Nathan Hartswick has a simple list of instructions for the kids in his forthcoming standup comedy class: "Support each other. Laugh if it's funny. Be nice if it's not. Do your homework."
What the class isn't about: "Criticizing each other's material. That's my job," he writes in the overview he distributes to students at the beginning of each course.
It's a joke, of course. What Hartswick actually offers kids in class is "pointed feedback," such as "Add a pause here," or "Here's where I thought that joke was going..." To Hartswick, it's all about encouraging kids to find their own voice.
Offer an adult the opportunity to try standup comedy, and most are likely to break into a cold sweat. Kids are another story — especially the hammy, sarcastic types.
Hartswick was one of those. He grew up on the Northeast Kingdom barn-turned-stage where his mother, Nancy Hartswick, ran the Vermont Children's Theater. His trumpeter sister, Jennifer, now plays with Trey Anastasio. Thirty-four-year-old Nathan is one of Burlington's most prominent standup comics.
Starting in January, he'll begin teaching kids age 12 to 17 the art of standup comedy at Spark Arts, the Burlington performing-arts studio he recently opened with his wife, Natalie Miller. In addition to comedy classes, the pair will offer voice lessons, acting classes, improv nights and more.
Hartswick first tried standup three years ago at a Flynn Center class taught by local comedian Josie Leavitt. "I was interested, but totally terrified to try it," he says, "because I wasn't hiding behind a costume or a musical instrument."
He loved it. Since then, Hartswick has worked to start a Burlington standup scene, and his 13-year-old daughter has caught snippets of his act. "She's snarky and sarcastic," Hartswick says with pride. And she's heard enough of (the cleaner parts of) her dad's routine to catch the comedy bug.
When she begged him to teach her to put on her own shows, he caved; he loved the idea of introducing kids to standup. Hartswick has taught kids improv comedy before, and he's taught adults standup, but this course will be his first foray into standup for kids.
Anybody can be a good comic, Hartswick believes. All you need to do is "change the way you look at stuff," he says. It helps to be observant, especially of conflict, and to write succinctly. In the class, kids will write and perform their own material in front of each other.
Miller adds that standup can be a great equalizer. "Some kids might not think they can sing or play an instrument," she says. "But they can talk about anything." And anything can be funny, if you look at it through the right lens.
Standing up in front of other people teaches kids important life skills, too, such as public speaking, confidence and finding the humor in everyday life — even when nobody else laughs. "We all fail every day of our lives as adults," says Hartswick. "It's really important that [kids] get a chance to fail safely."
For both Hartswick and Miller, working with the "wallflower kids" is their favorite. "To see them come out of their shells..." says Hartswick. "That's why I do what I do."
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