20 years of comedy gold mixed with a passion for teaching and an knack for improv and you’ve got Teaching Artist Levi Weinhagen! Check out his artist spotlight from this summer as he discusses his comedic inspirations, his theater company, Comedy Suitcase, and how comedy can get us through the joy and the pain.
Hey Levi, thanks for spending some time with COMPAS today. Can you tell us a little about your background and what art form you teach and perform?
I’ve been writing and performing comedy in various forms for 20 years. I’m a trained improviser and sketch comedy writer. I teach joke writing, comedy performance, improvisation and using comedy to talk about difficult topics.
When did you first become interested in theater and comedy? Who were some of your influences?
I’ve loved comedy for as long as I can remember. The first comedy sketch I can remember involves Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street having difficulty communicating due to a banana in Ernie’s ear. I first started performing at the Brave New Workshop theater in Minneapolis, where I learned to write satirical comedy and how to be in the moment on stage building scenes from nothing with partners on stage.
It has been said that comedy is harder to pull off than drama. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?
I don’t know if comedy is harder to pull off than drama as I’ve done very little dramatic performing in my life. But I can say that it is much easier to tell when comedy isn’t going well. In dramatic work, a silent audience can mean folks are really focused or that they are having quiet emotions. In a comedic work, a silent audience means everything you have done and are doing has been a complete waste of time because you are failing to get any laughs. There’s not much better than making a large group of people laugh and there’s not many worse feelings than trying to do that and only hearing people clear their throats.
Who is your all-time favorite comedian? Why?
I would never name an all-time favorite comedian because the art form is so vast that it can include someone alone onstage, words meant to be read, or a big musical number. One of the comedians who has shaped my world view since I was fairly young is silent film star Buster Keaton. He was a brilliant physical comedian who didn’t need words to communicate a broad range of emotions and he invented new ways of making films so that he could try out new routines. I never tire of the musical comedy created by Weird Al Yankovic. And a current comic who I revisit regularly and think will stand the test of time is Tig Notaro.
What do you think is the most valuable thing comedy or theater can teach a student?
The thing I love most about both comedy and theater is that it gives students tools to say what’s in their hearts and minds in ways that are appealing to an audience and that can make a very complex thought or emotion more clear.
What do you hope participants of your programs learn?
I want everyone I get the chance to work with to learn that comedy is a very powerful art form that anyone can use to create joy and talk about really challenging and painful things.
What do you see as the benefits of working in Minnesota’s art community?
I don’t think there are any other places in the country that support and create space for art in the way’s Minnesotans do. Minnesota’s art community is a huge tent with countless sub-communities that are all ready and willing to work and play with one another. When that cross-pollination happens, people really are able to be their best selves.
Have you been working on any new projects lately?
My theater company, Comedy Suitcase, is coming up on its 10 year anniversary in 2019. We’ve been working on some really exciting plans for the kinds of shows and events we want to make happen to mark our decade of making work and celebrate all the artists and audience who have helped us along the way.
You have been on the COMPAS roster for a little over 2 years now. What’s it been like to be a part of COMPAS so far?
I absolutely love how supported I feel by the COMPAS staff. The sites I get to visit know why I’m there and what I need when I show up and that just wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for the folks in the Landmark Center making everything happen. And the relationships I’ve been able to build with fellow roster-members have made me a better teaching artist, a better practicing artist and a better person. I’m really happy to be a part of COMPAS.
How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?
My two main forms of creativity are making jokes and asking deep questions. I’m lucky that my daily life allows me numerous chances to invent and share jokes and to have deep conversations with people about what they’re into and how they work. Additionally, my 12 year old daughter makes videos and other art projects and sometimes, when I’m not giving her too much grief, she lets me help.