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David Granirer got the idea for creating Stand Up for Mental Health when he was teaching standup comedy at Langara College. "Every so often," says the 49-year-old counselor and comic, "I would see people go through these incredible transformations - and I realized this was powerful therapy."

Mr. Granirer's own experiences with depression, suicide and trips to the psych ward galvanized the observation into a therapy program that is now international in scope. Four women from PACE (Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education Society) in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - and their comic turns - will be the subject of an upcoming documentary to air on CBC Television.

If pain is the source of all comedy, Gina Bombay, Jo Ann Morin, Suzanne Kilroy and Cherryse Magdalena have experienced enough pain to fill a few tragicomic volumes from lives lived in poverty, drug addiction and the sex trade.

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Mr. Granirer, who is used to working with people cracking jokes about the psych ward, being bipolar and mood-stabilizing meds, says working with marginalized women from the street-level sex trade - two of whom are transgendered - has been challenging but rewarding.

"Very intense. There's just more pain - and it's fresher with this group," he says. "One of the women used to turn tricks right outside the Firehall theatre where she is now doing standup. That was her corner. A year later, she's inside the theatre, performing. A year out of the trade isn't that long."

Ms. Bombay, a transgendered woman of Ojibwa ancestry, starts off the evening with a line about being "the only kid who went to school with wine coolers and hash brownies in my lunch bag."

Ms. Morin brings down the house with a riff on a popular diet trend. "Down here, we call it the Jenny Crack diet. Jenny will deliver to your door 24-7. Thanks to the Jenny Crack diet, I lost 25 pounds - over the weekend!"

"These women have wicked senses of humour," says Mr. Granirer. "They're up on stage, making jokes about the things that used to cause all the shame and isolation in their lives: being in the sex trade, giving blow jobs, having a sex change."

Noting that all the women are doing this because they want to make positive change, Mr. Granirer says, "Once you've done standup comedy, you realize you can do much more than you ever thought you could. For these women, it's something as small and powerful as realizing they can now do a job interview with confidence. They were all stars tonight."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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