Feminism meets funny at the Vancouver Fringe Festival

With this year’s edition, women’s comedy goes beyond bawdy, making sex and sexism a laughing matter

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      It’s a hot and smoky Monday night in Vancouver, bare skin sticking to every surface inside the Kino Cafe on Cambie Street, lungs choked as B.C. burns. Even though we’re technically indoors, the restaurant’s large windows are all open, so there’s little respite. Thankfully, this is a fundraiser for The Lady Show’s Fringe Fest debut, and everyone knows that feminist comedians are experts at making us laugh even while the world is on fire. Especially when the world is on fire.

      The Lady Show has been a semiregular comedy event in Vancouver only for the last few years, but the core performers have between 10 and 20 years’ experience each in their various disciplines. Diana Bang is an actor, sketch artist, writer, and filmmaker. Morgan Brayton is an actor and sketch artist. Fatima Dhowre is a standup comic. And Katie-Ellen Humphries is a standup comic with a background in theatre and cabaret.

      Of the four, only Dhowre is making her Fringe debut. “That’s a hard no,” she tells the Straight with a laugh, when asked if she has any experience with something like this. “But I’m excited to do a Fringe show with women I love doing comedy with, and especially a show that I love doing.”

      A typical Lady Show consists of two 45-minute halves, one 15-minute intermission, and at least a few special guests. There are usually sketches, skits, and standup sets, and a somewhat elaborate opening number.

      “The thing about The Lady Show is that all four of us bring something really different, so it’s greater than the sum of its parts,” Brayton says.

      The condensed, Fringe Fest version of the production—“a squeezed diamond of a Lady Show”, Brayton says—is just 60 minutes long, but it fits in perfectly with what has emerged as the unofficial theme of 2018, at the Fringe and beyond: smart, funny feminist comedy is taking over the world.

      There’s the Nanette effect, of course—Hannah Gadsby’s recent Netflix comedy special has been credited frequently with changing the face of comedy, and began as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe. All four Lady Show members exchange glances and laugh at the mention of Nanette. Brayton and Bang have actually written a new sketch together to touch on the hyperbolic enthusiasm Gadsby has generated.

      “It’s a great show, it’s an amazing show,” Brayton says. “In no way, shape, or form do I want to disparage that show. And also, there is a lot of great, provocative, moving, captivating comedy being done by women, by all kinds of people, and often people’s ideas of what comedy is are very narrow. It’s a beautiful show, but it wasn’t the most revolutionary show I’ve ever seen. Diana and I love it, and also, we’re like, ‘Go see some other comedy.’ ”

      “It’s revolutionary maybe for the mainstream, but if you go to any other alternative-comedy rooms, I think you’ll see all sorts of things,” Bang says. “I want to reiterate that the definition of what comedy is can sometimes be very narrow, and it encompasses so much more. I feel that way about sketch comedy. A lot of people think it’s just SNL, and no, it can be so much more than that.”

      Lip Service’s Ashley Whitehead and Natalie Tin Yin Gan.

      Lip Service, created and performed by Vancouver-based artists Ashley Whitehead and Natalie Tin Yin Gan, is eager to blow up some of those very narrow definitions. Whitehead and Gan are at the Edmonton Fringe ahead of their upcoming Vancouver Fringe run, and when the Straight connects with the pair via Skype, they answer clad in full-size vulva costumes.

      Given the tag of their show—“Ever wonder what your vulva alter-ego might do if given the spotlight?”—the outfits aren’t out of place, and they are the same ones Whitehead and Gan wear throughout their performance. In this context, it’s a wonderfully surreal experience to listen to the two artists discuss everything from dismantling the patriarchy as marginalized artists—Gan identifies as second-generation Canadian-born Chinese and Whitehead identifies as queer—to internalized sexism while dressed as vulvas.

      “I think the concept of the show has always been our friendship and the basis of how we work in the studio,” Gan says. “We speak a lot about our relationship to our bodies, the ways that we’ve been socialized as women, and the things that we feel like we have access to or the things that we don’t based on that socialization.”

      “I don’t think we intended specifically on it being a comedy,” Whitehead says. “I mean, I’m a clown, so my brain is always in a bit of comedy land, but I think it was important to let it be just whatever came out.”

      “And then it got funny,” Gan interjects. The pair laugh. “I personally have no concept of what people find funny, but people do find it hilarious. There’s the swing, that comedy is just the other side of tragedy. That when you speak truth to things that we don’t speak about, there’s this catharsis that makes people laugh, because we can finally release into some truth and feel like a community.”

      Colette Kendall says she’s struggled to embrace her title, The Cockwhisperer.

      Speaking truth to uncomfortable things is the foundation of Colette Kendall’s show, too. The award-winning Hamilton-based artist created The Cockwhisperer… A Love Story in 2009, and has been reaping the rewards—and paying the price—of its title ever since. It’s not just about being provocative or bawdy; it’s about confronting sexism and hypocrisy, and finding humour in trauma.

      “The title is sort of an inverse kind of Vagina Monologues,” Kendall says, over the phone from the Edmonton Fringe, where she, too, is performing before heading to Vancouver. “It helps me go through the narrative of my coming-of-age kind of story and basically how masculinity has been in my life, how I dealt with it, sexuality, misogyny, all of that. I had also come across the term cockwhisperer, which is this derogatory term for women that are sexually active, and I thought, ‘That’s misogyny, I’m gonna embrace this word!’ But it has been a struggle over the years.”

      In creating these shows that challenge, subvert, and provoke, these feminist comedians are actively redefining and rejecting those heretofore narrow definitions of comedy, and it couldn’t come at a better time. When a show like Nanette, in which Gadsby eviscerates rape culture and the patriarchy at every turn, is the blockbuster hit at the beginning of the summer, and then, by the end of the summer, admitted sexual harasser Louis C.K. not-so-quietly returns to standup and huge applause, more feminist comedy that continues to do the work of demolishing systems of oppression is the only way forward.

      “What we work really hard on, or at least for me with Ashley, it’s kind of dismantling those mechanisms within myself and how the heteronormative patriarchy festers in my bones and therefore how it manifests in what I do and how I take up space and what I think I should be doing and should not be doing and what success for me is,” Gan says.

      “Our friendship itself is a bit of a statement against the patriarchy,” Whitehead adds. “We’re partners. It’s more than just a friendship.…We’ve been a team for quite a while now and, you know, we even joke about one day having kids together. It can be whatever we want it to be, and it doesn’t need to be dictated by an outside source.”

      That closeness resonates with The Lady Show members as well. “If I had tried to, in a lab, cook up the perfect group for me, this is what I would come up with, but I would never be able to be that forward-thinking,” Katie-Ellen Humphries says with a laugh.

      “We’ve all been doing this for a long time, so we’ve found our niche overnight after 10 or 20 years of work,” Brayton adds. “We found each other and we’re doing comedy that we want to see and that makes us laugh. A lot.”

      Lip Service is at the Firehall Arts Centre on September 7, 8, 10, and 13 to 15; The Lady Show is at the same venue on September 6, 8, 9, 12, 15, and 16; and The Cockwhisperer is at the False Creek Gym on September 6, 8, 11, 14, and 15, as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.