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Walking tour puts colourful spin on Winnipeg history

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How do you like your history -- factual or fictional?

At this year's fringe, you can take a historical walking tour offered by the Exchange District BIZ.

But you can also take a comedic Exchange walkabout with a decidedly more fringey bent.

Buy a ticket for Gingers' Walk, and you'll hear tales from the district's colourful past -- probably about as reliable as Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg -- as told by a couple of tour guides with a hair colour that's downright electrifying.

Local actors Tricia Cooper, 37, and Graham Ashmore, 47, are both fringe veterans. They describe the show's producer, fellow fringe vet Carolyn Gray, as a "history nerd" who has long wanted to try cooking up a faux-history tour.

Gray wrote part of the script herself and solicited contributions from writers Michael Van Rooy, Ross McMillan, Tracy McCourt, Bradley Sawatzky, Gord Tanner and Sam Vint. The show/tour, which runs 45 minutes (not 30 as stated in the program), is co-directed by Michelle Boulet and Sarah Constible.

The expected capacity per tour is 30 people, though that was still to be confirmed in final rehearsals.

Cooper and others involved in the show went on a BIZ walking tour to gather ideas. They were surprised at how entertaining they found it. "I couldn't believe how much I didn't know," Cooper says.

They did try to anchor the script in the factual past. "It's all made up, but we're trying to put it in a truthful context," she says. "We're paying attention to reality -- and then messing with it."

It was Gray's idea to cast the two natural redheads as siblings from a family tour business. The megaphone-toting sister tries to stick to the "facts," but the brother is a professional storyteller, which creates comedic tension.

Gingers' Walk includes original songs, accompanied by Ashmore on guitar. It's staged two or three times a day.

"Deciding to have two redheads do 30 walking tours outside in the sun, in July, is a bit bonkers," says Ashmore. "We're probably going to have sunstroke and be crawling around, hysterical and hallucinating."

"Ginger," a British term for redhead, has become better known in North America since last Nov. 20. That's when Kick a Ginger Day, inspired by the satirical TV series South Park, started to gain controversial popularity as an excuse to abuse redheads.

One draft of Gingers' Walk included a reference to Kick a Ginger Day, says Ashmore, who hated his hair colour when he was growing up, but appreciates it now.

"I get asked if it's real," he says with amazement.

Cooper says there is often a nod, or a look of silent communion, that passes between redheads in public. "You definitely notice each other," she says.

Woven into Gingers' Walk are "stories about redheaded characters throughout the years," like Armin Coriander, a flame-haired farm boy who became a mailman and then "went postal."

The two gingers expect to use their improv skills as they lead audiences through an urban "set" they can't control. What happens if traffic, construction, a rainstorm or a belligerent bystander disrupts the tour?

"We could just have a good old-fashioned redheaded tempter tantrum," Ashmore quips.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2009 D5

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