Q&A: Comedian Kelli Dunham on Storytelling as a Radical,Transformative Act

A self-described “ex-nun genderqueer nurse author nerd comic so common in modern Brooklyn,” Kelli Dunham’s long list of “funny person/serious subjects” projects include appearances on Showtime and Discovery Channel, 7 books of humorous nonfiction with witty titles like Freak of Nurture, and 4 comedy CDs (I am NOT a 12 Year Old Boy, Almost Pretty, Why is the Fat One Always Angry, and Full of Bad Ideas) regularly on Sirius/XM and Pandora’s comedy stations, among tons of other amazing stuff. Her fifth comedy CD, Leak of Faith (tales of an exploding knee replacement, surviving the Lord’s Boot Camp, and the never-ending search for a gender friendly bathroom) will be released September 15. Kelli is considered an expert on grief and caregiving, and presents nationwide to healthcare providers about LGBT issues, LGBT health, and using humor to prevent compassion fatigue.

Basically, Kelli is an enigma. At the root of all her work is empowerment through storytelling, and the essential humanness of sharing the stories of our health and lives. Last year, Kelli launched Organ Recital: A Storytelling Festival About Bodies, Health, & Healthcare. In February, Organ Recital will host its second annual storytelling festival celebrating narratives, with the stated goal “to share, listen, agitate, and activate” through workshops, curated story presentations, and discussions.

Ms. spoke with Kelli about Organ Recital, the life-changing nature of narrative and shitty knees.

Many of us have been to craft festivals, film festivals and music festivals. Writers go to writing conferences or retreats, and artists participate in similar activities. But storytelling festivals? Not something one sees quite as much. What made you choose festival as a descriptor?

I wasn’t trying to be original! Most of the comedy world uses “festivals” and it can be a prestige kind of thing. If I’m hanging with other comics and we’re trying to humblebrag we’ll mention we just got back from x or y comedy festival. But folks aren’t interested in Organ Recital for the prestige, although we had amazing crowds for almost all our shows. Folks came to Organ Recital because they wanted to be a part of something transformative and deeply real.

Was “Organ Recital” intended to be a play on church music?

Well, all my life is a play on church music I suppose. Every night I pray for someone to give me a decommissioned church so I can use it as a queer performance venue. But actually the pun was mostly about organs—like stomach, heart, kidneys—sharing their own narratives. It was suggested by my friend author Hanne Blank who is very good with naming events with wordplay.

It sounds like Organ Recital had an incredibly successful first year—which you planned while recovering from your fourth knee replacement, if I’m not mistaken! As its mother slash creator, what were you most proud to see? What might be a little different this year and going forward?

One of the most touching and encouraging aspects of the week was how clearly it revealed that in the age of reality television offering us passive entertainment with conjured plots, people are thirsting for real stories! For example, we had a packed venue for I Love My Pre-Existing Condition: Stories of the Impact of the ACA. It was an event curated by Stephanie Schroeder and Ashley Young and the fact that we could get 60 people out on a weeknight—especially Valentine’s Day—to hear stories about insurance is a reflection of our times to be sure!

I was also touched by performers who, given the opportunity, took a chance and made comic art out of their worst days. For example, Joanna Briley, a comedian who I’ve known since 2001, told a story at our death themed event about a tragic turning point in a relationship with her father. She had never shared this story on stage. And of course—because the most difficult of human experience are often the most absurd and because she’s a skilled comic—the story made all of us laugh even as our hearts broke for her.

Next year for the festival I’m going to be opening up the week to more producers in the form of an open call (the first year was invite only because it was still very much an experiment), and we’re also going to be featuring a couple of world premiers of full-length workshop /staged reading level one person shows by experienced performers.

Going forward I’d love to be able to offer the process of producing an Organ Recital event for organizations and groups focused around a specific body-related issue or situation (e.g. chronic pain), starting with workshops for all the potential storytellers, helping put together the event itself and ending with a debrief after the performance. I’ve done that for a few groups and what results is awe inspiring, but so far I haven’t really found any funding for it. So, it’s getting wedged between my other responsibilities and I need to sleep every now and again. More frequently as I get older.

As someone who has always had to steel myself for public speaking, I wonder if all the participants already consider themselves storytellers on stage/at the mike? Did any presenters struggle? Do you offer professional coaching?

Organ Recital partly exists because of the success of Queer Memoir, the LGBT-focused storytelling series I began seven years ago with playwright Genne Murphy. The focus of Queer Memoir has always been mixing it up with experienced performers and writers and folks who have never been on a stage in their lives. The (popular mainstream storytelling show) Moth is “real stories told live without notes” and Queer Memoir is “real stories told live with whatever you need to tell your story whether that’s notes or your best friend holding your hand or 37 emails with the producers to help bolster your confidence.”

Organ Recital is similar. We all have stories about our bodies; we all carry stories in and on our bodies. But sometimes folks need help to tell the story and sometimes even to find the story and so I offer workshops and as much one on one coaching as I can possibly fit into my schedule. Which sometimes looks like, yknow, exchanging IMs while I’m sitting on the toilet. This interchange is as important as the performance in a way because this is often the most transformative part for storytellers, the part where they say “Damn, that’s why I did that” or “Ooooooh I get it now.” And while I try to be a bolstering, comforting presence, what makes this life-changing is the courage of the storytellers. With body and health stuff especially, it can be terrifying! It’s not easy to see a scar as a map and then go where that map takes you.

You’ve said, “We have to tell our own stories or we risk no one hearing them at all.” You’ve become a facilitator for others telling the stories of their own lives. What happens when we share stories about ourselves? Why are they so important for us to communicate and for others to hear?

We’ve always said about Queer Memoir “telling queer stories saves queer lives” and I’ve certainly seen that in action as we’ve grown and developed as an event over the years.

It’s interesting, I think of myself as living a pretty alternative life and not worrying too much about mainstream representation. But the first time I saw Fun Home on Broadway I actually sobbed (on the front row in the round, it wasn’t pretty) through the “Ring of Keys” scene which focuses on the character’s discovery of a butch adult as a gender nonconforming child. I had such a rare moment of, “Damn. I had that exact experience. That is me.” Seeing myself accurately reflected galvanized my desire to fight for queer stories told by queer people

Organ Recital has a similar genesis. In so much of mainstream culture, people with naturally occurring body variations—bodies get sick, some bodies stay sick, some people walk and some people don’t, some people hear and some people don’t, etc.—are only allowed to tell their stories in terms of lack. Sharing our stories beyond sick lit or inspiration porn is a radical transformative act.

A therapist suggested you might think of yourself as a wounded healer, which you said was “too much pressure.” But you say that perhaps you can imagine yourself as a “wounded storyteller” a la Arthur Frank’s book of the same name. What’s the difference between the two?

Yeah, waking up in the morning to a to-do list that says “1. Think and talk about the worst things that happened to you, and 2. Use that to make other people feel better” is both overwhelming and slightly ridiculous. And it feels like barging into someone’s house uninvited, proclaiming that somehow my wounds are supposed to heal the people around me, like a colonization of someone else’s pain.

But wounded storyteller? That’s a peer interaction, that’s me saying, “Well this awful thing happened and look I’m sad and mad and scared and pretty messed up but I’m still standing and having sex and eating my lunch and still here.” And then the person can take that information or they can leave it or they can say, “Hey leave me alone I’m just trying to ride the Q train.”

As a person who’s had four knee replacements, you’ve been a suffering patient in a suffering body. As a nurse you’ve healed and tended bodies. As a caregiver to two partners you’ve lost to cancer, I’d imagine you’re uncomfortably familiar with dying, death, and grieving bodies. When you were a nun, what was your relationship with your body? Do you still have/wear your habit?

They don’t send the habit home with you when you leave, although I’ve been asked that question a fair amount. It would make Halloween easier though! I could be a nun every year.

My experience with the Missionaries of Charity—and this is quite different for other orders so, y’know, #notallnuns—was that I spent a substantial amount of every day trying to deny what my body needed. And that wasn’t an accident; that was by design. We were coached to “offer it up” anytime ignoring body needs caused us discomfort. That’s just garden variety old school Catholicism, but the MCs take it to a fairly ludicrous conclusion. We prayed for four hours every day on our knees on the bare concrete chapel floor. We’d start to develop kneeling callouses, but in the meantime the pressure areas would get raw and ooze and stick to our habits and then get ripped open every time we’d kneel again. When we’d ask for permission to sit back on our heels during prayer to give our knees a break, I can remember our aspirant mistress saying, “The older sisters don’t kneel as much because they all have knee problems, but you younger sisters should be kneeling every time you can. You’re the newly-wed brides, so you should be excited to spend time with your husband, blah blah blah.” It seemed impossible that she didn’t match up the cause—kneeling four hours each day—with the effect—older sisters having messed up knees—but it’s just as likely that the effect wasn’t considered relevant because it was one more thing to offer up.

But if you’re straight up serious on the married to Jesus business, and what Jesus wants is for you to have oozing knee wounds, so you can be twinsies, isn’t that textbook definition of an abusive husband?

I can’t blame it all on my nun training—stoic Germanic farm family culture took its toll as well— but it’s taken me a long time to redevelop the ability to read my body’s cues and consider them relevant.

What can comedy do for you and for others that less comedic ways of speaking, writing, and storytelling cannot? What does this have to do with our bodies and/or health?

I’ve learned to preface some of my more emotionally edgy humor with the reminder “it’s okay to laugh at the funny parts” which is important partly because otherwise guilty white straight liberals are afraid to laugh at the misadventures of a middle aged chubby genderqueer woman with trashed knees and two dead partners. The need to bypass straight guilt notwithstanding, it’s important that everyone is offered—and offered is key here—the opportunity to mock the internal and external factors that can make life as a human pretty damn miserable. At no point should this be required; it’s not any nicer to tell someone to laugh than it is to tell them they should smile. I’m not into that forced-clown-nose-humor therapy. I live in New York; you force a clown nose on someone, you’re going to get a punch to your face.

Only somewhat tangentially, when I was a kid, we somehow got a hold of the Free to Be You and Me album. It must have been from the library and we were playing the Rosey Grier song “It’s Alright to Cry” when my dad walked through the living room. He looked around and said “I hope no one’s getting any ideas around here.” We weren’t. We knew better, stoic Germanic farm family and all that. But as I’ve developed my ability to cry at the sad parts, rather than just ignore them or offer them up to my mean Jesus Savior husband, my capacity to laugh at the funny parts has expanded as well.

What makes a joke funny? What is not okay to joke about?

A joke is never just a joke. Never. Someone or something is always the butt of the joke, and if we’re really trying to make the world a better place we might want to consider who or what the butt is and if it is deserved.

One of the first open mics I went to, almost 20 years ago, was in this depressing club in the basement of a hotel in Northeast Philadelphia. And there was a guy there who told this alleged joke, “I took a chick parking and she said ‘oh I’m not that kind of girl’ and I took out my knife and said ‘yes you are.'” The other dudes—and it was all dudes except for me, almost every Wednesday—would goad him into telling this! His defense was “oh it’s just a joke” but he’s one of many comics at that level, who—mic in hand and with social sanction—essentially make a rape threat into a punchline.

And yet there is some kind of, I don’t know, surprise when any kind of rape / sexual assault pattern emerges around comedy venues or specific comics.

“Just a joke” my ass.

In the past, as an art form (“art form”) we’ve done ourselves a disservice by letting the discussion about parameters and boundaries in comedy be framed by some angry white guy who is mad because he can’t say the N word on stage anymore. Like “oh man -grump- what am I allowed to joke about.”

What if we focus on what can we joke about? What can we make fun of, what we can bring to light? It might be easier in our messed up white supremacist culture to write a racist joke than to write a joke that ridicules racism, but I don’t get it when folks call this “edgy.” Racist humor isn’t edgy, it’s tired and old and hack. You didn’t discover racism, angry white person on stage, it’s pretty much the foundation of our country.

I think we’re starting to see comedy used for its positive world changing potential—Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Cinderblock Comedy Festival are two very recent examples—and comics of color and some queer comics have been knocking this out of the park for years.

Where is your favorite place/are your favorite places to do standup?

I have a deep biological optimism—so says my therapist—and this means that every gig for me was fun, even if it wasn’t. Some places I’ve enjoyed performing? A skateboard ramp in Allentown, PA. County Fair in Nebraska. Churches, lots of churches. Communities of Faith should all have a standup comic in residence! Indie bookstores. Protests. Teen summer camp. Not an easy crowd. Conferences, especially different iterations of nursing conferences. I love making my fellow RNs laugh, even though it means I sometimes have introductions like, “Well, that’s everything you need to know about being a mandated child abuse reporter and now… Kelli Dunham!” Libraries. A high-end fundraiser at a zoo. (I love my people but why do we think the zoo lends itself to formal wear?) Hospice-related events. Hospitals.

I don’t know that I have a favorite place to do stand up but I do love to emcee a small town pride. And I hope to record my next CD at a library.

You’ve done a couple of zines on health topics. I think they’re even available for free download? Why you think the zine made a good medium for this information and what motivated you to do them?

When I released the first zine, one of my friends teased me “whaddya think this is, 1994?” but of course there’s still a big and complex zine culture and lots of folks are making zines every day. The reason I’m using that particular medium for this kind of health information is that it’s so specific: e.g. how to get a pap exam if you’re struggling with gender issues, how queer folks can overcome past traumatic experiences with the healthcare system. Making a downloadable zine puts the information right in the hands of the people who need it most.

You offer step-by-step guides for groups and community organizations to run similar storytelling events. What is your hope here? 

Sharing stories saves lives—and it’s low tech, easy access way to build community.

About

Erin Wood writes and edits in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is editor of and a contributor to Scars: An Anthology, which assembles the work of nearly 40 contributors on scars of the body. “We Scar, We Heal, We Rise,” was chosen as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, The Woven Tale Press, Anderbo, Tales from the South, The Healing Muse and elsewhere. Visit her at woodwritingandediting.com.