LaughFest is a ten-day event in March, so does its director spend the dog days of summer lounging in a hammock? Hardly. Joanne Roehm has a seriously cool job (all year round), and Stephanie Doublestein finds out just what she does when the talent isn't in town.
Meet Joanne Roehm. She's a British-born music education major with an office cubicle in the basement of her nonprofit's big farmhouse. But in reality, her workspace is the entire facility – farmhouse, kitchen, library, grounds – and the entire West Michigan community, where she uses her unique skill set to rally an incredible amount of time, talent, and money around a seriously funny event – and a very worthy cause.
Roehm is the festival director of LaughFest
, and "seriously funny" is both the event's tagline and a perfect descriptor of her job. She spends her time harnessing the power of a ten-day comedic festival to have a year-round impact on Gilda's Club Grand Rapids, and she's the first to say that she isn't doing it alone.
"The culture here is very team-driven, and it's such a dedicated, small, invested team that really makes this whole thing happen," she says. 'This whole thing' is a very unique, very successful event – LaughFest – that raises money and awareness for the local chapter of Gilda's Club
, a free cancer support community of children, adults, families, and friends. And that's something that only happens here in Grand Rapids.
"There's still a misconception . . . a lot of people think LaughFest is some magical project that was shipped down and happens at all Gilda's Clubs (in the country)," Roehm laughs. "It was founded and brainstormed and created here and is unique to us."
She doesn't think that's a coincidence. "I don't think LaughFest could exist in any other community. There's something about Grand Rapids and the way we rally around these large-scale events. We really are excited about our region and our area, and I think that's a big part of what makes LaughFest and Gilda's Club so successful and so well supported," she says.
Gilda's Club Grand Rapids is the biggest and busiest of all the affiliates nationwide, says Roehm, seeing more than 10,000 people through the door each year seeking services and relying on more than 1,000 volunteers to pull off LaughFest. It's a door Roehm came to in a circuitous fashion, having worked with nonprofit arts organizations while earning a master's in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit leadership before coming to Gilda's Club.
"I feel very lucky in that the position I'm in now – and LaughFest as a project – allows me both to tap into my creative arts and entertainment side and also my nonprofit and development and management side," says Roehm.
So what does the festival director of a ten-day festival do for the rest of the year?
"The funniest thing, I think, is when people say to me, 'So what do you do other than LaughFest? Do you have another job?'" laughs Roehm. "The reality is that it's a year-round, full-time project." September through March is non-stop action, with talent announcements, event planning, and the logistics of bringing tons of talent to town, while April through August is a time to dive deep into planning, meeting with community partners, and getting feedback about the festival.
"I touch pretty much every element of the festival," Roehm says. "I do really exciting things like budgeting and ticket projections and all of those thrilling things. I work with our booking agency, Funny Business, to book the talent for the festival. I oversee the volunteer program, high-level sponsorships, and community partnerships."
All told, Roehm spends about half her time in the office and half out in West Michigan, meeting with people, which is just the way she likes it. "I try very hard to reserve one day or a half-day a week for solid desk time to catch up and work on my projects. But I think what's perhaps the most enjoyable thing about my job is even when you're having a tough day, when you meet with people in the community, LaughFest and Gilda's Club touch so many people, there's so much excitement and good energy. I don't know of any other organization in town that touches so many people in so many ways."
The job does come with its own set of challenges. Resources, for one, are always tight at a nonprofit, and it's a lean organization. "Can I wish for more hours in the day and five more people on our team?" Roehm says, when asked what part of her job she'd change if she could wave a magic wand.
She also hopes the year-round comedy scene in West Michigan will continue to grow, since exposure to lesser-known acts on a regular basis allows festival-goers to trust the value of some of the newer, smaller acts.
"Grand Rapids continues to need to be more inclusive, progressive, and open-minded," she says, adding that comedy is an intimate and challenging art form that can nurture those traits through the shared emotion of laughter.
Part of her job, in fact, involves using humor to tackle tough topics; though she notes "there are absolutely tears shed" at the expansive white farmhouse that is Gilda's Club, she's glad to be channeling her dry, sarcastic personal sense of humor into cultivating a space that provides what she calls "emotional health care" to people going through tough stuff.
Going into her third year as festival director, Roehm says there are always funny moments: an elevator incident with Whoopi Goldberg, a little snafu with Joel McHale, hundreds of audiences laughing together over the course of the annual March festival. But what keeps her showing up to work each day is the impact LaughFest is making on Gilda's Club, and therefore on the West Michigan community.
"Because while LaughFest is doing a great job in creating all kinds of visibility for us, we continue to want to tap into that year-round and let more people know about what's happening in this little farmhouse," Roehm says. "We have an incredible team of people who are passionate – not about Bill Cosby or Joel McHale, but about emotional health care. And that's why LaughFest is so successful at the end of the day."
Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
Photography by Adam Bird