For a performer, any kind of exposure is a good thing. But as comedian Natasha Vaynblat recently learned, sometimes being discovered can be mortifying.
Vaynblat, 27, worked for four years as a public school teacher in New York City, an experience she recounts in her one-woman show at UCB Chelsea, “Natasha Vaynblat: United Federation of Teachers.” At a recent performance, a group of her former high school students surprised her after the show. One of them had seen an ad on TV for an IFC-hosted Web series called Laurie, in which Vaynblat had starred. The students got together to check out her show. “I forget that it’s so easy to find anybody now with the internet,” Vaynblat says.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Vaynblat immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was eight. When she finished college at the University of Virginia, where she studied English and theater, she applied to Teach for America. “I knew I either wanted to go to New York, Chicago, or L.A., because those are kind of the three comedy hubs, and I knew I wanted to pursue comedy in some way.” She was placed in New York and initially thought she would teach by day and perform by night. But that proved to be harder than she thought. “Teaching,” Vaynblat says, “requires everything.”
She calls those first few months a “black hole.” She was placed in a public high school, where she taught English. “I was way in over my head,” she says. “I had never taught before, and they gave me three grades, so I was teaching ninth, tenth, and eleventh. On top of that, I was new to the kids and they clearly were ready to test me, because I was brand-new and twenty-one, and some of them were seventeen years old.”
In “United Federation of Teachers,” Vaynblat plays five different characters — all teachers, hence the show’s title — in short sketches. In between the sketches, she tells stories straight outta the classroom. She describes it as “a one-woman-sketch-storytelling show.”
The characters are based on real people, but, over the course of “ten thousand revisions,” have become their own creatures. The stories, however, are very real. When her former students showed up, they heard a story that would have been familiar to them — it happened in their classroom. “There was a fly buzzing around the room as I was teaching, and I could tell that they were paying attention to the fly and not me,” Vaynblat recalls. “So I pretended to catch it and put it in my mouth, and when I opened my hand, I had actually caught the fly. It flew out of my hand and freaked me out. I had to explain to them it was this joke that I thought up because they weren’t paying attention, which made them think that I was insane.”
Early on in her teaching career, she began recording stories in a journal. “So much of teaching is a performance,” she says. “It’s like doing crowd work, in a weird way.” One day, in her second semester of teaching, she decided to confront a tenth-grader who would always fall asleep in class. She went over to the projector and typed the words “Pop Quiz” on her computer so they appeared on the screen. Then she informed her conscious students that from then on, she’d only be speaking in Russian. She clapped her hands, and the sleeping student woke at the noise. Vaynblat proceeded to teach the lesson in Russian, and the other students followed along, pencils in hand, as if they understood everything. After a couple minutes, she explained to the lethargic student what was going on. “He fell asleep the next day,” she says.
By her second year in the classroom, she had begun taking classes at UCB. As her online presence increased, she realized her students would start to catch on to her second life sooner rather than later. And rehearsals for her sketch group would sometimes last until three in the morning. She knew she had to make a choice, and she chose comedy.
But teaching in the city’s public schools has been a valuable learning experience for Vaynblat. “When I first started Teach for America, I was like, ‘I’m gonna be like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds!’ ” she says. “ ’I’m gonna change these kids.’ And the reality is, I have so much to learn.”
With the show reaching its six-month mark, Vaynblat is surprised to find that she hasn’t received any negative feedback from teachers. “I was worried that I might, because it’s pretty irreverent, but I haven’t at all,” she says. “The stories are so silly and specific, and I think that idea of being at your wit’s end and playing a silly prank on students resonates with teachers.”
Catch “Natasha Vaynblat: United Federation of Teachers” at UCB Chelsea on Thursday, April 23, at 8 pm. $5 in advance, free for UCB sketch students with I.D. 307 West 26th Street.