Mt. Airy resident Melanie Jones says she became a voice major in college because she was “painfully shy,” and she hoped that singing in front of her classmates would be transformative. It did the opposite.
“I was so terrified that I did not sing for 30 years after that,” she said last week. “I never got over the performance anxiety. It was too painful.”
Then in 2013, Jones happened to meet a man named Rusty Crowell, who produced “open mic” events in clubs all over the Philadelphia area. Crowell persuaded Jones to take on a performance-in-front-of-a-crowd challenge. Just not the one you would think. Peeking out from the shadow of her terrifying college experience, Jones decided to give stand-up comedy a try.
And she found a calling that would not only make audiences laugh but also serve her in a surprising way. Jones, who is also a musician and entertainment producer, will showcase several local comics at an event Tuesday, June 13, at Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG). “An Evening at MAAG Performing Arts,” which starts at 6 p.m., will include a set by Natalie K. Levant, 91, perhaps the oldest working stand-up comedian.
Levant is Jones’ comedy mentor. She helped Jones feel as if taking the stage was less like “standing naked in a group of strangers” and more like coming “out of the shower fully clothed.”
Levant “took me to places with stripper poles,” Jones said. “You didn't even want to sit in the seats. I got no laughs at all. I don't think the people in the audience had ever met a Jewish person before. I pretended there was no one there. You have to go through those experiences of humiliation to develop as a standup. You have to completely get rid of your ego.”
The Mt. Airy show, which Jones is producing, will also include music performed by her three-year-old band, Melanie and the Lost Vaqueros. The group performs every second Tuesday at MAAG, located at 7054 Germantown Ave.
A native of Northern Virginia, Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Marymount College and two associate degrees, including one in music. She came to Philadelphia in 2002, planning to engage in community education activism temporarily and then return home. However, she got into a taxicab one day and had a long conversation with the cab driver, a native of Serbia.
“I fell in love with the cab driver, and that's why I stayed in Philly,” Jones said. “We lived together for a year and half, but eventually broke up. And I wound up doing drum circles in a senior care center.” Jones also drove a cab herself and worked at Sanctuary, a women's clothing store in Chestnut Hill.
Jones then became a certified teacher of “accessible yoga” at the former Mt. Airy Moving Arts. She now has a company, “You Don't Have to be Teeny to be a Yogini,” which specializes in “abundant” bodies. “I don't mind the word 'fat,'” she said. “We're trying to de-stigmatize the word.”
In 2015, Jones was in a devastating car accident, one that she says helped amplify her empathy for the seniors she’s served. The accident left Jones with a traumatic brain injury. She was treated at Moss Rehabilitation Center for aphasia (loss of ability to understand or express speech) and extensive memory loss. She has also had several serious falls, often winding up in the Chestnut Hill Hospital emergency room. She now walks with a cane or a walker.
“I can really understand and relate to these elderly patients,” said Jones. “I sort of know what dementia is because of my own brain injury. Unless you have experienced these things yourself, you cannot fully appreciate them. I actually feel fortunate that I have had these experiences.”
Jones, who works with dementia patients at a Strawberry Mansion senior care facility, teaches yoga to people with mobility challenges and with dementia. “They are my favorite population for yoga,” she said.
In her own recovery, a surprising form of what she describes as therapy has helped her since the accident – making other people laugh. She’s written a parody song, “When the Jews Meet the Irish, it's All About the 'ish.'” Ken Eidinger (co-host of the MAAG shows) proposed adding comedy to the MAAG events.
“It's incredibly therapeutic,” Jones said. “Making fun of yourself helps deal with mental health issues, and having the courage to do that helps other people to be more open about themselves.”
Jones can be contacted at abundantyogini.com. For more information about the June 13 MAAG BYOB show, call 267-323-2312 or email reservations to email@example.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org