Jay Flewelling

Improv meets ASL

Jay Flewelling and Blake Wales want to unite deaf and hearing audiences

When actor Blake Wales first watched a performance by the improv comedy group J Names, he was deeply impressed. There was just one problem. He wished that his father, who is deaf, could have the opportunity to enjoy the show.

“I remember thinking, ‘This would be amazing if my dad could laugh with a hearing audience,’” Wales says. “That’s something a lot of deaf people don’t get to do.”

Now they can. Since last year, Wales has been working with J Names—and the group’s founder, Jay Flewelling—as an ASL interpreter. It’s a challenging and rewarding job that takes all of Wales’ skills as both an ASL speaker and an improv performer (as play-goers who attend the group’s Friday show at Curious Comedy Theater can see).

“’This is amazing. Why aren’t more people doing it? When are you doing it again?’ Those are the questions that I get after I do a show with J Names,” Wales says. “Hearing that need just made me more inspired to respond to it.”

The J Names Group. Photo: Andy Batt

J Names is one of the best-known improv groups in Portland, and Flewelling—who has also worked with Wales at Oregon Children’s Theater—jumped at the chance to expand their audience. “No one has been as excited about this as Jay has,” Wales says.

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Going with the flow

Oregon Children's Theatre's team Impulse creates improv at its best. Here's a review of the show—and a look behind the scenes.

You know an actor means business when he refers to the 2014 movie Whiplash (about a face-slapping, chair-throwing jazz conductor) as a model of a tough but successful learning experience. That’s what Hank Sanders, 17-year-old member of Oregon Children’s Theatre‘s improv team Impulse, did when I asked him about the group. “We read a book about how the best practice isn’t fun,” says Sanders. “So while I might not be always smiling and happy and be like, ‘Wow, I cannot wait for rehearsal,’ I think that’s a good sign and that we’re the best we’ve ever been.”

He has a point. Impulse’s 2018 show is improv at its finest—smoothly executed by well-trained performers, yet with a sense of weirdness that can only come from trusting your gut. I first encountered Impulse when I watched a rehearsal last month and the versatility I witnessed (the actors dreamed up comedic skits on the spot about everything from Batman to carpeting) is fully displayed in the show.

Impulse comedy-improv team 2018. Photo: Blake Wales

Impulse is a part of OCT’s Young Professionals Company, a year-long advanced acting program for students ages 14-18. The Impulse shows combine games with short and long scenes, which use audience suggestions as inspiration (the actors ask the audience beautifully bizarre questions such as, “Would you like to see a scene about a broken ruler or a crying student?”). This year’s performers are Sanders, Bryce Duncan, Isaac Ellingson, Devlin Farmer, Emma Fulmer, Nate Gardner, Onar Smith, Emma Stewart and David VanDyke.

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