Growing up in Toronto, Elvira Kurt spent much of her time in front of the bathroom mirror delivering jokes. Her hairbrush doubled as a microphone and, though the mirror reflected a single set of eyes, she imagined a live audience watching in rapt attention.
The only child of Hungarian immigrants, Kurt says her parents disapproved of her comedic aspirations. “Their whole thinking was, ‘We gave up everything to come to the new country, to the New World. So you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor — something that will allow you to take care of us as we get older,’” she says. “‘You’re certainly not going to tell jokes for a living.’”
Yet for nearly 40 years, that’s exactly what Kurt has done. On Thursday, June 6, the internationally acclaimed comedian will take the stage at Diana Wortham Theatre, where she will participate in Sisters Doin’ It for Ourselves, a benefit for Helpmate. Other artists include indie-folk duo Tina and Her Pony, singer-songwriter Kathryn O’Shea and drum collective Wild Bodema.
“I’ve been doing fundraisers and benefits for organizations that support survivors of domestic abuse and violence since I started performing,” Kurt says. The work, she adds, is just as important today as it was back then. “Until we drastically change the culture we live in, until we raise our children in ways that include valuing consent and believing survivors, organizations like Helpmate are needed.”
The local nonprofit provides free emergency shelter, counseling and support for over 2,700 survivors of domestic abuse in Buncombe County each year, according to Helpmate’s executive director, April Burgess-Johnson. The upcoming benefit show, she says, is a great way for the community to show its support and commitment to ending the cycle of domestic abuse.
Lisa Garrett, the event’s organizer, also sees the show as a source of inspiration. “It’s going to be women on the stage the entire night, and that feels unique,” she says. “I hope that everybody who attends feels empowered by that very basic foundation.”
Empowerment, Garrett adds, is manifested in Kurt’s comedy. “Her humor is irreverent and autobiographical,” she says. “She’s also very honest about some of the challenges she’s faced and just really open about her life as a lesbian.”
Kurt, who came out 35 years ago, still considers the decision monumental, especially as it relates to her craft. Only after opening up about her sexuality, she says, “did I begin telling jokes from a more truthful perspective.”
Therapy has also played a major role in Kurt’s life and career. It has helped the comedian find a deeper level of appreciation for her work. Audience approval, she notes, is no longer her sole reason for taking the stage. “I love making people laugh, but my self-worth isn’t tied up in it,” she explains. “I do comedy because I love it and because I’m so attracted to the craft. … That’s the difference that doing the work in therapy has made.”
Not surprisingly, therapy, lesbianism and her upbringing are among the topics Kurt regularly addresses in her performances. The entertainer, who has a teenage daughter and a 9-year-old son, also explores the trials and tribulations associated with motherhood.
For Garrett, what continues to impress her about Kurt’s career is the quick rapport she develops with audiences. “I’ve seen her in various venues and with different groups, and she just has a very warm, genuine way of connecting with people’s lived experiences,” she says. “It’s lovely to watch and to witness and then to laugh with her.”
Shared laughter is one of the greatest benefits of comedy. “What I do with my comedy is I get reassurance that I am not special,” Kurt says. “That’s something I continue to learn in therapy all the time, too. And so, in my comedy, it’s very satisfying to have a roomful of people laughing in recognition at a very personal story because it reminds me that I am not alone in what I’m going through.”
WHAT: Sisters Doin’ It For Ourselves
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave. dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Thursday, June 6, 7 p.m. $20-$33