New York impresario finds her way around Winnipeg fringe

Inexperienced actor a quick study in self-promotion in the days and hours leading up to her one-woman comedy's debut

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The first time is always awkward, especially when it happens in a near-empty street underneath a steady glazing of rain.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/07/2016 (2219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The first time is always awkward, especially when it happens in a near-empty street underneath a steady glazing of rain.

Still, if that’s what it takes to sell a fringe play, then Kerry Ipema will do it. So she reaches into her bag and snags a stack of handbills printed on glossy card stock. “I’m not sure about accosting people,” she says. Then she marches into Old Market Square and pops on a smile brighter than the cloud-shrouded sun.

GREG GALLINGER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Vancouver performer T.J. Dawe and Ipema walk across Main Street before a technical run-through of her show, which Dawe helped craft.

“Hi,” she says to the first group of people she encounters. “Can I tell you about my show?”

In Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival jargon, this is “handbilling.” At home in New York City they call it “flyering,” she says.

It’s one of several new words the 27-year-old actor has learned in her first few days in Canada. “Billet,” to describe the stately old Wolseley house she will call home during the festival, is another.

It’s Wednesday, just after noon. Most years, the fringe’s big launch at Old Market Square is a bustling affair, but this time the damp chased curious fans inside. Most of the people left milling about the Exchange are fringe performers; so Ipema’s handbilling mission turns into something more like a professional networking event.

Ipema doesn’t know many people here yet. She grew up near Chicago, the youngest of three siblings in a family of 9-to-5 professionals, and now plies her trade in New York. Her only impression of Winnipeg came from a 2008 episode of The Office in which characters are sent here on a business trip. It was filmed in Los Angeles.

Now, she is about to make her fringe debut in Winnipeg. In fact, this is her fringe debut anywhere.

She has no idea what to expect. In her head, she imagined venues splayed out across the city. She pictured the near-legendary fringe beer tent as a discrete little bunker. She imagined a lot of things that — by the time her show opens at Venue 3 downstairs at the Pantages on Thursday afternoon — will be wiped away by the buzzing reality.

To get the most out of the experience, she needs to draw her audience, and that’s where handbilling comes in. “When you come from New York, this handbilling doesn’t work,” she says. “If you give someone a handbill, it’s in the garbage. I’m pretty social, so I’m excited to meet people and talk about my show, but I’m just flying by the seat of my pants.”

On one side of Ipema’s handbill is a promo for her show, One Woman Sex and the City. The other side features Vancouver performer Megan Phillips’s work, Not Enough. They’re very different pieces; Ipema single-handedly parodies the characters and events from the iconic HBO series. Not Enough is a solo drama about confronting anxiety on a meditation retreat.

They have one thing in common. Both shows were crafted in partnership with Vancouver performer T.J. Dawe, and his name is a boon for promotion. Audiences perk up when they hear it, and artists do, too. (“We owe a lot to T.J.,” one performer says, crediting Dawe with popularizing the monologue form at the fringe.)

Sensing this, Ipema runs with it. Hers is one of five productions at the 2016 Winnipeg fringe festival Dawe is involved with, including his own solo show, Burn Notice. When one fan remarks Ipema is “one of the five T.J.s,” Ipema plays with it. “Yep, I’m one of the five TJs,” she quips happily. “I’m the middle finger.”

So let’s get to the heart of it. Let’s get to the theme. How could Carrie Bradshaw, the flirty and improbably well-dressed newspaper columnist played by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, handbill for a fringe show?

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Kerry Ipema of New York is performing her show, One Woman Sex and the City, at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. The first-time fringe performer had no idea what to expect.

“The problem is I think she would go up to all the men,” Ipema says. “She would come up to cute guys. In the show, she is so fearless about going up to men… she would use it to her advantage. She would, like, bum cigarettes off people.”

She rattles through the rest of the series’ main characters. Miranda Hobbes, Ipema figures, would promote with a briefcase and her best business suit. She’d use big words and legal jargon to rally the troops. She’d pronounce her show an antidote to male-dominated theatre. Charlotte York would be gracious but wonder if people liked her or what she did wrong.

Of course, anyone who’s ever watched Sex and the City knows exactly how Samantha Jones would get the job done. “I think she’d just walk around naked,” Ipema says, and lets out a peal of laughter. “Just like strutting, and people would come up to her. She’d exude confidence. Just shock value. Or she’d get a giant billboard of herself with Fringe logos to censor it.”

Think of every fringe show not only as an act of creation, but of 1,000 tiny and largely uninteresting decisions. They march in order from largest to smallest: should we do a show? What should it be about? How many people will perform in it, and how long will it run?

By the time Ipema landed in Winnipeg last Saturday night, most of these foundational questions had been answered. She started asking most of them at Dawe’s urging; the two met after Ipema was cast in a touring production of PostSecret, a show Dawe co-created. He told her she should write a fringe show: why not a one-woman Sex and the City?

Welcome to theatre in the 21st century. Ipema and Dawe co-wrote the play on tour, but they rehearsed it in the spring via Skype: Ipema in a near-empty apartment in New York, Dawe in Vancouver. By the time she got to Winnipeg, they were still chasing the mechanical rabbit that’s always racing ahead: is the play “ready”?

Dawe laughs. “A person who would say it’s ready would be like an alien impersonating a human,” he says.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Ipema takes a lunch break with new friends she met through fringe.

It’s the last technical rehearsal before opening day, a chance to confront the final lingering questions. There are many. The black jumpsuit that serves as Ipema’s costume: should it be hemmed? Does the wash of yellow light need to be warmer? Does the water-balloon sploosh that signals one character going into labour need to be quieter?

Every time the stage technician runs that sound effect, Ipema bursts into cackles of laughter. “If it’s too much (volume), we’ll adjust,” she says. “But right now, it’s making me laugh.”

Opening day is Thursday at 1:45 p.m. Ipema has eight total performances — six to go by the time this story is read Saturday morning. Though she’s bright in rehearsal, there are knots tightening in her gut. She has never performed these jokes, these risque puns, in front of a live audience.

“Mistakes happen, and I just have to have peace that I’m only human,” she says. “I’ve done all I can do to get to this point. That thing called faith. I don’t think I’ve ever said I’m 110 per cent ready to perform (a show) for an audience. I’m very excited to perform it, but that’s a different thing entirely.”

So what scares her the most, about how her fringe debut will go? “Is everything a proper answer?” she replies, but settles on the issue of whether the jokes will work. “I’m like Tinker Bell with laughter. If it doesn’t happen, I don’t exist.”

GREG GALLINGER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Ipema rehearses for her show.

One hour and 30 minutes before her première, Ipema settles onto a bench that overlooks Old Market Square. The wet clouds that dampened Wednesday’s festival launch are starting to clear, and music booms from the Cube. Ipema is nervous. Against her better judgment, she admits, she stole a peek at the advanced ticket sales for her first performance.

“Fifteen tickets sold,” she says, with a cautiously optimistic note. “For not knowing anyone, that’s good.”

Fringe audiences are usually a walk-up bunch, a reporter tells her, and Ipema looks puzzled. They make a bet: on the strength of Dawe’s name, the Sex and the City brand and the fact the success of Charles Ross’s One Man series have primed fringe audiences for solo parodies, turnout will be much higher.

“At this point, anything is good,” Ipema says. “I’ll take whatever.”

Minutes before showtime, there are more than 60 people in the cozy basement theatre, a packed house. The lights go down, Ipema bounces onstage and the crowd eats it up. Buoyed by their presence, the actor sparkles; the laughs she craved swell up in bunches. In the front row, she hears delighted murmurs of plot recognition: “Oh, I forgot about that,” someone whispers.

GREG GALLINGER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Ipema, 27, realized she had to trim a few minutes from her show after its debut but was buzzing after the performance.

Invigorated, Ipema starts ad-libbing, encouraging the crowd to join her in the performance. They do, making “whooshing” sounds on cue, a sure sign they are with her. On the way out, Free Press reviewer Jen Zoratti says it was the best she’d yet seen at this fringe; she ultimately settles on a fine four-star rating.

About 10 minutes after taking her final bow, Ipema is still buzzing. “It was crazy,” she says, blinking in the bright Main Street light. “It was amazing. The audience was so supportive. I loved when they joined in. It’s our first one, so it’s gonna be imperfect, but in that way it’s beautiful. It has room to grow. It’s only going to get better.”

The imperfections? Once laughs were added to the mix, the performance ran a few minutes longer than expected. It’ll have to be trimmed. One cut is easy: in the script, Ipema takes a dig at the original show’s use of a slur for transgender people. But she used the words in order to make that connection; afterwards, one attendee pointed out how that was hurtful.

Ipema was immediately regretful. That part won’t be used again, she says. It’s gone.

On the whole, though, the glow of the opening show lingers. On the concrete outside the Pantages, Dawe pulls her into a hug. “You were amazing,” he says. “How do you feel?”

Ipema laughs and shakes her head. “You know what?” she says. “I don’t know. I think it’s one of those things, like, it’ll sink in.”

Then she wanders off, back to Old Market Square, where the sun is now warming the food trucks and grass. Back to the beer tent that’s so much more open than Ipema first imagined and all the friends she’s just met. This is a snapshot of a few days in the life of a performer at fringe, and like every story here, it is just beginning.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Updated on Saturday, July 16, 2016 8:30 AM CDT: Typo fixed.

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