Dirt Road Diva returns
By Lois Ann Dort
MANCHESTER – As a kid Belynda J. Cleare, a.k.a. Belinda Lawrence, was the class clown. She performed for her classmates during lunch and recess while they collected pocket change to add to the 'Send Belynda to Hollywood' fund. From humble comedic beginnings, and down a few alternate routes, the comedian from Manchester, Guysborough County, has made a career in comedy south of the border. She brought her one-woman show, Staying on the Right Side of Sanity - Diaries of a Dirt Road Diva, to the Chedabucto Place Performance Centre during Guysborough Come Home Week. She spoke to The Journal about her journey to centre stage and life in comedy.
The only girl in a family of five children, Cleare said she grew up wearing a lot of hand-me-downs which resulted in teasing and inadvertently, comedy. “I could either get upset or become part of the joke so I figured I would crack the jokes before they did. From Grade Primary on I was a practical joker and I was always cracking jokes.”
That class clown persona followed Cleare through to high school. Humour was an armor that was not always appreciated by teachers, but it became her calling card. She told The Journal she could usually smooth things over with teachers through humour.
After high school she went on to attend Dalhousie University where she obtained a degree in psychology. It was in Halifax that Cleare first hit the comedic stage. “There was a club called Yuk Yuks. I went down there and did an open mic, just winging it, and the guy wanted to hire me right there on the spot.”
From there Cleare made the move to New York City where breaking into show biz and living in the Big Apple was a little more daunting than she had imagined. “I was not sure if I was going to continue in comedy or not cause I figured Nova Scotian comedy is going to be totally different than New York City. At that time Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld were all just starting and they were pretty big league. But New York was too much for me...Moving from Guysborough County, this little area, to a city like New York was like a culture shock beyond belief. Like moving from Brigadoon to hell. I wasn't prepared for it so I was always getting mugged or robbed because I was way too naive...I decided to move to a place that was a little calmer, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, which wasn't so loving either but it was a nice break from New York City.”
In Philadelphia Cleare went back on stage as a comedian until health issues forced her to step back from the lime light. She got married, had a child and thought, 'It's time to grow up, can't be a clown my whole life.'
“I had planned to retire from comedy but I was still writing for a lot of comedians, a lot of my friends were on T.V...I was working as a social worker but I was thinking, 'That's a really great joke concept.' I was always thinking about joke concepts. So when my son turned 10 I decided to go back,” said Cleare.
Making a comeback wasn't easy either. The landscape of comedy had changed drastically since Cleare was last on stage. She was not sure if she really fit into the comedy scene anymore but a trip to L.A. and a meeting with the comedian Luenell turned her thinking around. “She said, 'You know what girl, you are really funny. Come into my office,' which was the bathroom stall. And she said, 'What you have is different than anybody else. I think you really should pursue it.' And that is when I decided that I would go back to doing it full time.”
Women in comedy have been making big news in recent years but the plethora of funny women named Amy are typically caucasian. When asked about being a woman of colour in comedy, Cleare said, “It hasn't made it easier, that's for sure. Being a female in general is tough because it is kind of a sleazy business, as you can imagine, all aspects of Hollywood are. Being a female, there are no assets to being a female and you will always have to prove yourself. And I don't know how many male comics, who are good friends of mine that I have been friends with for 20 some years that say, 'Well for a female your funny.' Or they say, 'I'm sorry I can't take females serious.' It is hard as a female comic. You don't get as much work or when you get hired you get paid maybe 20 percent less than the male comic who may not be as polished or seasoned...There is a huge discrepancy.”
Comedy has changed in other ways since Cleare's earlier years in stand up. When she first started out in comedy, she said, “funny was funny,” but in the intervening years the genre was split between black and white.
“For me, growing up the way I did, there was no real division. It was hard for me to find my voice with the division because there are a lot of comics who are either a black comic, or you are a sell-out comic. I just wanted to be funny. A lot of times it put me close to quitting. And then somebody would come along and say, 'What your doing is so much better and so different.' That is when I realized it was ok to be different and it's become very lucrative.”
Cleare appears to be settling back into life on that dirt road in Manchester, even if only for a week. She's rooted in this small place no matter how big the city or bright the lights are that move her career in comedy forward. She's an inspiration for all small town kids who dream big.
“I realize now that no dream is unobtainable,” said Cleare. “It is all going to be hard work but if you are committed you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. That is what I would say to my 13-year-old self.”