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Laughter is the best medicine

WANT TO GO?

"Comedy for a Cause"

With the National Comedy Theatre

WHERE: Charleston Light Opera Guild Theater, 411 Tennessee Ave.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday

TICKETS: $20

INFO: www.angelsperch.com or 646-281-4795 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- J.T. Arbogast acknowledged that a certain amount of risk comes with billing an improv show as "family friendly," particularly if that show relies on audience participation.

The actor, comedian and filmmaker, who appears Saturday night at the Charleston Light Opera Guild Theater with the National Comedy Theatre troupe, said, "We have a really high energy improv show that's accessible to all ages. It's a lot of audience participation, both in terms of being used on stage as well as offering suggestions to get scenes started."

They try to avoid crossing the blue line when they can, but sure, it happens. People slip up. A comic can take a wrong turn and say something he shouldn't  -- and sometimes someone in the audience brings the naughtiness.

"We have a certain set of rules we abide by," Arbogast said. "We have fouls we call if somebody says something off-color or inappropriate."

And there are punishments.

"We admonish them, lovingly," he said.

And they make them wear a paper bag over their head.

But it's all in good fun and not permanent.

Going blue isn't really what the National Comedy Theatre is about. Arbogast describes it more like a game involving comedic dexterity -- "Like Drew Carey and 'Who's Line is it Anyway?' without Drew Carey."

"We equate it to sports," he said, explaining the comedy the troupe is kind of competitive. "It's like this: if I'm on a basketball team and pushing the tempo of the game, running down the court with the ball, I want to know if I have a teammate coming up behind me that I can throw the ball back and he'll know it's coming."

That requires not just skill but trust, and going to potty mouth humor is usually a dead end. It slows things down and is hard to build on.

"It's more fun to stay away from below the belt humor because it [makes] us to be more creative, and ultimately, it's a better show because once you cross the blue line and go into the gutter, you can never really come back from that place."

Instead, he said, you end up wallowing in the filth for the rest of the night, and that's not really what any of them want to do, so they don't.

The National Comedy Theatre troupe is performing in Charleston Saturday as a benefit to raise funds for "Angel's Perch," an independent film about the effects of Alzheimer's disease written by Arbogast and shot in Pocahontas County. He said it is a film about issues that aren't uniquely West Virginian, but it definitely has a West Virginia heart.

"My family is originally from here. My grandparents helped turn the Cass Scenic Railroad in Pocahontas County into a state park after the mill shut down in 1960. My parents grew up there, met in high school and got married. Most of my extended family is still there."

Growing up, he said, his family spent a lot of summers and holidays visiting his grandparents, but then in 2004, the same year Arbogast helped start the New York City location of the National Comedy Theatre, his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He and his family watched her struggle with the disease, and it was a difficult decision to make when finally, she couldn't take care of herself.

"She managed to stay in Cass until just six months before she passed away." 

Based loosely on those experiences, he wrote a screenplay about a family having to make tough decisions when a loved one can no longer take care of his or herself. Arbogast laughed and said, "So it's not a comedy."

Instead of making light, he hopes the film, produced in partnership with the West Virginia Alzheimer's Association, will make a difference.

"I think we have an opportunity with 'Angel's Perch' to shine a positive light on West Virginia and tell a story we don't normally see," he said.

"We'd like to create a dialogue about a disease that effects so many. In rural areas like West Virginia, it's just so much harder on the families and caregivers. We want to help tell a story we think will be their story."

Arbogast hopes West Virginia will embrace the film when it comes out, whenever and wherever that is. "Angels' Perch" wrapped production at the end of September, and the producers are currently working on arranging distribution.

"Hopefully, soon," he added.

Until then, they'd like to trade a few laughs for a good cause and Arbogast promised laughs.

"As long as the audience comes in ready to have fun, we know we'll have a great show."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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