Female-fronted fringe shows prove punchlines aren't a man's purview
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/07/2016 (2219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the realm of mainstream entertainment, this weekend marks the opening of Ghostbusters, a movie that stoked the ire of millions of males for the effrontery of casting four females in roles played by men in the ‘80s.
Of course, you can’t say that about the hip dominion of fringe entertainment, where tuned-in audiences are automatically more receptive to female comedy.
Certainly, that’s the hope of Winnipeg comedians Jane Testar, Vanessa Macrae and Ashley Burdett, who debut a triple dose of standup comedy, The Humourists, at Venue 9 (Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall).
“Why three women?” Burdett asks rhetorically in their press release, quoting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Because it’s 2016.
“And we’re desperate for attention.”
Standup is certainly good for attention, if not downright scrutiny. Macrae is more experienced in sketch and improv comedy, as is Testar, a veteran of two of the city’s première comedy troupes, Hot Thespian Action and Outside Joke.
The solo exposure is daunting, Macrae says. “But we’ve always wanted to do standup. It’s a different animal.
“I don’t think it should be a big thing. But I think comedy is still very weighted to males,” Macrae says, adding their show has a video component that pokes fun at the musty notion that women aren’t as funny as men.
“But I also think it’s getting better. It takes a long time for equality in every capacity: race, gender, sexuality. It just takes more time and we all want things to happen more quickly than they do.
“And all we can do is keep trudging along,” she says, adding it’s the challenges that make you funnier.
“Maybe women are funnier because they have to have a sense of humour,” Macrae says.
Indeed. But even at the fringe festival, it’s not necessarily a given that women get as enthusiastic a response as men. Ask Lana Schwarcz, the Aussie comedian who brings her show about surviving breast cancer — Lovely Lady Lump — to Venue 5, Son of Warehouse.
“I was last here in 2009 when us wily females began to notice a trend of the solo male shows getting more than twice the audience numbers as the female solo shows, especially the comedies,” Schwarcz says. “So we formed a group to raise awareness of women’s shows. Now in 2016, I am over the moon to see our little group has morphed into an inclusive hashtag: #fringefemmes.
“So although I am proud that it is continuing, I find it interesting that we still need to actively remind people that women’s shows are just as interesting, funny and entertaining as men’s shows,” she says.
That said, breast cancer would seem to be a particularly dangerous topic for a comedy show, a fact Schwarcz freely acknowledges.
“I was diagnosed two years ago and my coping mechanism is humour,” she explains. “In order to keep myself sane, I wrote jokes to do on the standup circuit at night, with treatment during the days.
“And to keep my friends and family informed, I wrote a blog about my health progress. But I couldn’t write a boring piece for them and send it out there, so I tried to make things as colourful as possible,” she says.
“A comic will always be thinking of her audience first, and why would I want to make my audience read something boring? So the blog is full of analogies and jokes and as many different names for breasts as I could find. The show is inspired by the blog and the standup comedy, mixed in with my real medical imaging, which we stole and animated.
“Comedy is also the thing that keeps you afloat when everything else seems to want to keep you down,” Schwarcz says. “If you can recognize the comedy in your life — for example, the song Sexual Healing accidentally playing over the treatment-room speakers while the machine zaps your breasts — it just helps you get through.
“But I also concede that perhaps that’s just my personality. Everyone copes in different ways, and every way is valid. Even with a comedic eye, you will have times where you cry non-stop, because the information is very full on, and hey, it’s your cancer, you can cry if you want to.
“But this was my cancer, and I chose to laugh,” she says. “Especially when my first thought on being diagnosed was, ‘Well I’m not gonna bother doing my taxes then.’”
• • •
Speaking of a “comedic eye…”
Stephanie Morin-Robert also employs the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier ethos with her solo show Blindside (at Venue 28, the Dragon Arts Collective), a memoir about turning her own childhood bout with cancer into a “superpower.”
“I’ve had a glass eye since I was 2 1/2 years old,” she says. “I was diagnosed with retinal blastoma, a tumour that attacks the retina of your eyes. They caught it. They couldn’t save my left eye, so they removed it to save my life, which was a pretty good call.”
The show focuses on her seventh year, after her prospector father struck it rich with a diamond find.
“It really changed our lives and changed our family’s momentum as far as our financial situation went,” she says. “I had to move from Timmins, Ontario, to Porcupine, Ontario — that’s a real place — and I realized I’d been quite sheltered and I never had to meet new people. All my family and friends knew my story.
Morin-Robert faced the prospect of being a social outcast. “The story is about me coming to terms with my disability and willing it into a superpower,” she says. “I share stories about how I used my eye to my advantage, taking it out to get out of class, or taking out my eye for kids behind the school for $2 a person. I made a little business off of it.”
In her first year of touring the show, Morin-Robert demonstrates nothing succeeds like success. She’s enjoyed a great response on the fringe circuit so far.
“I’ve been blown away with the reception it’s been getting,” she says. “I’ve won awards, including outstanding original work in the Ottawa fringe, and one of the top-selling shows in the Regina fringe. It’s been really, really awesome.”
It’s especially wonderful, she says, given the usual dominance of solo male performers. While her boyfriend is fellow fringe artist Alastair Knowles of James and Jamesy, Morin-Robert has gravitated to other women touring the fringe
“Just being a woman on the circuit could throw different curveballs at you,” she says. “Sticking with other women helps. More and more, female performers tour together and it’s really empowering and quite exciting.”
• • •
For New Zealand fringe vet Penny Ashton, the whole topic of “female comedy” is old hat. She’s been on the fringe circuit since 2004, and because of the often bawdy nature of her shows, she has endured more than her share of obnoxious male reaction to her comedy, including a drunken heckle: “Lose weight!” Her strategy has been to incorporate the challenges into her work and generally tough it out — no small achievement when you’re costumed in a Regency-era bonnet and empire-waist gown over a corset.
In her returning fringe show Promise and Promiscuity (at Venue 24, the West End Cultural Centre), she shares a writing credit with Jane Austen, and Ashton says creative proximity to one of history’s greatest novelists —unacknowledged in her own time — gives her valuable perspective.
“I have challenges, but she couldn’t go out without a chaperone. Her first book was published under a pseudonym as it was unseemly to attempt a career. Her grave doesn’t mention her writing but just her mind,” Ashton says. “I can traipse around the world like a hobo (with) no worries.
“She helps me see both how far we have come yet how far (we have) to go.”
Ashton asserts it’s pointless to draw gender lines in comedy, whether we’re talking about a multiplex entity like Ghostbusters or a fringe show in an Exchange District venue with a woman in the spotlight.
“It’s still a comedy for everyone that happens to be about women,” she says.
Lana Schwarcz concurs.
“In my case, my show is about quite a female-centred topic, but men also love it, as it exposes some truths about the female point of view that perhaps they haven’t thought of,” she says.
“Also, they get to see real live boobies.”
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
Updated on Thursday, July 14, 2016 7:01 PM CDT: Formatting
Updated on Saturday, July 16, 2016 9:22 PM CDT: Corrects photo caption.