How This Group Formed
The Sozo Group caught up with Ha Ha Men's Improv & Sketch Comedy Troupe to learn more about how all their members initially connected. This history lesson helped us understand how the group formed (and evolved) into what they are today.
Written by Jess Olivito, Contributing Writer
This lovable group of actors/comedians were gracious to share their personal stories as to how they like to started working together within the comedy troupe. I learned that the group actually started because Ryan McChesney, who actually lives in Kansas City, MO had a passion for Christian filmmaking, so he decided to post an ad on Craiglist.com looking for some help to produce a short feature film about his life within the Church.
From there, co-founder Dave Ebert responded to the ad with this statement, "I can’t really help you with the stuff you're describing in the ad, but I’d still like to help you out." While Ryan initially thought Dave's submission was odd, he was also going through some difficult times because his father was in his final days. It was about a month later, after Ryan's father had passed away, when Ryan decided to reach out to Dave out of curiosity. "And as a result of these struggles, Dave began encouraging me which really built up my faith," Ryan explained.
As a result, an immediate virtual friendship developed during Ryan's incredible time of need, and, about a month later, Ryan felt prompted to start an improv comedy troupe that would ultimately be used as a ministry. "So when I told Dave about my vision, he was totally on board, as he loved improv even more than I did! And when I met Dave in person, and looked at his size compared to my size. I chuckled to myself and thought: this is comedy gold!"
Dave and Ryan started seeking out other improvisers willing to share in the vision, and in early July 2013, Ken Lubinski answered an ad. Ken represented a new perspective as he was the team’s first and only Catholic.
"From there we added two women to the team, but both were short-lived because they quickly decided they wanted to pursue other kinds of improv that were not in line with our goals as Christians. At that time, our name was hahahaAMEN...but our original name choice seemed to be a struggle for people to correctly pronounce and remember, so after the team changes happened, we simplified our name to Ha Ha Men," Dave explained.
In was in August that Kim Garrett joined to create the original foursome. Then known as hahahAMEN, this version of the team took the stage in their first ever show on November 13, 2013, a fundraiser for an Illinois State Senator and State Representative. As a rule of thumb, Ha Ha Men has chosen to stay away from politics, but this was a great opportunity to perform. The first show went extremely well and the team was off.
In the spring of 2014, the group started a three-month run at The Comedy Shrine in Aurora. The show Laughter After Pastor was a weekly show early Sunday evenings. The time proved to be a hard time for a Christian comedy show and wound up being canceled in June. Garrett left the morning after the show was given the axe, taking the show with her to create a more secular family-friendly show on Saturdays.
"While Kim and another young woman left in a painful and ugly breakup that hurt us initially," said Ebert, "their departure was a blessing in disguise." Dave Ebert added that there were many lessons learned from their departure. From there, they cautiously searched for female improv members that were a better fit with their mission and that is what led them to the three women they have today.
It was at this same time (when the weekly show was canceled and the departures from the team) that Ryan left Chicago for Los Angeles for an eye surgery that had been planned for a while. Ken and Dave were left to hold down the group while Ryan recovered from surgery living in the Kansas City area. Ebert continued to recruit and audition potential members of the team.
Dave Zarbock joined the team in September 2014, increasing the team back to three. The two "Daves" and Ken rehearsed weekly, while still trying to locate the missing pieces for the next year and a half. During that time, their performance opportunities were slim. These were the times that, as Ryan indicated, Ha Ha Men was on “life support” and the their vision was fading away.
Ryan observed, “Dave really deserves a lot of credit for sticking with it. He had both obedience and perseverance. He was so patient through the process and just kept reaching out and connecting with all of us who are current members, and now the group is stronger and more solid than ever!”
In November, as Ken was making his exit from the team, leaving Dave Ebert as the last full-time member from the original team, team member Jim Bushy came on board bringing yet another dimension to the group.
Jim Bushy gave me this interesting account: "I was studying at Westside Improv in Wheaton and was a little surprised by how I fast I caught on, not by my own estimation but by the owners of the theater. Soon after, I auditioned and joined a special group called the Unwritten Works of William Shakespeare where I met a gentle giant by the name of Dave Ebert. Not being a person who is reserved about sharing my faith or viewpoints, some stuff came up about God and I didn’t back down in front of the other members. I remember Dave just kind of sitting there...off to the side, stroking his magnificent beard and I was thinking: Hmm..I think this guy could be the Peter of the group. Then, after one of the practices, I received a tug on the shoulder from Dave who said, “Ya know, I’m part of this other group that does Christian Improv." I remember giving him this really quizzical look and asking him, “What does that mean?” Dave responded with: "I really think you should try out for it. I really think you will like it and would be really, really good." And because of that, I showed up to practice with Ken and Dave (Zarbock) a few times, then auditioned and was immediately brought on board."
From there, the three-man team of Dave Ebert, Dave Zarbock, and Jim Bushy began practicing on a regular basis, soon realizing that in order to enrich their existence, more "women folk" were needed.
So after the men got over the trauma of the women that “hurt their hearts”, they decided to take a chance at love again (LOL)… and found Angela Beckefeld. Angela had this to say about the experience: "Dave had posted an ad with Actors, Models, & Talents for Christ (AMTC), which Anna and I were both a part of. Ironically, I had just moved to Lombard a week before I got the email from Dave. He shared that his Christian comedy group was looking for a female improviser for their all male team. Seeing that their rehearsals were being held in Lombard, I took it as a sign from God to check this group out. It was like God had dropped a gift in my lap; I came to audition and then came back twice more. After the first night, I thought 'that went really well.. I’m going to be part of their group.' And then I came back the second time, the next week, and they officially brought me on. That was about 18 months ago.”
About four months after Angela came on board, Anna Yee saw a posting on Backstage.com, as she had just moved to Chicago and was getting back into acting seriously. Anna recalls her experience: "I wanted to do more improv and ran across Dave’s post about clean comedy with a Christian improv group and, at first, I just brushed it off. I remember thinking...this is kinda of interesting, but then I saw the post again and thought - I need to look this group up online. When I did that, I noticed that Angela was already connected to this group, and I had already known Angela as she was one of my coaches through AMTC. We actually only did one session together where she coached our acting group, but that was enough for me to know that she was a talented and credible actress. As a result, I messaged Angela asking her more questions about how this group operated. Angela was instantly enthusiastic that I had shown interest in the post and convinced me to come to a rehearsal. So I went to one rehearsal where I just sat there taking it all in...before being asked to come back and actually do a rehearsal. And from there, I think we just all clicked.”
Angela then offered this comment about Anna's arrival: “Anna brought the joy to our group, which is her middle name, provincially. She was, is, the joyful element we needed.” Anna then responded back, "If it wouldn't have been for Angela, I probably would not be here; she is very encouraging and passionate and that really spoke to me."
About 4 months after Anna joined, the group came across Brooke Simkins. Brooke's background was a little different because she had experience doing improv in both high school and college. Brooke explained her experience this way: "For me, it was not a far-out concept to do Christian improv because that is all I’ve ever done, so I was game. But first, I should mention that my other job involved renting out space for Trinity Christian College’s campus for special events. When interfacing with a Worship & Arts Pastor by the name Mitzi Blanchard, (who was looking looking for a space for event) I had shared that I had a heart for theatre and improv. My comment led her to ask me if I was currently doing anything with those passions and then she mentioned being friends with Dave Ebert. For the first couple of months, Dave and I simply corresponded back and forth through e-mail. Truthfully, at the time, I was also debating whether I wanted to commute an hour (each way) on Monday nights for their rehearsals. But eventually, I decided to come out for my course of auditions (auditioning three times) by taking part in their practices. I’m guessing that the rest of the group can weigh in better as to why I auditioned three times, but I'm thinking that maybe it was because every member of the group wanted a chance to actually work with me. During the last audition, something pretty powerful happened; we all did some ministry sharing. During this time, I shared with the team that I’ve always felt a call on my heart to do theatre, but also felt that I needed to be able to support myself so after college, so I felt like I had to step away from that to earn a decent living. So this improv group has allowed me to step back into that calling. It’s not a quick-moving train, but I'm seeing my involvement with drama gain momentum again.”
Veteran actor Angela Beckefeld transparently added her perspective about Brooke's arrival on the scene: “It’s interesting to reflect back on what it was like before Brooke came along. I remember right before she had agreed to audition that Dave brought up the possibility of another female auditioning. Immediately, my mind thought we don’t need another member - we are fine at five. It’s just logistically harder to get six people to all the shows and I was feeling strongly that we didn’t need anyone else. But the others were very interested in giving Brooke a try, so of course I had to be open to that. But then Brooke came to an audition and she was brilliant - and IMMEDIATELY my heart softened and was like, "Okay, yeah, we want her on board. Brooke is just really smart, and while all of us have different strengths, Brooke brought incredible intelligence and wit to the team in a way that we hadn't had before. She also plays an amazing 'straight man,' which, in the comedy world, means the person who is grounded, very serious and doesn’t start laughing under any circumstance, which is what makes our scenes even funnier.”
Then I got to Bobbie Ebert, who humbly likes to remain behind the scenes supporting the group. As Dave's wife of two year, she has brought incredible value to the team and had this to say about the experience: “As the outsider looking in, because my role on the team is not as an actor or improviser. I’m married to Dave and mostly help with their logistics for shows and by assisting them with their warm-ups… But I’ve really enjoyed watching this group take its proper shape and form over the years in supporting my husband's passions. And in the last couple years, the group was getting really good, but I still felt in my heart that we were missing an important piece of the puzzle. So when Brooke came in, I was like she’s that piece! That isn’t to say that she totally completes the puzzle, because I think there is room for the group to grow even more..sorry Angela, ha ha ha! But, when Brooke came on.. I was like YESSSS! That’s what our group needed!”
After Brooke's grueling auditions, Ha Ha Men realized that the process that had transpired with Brooke is what should have been happening all along. Dave then added, "When people decide to work together in a ministry, transparency is so important. We have to have clarity in knowing where we are all coming from and all of our current members have all passed the spiritual test with flying colors!"
“The importance of transparency isn’t to judge someone who’s auditioning. For those who know me well, I’m almost boastful about my personal testimony and transformation. As recent as 2012, I went through a period of time where I was ready to check out permanently and have been blogging about this part of my life regularly to revisit how far I’ve come, and to remember all the cool things that God has done for me. Further, I think when you're on a team that is focused together on ministry, that it’s important to have that bond - that common knowledge - that everyone has struggles, trials and tests. Lastly, it’s important that we are all on the same page - that there is only one way to Heaven and that’s through Jesus Christ. So for that night where we shared our stories, it was a really great bonding experience and that's why it's now part of our regular interview process for anyone who's considering becoming a permanent member with Ha Ha Men," Dave Ebert stated.