August 20, 2019

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Ready to fly on its own

Comedy festival's founder Lara Rae says it's time to let go after 18 years at the reins

‘You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” isn’t the tagline you’d normally associate with a comedy festival.

But for Lara Rae, who is leaving her role as artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival after 18 years, there are sure to be punchlines and poignant moments in equal measure when the event gets underway on Sunday.

“Yes, I’m feeling a mix of emotions,” Rae admits. “It’s one of those things where you get nostalgic and think, ‘Oh, I’ll never do this again,’ and then you wonder whether the decision you made was a good one.”

Rae co-founded the festival in 2002 with actor Tom Anniko and has shaped it over the years into an event that prides itself on presenting a multitude of comedic voices. But in the past few years, the Gemini-winning comedy writer and standup performer has felt her focus shifting to different artistic outlets.

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‘You’ll laugh, you’ll cry" isn’t the tagline you’d normally associate with a comedy festival.

Festival preview

Click to Expand

Winnipeg Comedy Festival
● Various venues
● April 28-May 4
● Tickets at winnipegcomedyfestival.com

But for Lara Rae, who is leaving her role as artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival after 18 years, there are sure to be punchlines and poignant moments in equal measure when the event gets underway on Sunday.

"Yes, I’m feeling a mix of emotions," Rae admits. "It’s one of those things where you get nostalgic and think, ‘Oh, I’ll never do this again,’ and then you wonder whether the decision you made was a good one."

Rae co-founded the festival in 2002 with actor Tom Anniko and has shaped it over the years into an event that prides itself on presenting a multitude of comedic voices. But in the past few years, the Gemini-winning comedy writer and standup performer has felt her focus shifting to different artistic outlets.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Lara Rae is celebrating her final Winnipeg Comedy Festival as artistic director.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Lara Rae is celebrating her final Winnipeg Comedy Festival as artistic director.

"They say you should spend 90 per cent of your time doing what you love and what you’re good at, so I guess this will be me doing that," she says over coffee at the Stella’s restaurant in her West Broadway neighbourhood.

"I’ve always had a great deal of confidence in my creative side; I genuinely feel if I get involved in something, I can bring something to the table.

"I would like to explore more opportunities to do that, having also realized I’m one of these people who got all of the creative juices and none of the organizational stuff — I’ve got all the show and none of the business."

Rae’s got show to spare, in fact. In 2017, she performed Fragments, a 45-minute poetic play, at the Winnipeg International Fringe Festival.

In March, Theatre Projects Manitoba presented her full-length autobiographical drama Dragonfly to critical acclaim. The work, which starred Sarah Constible as They and Eric Blais as Them, two facets of the playwright, tells the story of Rae’s "gender odyssey."

Rae recommends

Winnipeg Comedy Festival artistic director Lara Rae encourages audiences to check out the galas at Club Regent Event Centre — “Free parking!” she says — but here are a few other shows to catch.

Winnipeg Comedy Festival artistic director Lara Rae encourages audiences to check out the galas at Club Regent Event Centre — “Free parking!” she says — but here are a few other shows to catch.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Local comedian Florence Spence is at the Treaty 1 and Only show. </p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Local comedian Florence Spence is at the Treaty 1 and Only show.

• Treaty 1 and Only (Gas Station Arts Centre, May 3, 7 p.m.): “I wanted to do a big Indigenous show so I’m glad we’re having a chance to do that,” Rae says of the showcase that features Aboriginal comics from across North America.

• “I’m very proud of my idea to have Ed the Sock host The Dirty Show (The Met, May 3, 10 p.m.),” she says. “Steve (Kerzner, who voices the angry sock puppet) and I did this reality show with Alan Thicke and so we’d have these phone calls with him telling horrifying stories about his career and then Steve would get on the phone and do an impersonation of Alan Thicke for half an hour that had us in tears. I’ve been a fan of Ed the Sock for years.”

• Don’t Shhh Me! (Gas Station Arts Centre, May 4, 7 p.m.): “This is the first year that we’re going to have non-binary comics,” Rae says of the lineup that includes former Winnipegger Chanty Marostica. “It’s just amazing. If someone had said that in 2000 — ‘How many non-binary comics do you have?’ — it would have been, ‘What?’ “

• Lara & Friends (Gas Station Arts Centre, May 1, 7:30 p.m.): If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the Gas Station. A cast of comics that includes Shaun Majumder, Séan Cullen, Nikki Payne and Dean Jenkinson (who takes over the reins as the festival’s artistic director next year) gather to roast Rae.

She grew up labelled a boy in Glasgow, Scotland; her journey to becoming a transgender woman was fraught with addiction and abuse, yet the dark material is leavened with trademark humour.

For Rae, it was a significant step away from standup to make work that incorporated humour into something grander and perhaps more universal.

"As a former comic myself, for many people, Nanette was pretty transformative," Rae says of the 2017 Netflix special from queer Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, which dismantles the very idea of comedy performance.

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby (Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press files)

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby (Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press files)

"I don’t think it is unfair to say that maybe 40 per cent of my decision to leave the comedy festival was on the other side of watching that. My decision, as hers was, was to some degree performative, because she does a show about not wanting to perform anymore and then performs it for months and years.

"(Gadsby’s) decision came out of a place of anger and you need to work through that to make it palatable, even when half your show dispenses with the kind of joke-telling structure." That’s what Dragonfly became.

"When I first started doing the Dragonfly experiment years ago... I was very invested in making sure there were jokes, in keeping it funny as I dealt with gender and sexual assault and all these things.

"And now I’m not as interested. I did really feel that I wanted to end on a laugh, but as you know, a lot of it wasn’t funny, yet it was tremendously satisfying."

Sarah Constible (left) and Eric Blais in Lara Rae's Dragonfly. (Leif Norman photos)</p>

Sarah Constible (left) and Eric Blais in Lara Rae's Dragonfly. (Leif Norman photos)

Rae also wants to end on a laugh at her final Winnipeg Comedy Festival, despite the potential for tears.

Got galas?

All five gala performances will be held at Club Regent Event Centre this year, and taped for later broadcast on CBC-TV. Tickets are $35 at winnipegcomedyfestival.com.

All five gala performances will be held at Club Regent Event Centre this year, and taped for later broadcast on CBC-TV. Tickets are $35 at winnipegcomedyfestival.com.

First Impressions

Thursday, May 2, 7:45 p.m. Host: Trent McClellan; featuring Bryan Hatt, Simon King, Leland Klassen, Chanty Marostica, Shelina Merani, Natalie Norman and Tom Papa.

Kids Stuff

Friday, May 3, 6:45 p.m. Host: Gerry Dee; featuring John Cullen, Keith Pedro, Ian Sirota, Preeti Torul, Tim Steeves and Rhiannon Archer.

Beyond Belief

Friday, May 3, 9:15 p.m. Host: DeAnne Smith; featuring Martha Chaves, Christophe Davidson, Charlie Demers, Eman El-Husseini, Jacob Samuel, Peter White.

Square Pegs

Saturday, May 4, 6:45 p.m. Host: Kevin McDonald; featuring Anesti Daniels, Todd Graham, Charles Haycock, Yumi Nagashima, Nick Nemeroff and Ana-Marija Stoijic.

Discomfort Zone

Saturday, May 4, 9:15 p.m. Host: Jessica Holmes; featuring Adam Christie, Mark James Heath, Pete Johansson and Chelsea Lou.

Looking back at the fest she essentially raised to adulthood — "we say it’s like we’re kicking it out of the house," she says of the 18-year-old event — she has fond memories of having her idols A. Whitney Brown and Marc Maron perform twice, and of seeing Winnipeg comics hit it out of the park while sharing a stage with international stars.

But she’s proudest of the exposure she thinks the festival, especially its televised galas, gives young or up-and-coming performers. Late-night talk shows are no longer the holy grail of standup success, and Netflix doesn’t seem to be handing out specials to Canadian comics. The Winnipeg Comedy Festival showcases, which are recorded live-to-tape for later broadcast on CBC-TV, are an opportunity to be seen by a national audience.

"One of the most rewarding things is to see someone be given an opportunity that is slightly outside of their comfort zone and compelling them with encouragement to have to rise to that occasion — and then have them do so," she says.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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