Jan Derbyshire gets a little funny in her head

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Just as Vancouver gets ready to welcome the world a second time with the Paralympic Winter Games, the KickStart Disability Arts and Culture Festival kicks off on March 8th and continues through March 27th with an array of exhibits, dance, music, and comedy. As part of the Festival, Vancouver Lesbian Jan Derbyshire presents her one woman show Funny in the Head on March 12th. We caught up with Jan to talk about her show, how humour ultimately saved her and got some serious advice for those dealing with a similar disability.

Jan DerbyshireDescribed as a “wild and hilarious trip” about a bipolar comedian’s fight to stay funny, for Jan Derbyshire Funny in the Head is more faction than fact and while she does consider it auto-biographical, she cannot say with any certainty that it is 100% authentic.

“This is my take on what happened to me,” said Derbyshire. “But I actually don’t believe hindsight is 20/20 and I can’t really vouch for what really happened because I was out of it some of the time”.

And indeed it was this full-on self-deprecating humour that set the tone for the rest of our time together as Derbyshire talked passionately about her work and her disability.

“This is actually not something that I really wanted to do,” said Derbyshire. “But I was encouraged by a woman who runs a theatre in Calgary who thought it was important [to tell my story]. It took me a long time and the first drafts were very earnest and not very funny, but I’m pretty happy now with this draft”.

“I also hope that by telling my story it will free up others to figure out and talk about their own story,” concluded Derbyshire.

Why humour for such a serious subject? For Derbyshire it is what she claims saved her life. As a stand-up comic before her bipolar diagnosis, she found humour to be very healing.

“Humour can definitely be healing if we can get to a place where we can lighten up,” she explained. “I believe that tragedy plus time equals comedy”.

Besides a playwright, performer and teacher, Derbyshire also considers herself a “social justicator”. And while humour is obviously a big part of who she is, start getting a little serious about mental illness and Derbyshire is all business.

“I am trying to bring some sense of justice to the larger social world,” explained Derbyshire. “I want to introduce ideas of what is fair and right and get people to open up to their perceptions of mental illness, how to treat it and what it really means. Above all, I want to talk about these issues”.

Having lived with her disability for a number of years now, Derbyshire doesn’t shy away from providing some valuable advice to others diagnosed as being bi-polar. Her advice includes a wide range of ideas including educating yourself on everything from the various drugs that are available to alternative treatments to understanding the effect things like sugar, caffeine, food allergies and even sleep have on an individual.

“Accept it, learn how it works in you and realize you are going to have both good and bad days and accept that you are going to have those bad days. Having a really tight support group is also key,” she says.

According to Derbyshire some of the same advice goes for the family and friends of those diagnosed as bi-polar.

“Acceptance and education is important as well,” she said. “And where a tight support group is important for those diagnosed as bipolar it is just as important for family and friends to also have their own support group. Ask questions and understand that while it is hard, it is definitely worth it”.

One thing for certain though, while Derbyshire is open and frank about her disability it hasn’t stopped her from doing what she obviously loves and being able to present her show this year as part of Kickstart during the Paralympics is huge.

“There has never been such a bright light on [KickStart] before,” said Derbyshire. “Disability arts is not usually very visible and this tie-in with the Paralympics is perfect”.

What’s next for Derbyshire? Besides her regular gigs teaching at Vancouver Film School and running a youth arts programme at Massey Theatre she is also working on a couple new plays she is confident that will go into workshop soon. But what excites her the most right now (besides Funny in the Head, of course), is her work on an upcoming production of Corn Dog that will take place on an Abbotsford farm this summer.

“This is a site specific piece about genetic engineering,” explained Derbyshire. “I am both directing and acting as dramaturge for the piece that will also include live music and an intermission that will consist of a full organic meal with produce from the farm itself”.

But the hazy days of summer have to wait for now, for Derbyshire has to concentrate on getting a little funny in her head first.

KickStart Festival 2010: She Laughed, She Cried
Telus Studio Theatre, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, UBC
12 March 2010 @ 8pm

Opening the evening, Fado singer Sara Marreiros and her band bring music steeped in the passion of Portuguese saudade (yearning). Jan Derbyshire performs Funny in the Head, the rollicking story of a bipolar comedian’s fight to stay funny. Tickets are $16-$22 available at Ticketmaster online or by calling 604.280.3311.

Visit http://www.kickstart-arts.ca for more information on KickStart and the KickStart festival.

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