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Tig Notaro // Photo: Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times

Bentzen Ball Turns 10: Tig Notaro and Svetlana Legetic Reflect on Longevity, Quality and Openness

Comedy should be unpretentious and approachable, a way for us to connect and find humor in the many facets of the human experience. In theory, a comedy festival should follow suit, creating a safe space for artists to try out new material and collaborate with one another in a welcoming setting. But that isn’t always the case, so Tig Notaro decided to create a festival designed to make comedians feel at home.

She shared her idea with former Brightest Young Things (BYT) contributor Jeff Jetton, who brought it to BYT co-founder and CEO Svetlana Legetic, and the three joined forces to create the DC-based Bentzen Ball. Fast-forward 10 years, and the co-founders are gearing up for the festival’s 10th Anniversary of Comedy & Friendship on October 24-27.

The Bentzen team is proud of their longstanding collaboration, and the consistent, simple ethos driving the festival every year.

“We wanted it to be this perfect toolbox of four days, both for the comedians and the city,” Legetic says. “The only requirements to get booked are: Are you really talented and are you not a jerk? We run it like a comedy camp. Everything’s completely democratic.”

As the driving force behind BYT – a DC- and NYC-based events company, online magazine and most recently, creative agency – Legetic says organizing a comedy festival that is equal parts accessible to audiences and the talent they’re coming to see is critical. She describes Bentzen as “the great equalizer,” where the artists are all treated as peers regardless of who’s headlining or has the most IMDb credits.

“A festival should be the best time for the comedians because they all like each other,” she adds. “They’re friends. Fame doesn’t play a role – just quality and respect in the community.”

Notaro’s own brand of dry, often deadpan humor paired with personal comedy, touching upon vulnerable topics like her experience with breast cancer, seems like a natural fit for the open, community-driven message behind Bentzen. On a recent phone call with the comedian, she tells me that Bentzen has secured itself not as a fleeting or entertainment industry-driven festival, but instead as an event built on having a good time and doing good things with good comedians.

“I think we’ve maintained it and just grown it, but we’re not trying to grow it to be this monster,” Notaro says. “I just want it to always remain positive in every direction – from the size of it to the people who come to the charities we work with to the audience experience. As I’m going through all of this, it’s reminding me of how proud of it I am.”

The tone of her voice fluctuates ever so slightly when she says this, and I know in that moment how much Bentzen means to her. Notaro hails from L.A., where she lives with her wife Stephanie Allynne and twin 3-year-olds Max and Finn, but comes to the District every year for the festival. When I ask, “Why DC?” the response is quite flattering, another nod to our burgeoning performing arts scene.

“I had such a great time in DC [during the DC Comedy Festival years ago]. It seemed like such a fun city and like regardless of where you stand politically, it would be a nice draw for people to want to come out. And I was right.”

She says she can rely on good vibes from our city year in and year out – and on smart audiences to come out and support the comedians.

“[DC is] always so fun, and it’s always a place I know I can come and try something new. There are certain cities where I feel like, ‘Oh, it can be hit-or-miss, or I had a good time last time [but] who knows what’ll happen this time?’ But I feel like DC is a town where I can just go, ‘Yeah, I’ll go have a great time for sure on that stage.’”

Legetic reiterates how smart of a city we are, and how the District’s collective intelligence has in some ways led to Bentzen’s continued success.

“I always say everyone gets the jokes here,” she says. “If you can’t land a joke here, you can’t land it anywhere because people have read everything, heard everything. We’re so in tune with what’s happening around us.”

Another contributing factor to the festival’s popularity, according to Notaro, is the creative team’s clean-slate approach.

“It’s really wide open,” she says. “We go into each year with an openness of, ‘What do these performers want to do? What kind of show do they want to have? Who do they want in the show?’ Everything still falls in place but as it unfolds, that’s always one of the best parts: seeing what direction everything goes in.”

Bentzen offers artists the opportunity to expand their forms of expression, opening doors to unexplored creative outlets and giving access to talented peers playing in the same space.

Legetic says, “It’s very much about the performer and the audience. People trust that it’s going to be good on both sides, and a lot of magical things happen in the process.”

She’s confident in the event’s continued success, and with good reason. Audience numbers grew 40 percent between 2017 and 2018 “because I think people needed it,” Legetic adds. Festival passes often sell out before BYT even announces the lineup. And headlining acts like Maria Bamford, who has been on both Notaro and Legetic’s wish list for years, continue to join the Bentzen family.

“We don’t have a marketing budget or anything like that,” Legetic says. “If the audience didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be growing.”

Bamford opens the festival on October 24, and on October 26, audiences can catch Notaro’s “But Enough About You” at festival mainstay Lincoln Theatre or head over to the Entertainment and Sports Arena – a new addition to the lineup – for the DC Homecoming! show featuring DMV natives like Jay Pharoah, Aparna Nancherla and Judah Friedlander. The list of curated talent continues, and regardless of who you decide to check out, Legetic promises Bentzen won’t disappoint.

“We’re very earnest in our enthusiasm. Even if you’re not sure about something, give it a chance. We’ve never taken anyone astray in 10 years.”

Bentzen Ball’s 10th Anniversary of Comedy & Friendship runs from October 24-27 at Lincoln Theatre, the Entertainment and Sports Arena, and the Kennedy Center’s Millennial Stage. Most tickets range from $25-$40. Proceeds from this year’s Bentzen tickets support José Andrés World Central Kitchen. Learn more at www.brightestyoungthings.com/bentzen-ball-2019.

Follow Tig Notaro on Twitter at @tignotaro and check out www.tignation.com for more information on the comedian. Pro tip: watch “Under A Rock with Tig Notaro” on www.funnyordie.com.

Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Maria Bamford on Relatable Material, Consistent Comedy and Bentzen Ball Debut

Maria Bamford is doing well.

Aside from being so funny it’s almost unbearable, the comedian has also made a name for herself discussing the intricacies of daily life with mental illness – perhaps what she is best known for to casual fans and longtime comedy devotees alike.

The fine line between grace and acceptance paired with the absurdity of life in one’s own complicated brain that Bamford toes in her work has elevated her from funny person to relatable human as she carries a comedic torch for mental health issues.

Material for her new special includes marriage and religion – “my favorites,” she notes – and other topics she’s been known to ruminate on. But mental health leaves the spotlight, as she’s been in a place of healing lately.

“I have run out of material,” Bamford says of her mental health-focused work. “That’s a blessing, and yet that’s been a cash cow. I’ve worked my way out of a job, but that’s okay. It’s better to make less money and feel fantastic.”

When someone shares about one specific – and intense – aspect of their lives, it’s easy to box them in and not look outside that one facet. When I ask Bamford if she feels she’s had a hand in the necessary sea change around mental health conversations, she’s quick to remind me of the others who paved the way – Jonathan Winters in the 60s, for example.

While she’s certainly opened channels for better and funnier conversations around the topic today, Bamford has kept busy over the years with plenty of other topics and projects, too. She’s been subject and star of the well-loved Netflix series Lady Dynamite, lent her pipes to voice-over acting, and even done advertising, something she says she will most likely pass on in the future.

“[Ad agencies] pay you a lot of money for a reason: that you will not have strong opinions about things in public. And I love to have strong opinions in public, unfortunately.”

She says there are certain things she chooses not to do anymore.

“I have a semi-retired lifestyle. It’s lots of standup, [which] is a wonderful schedule for somebody who’s on antipsychotics. I get a good 12 hours of sleep every night.”

She has, however, been hard at work on her new special. With some comedians capitalizing on timely topics, there’s something reassuring about seeing a creative force like Bamford focus on consistent themes. It’s proof that some parts of the human condition will never go away – and will always be funny. She says she’ll use the bulk of the material from her new one-hour special at Brightest Young Things’ beloved comedy festival Bentzen Ball later this month.

“I took about three years to write [the special], and I address the usual topics that I’ve always addressed. I don’t seem to change over time, unlike most human beings. Some people say, ‘Oh, I’d like to transform and become new and different and better than I was.’ Not me.”

Though semi-retired, Bamford is still in high demand. She’s been at the top of the Bentzen Ball team’s wish list since the comedy festival’s inaugural run 10 years ago. Bamford quips that it’s probably just been a decade-long scheduling conflict, as she’ll “go anywhere.” She really means that – her display name on Twitter reads, “I’m probably available!”

“I’m an attainable goal of a comedian,” she states. “It’s weird that it hasn’t worked out before because I’m available, usually.”

It might be fate that’s leading her to Lincoln Theatre’s stage to kick off this year’s Bentzen Ball, though. She’ll be joined by her friend and frequent collaborator, fellow comedian Jackie Kashian, who performed at the first Bentzen Ball a decade ago.

“We’ve been friends for over 20 years now,” Bamford says, speaking in great admiration of Kashian’s work. “She started doing comedy a few years before I did in Wisconsin, and she’s always been a headliner in her own right. She’s been on Two Dope Queens and Conan, and she has two great podcasts.”

Bamford speaks with excitement for her Bentzen debut, saying it’ll be unbelievable to fill up the venue.

“If we show up within a half hour of showtime and have our hair combed and are pleasant, I think that that’s really going to be the surprise,” she laughs.

When you take into consideration the cosmic coincidence of Kashian’s prior appearance at Bentzen, Bamford’s relationship with her and the fact that Bamford is perhaps the biggest win for this year’s festival lineup, you could consider their appearance alone an achievement. But given Bamford’s lasting reach – and willingness to share her story openly and hilariously, regardless of what aspect of her story she’s telling – it’s sure to set the tone for an incredible 10th run of the comedy festival.

Maria Bamford kicks off the 10th annual Bentzen Ball with Jackie Kashian on Thursday, October 24 at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Theatre. Tickets are $35. For more on Bentzen, visit www.brightestyoungthings.com/bentzen-ball-2019.
To find more of Bamford’s work, visit www.mariabamford.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: Nic Lehoux

I Spy a New Building: International Spy Museum Moves to L’Enfant Plaza

Spies are constantly in search of upgrades. The enhancements enable them to gather more data, intelligence and information, which in turn help them do their job more effectively. In this sense, DC’s International Spy Museum isn’t unlike the topics it covers. The establishment recently underwent its own upgrade, ferrying its collection, staff and visitors across town from their original downtown location into a sparkling, almost transparent building in L’Enfant Plaza.

The 140,000-square-foot space opened on May 12 and immediately doubled the museum’s size while providing more opportunities for interactive, spacious exhibits. With bright red accents, columns and a pleated glass veil, this architectural addition sticks out next to its Brutalist counterparts, making it easy for scouts to identify the city’s new addition “hiding in plain sight.”

“It had always been a dream to [move to a bigger space],” says Aliza Bran, the museum’s PR and marketing coordinator. “We had so many things we wanted to share with the public and there were only so many things that we could do in the building that we had. It was a fabulous building, but it had some limitations in that it was a historic building – you can’t change that. The subject matter we wanted to cover was far broader than what we could cover in that space.”

The concept of a new, larger space for the museum began five years ago, according to Bran. Before worrying about size, design and other physical attributes, the braintrust went about deciding what new artifacts, exhibits and displays they could bring to light if not for certain limitations. This included more in-depth looks at international stories and tactical collections, and how to make intelligence analysis digestible for visitors.

“We really tried to find a number of people so when we were putting this together, everything looked absolutely right,” Bran says. “It’s going through a lot of individuals and brains, and that was the most important thing while we were doing this because it was covering a lot of areas we had not before.”

Along with more room for their permanent collection, the building also features a lecture hall/theater, a multifunction event space and an area designated for a rotating collection. Though the temporary programs won’t roll out until next year at the earliest, the existing materials have experienced new life.

“We built this from the ground up,” Bran continues. “We got to choose where the walls went up, how big the theater is, how big the event space is and what we can do in each of the spaces. It really is beyond our wildest dreams.”
With this new lease, materials that once veered toward a reading-centric display are now more accessible to those more inclined toward an interactive experience – for instance, analysis.

“How can you make analysis interesting in a museum? Analysts laughed and said, ‘What? Are you going to have a coffee cup and a bunch of papers [and] have people sift through them?’ Fortunately, it turned out really well, but we really needed the input from people who worked in that space.”

These enhancements include games and impeccable displays in a breathable way that couldn’t be accomplished at the old location. And though the floor is set for now, Bran says the museum is still making tweaks to perfect that visitor experience.

“This is the first time doing it this way,” Bran says. “We’re figuring out how the flow works. We have been focused on that 100 percent since we opened. We want to be dynamic within that permanent space, but the first step is making sure everything is exactly how it should be and then seeing how we can adjust and update.”

Though the new space has sparked the imagination of new and old visitors alike, the next big event on the docket is sure to be of interest to those looking for a reason to check out DC’s upgraded place of everything espionage. On August 9, the museum is partnering with Brightest Young Things for Mission Impossible: Party Protocol.

“We’re excited to open up our space to [BYT] and the public for a rare look at the museum afterhours,” Bran says. “Whether it’s people who want to come to a cocktail event or people who want to see an author, we try to look at all of our different audiences.”

Whether you’re an espionage neophyte or a walking encyclopedia of all things top secret, the Spy Museum is likely to surprise and wow you in their facility. And you don’t even have to sneak your way in.

Go to www.eventbrite.com for tickets to BYT and Spy Museum’s Mission Impossible: Party Protocol on Friday, August 9. Tickets are $65-$80. For more information about the Spy Museum’s new location and upcoming programming, visit www.spymuseum.org.

International Spy Museum: 700 L’Enfant Plaza, SW, DC; 202-393-7798; www.spymuseum.org

Phoebe Robinson Finds Truth in the “Trash”

“I write in my own voice, with my own abbreviations. I’m a pop culture junkie, and I fully embrace it. That’s what made her notice me.”

Phoebe Robinson is speaking on the importance of being herself, including her signature comical abbreviations like “soc-meds” for social media, and the operative “her” is none other than Oprah herself. The comedian and author is explaining the MO of her career that eventually led her to pen a New York Times bestseller titled You Can’t Touch My Hair, adding Oprah and thousands of others to her fanbase.

You may also know Robinson as one-half of the 2 Dope Queens podcast, where she and Jessica Williams host and showcase the talents of comedians and actors from diverse backgrounds. And as the host of her own podcast Sooo Many White Guys, Robinson chats with an equally talented array of people from other creative industries. She’s hosted huge names like St. Vincent, Roxane Gay and Gloria Steinem, just to name a few.

In the midst of the runaway success of her first book, hosting two popular podcasts and garnering multiple acting credits, Robinson penned another book: Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, out on October 16. This collection of essays sees Robinson attempting to balance the cosmic scales of the current messes surrounding feminism, dating, politics and more.

“Trying to find the humor in things really helps because right now, things seem really tough,” she explains. “So many people are trying to make things better. On a grand scale, is global warming melting all of us? Yes, 1000 percent. But it is really cool to see people who just had a regular office job and then decide they want to get into politics because they care about education or women’s or trans rights. [That’s] a reminder that not everything is lost. We fully have the potential to take control and right the ship any way that we want to.”

She’ll bring her book to life on October 25 at the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, organized by Brightest Young Things and curated by comedian Tig Notaro. Lincoln Theatre’s stage will be graced by both Robinson and Notaro at the festival’s opening show as Notaro “laughs at whatever nonsense I’m saying and makes fun of it,” Robinson speculates. She and fellow Dope Queen Williams are no strangers to the Bentzen Ball’s stacked lineup – they made an appearance in 2013 and grew a relationship with Notaro from there.

“When Jess and I were tossing around directors for our 2 Dope Queens HBO specials, we decided that we definitely wanted a woman to direct. We felt like so many times this opportunity goes to a guy. We both immediately thought about Tig and how that could actually work because her style of comedy is very different than ours, so that can enrich the process. That’s how we really got to know Tig and hang out with her. It feels really good to know that someone I admire and respect and think is really talented is becoming a friend.”

A common theme at the Bentzen Ball, and in all of Robinson’s work, is the mutual support and respect amongst creatives that allows voices not always given the mainstream time of day to thrive – and inspire others to do the same. Robinson emphasizes that with any kind of creative work, it’s essential to allow yourself the time to find your voice and create your own path rather than trying to fit in.

“While it’s good to want to do a late-night show or standup, or be mentioned in a magazine or have your book published by a certain publisher, I think there’s also something to trying not just to get a seat at the table but to creating your [own] table – making your own lane and traveling on that. The coolest stuff happens when you create your own lane and stay true to yourself.”

See Robinson open Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball on Thursday, October 25 at Lincoln Theatre. Doors at 5:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 and include a copy of Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay.

Learn more about the comedian at www.phoeberobinson.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @dopequeenpheebs. For more on the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, visit www.bentzenball.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com