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Funny Business

We've all heard the age-old expression: "Laughter is the best medicine." Sure, we always feel better after a good laugh. But is this just a cliché, or is it truth?

Scientists have determined that laughter is, in fact, good for you. In a study published in March 2005, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore determined laughter helps blood vessels function better. So getting your jollies is actually good for your heart.

The professionals at LaughingStock Comedy Company have taken this concept a step further: They have found that laughing is good medicine and good business.

For the past 12 years, LaughingStock has provided comic relief to business professionals at conferences, seminars, trade shows, banquets, meetings and other functions around the country. Based out of Tucson, the improv company does between 50 and 75 shows per year.

Dean Steeves and Lesley Abrams started the six-member troupe in 1993. Originally a trio based out of Portland, Maine, LaughingStock moved to Tucson in 1998 and added additional players. What sets LaughingStock apart from other improv groups is their niche of performing customized comedy shows for their corporate audiences.

Dean Steeves, "vice president of shameless marketing" for the company, says they do a great deal of research about their audience and try to find out as much information as possible. They read brochures and newsletters, watch videos and do phone interviews to prepare for a performance.

"We have a good instinct into various industries," says Steeves. "We are very good improvisers. If we have a little information, we can take it a long way. Our goal is for us to come off the stage and have them say, 'Do you work for us?'"

As with other improv shows, the audience participates with the performers, or players. "It's very interactive. We get the audience involved in the success of the program by taking their suggestions. We ask for relationships, occupations, family events ... We reflect their lives back to them in a humorous way," says Steeves.

An example of a scene, or game, is called Alter Ego. Two players stand on the stage. The audience is asked to determine what the relationship is between the two. They could be a dentist and patient, a boss and employee, or many other combinations. The two players start the scene, and two other players stand behind them. The players in the back "say out loud what the players are thinking," explains Steeves. "So it's the alter ego verbalizing what the players are thinking. The alter ego can go wild, anywhere from 'this guy has bad breath' to 'did I leave the gas on?'"

Steeves says the most important rule in improv is called "yes and." "If someone says to you, 'This is a lovely bookstore,' you can say 'Yes, and they have a great selection.' If you say, 'I hate it here; let's go someplace else,' you've denied what you've been offered. You must take the offer of what is given and add to it. You create the scene that way. ... Everyone starts with 'yes and.' We are firm believers in it."

Steeves and company are experienced performers of improv comedy. Co-founder Lesley Abrams trained at the Players Workshop of Second City in Chicago. "Her title is the vice president of creativity and taste," says Steeves. "She is an improv expert and researches and proposes new games to play." Besides co-founders, Steeves and Abrams are husband and wife, and enjoy working together. "She makes me laugh every day," says Steeves.

Other members of the company include Amy Almquist, Art Almquist, Ken Gregg and Brendan Murphy. All have other jobs except Steeves. Abrams is an adjunct instructor of theater appreciation at the UA. Amy Almquist is an actress. Art Almquist is a drama teacher at Tucson High School. Gregg works in the computer tech industry. And Murphy is an actor.

But when these performers gather together at a conference, trade show or the like, Steeves says the work he is most proud of is sensitive-issue work. "We've had shows for sexual-assault volunteers, breast-cancer survivor groups, groups that have been pink-slipped ... We find out what we can get away with and are sensitive to that. We provide comic relief for these distressed groups. They come up after and say, 'You nailed it on the head. You made me laugh. Thank you.' You can't beat that feeling."

The other type of work Steeves enjoys doing is public performances. "We do a bunch of games we don't get a chance to do in the corporate world. ... It's the art of improv and less commerce. The performers get jollies out of doing wide-open improv."

Steeves gets his jollies out of hearing the laughter from the audience. "Making people laugh is a great job. That's why I keep doing this. There's nothing like it. Making them laugh is a blast."

LaughingStock Comedy Company performs at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, 11 S. Sixth Ave., Tuesday, Dec. 27 through Sunday, Jan. 1. Shows are at 7:30 p.m., with a second show on New Year's Eve at 10 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at the Beowulf Alley Theatre box office. Call 882-0555 or visit beowulfalley.org for tickets. The show is rated PG-13. Visit laughing.com for more information.

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