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LAFF spreads: 4th fest even bigger

Katy Ballard
Selene Luna closes the Ladies Are Funny Festival on Saturday night.

This Wednesday isn't just another hump day as we trudge into the latter part of the week. It's also the kickoff of a four-day comedy festival that celebrates fearless women.

The Ladies Are Funny Festival, or LAFF, takes over the Salvage Vanguard Theatre as national and local troupes versed in improv, stand-up, one-woman shows, sketch comedy and musical theater revel in each other's wit.

"It's a place to bring in talented and funny females from all over the U.S. and Canada, and give them a place to perform and meet each other and make connections," said Valerie Ward, one of the three executive producers of LAFF, which was created by local troupe Girls, Girls, Girls. This is Ward's first year behind the scenes, but she's been performing since the start in 2007 and will again this year.

The origin dates back to one night at ColdTowne Theater on Airport Boulevard, a venue that's home to numerous troupes and a training center, where Girls had a run of shows. Shana Merlin, founder of the Merlin Works Institute, member of Girls and also an executive producer of this week's fest, was sitting around when the name LAFF came to her. She remembers thinking, "This is it."

Originally housed in the upstairs theater at the Hideout, LAFF was made up of mostly local improv troupes the first year with a few out-of-town acts, and lasted two days. The second year was a similar story, and in the third year they moved into the small studio theater at Salvage Vanguard, which provided a larger playground than the Hideout. They also sold out last year.

Thanks to word of mouth and Austin's growing improv and comedy scene, LAFF has expanded to the bigger space at Salvage Vanguard this year and will feature 29 acts with headliners Selene Luna and Sara Benincasa. The former is a 3-foot-10 pistol who has been seen on VH1's "The Cho Show." The latter is an Emmy Award-winning comedian who appeared as a citizen journalist during MTV's 2008 Think Campaign, and hosts "Get in Bed With Brian and Sara" on Sirius Radio.

The festival's diverse lineup is one reason it's grown. The styles of comedy differ, as do the types of performers, from sexual orientation to age, from experience to where they're from. These backgrounds harmonize with the Austin scene, which is a melting pot of various approaches to the art form.

It's not like New York or Chicago, where typically one method is practiced because the scene had one strong founder, Ward said. "People are moving here from all over the country with all these different ideas. ... we don't see other styles as a threat, we see it as an opportunity," she said. In Austin, each training center and theater space focuses on a particular style and festivals like LAFF and Out of Bounds (the city's biggest comedy fest later this summer) provide an outlet for integration.

"I think one of the things that we've really seen a shift in is that there's more types of comedians coming together of different communities. … there's a lot of potential to build bridges," said Julie Gillis, the festival's third executive producer and a member of Girls.

Expect the Austin scene's already natural camaraderie to be exaggerated when the ladies take the stage.

"I think something special happens when it's an all-girls' party," Merlin said. "Sometimes we feel more free or expressive, and it's also a great opportunity for all the guys in the community to show up and support us."