“As stand-up does, it takes over, and you leave your day job,” Dena Jackson says, speaking on the phone from her home in Toronto. It is kinda strange talking with the Scarborough native after hours of listening to her debut comedy EP, Blue Lights. You might remember that I wrote about it on the blog last year. I had Blue Lights on repeat in the car and at home, and now here I am in conversation with Jackson. It’s like, hey, I don’t remember this part of her set!
Blue Lights is hilarious, just to remind you. You should give it a listen.
After graduating from Queen’s University with a degree in sociology, Jackson moved to Italy, where she performed children’s theatre across the country. A few years later, she returned to Toronto and pursued a postgraduate certificate in public relations from Ryerson University. After completing her program, Jackson began working in her field. “But I missed writing and performing.” She started doing stand-up comedy, and then in 2015, Jackson left her day job to pursue her passion full-time.
“It’s really scary,” she says. “You have to take a leap of faith and say, okay, I am going to commit to being an artist, and my lifestyle is going to change. My income is going to change. The way that I live my life is going to be quite different.”
“I had to save some money from my job and plan that I would have periods where things wouldn’t be as steady, and I would have to get used to that. I had to change a lot of things to make my financial world smaller for a while with the trust that it would grow.”
In 2019, Jackson delivered a TEDx Talk called “90% of Yoga is Off the Mat.” It is available to watch on YouTube. Since then, she has delivered keynote talks for universities and corporate audiences. “I focus on talking about how yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have impacted my life in a positive way.” Because these topics can be “heavy,” Jackson uses comedy to help lighten the mood.
Then, it’s out, and it’s gone
“Sure, she might be ‘moonwalking backwards’ through life, but [Dena] Jackson is fine with it. Back in the dating game after nearly a decade, the Toronto comedian wants everyone to know that she’s ‘chill, cool, and casual’…In her debut comedy EP Blue Lights, Jackson invites her audience into the life of a newly divorced woman.”Joyful Magpies / 23 November 2019
Last November, Comedy Records released Blue Lights on digital platforms. It hit #1 on the iTunes Comedy Charts. Jackson tells me about the experiences that shaped her material.
“I went through two years of a very hard go. My father passed away, and I went through a divorce, all within that time frame. I went on a yoga retreat during all that. I didn’t know how to get out of the rut that I felt I was in.”
“As an artist, I felt I needed to write about my experience. What I love about writing a joke, it might feel really painful, but then it goes through a transition where you work it out on stage. Eventually, it becomes something not that you dealt with alone, but something the audience shares with you. Then, it’s out, and it’s gone. I can see why so many comedians write about their pain because it’s a catharsis.”
“I talk about my dad as well on the album. I find those jokes are the hardest ones to write. It’s a lot easier to write about my divorce because that feels like it’s in the past. I don’t even write about that anymore. It’s done with now. A dead parent never leaves you. I still try to revisit talking about him because my dad was so funny. He was the funniest person I ever met.”
Stay safe and stay cool!
We travel back to March.
Jackson and fellow comedian Clare Belford are excited to hit the road together. The Road Broads Tour has shows booked all across Western Canada. And then, after months of planning, Jackson and Belford break the news: “the Road Broads tour has been postponed.”
“That was a huge disappointment,” Jackson says.
“It was the middle of March,” and Jackson was working at Absolute Comedy in Ottawa. She drove to Ottawa with comedian Marito Lopez who was working at Yuk Yuk’s that weekend. March, Jackson says, is usually a “very busy” time for these venues. As the weekend passed, Jackson and Lopez “watched less and less people turn up each night.”
“As we left the city, it was like the whole city was shutting down. It felt like all the lights were shutting off. There were no lights in Ottawa. That’s how it felt for us.”
That same weekend, the JUNO Awards were cancelled.
Upon returning to Toronto, Jackson spoke with Belford. “She said, I don’t think this looks good. We need to make a plan.” Their manager told them to wait a few days before making a decision. “Finally, we were like, this isn’t safe.”
“All of a sudden, my world became very small. Before you knew the government was going to come up with financial assistance, you didn’t know how you were going to pay your bills. You go from this comic having a fair amount of work coming up to having zero work. It felt like going from a hundred to zero because I was going to be working every night in the month of April.”
Surely this comes as no surprise, but the Road Broads tour has been postponed. We will let you know as soon as we start rescheduling. In the mean time, stay safe and stay cool!
Clare and DenaRoad Broads (Facebook Page) / 28 March 2020
A workout for your mind
“Stillness is something that we might think we do every day, but in reality, unless we are practicing it consciously, we are not doing it. Stillness is something people try to achieve when they are practicing yoga or meditation. Stillness is always the goal because it allows you to go inside and see what’s going on internally.”Dena Jackson, 90% of Yoga is Off the Mat (TEDx Talk)
Our conversation turns to stillness, a concept Jackson discusses in her TEDx Talk.
Our daily patterns came to a grinding halt with the pandemic. And here we are, ten months later, still living in stillness, stuck in a time of uncertainty and inactivity. It is no surprise then that people are trying to find new ways of keeping busy and maintaining their social relationships. People are seeking out alternatives to their regular distractions because they are spending a lot more time at home — alone with their thoughts.
“I think a lot of us have been terrified to be left alone with our thoughts because we have had so many distractions,” Jackson says. “We have been able to put enough things in place, so there’s enough distractions that we never have to spend that time going inward and letting emotions come up.”
“Because everything has slowed down and there is just less going on, I think more people want to do things like practice meditation.”
Where can people start? Jackson recommends downloading a meditation app. She likes Headspace. Wherever you start, though, start small.
“Commit to five minutes a day for the week. Don’t say you’re going to try an hour. That’s a really big commitment. Think of it like a workout for your mind. You’re not going to get muscles in the first month.”
“Today, everything moves at lightspeed. We have come to expect that from each other. We want instantaneous travel, technology, and responses from each other. In reality, human beings — we weren’t made that way. We weren’t made to live in fight-or flight mode all the time, and yet, we find ourselves there time and time again. This is hardly what I would call being our best selves.”Dena Jackson, 90% of Yoga is Off the Mat
Given the current state of the live arts, with so much up in the air, I ask Jackson about her thoughts on pursuing comedy right now. What effect have these last few months had on her, professionally? Has she reconsidered her path at all?
“Yeah, I definitely have,” she says. “I think there was a period where I didn’t know if live comedy was going to come back at all. I think there are other comedians who felt that way. So yeah, I definitely thought, I don’t know where this is leading. And I still don’t know!”
Jackson has recognized a shift in her professional life as the pandemic continues, and she receives more and more requests to talk about mental health.
“I still love comedy. I am a comedian in my heart, and I will keep performing, but I do see that shift happen in my work without me being involved. It is what I have been asked to do at this time.”
Jackson is working on a novel, a project she started thirteen years ago.
“I started working on it more regularly, but then I went through the hard times, so I put a pin in it. The summer has been busy for me with work, but my plan for this winter is to finish it.”
Before we go, I ask Jackson if she has anything she would like to share with readers.
“Be kind to yourself. This is a really weird time. I think we all have such high expectations of ourselves. This time has asked us to slow down on that.”