By Phyl Newbeck
From a pretty early age, Ben Rameaka of Shelburne knew he wanted to perform in some capacity. He saw a neighbor in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and was hooked. During his days at CVU he sang, played in the band, and performed in plays and musicals. Rameaka did his undergraduate work at UVM and then received his Masters in Fine Arts from the Actor’s Studio at the New School in New York City.
These days, Rameaka is part of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (UCB) which was started in New York by four ex-Chicagoans who wanted to bring long-form improvisation to the Big Apple. The most famous of the four is Amy Poehler who has gone on to star in movies and on Saturday Night Live. Rameaka began taking classes at UCB in 2006 and is now part of their performing troupe as well as teaching classes for the organization. At any given time there are roughly 4,000 students in the training program, ranging from aspiring comedians and actors to laypeople who want to improve their public speaking.
On May 24, Rameaka and some cohorts from UCB who have formed a group called Airwolf will perform at Club Metronome. The following day, they will teach comedy workshops through Sparks Arts in Burlington’s South End. Rameaka is impressed with the work Sparks Arts has done in bringing sketch and improvisation to the Burlington area. “I think Burlington is ripe for comedy,” Rameaka said. “It’s got a great music scene so it would be terrific to have a young comedy scene, as well.”
It may be called improvisation, but Rameaka said performances have a set structure. For the show at Club Metronome they will start with an interview format by asking an audience member to talk for a few minutes about a terrible living situation. For the next 20-30 minutes they’ll do a series of scenes based on that information. After that, they’ll ask an audience member for a song lyric and do a set based on that.
Rameaka loves doing comedy but it’s only part of how he makes a living. He has been involved in television and film productions, as well as commercials and voice-overs. Rameaka said comedians are sought out for commercials because of their ability to ad-lib. They can’t be directly asked to improvise because then they’d have to be paid as writers, so directors will say things like “you can loosen it up” instead.
One notable commercial Rameaka appeared in includes an ad with Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The commercial for State Farm Insurance features Rodgers appearing at an elementary school career day with Rameaka playing the part of the students’ teacher. Rameaka praised Rodgers for willingly playing the straight man, joining the rest of the cast for lunch and staying on the set for the full 10 hours of production.
Rameaka’s career appears to be on an upswing. “This past year has been incredibly explosive for me,” he said. In January, he shot a “micro spot” in a new film by Martin Scorsese called “Wolf of Wall Street” which stars Rob Reiner and Leonardo DiCaprio. He also worked on a video with the singer John Mayer. Although a television pilot that he shot with fellow comedian Dane Cook was unsuccessful, he will be appearing in one of amazon.com’s new pilots called “Alpha House” which is written by Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury fame and stars John Goodman. “I’m constantly auditioning,” said Rameaka “and performing week to week.”
Although New York is the best place for Rameaka’s career right now, he admits to missing Vermont. “I love the summers in Vermont,” he said. “They’re so green and lush and the people in Chittenden County are relaxed and kind. I miss the Country Store, Shelburne Museum, and Lake Champlain.” Rameaka occasionally thinks about whether he could move back to the Green Mountain State but for now, he’s just thankful to have the opportunity to visit.