue.

The Dalai Lama
How would you say improv influences your human experience?
Oh, it’s about to get deep in here. I’m gonna go Dalai Lama on you. The whole essence of improv is actually the complete opposite of what we’re taught in American and western civilization. At the heart of improv it’s all about cooperation, not competition, and that’s why I think it’s important for kids to explore improv. You’re not there to compete. You’re there to work with them and it only works when you cooperate. It only works when you support the others. And that’s our number one motivation; to support the others and make them look as good as possible. And that’s when the magic happens.

One of the precepts of improv is “yes and” which means whatever someone offers you you agree with it and build on it. We’re kind of wired to argue and disagree but in improv it’s all about “yes and-ing.” Whatever anybody says to you - if someone says you’re the biggest leprechaun I’ve ever seen - all of a sudden you are a big leprechaun and away you go. It’s the whole nature of improv. And when it’s hitting on all cylinders, it may sound stupid but, at times it’s almost spiritual because something is created in that moment and it’s a really beautiful thing.

Chris Parente is on his way to take your man
And improv must help with your day job. Keeping the mind agile and the words tripping off the tongue.
It would help anybody with their day jobs. On top of all those other elements of thinking differently and cooperatively and building and supporting on top of all that it also really forces you to … you can’t anticipate. You have to totally and completely live in the moment and be in the now. That’s the only way it works. Improv is literally an art form that is created moment to moment. It forces you to let go and just be in the moment.

And there really is no wrong choice because no matter what you say, you’re going to be supported by the other players up there. So you don’t have to worry about saying something wrong or stupid of making a fool of yourself. There are no mistakes in improv. You find a way to embrace it, to justify it, and just go with it. It’s a really cool thing.

What's a typical Queerbots show like?
The show is based entirely on audience suggestions so it’s a different show every time. It’s created on the spot. You never know where it’s going to go which adds to the electricity of the night. It’s an entirely spontaneous night of theater.

In each of the last several shows we’ve done a completely improvised gay marriage. We call up two people from the audience who don’t know each other and who, in fact, aren’t gay. We get the stories of their lives and recreate each of their childhoods onstage. How they meet and fall in love and we marry them right there on stage in front of everybody and God.

Legally? Is that the joke?
Yes, considering that they aren’t gay. Sorry, it’s legally binding. You’re gay now!
Yay, lesbians!
Argh, my greatest fear come true!
We’re converting you all! We also do a completely improvised musical. This is where the gaysian comes in, we get suggestions from the audience and make up a musical on the spot.

We also do all sorts of fun games with the audience to mix things up. Basically, we have an outline for the show and then whatever happens happens. So the March show is a tribute to St. Peppermint Patty, Patron Saint of Lesbians. So you will be seeing Marcy and Peppermint Patty and the Little Red-Haired Girl we’ll be exploring leprechauns and pots of gold and all that. 

We also incorporate audio and video. In my job with the station I’m able to go out and interview a lot of actors and so I usually ask them one or two questions about the gay experience. We play their responses on the monitors and use that to inspire scene work. For March we talk to a couple of Irish actors, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell.

Nice. Tell them Drew says “hi!”
Yeah. Especially Colin Farrell, baby! That’s my kind of Irishman.
Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell can both get it
How can we be good improv audience members?
Great question! The audience does need to be warmed up a bit because improv gets people out of their comfort zones. Unless they’re really drunk, which you may or may not be on St. Patrick’s Day. A lot of us are taught to be quiet and polite. We don’t want to be put on the spot. But in improv it’s all about feeling free to shout out whatever’s on your mind. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. And as the night goes on people become more and more comfortable. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. It doesn’t even have to be funny. It’s our job to find the humor in it. So the key is to relax, let go, and not be inhibited. To feel free and join in and shout out whatever’s on your mind. 
What’s next for the Queerbots?
We’ve been doing monthly shows at Hamburger Mary’s and so far they’ve all sold out so we’re gonna continue that through May, I believe, and then take a summer hiatus to work on some other projects and our hope is to pick it up again in September. 

In a nutshell the shows are just a lot of fun. It’s a very fun, lighthearted look at being gay and lesbian in today’s world and we welcome straight, gay, lesbian, transgender, trisexual, androgynous, everybody is welcome. Bears, cubs, otters, you name it!

Things they haven’t even come up with yet!
Totally! We’ll take koalas. We’ll take platypuses.
I feel like a koala would be really cute.
You know what? I agree. What would that look like?
Maybe cuter than a cub? Shorter?
We may need to talk more about this later.

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