I recently had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Gwen at the Mayne Stage as part of HER HRC. She kept the crowd rolling with laughter throughout her set, and closed with this physical bit about what it might look like if women adjusted themselves as freely as men do. It was amazing and you should try to catch one of her shows as soon as you can. Meet Gwen LaRoka!
1. When did you first know you wanted to do comedy?
It’s always been my #1 dream, ever since I was a little girl. I’ve always had that funny bone in me! I remember sitting and watching sketch shows like Bienvenidos (Latin TV show that ran from 1982 – 2001 – daaaamn I sound OLD! haha) and writing down the jokes so I can memorize them. My favorite show growing up though was In Living Color. I was about 7 years old when it first aired. Needless to say, I fell in love with performing arts! I’d sit, write down the jokes, practiced character impersonations and would re-enact the scenes by myself in the bedroom. I didn’t know it then, but now as comic/actress I look back and think “holy sh*t, I was working out material and without even knowing it!
2. How long have you been at it and in what forms?
Technically, I’d say since elementary school I guess. I got lucky and somehow scored a small role in an educational video for elementary schools. I don’t even have a clue how that happened! I was hooked. When I was finally old enough to pursue things on my own, I got involved with The Vagina Monologues at UIC and performed in that production for 4 consecutive years. All the while, doing a little improv at Second City in between that time. I then landed a wonderful spot in Teatro Luna’s amazing cast and play titled “Machos”, which had an amazing run at The Chicago Dramatists Theatre. Then, I finally made that leap into stand up and it’s been a hell of a ride ever since!
3. What has been your scariest moment on stage?
Going blank! Stand up is most definitely one of the hardest careers out there in terms of conquering some major fears. When you go on stage, you’re almost completely vulnerable up there. The worse feeling for me was when I first started out. I’d let my nerves get the best of me sometimes and momentarily just, go blank! Definitely causes a panic, but I’m happy to say I always worked it out just in time!
4. What are you most proud of in life? In comedy? In life?
My beautiful family. My Mom, Dad and 2 brothers Cesar and Will. They are THE most loving and supportive family I could ever ask for. I love them so much and am super lucky to have them! The same goes for my dearest friends and family!! But especially my beautiful and supportive partner, Maricely. In comedy, I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, not only as a starving artist (seriously? As skinny as I am I shouldn’t be using that saying lol), but also as a Latina woman, reppin’ the LGBTQ community. I’m proud of the amazing relationships I’ve been able to establish with many talented folks, from producers to actors to fellow comedians and of course fans. So proud of the love all around!
5. What are two things that are not related to comedy that you love, or enjoy doing and why?
I’m a lover of the arts over all. I feel it encompasses everything I love: art (in every form – painting, dance, music, spoken word, film, comedy, you name it!) activism, & of course community! It’s all tied into one another. At least in my world anyway.
6. Your biggest pet peeve about fellow comics is:
The lack of love & support for fellow comics and lack of appreciation for the crowd and stage time. I think it’s super essential to remain humble and appreciative of every relationship you build, connection you make, stage time you get, opportunity that’s offered to you, and the love and support from anyone who gives it to you. You can’t lose sight of that! If you’re naturally a genuine and sincere person this shouldn’t be a problem. We should build each other up, not compete with one another to the point that we’re knocking each other down in an attempt to get to the top. If you have the skills, confidence in your game, work hard on your craft and stay true to yourself and others, there would be no reason to feel threatened by other comics doing great things. We should really be supportive of one another, period. No matter the skin color, background, gender, NOTHING! We’re ALL the same, we share the same struggles and we all want the same out of life; to live happily and freely in peace. Bottom line, we’re all fam! Let’s bring each other up!
7. What’s the best advice you ever got about comedy and who said it?
I’ve been blessed to have had lots of talented folks give me some great advice, but one thing I heard that stuck with me was from my friend and fellow comedian Soli Santos. She said she was once told there are no bad ideas, just poor execution.
8. Please name three people who have inspired you in a way that has informed your comedy. What makes each of them so meaningful to you?
Well, the amount of people in my life who have stood behind me and supported me, and who have played a huge part in the progress I’ve made is most definitely well over (thankful for that!). They know who they are. Thank you friends! Having that said, I’ll answer with 3 influential comedic acts. I grew up being a huge fan of Jim Carrey, Martin Lawrence, and the entire cast of El Chavo del Ocho (a Latin sketch show I grew up watching). They each brought an element to their game that I found very natural and extremely funny. In that sense, I feel we’re the same. When I go on stage I’m just being me, it’s not an act or a recited piece, it’s me, having fun with folks, telling them about my personal experiences and observations. Sure it’s the same joke at times, but never told the same way every time. The comics I found most influential all possessed that natural ability to just be funny without trying. They were just being them, the way I’m just being me, both on and off stage.
9. What was the funniest thing you remember as a kid?
Wow, too many funny memories to narrow it down but one that definitely stands out is the VHS video of me at about age 7 or 8, locked in my parents bedroom re-enacting Fire Marshall Bill. I even hand crafted the props I needed for my sketch with play-doh! RIDICULOUS!!!
10. Do you drink coffee, and if so, how do you prefer it?
Only about a cup per morning, during the week when I need to stay awake at work. Selling insurance isn’t the most exciting day job! Though it can make for some great material! Haha. By the way, do you need a quote? Ahem! lol I dig my coffee sweet with plenty of cream baby! Please hold all the toxins in the sugar!
11. Tell me about a particularly memorable gig.
I’d have to say they are ALL super memorable and will forever be etched in my mind! BUT, over-all, I’d have to say my first Live DVD taping that I just had at Joe’s back in January. Mikey O Productions did an amazing job of putting together my live taping and I’m happy to say my show was completely SOLD OUT with a packed house!! It’s definitely one of the most important and memorable shows I’ve had so far! I’m super blessed! I’ll soon be launching my website www.gwenlaroka.com and the DVD’s will be up there for sale so be sure to snatch one up if you want some laughs =)
12. Hecklers. We’ve all had one, or at the very least, seen them work their magic. Tell me your favorite heckler story.
I can’t say I never had one, but luckily, the one or 2 I have had were simply ignored. I don’t even try to, it just happens, I block them out. When I’m on stage I’m in the zone, chatting with the audience, having a great time. You can kinda distinguish an audience member who’s simply enjoying your set and engaging with you from a heckler talking smack in the audience. The moment my mind identifies a heckler I simply keep doing my set, so thankfully I haven’t yet really fallen into that mess. But I’m sure it’ll be a wild ride when it happens! lol