by Kayla Tucker • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
With blue hair and funky outfits, comedian and artist Sarah Jean Anderson lights up a room with a loud, boisterous voice that mirrors her emotions. For the past 12 years, the 32 year old has been hosting events, selling custom paintings and performing in West Michigan in anything from stand-up comedy to burlesque.
“I love that I can stay here in Grand Rapids and these opportunities are here and I don’t have to leave my friends and family to do what I love,” Anderson said.
Her love of performing stems from a childhood of putting on shows for her family.
“I’d stand behind a tree and pop out from behind it and say that I was going to put on a show,” Anderson said. “I would come out from behind this tree and I’d dance.”
In high school, Anderson was the funny one in her friend group of outcasts. She cut her teeth on stage in 2005 when she traveled around the country performing with local burlesque troupe Super Happy Funtime.
“It was sort of like boot camp for performing,” Anderson recalled. “I learned how to be on a stage.”
Anderson said she was taught how to conduct herself on stage and how to be seen and heard from the audience. She also gained a lot of confidence.
“We were half naked most of the time and in corsets,” she recalled. “It sort of forced me to be confident—I had to be confident in what I was doing. That was the most valuable learning experience of my life.”
A central theme in Anderson’s comedy is the use of characters, and those who have attended her stand-up shows will recognize Rita.
“I’ve done a character for the past 16 years named Rita,” Anderson said. “She’s from New Jersey … I have a lot of different personas for the different topics I talk about. Rita is a really grumpy lady with a lot of complaints. I think that when I’m performing as her it’s a lot easier to express negative [emotions].”
With her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Anderson finds expressing certain things easier through her characters. Her mental health is not something she considers debilitating, but she is well aware of how it affects her life.
“My life is all ups and downs,” Anderson said, who was diagnosed in the early 2000s. “I have a fast cycle, I am really down and then really up again – I’m mostly a manic personality, [meaning] I’m usually up.”
Anderson’s boyfriend is also bipolar. They make it work together by supporting each other through different creative outlets.
“If I’m depressed and I feel I can’t create a visual work of art, I can take that depression and make it into comedy,” Anderson expressed. “And the other way around, too. They are each equally important to my mental health.”
She experienced the healing power of performing when she went through a divorce in 2011. Although it was a difficult time, she was able to use comedy as a way of coping.
“I did a comedy show about it because it was so sad,” Anderson said. “It was awesome. I got to tell jokes about my ex-husband and have a room full of people laugh and agree with me. It’s entertaining to other people but it’s therapeutic to me to be able to turn these very, very serious things into something silly.”
Anderson said she has received invaluable support from the community in Grand Rapids.
“I’ve been very, very lucky and I know that I’ve been lucky,” she said. “There have been very few times since 2005 that I’ve had nothing to do. I can’t remember the last time that I didn’t have something coming up.”
While she is more than happy to be a part of the creative boom happening in Grand Rapids, Anderson dreams of one day owning an art gallery where she can also perform comedy in the Arizona desert.
“I would be happy to be doing exactly what I do, except for more money and (to be) better at it,” Anderson said. “I live a pretty tiny life. I like my life to be small and uncomplicated and that’s what I see my future as being.”
Upcoming Shows for SJA
For Gilda’s Laughfest, Anderson will perform in “PechaKucha Grand Rapids” at Wealthy Theatre on March 15 at 7 p.m. She will do a presentation on how her oldest character, Rita, was born. Tickets are available at wwwlaughfestgr.org.
Anderson can also be seen performing with Shimmy Shack Burlesque at Tip Top Deluxe on March 25. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the show starts at 10 p.m. More information can be found at shimmyshackburlesque.com.
In April, you can find Anderson performing at Comedy Outlet Mondays at Dog Story Theatre on April 10 and 24 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door.