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April 20, 2011

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Chicagoan is a stand-up act

SINGER, actress and comedian Elizabeth Anhalt landed in Shanghai a year ago to teach English and soon joined the People's Republic of Comedy that performs regularly at Malone's American Cafe.

The seven-member troupe, which was formed around a year ago, is already becoming a fixture on the entertainment scene. Each show is an original performance based on audience suggestions and there's plenty of audience interaction and feedback.

Anhalt, 26, studied drama in college and then decided to travel and see the world after graduation. She first visited China two years ago to teach English in a language school in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

"There I met an English boy and we fell in love," she says.

After a one-year stay, they returned to their own countries, but decided they wanted to be together.

"We had a really good time in China, so we decided to go back to China, and we chose Shanghai," says Anhalt.

They returned around a year ago.

It has been five years since she performed on stage in college.

"I like performing and my full-time job - teaching, needs performing as well," she says.

Her students at Disney English are from 2 to 7 years old and she uses comedy and body language to help them understand.

"It's important for you to be funny - using your body and performing. If not, they don't understand you," says Anhalt.

For a while, she was the only female in the improv comedy community of expats, but another woman joined recently.

"Sometimes the male actors will wear wigs to pretend women, and it's very funny. But it's good to have the balance," Anhalt says. "When I was the only girl there, I always had to be the girlfriend, the princess, and play roles like that. Now the dynamic difference is more interesting."

Every other Wednesday from 9pm-11pm, the People's Republic of Comedy puts on a two-hour show at Malone's on the third floor.

The group meets every week to create new skits and rehearse.

"People think improv comedy doesn't need preparation or rehearsals. That's not true. We need good cooperation because we are a group and we need great team work. Improv is much more difficult than stage drama," says Anhalt.

The key to a good performance, she says, "is not to make yourself look good, but to make other players look good."

It's not easy to make people laugh and there's a lot of pressure to come up with something funny to say and do. "If you don't make people laugh, they keep silent and the situation is embarrassing," she says.

Teaching English helps a lot with improvisation. "Young kids might be the most difficult audience," she says. "They don't pretend to enjoy the performance. If they don't feel it's funny, they don't give any reaction."

For improv you need to think on your feet and you need to think a lot. "Your body needs practice as well. You need to sing, act and speak," says Anhalt.

The group members come from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. There are a couple of teachers, a TV actor, a writer, and some play musical instruments, including the piano.

"We have different levels of performing experience, but it's so interesting. We don't need a group of only professional actors. Chemistry is so important for us, brought by dynamic cultures," says Anhalt.

During the show, the audience takes part, gives suggestions for a skit and calls out ideas as the show progresses. Sometimes audience volunteers are needed.

For Anhalt, audience interaction is the most interesting part of the improv show. The audience often numbers around 150.

"Improv comedy is still new to Chinese people, but I believe they will like it. Who doesn't like to laugh?" she says, adding that the group welcomes Chinese, not only as members of the audience but also as actors.

Life in Shanghai is fun for the Chicagoan. She says the city reminds her of Chicago, with its different neighborhoods. "I love walking around People's Square where the architecture reminds me of my hometown," she says.

"Food here is too good, it makes me put on weight," she says, laughing.

Leaving home and moving to another country alone is exciting but can be intimidating.

"It's 15 hours away from my hometown by air. It's far. You don't have family and friends to support you. You always have to rely on yourself and be strong," she says.

Anhalt has traveled to Southeast Asia and South Asia and says it's much easier for a foreigner to live in Shanghai than in other cities she has seen.

So far she has visited Hangzhou and some suburban towns in Shanghai, but she hopes to visit Yunnan Province, Tibet Autonomous Region and Xi'an City in Shaanxi Province.

For information, check the People's Republic of Comedy's website (

Elizabeth Anhalt

Nationality: American

Age: 26

Profession: Teacher


Self-description: Ambitious, out-going, fun, passionate.

Favorite place:

Too many, depends on the mood. People's Square, the former French concession, Zhongshan Park

Strangest sight:

Parents let little kids pee everywhere. Too many, but fewer and fewer as time goes by.

Worst experience:

I call my life in China "China Day," everything bothers you - language, pressure, culture gap, but I enjoy it.

Motto for life:

"You don't have time to be timid! You must be bold - daring!" and "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

How to improve Shanghai:

Reduce pollution.

Advice to newcomers:

Explore. It's a very friendly city. I suggest newcomers go outside to meet people. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you will have.


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