As if to reassure potential patrons about the comedy bona fides of “Stand-Up Man,” the next production at Firehouse Theatre, Todd Labelle offers a few jokes from the show. One example:
“Researchers recently discovered that women who gain a little weight survive 25% longer than men who mention it.”
Labelle stars as Crash in the production, an alcoholic homeless man who finds a book of jokes on the street and realizes that comedy may be a way to reverse his downward trajectory. Even though he estimates that he delivers more than 60 one-liners during the performance, Labelle says the innovative aspect of the show is presenting something that is both a stand-up routine and a play.
“In staging the play, we have one world, which is our stand-up comedy world, and then we have another world that is the play around the stand-up comedy,” he explains. “I don't know if a lot of shows have ever been staged in this format.”
Labelle developed the show together with playwright Gary Atkinson, whose other profession is professor of electrical engineering at VCU. They did a workshop of the piece more than three years ago and have been fine-tuning it ever since. It is being offered as part of Firehouse’s Pop-Up Premieres series that presents works that are in that awkward midground between staged reading and fully realized production.
“The show is still in development and what it really needs now is an audience,” says Labelle. “We can throw jokes around all day but we need an audience to react and engage with the work. Because it’s a comedy routine, the audience is part of the show, so we need that last character to really flesh it out.”
- Emily Vial.
Labelle stresses that neither he nor Atkinson are stand-up comics and that part of the intrigue in the show is seeing how Crash develops after he first starts telling jokes.
“Over the course of a very small amount of time, he goes from finding a book of jokes to being on national television,” Labelle says. “So a big part of [the show] is someone finding themselves in a situation that is increasingly beyond his control.”
As part of that conceit, some of the jokes are engineered not to land. “We tailored the jokes to fit [Crash’s] arc,” he explains. “When you see the show, there might be times you think a joke isn't terribly funny but there's a reason for that. It helps invoke the sense of a person learning how to do this stuff.”
Most of Labelle’s work at the Firehouse is behind the scenes. As director of production for the company, he focuses primarily on technical issues, while also occasionally serving as a lighting or sound designer.
He stepped up to star in “Stand-Up Man” in part because he was so closely involved with the piece’s development. That said, he confesses, “The first time I read it, I really did want to be Crash. I think my set of skills applies to this particular show.”
The production will also provide the opportunity for his wife, Grace, to expand her skills as a director. “Grace is the resident stage manager here and she's directed a few small productions,” Labelle explains. “Part of being at Firehouse is creating new opportunities for people. For this production in particular, it made sense for a close-knit group of people to work on it.”
He asserts that mixing the personal and professional doesn’t make for any uncomfortable moments. “I think part of what makes Firehouse so magical for all of us is that we really do live and breathe this institution and the productions that we work on,” he says.
“The core staff members here spend a vast majority of our time not just working on this stuff but thinking about it,” he says. “So we take this stuff home with us every day.”
“Stand-Up Man” runs at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad St., from Oct. 27 through Nov. 5. Tickets and information available at https://www.firehousetheatre.org/tnt-ft-new-plays.