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This article was published 2/5/2015 (1569 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre received unexpected publicity for its upcoming production of Bad Jews when the New York Times recently profiled the dark comedy's exclusive hair club of actresses, which includes city performer Connie Manfredi.
Bad Jews playwright Joshua Harmon had a specific image in mind for Daphna: "Two-thirds body, one-third hair," and then painted a detailed verbal picture of what those tresses should look like in the script.
"Thick, intense, curly, frizzy, long brown hair. Hair that clogs a drain after one shower. Hair you find on pillows and in corners of the room and in your refrigerator six months after the head from which it grew last visited. Hair that could not be straightened even if you had four hours and three hairdressers double-fisting blow driers. Hair that screams: Jew."
Manfredi was one of the five North American actresses featured and she spoke about what she has to do to tame her unruly mane. She didn't really believe director Kayla Gordon when she was told a Times writer wanted to interview her.
"I thought she misunderstood what they wanted," says Manfredi, whose local acting credits included The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Avenue Q. "It's a real specific trait that not a lot of actors have. It was cool to be in this little club of women who get to play this great role and happen to have crazy hair."
Although Manfredi is not Jewish, Gordon was comfortable with casting her to play someone who is called an ºber-Jew in a play about a Jewish family in turmoil over a grandfather's legacy.
"She's Italian, but she can pass easily for Jewish," Gordon says. "She's got a lot of the same kind of mannerisms. The hair was just a bonus.
"It was exciting to be doing this play in little Winnipeg and we get a call from the New York Times."
Like any actor who aspires to appearing on Broadway, the University of Winnipeg graduate also dreamed about getting her name in the pages of the Times for her outstanding work on stage, not for her talent with a hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror.
"I never thought I'd be the New York Times, so I'll take it," she says. "Hopefully if I'm ever in it again, we can laugh about this moment."
Bad Jews opens May 7 at the Berney Theatre.
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Outside Joke, the Winnipeg improv institution, is completing its third season of attempting to raise the stature of comedy to the level of mainstream theatre.
The six-member troupe has become serious about convincing the public that comedy — whether the ad-lib kind or the sketch variety — is a real form of theatre, performed by university-trained professionals in legit theatres.
"It's not something just relegated to basements and backrooms of dive bars, where you do it at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays when nobody is going to come," says Andrea del Campo, a founding member of the 13-year-old Outside Joke. "That's not the case anymore."
For its season-ender tonight at the Gas Station Arts Centre, Outside Joke shares the bill with local sketch comedy quintet Hot Thespian Action.
While improv celebrates the ability to make up comedy on the spot, Outside Joke has methodically gone about spiffing up its act.
"We present a very polished product," says del Campo, a University of Winnipeg graduate. "We are not bringing beers on stage. We dress like hosts for the evening — no crumpled shirts or mismatched socks. We try to create an environment for our audience. We're going for a more traditional theatrical experience."
Improv as an impromptu performance art is still relatively new, having spent much of its development as a tool for scripted theatre or for teaching young people self-expression. Most practitioners are introduced to improv in high school, where it is viewed as a jokey, goof-around activity that anyone with a quick wit can do. That's a reason why it struggles to be regarded as a studied craft.
"Everyone can draw, but not everyone can draw well," says del Campo. "Everyone can do improv, but not everyone knows what it takes to do it well. It can be hard to convince people that it's a real art form, especially because there is not a formal market for it."
Improv is a favoured genre of any fringe festival. There were 15 shows self-identified as improv at last summer's Winnipeg event. Regulars such as Crumbs, the DnD Improv Show and Big Stupid Improv Show are big draws.
Improvisers find it difficult to generate media attention and ticket buyers outside the fringe marketing umbrella, though.
That's why Outside Joke — made up of del Campo, Jane Testar, Toby Hughes, Robyn Slade, Chadd Henderson and Leif Ingebrigtsen — opted in 2012 to produce a set season to give themselves regular work. Their shows have become double bills with local and national acts. Outside Joke teamed with Crumbs for a Christmas show and with the popular Vancouver duo Pete n' Chris in March.
With Hot Thespian Action, three-time Canadian Comedy Award nominees, the hope is to blend sketch and improv into something fun and unusual. HTA will prepare five sketches, around which Outside Joke will do their spontaneous thing. Instead of taking suggestions from the audience, the prompts will come from the sketches.
In the second half, HTA members will bring out their notebooks full of sketch ideas that never made it to a performance. It will fall to the jokers to improvise those creative bits into songs or scenes.
"It's a night of theatre," del Campo says. "We try to make it cohesive and feel like a polished product."
An important side-benefit for both groups is the opportunity to tap into each group's following. HTA has a slightly older audience to which Outside Joke would like to introduce its brand of theatre.
"As we get older, we want to do fewer shows but better shows," says del Campo.
Outside Joke/Hot Thespian Action double bill takes place tonight at 8 p.m. at the Gas Station Arts Centre.
Tickets: $15, $12 (students, arts workers) at 204-284-9477 or www.gsac.ca