A voice for comedyJun 25, 2019 07:48AM ● By J. Chambless
(Photo by Shannon Adleson)
“My mother always said I was born saying, ‘Ta da!’” Melissa Bernard said, laughing.
As a showbiz kid, growing up in Centreville before the property values got quite so high, she had a flair for the dramatic in just about everything. Her parents sought an outlet for her creativity by enrolling her in a summer theater program at the Wilmington Drama League, and Bernard has been on stage, one way or another, ever since.
As “a smart kid, but not a good student” at A.I. Dupont High School, she was struck by an appearance by regional actress Ceal Phelan, who performed “The Belle of Amherst” at the school. “I cut three classes to go see it, and take her workshop,” Bernard said. “She and the theater teacher agreed that I had something a little extra.”
She entered the theater program at the school, and found her niche, later taking classes and serving an apprenticeship at the Walnut Street Theatre School, and then nailing her audition for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she studied theater and performed as often as she could.
She married and eventually had two girls, now 16 and 21, and was looking for theater opportunities closer to her Delaware home. She got on board with Wilmington’s City Theatre Company in their formative years, and started performing with the group before they had a home. “I think it was maybe their second year,” she said. “I was in some of their first productions upstairs at O’Friel’s Irish Pub.” She later moved with the group to the black-box theater space they use at the OperaDelaware Studios in Wilmington.
“I have performed with them, off and on, for 26 years,” she said. “We started Wilmington’s first sketch improv group through them, a long time ago.”
Initially intimidated by singing on stage, Bernard was convinced to try it in the City Theatre production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and surprised herself by doing well. She was 41.
“I have this argument with [local musician] Joe Trainor,” she said. “He says I can sing. I say I can act like I can sing.”
That first experience “was terrifying,” she said, laughing. “I’m so confident as a performer, and it was like standing in a room full of Olympic gymnasts, trying to do a cartwheel. Everyone was so nice. But I carried it off, and it was an amazing experience.”
She followed up that singing role with roles in “Bat Boy the Musical” and a musical version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” The mission of City Theatre has always been “to push the envelope, to give the community something they normally can’t see in our town,” Bernard said. “We’ve always wanted to push exciting, absurd stuff in their face, and we’ve done that successfully.”
About seven years ago, having become very comfortable with saying lines that another writer put down for her, Bernard got an urge to speak her own words on stage, and a comedy career was born.
Having now marked eight years sober, she took advantage of every good opportunity that came her way. “I never had the courage to do standup before then,” she said. “Being a standup is like being the ultimate hostess. I always looked up to Carol Burnett. She was the hostess of the evening. Improv is my wheelhouse. Standup is an opportunity to give my words about things while being uninterrupted by other actors,” she added, laughing. “But mainly I want to give audiences a few moments, worry-free. I don’t make fun of the audience, I don’t insult people. If anything, I’m there to point the finger at myself.
“In my act, I’m the target. People understand we’re our own worst enemies, and that we worry too much. I like to remind audiences that it’s a good thing we’re all here in this room, that they came out to support live entertainment. And live entertainment is a magic trick – it only happens one time exactly that way.”
Bernard took gigs where she could, at open mic nights at the Comedy Cabaret locations in Philadelphia, and hosting shows at Comedy Cabarets in New Jersey and Doylestown. “I have to say that comedy is different for a woman. Open mics and showcase shows are jam-packed full of men,” she said. Along the way, she crafted a five-minute act (the standard length for new comedians) and honed it on the road.
But with two children to take care of, she wanted to stay in the Delaware area. This was about seven years ago, after the onetime nationwide glut of comedy on every corner had burned itself out, and she saw an opportunity here.
“I met Gayle Dillman and Jeremy Hebbel, who own Gable Music Ventures, and they are putting up live music wherever they can,” Bernard said. “I started hosting their Wilmo Wednesdays at the Queen in Wilmington. It was there that I got an amazing opportunity for $30 a week to hone my standup and hosting skills. I prepared nothing. I wrote nothing. I did 100 percent off-the-cuff standup.”
As part of Wilmo Wednesdays, Bernard had to fill time between acts – some of them solo performers who needed only a minute to get themselves off stage, and some of them bands that required 20-minute equipment changes, so she had to adapt on the fly.
“I would do five minutes, or I’d do 20 minutes,” she said. “I really found my voice as a standup.”
Having worked with so many performers and groups in the region, Bernard has been a strong supporter of all the arts. “In my heart I’m a local girl, and I know the audience that comes out has made an effort to be there. I appreciate that,” she said.
In her freewheeling act, Bernard writes a few “footholds,” as she called them – “Segues or phrases to get me from one thing to the next. Instead of using the word ‘Um.’ If you speak your truth on stage, you won’t have to search for words.”
When she’s not hosting or performing, Bernard is working as a waitress at George & Sons' Seafood Market and Oyster House in Hockessin, and at Nal Restaurant, a tiny Latin eatery just down the street. They are both within walking distance of her apartment. “I like being in Hockessin,” she said. “It’s a quick trip to Wilmington, Pike Creek, Kennett, Chadds Ford. It’s a nice middle point. People don’t feel as intimidated to either go into the city or go into West Chester.”
Bernard approaches each table she serves with the attitude of a performer. “I entertain every table,” she said, having been part of marriage proposals, family celebrations, first dates and just about every other situation. “People who are not willing to laugh are my favorite projects,” she said, grinning.
One of Bernard’s regular gigs is performing at an open mic night at the Jackson Inn in Wilmington – an old-school bar that’s classic in the best way. It’s become something of a hangout for people who are too young to remember the bar’s heyday, but who appreciate the history of the place.
“They have an open mic on Wednesday nights, and a comedy night on Thursday nights. I only have to drive six minutes to go to standup now,” Bernard said. “It’s a great community of local people who are working on material and are just getting started. When I can get a room full of comedians to laugh, that’s the greatest thing.”
In the world of standup comedy, pay is low or nonexistent, and the windows of opportunity can be narrow. Openers get five to 10 minutes, featured acts get 10 to 20 minutes, and headliners can do 45 minutes to an hour. “I once did an hour and 15 minutes at the Kennett Flash with nothing written,” Bernard said, beaming. “There’s a science to standup. You are judged every seven to 12 seconds. It’s, ‘Am I gonna laugh? Whaddya got?’ But for the most part, everybody’s there for the same reason. The audience wants you to do well.
“And it’s important for people to realize that if we can all relax and enjoy ourselves, it’s not that serious. It’s comedy, people!”To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected]