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Laughfest comes to Sonoma

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The Sonoma Valley has more than its share of festivals.

There are music festivals, film festivals, harvest festivals, pumpkin festivals, vineyard festivals – even a historic race car festival. Now, thanks to Broadway actress-comedian Brooke Tansley – formerly of Los Angles and New York City, now a regular member of Transcendence Theater Company, and a settled-in resident of Sonoma – the Valley is finally going to get its own high-profile comedy festival, as well. And this one isn’t aimed at tourists. According to Tansley, it’s all for the local community she’s grown to love.

Along with comedian Kristen Rozanksi, Tansley – an acclaimed performer known for appearances on Broadway in “Hairspray” and “Beauty and the Beast” – is about to launch Sonoma Laughfest. Running Oct. 22 to 25 at the Sonoma Community Center, Laughfest is essentially 12 professional comedy shows, taking place over four days, featuring 70 performers bringing the laughs in a variety of comedic styles.

Over a cup of coffee last week, Tansley described her motivation for starting Laughfest, and what her hopes are for the future of comedy in Sonoma.

Why a comedy festival – and why Sonoma?

To answer that, I first have to tell you how I ended up in Sonoma.

I decided to live here – spontaneously – on July 24, 2013. I was here for performing in the Transcendence shows, and I had just done an eight-mile-hike at Jack London State Park. I was at the top of the mountain, looking out at the Valley, and I thought, “You know what? I feel like I’m home!” Six hours later, I met my fiancée, and then one of our lovely Transcendence sponsors said, “Oh, we heard you were sticking around. You want to live in our place in the vineyard and help us out during harvest?”

So, literally within 24-hours of deciding to stay here, I had a soft place to land, and had met the love of my life. Which is insane. Does that ever really happen? It absolutely does, because that’s what happened to me.

So then I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself. I decided to take some time and get to know the Valley better, and figure out what I personally can offer to my new community. I wanted to do something the community would love, and that that also fulfilled me in some way.

And the answer was: comedy.

Yes! The answer was comedy. When I lived in L.A., I became a member of Amy Pohler’s improve comedy collective, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. I did that for three years. What was really beautiful about being a part of that was seeing, up close, what worked about it and made it so successful. A big part of the popularity of going to see an Upright Citizen’s Brigade show was that it was really affordable, it was not hard to get to, and with short one-hour shows, it was just really, really easy to say, “Hey! Let’s go see UCB tonight!”

For people who don’t know, what is the big deal with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade? That’s a Chicago-based comedy group that formed in the ‘90s, and now also has a theater space in L.A., right?

Pretty much. First of all, UCB is just brilliant comedy. It’s sketch comedy, which is the kind of thing you see on “Saturday Night Live.” In fact, Upright Citizen’s Brigade has basically become the farm team for Saturday Night. It’s where a lot of SNL talent comes from.

Why do you see that as a fit for Sonoma?

I’ve noticed that in Sonoma County, and Sonoma in particular, a lot of the entertainment offerings are priced for the more affluent, luxury crowd. And, through talking to all of these new friends I’ve made through my fiancée, I learned that a lot of them were not being served very well by having so much to do that is so expensive.

There are a whole slew of people who are younger, young professionals and young parents, who are starting their lives and careers, who are exactly the kind of people who came out to see the Upright Citizens Brigade in L.A. People always knew it would be good, it would be cheap, and it would be easy. So I thought, “You know, maybe there’s a way I could bring the Upright Citizen’s Brigade to Sonoma!”

So how did that idea evolve into launching a full-on comedy festival?

Well, Laughfest is just the beginning! It’s a way to introduce this kind of comedy to Sonoma in one big, exciting package – with some of my friends from UCB, and other brilliant comedians, too – and to figure out from this what people here really like and enjoy. It’s a comedy tasting, essentially. You can get a taste of sketch comedy, stand-up comedy, improv comedy—and then some stuff that defies easy description.

Are you performing at Laughfest yourself?

I am! I’ll be performing with Oh Brother, my UCB spin-off sketch group. For our hour, we’ve selected sketches that we believe Sonomans especially will really enjoy.

Then what? A regular program of comedy shows in Sonoma?

Yes! This will eventually be launched into a program of monthly shows. Our current plan is to start that up in January. Once I’ve learned what kinds of comedy this community really appreciates and enjoys, then we’ll just keep giving them more of that in the future, at an affordable price. This is basically a big splashy way to introduce people in the area to what it is I can give.

• • •

Laughfest runs Oct. 22 to 24 at the Sonoma Community Center. For a full lineup and ticket prices, visit www.sonomalaughfest.com.

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