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Femmeprov Creates Inclusive Space Within the Comedy Scene

Charlotte improv comedy group highlights women, femme-identifiying and non-binary voices

a portrait of the Femmeprov Team smiling in front of a brick wall
The Femmeprov team at a benefit show for Charlotte for Choice in May. (Courtesy of Femmeprov)

The comedy scene can be a less than comical space for those struggling to find an inclusive space to practice their art. It was this struggle that led local comic and performer Joy Surles that best suited her own vision for what a comedy troupe should look like. 

“I wasn’t quite finding a fit that felt right for me, and so I decided maybe that means I should make my own,” she said.

And that’s how she conceived of Femmeprov, an improv comedy group consisting of women, femme-identifying, and non-binary individuals that performs at venues across Charlotte. It currently includes Surles and 10 more performers with a passion for improv, the long-practiced art of comedic acting without a pre-written script or planning.  

According to troupe member Hillary Staple, the inclusive mission of Femmeprov adds value to the performances the group puts on in front of live audiences. 

“Femmeprov is made up of people who care about people,” Staple told Queen City Nerve. “There is so much love and support within the group and those things shine out in our shows and in our mission.”

In addition to being an inclusive space, the shows are different from your typical comedy show because they are meant to be more “wholesome,” according to Surles, featuring material that skews more toward what could be described as PG-13 content.   

“It’s been a really fun way to get to do something creative, to give back to the community in ways that are meaningful, and to start to see a little brand take shape pretty quickly because of the way that we’re working — because of being LGBTQ-inclusive, because of being women or femme identifying,” said Surles. “We very quickly had a vibe that we established, the way that we run our shows that I feel like is a little different from other shows you might see around town.”

Surles, who won Best Comedian in Queen City Nerve’s 2023 Best in the Nest issue, is fairly new to the Charlotte comedy scene, having only been active for about two years, but she’s taken rather quickly to the brewery stages and other small venues where the scene quietly thrives. 

She’s a part of Shameless Society, which also won Best Improv Troupe last year, and also does solo stand-up shows. 

a picture with a collage style poster of the team's heads in black and white
The members of Femmeprov (Courtesy of Femmeprov)

What started out as a hobby for Surles has quickly blossomed into so much more.

“I thought it was going to be a phase, but it’s really like I’ve made some beautiful friendships, and this community has surrounded me through some rough times,” she said. “It’s now informed the way I’m raising my kids, oddly. My kids are being raised by improvisers. I’m a single mom, so having this community to help me out and bolster me and support me and really embrace my whole family — it’s been pretty beautiful.”

Pushing boundaries and finding a voice

When Surles founded Femmeprov with her support system and its other members, she did it to challenge herself. Watching her colleagues in Shameless Society perform had roused insecurities within her.  

“Everyone [in] Shameless, they’re all so talented,” she said. “For me, I felt like, ‘Am I good at this or am I just surrounded by people who are really good at it? Did I get lucky or can I hold my own?’ I had a desire to play with other people to see. I know I’m not the best at this, I’m still only about two years in. ‘Am I good at this at all or is it just the people that I’m playing with?’ That was really where the desire came from.”

Improv by definition forces people to push their own boundaries and challenge themselves, and for Surles being part of this group and improv as a whole has challenged her in the best of ways. 

She enjoys the fact that one has to fail in some way to make a scene funny; awkwardness and cheesiness are encouraged in improv in a way that might be considered “cringe” elsewhere, which allows performers to let go of inhibitions and focus on what’s funny. 

“It’s not fun to watch somebody deliver a perfect monologue that they’ve improvised,” Surles pointed out. “The magic that happens when you let there be an accident and then your teammate observes like, ‘Whoa, she didn’t mean to say that. Let me get in there and let’s make that be what the scene is about.’ Watching that take shape has made me be more willing to try something new just in life. It’s made me be more willing to break some of the rules or guardrails that I set up for myself”

Fellow troupe member, Denise Breland, also said she felt that the group and improv have helped bring her out of her shell. 

Breland is a bit of an introvert but her teammates have been proactive in supporting her during rehearsals. 

“The team is like, ‘Get out there and make your voice heard. You got to start stuff. You got to be out there. You got to speak louder,’” Breland said. “They’re very encouraging. They know how I am, but they want me to get out there more and stop being so quiet and shy about stuff.”

It may seem pushy to some, but Breland appreciates it and knows it’s done with love.

“If only I would listen,” she said. “But I’m getting better at that because I just realized, well, this is supposed to be fun.”

Femmeprov performers Drew Coleman (left) and Carol Tyner do their thing during a recent show. (Photo courtesy of Femmeprov)

Like Surles, Breland has been able to take lessons from her act and apply them to her personal life, but it always comes back around to the comedy stage. When Breland did a piece about the Titanic door, she embraced the role, whereas others who don’t see things so positively might not have. 

The joke was a hit, and she even uses it in different shows with other teams.

“What could have fallen flat, it ended up being funny because I just took all the persona of the door and what would the door think about that whole Rose not letting Jack on the door,” she said. “It is fun, and nobody’s really judging you. And if a joke doesn’t land, it doesn’t land. It’s improv. Move on to the next day.

“Instead of being mad about it or being, ‘Oh, this is stupid,’ I took it and ran with it,” she continued. “And that’s what improv is about: Yes, and…,” she added, referring to the key principle of improv that rejects the idea of saying no and instead pushes performers to continue forward with a scene or plot point no matter how ridiculous. 

These lessons are why Surles thinks everyone should take an improv class.

“There is something really almost spiritual about that idea of being generative and additive and not taking away or cutting back from somebody else’s idea,” she said. 

Leading with love and positivity

Comedy tends to get a bad reputation for its callousness, but that’s a notion that Femmeprov strives to challenge at their shows. 

In fact, one might say it’s something they pride themselves on.

According to Staple, the troupe approaches each show like a party, one that thrives on positivity. 

“I think Femmeprov creates a space where you can leave the messy world we are in at the door because once you’re with us, we are all present together to share some laughs and show love to our community,” she said.  

“It feels more like you’re at a party than that you’re at a comedy show because you’re there, everyone’s a part of it,” added Surles. 

As with most improv shows, the audience gets involved at a Femmeprov party, pitching suggestions for skits or themes. Sometimes audience members work their own life experiences into the suggestions, which cultivates a communal feeling between performers and attendees. 

a picture of a crowd watching players during an improv show with Femmeprov
Joy Surles (right) and Carol Tyner perform as The Lynns. (Courtesy of Femmeprov)

“It tends to be just more of an inclusive and positive environment,” said Surles. “I’ll also say this was not by design, but has happened naturally.”

Surles added that the group doesn’t do any “punching down” in its comedy, meaning as a rule they stay away from jokes that could be seen as denigrating a person or group of people.  

As the host, Staple wants to perpetuate that vibe so the audience can really understand what they’re a part of. 

Joy Surles at a recent Femmeprov show. (Photo courtesy of Femmeprov)

“My favorite aspect of hosting is getting to shower my teammates with love,” she said. “I like to use pet names throughout each show, like ‘Warm towels fresh out the dryer’ and ‘Lace doilies,’” she said. “I get unhinged with it because I love seeing the team react. Another great part about playing host is watching the audience react to my friends; it’s really special to see a room full of people who showed up to do some good and to laugh having a fun time”

Surles said she’s been to her share of stand-up events that were far from safe spaces — figuratively and literally. There were times things got so uncomfortable that she didn’t even feel comfortable walking to her car by herself at the end of the night. 

With Femmeprov, which donates most of its show proceeds to progressive organizations like Time Out Youth or Carolina Abortion Fund, Surles is doing her best to ensure that positivity is the point.

“It’s very important to me that if I am making something that it’s going to make the world a better place, that it’s going to make everybody happier, that it’s going to be uplifting as opposed to, well, I might get a cheap laugh, but if there’s somebody in the audience who’s going to be hurt by that laugh, is it worth it?” she said. “Personally, that’s important to me.”

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