Vancouver Fringe Festival solo show: Pretty Beast

Former class clown Kazu Kusano pulls back the curtain on a childhood that was less than charmed

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      It takes guts to step into the spotlight alone and bare your soul. The Straight talked to a few brave performers going it alone at this year's Fringe Fest. Here's one of them:

      Making people laugh has always come easy for Kazu Kusano, which wasn’t always appreciated in her home country, Japan.

      Reflecting on her childhood, the comedian, actor, and playwright remembers her sense of humour making her popular with her friends, but not with tradition-bound authority figures, including her teachers. Being funny wasn’t considered a job for a girl.

      “I was the class clown as a kid—everyone would say ‘She’s the funniest kid in school,’” Kusano says, on the line from her adopted home of Los Angeles. “But I’d also get people going ‘She’s so weird.’ And ‘Shut up, you’re a girl.’ That’s one of the first things that I experienced as a kid.”

      Today, the multiple threat is still making people laugh, something she’s done professionally since moving to America and then launching a standup career. But that’s not the only goal of her one-woman show Pretty Beast, in which she pulls back the curtain on a childhood that was decidedly less than charmed. “I want to make people think and feel as well as laugh,” she says.

      Pretty Beast gets dark, at times. The comedian was raised by an abusive mother who suffered from schizophrenia, and an alcoholic father whose job in the shipping industry required him to be away for long stretches.

      Today she realizes there was a reason she began playing the role of comedian at an early age. Part of it was looking for a sense of acceptance that she was not getting at home. But there was also something more.

      “When I was out I made people laugh—it was almost like having a different life,” she says. “Then I’d go home, and things would be really bad. So making people laugh was a form of escape. But even though I’m still polishing my show, the process has made me realize that it wasn’t only about escape. It was also that I felt powerful when I was funny.”

      That eventually helped her cope with her home life. “My mom did horrible things to me and my siblings,” Kusano recounts. “Right after bad things would happen we’d start making fun of it. That’s how we got through the misery.”

      Kusano began working on Pretty Beast right around the time she began doing standup a decade ago. “My goal was to create a good show that touches people so maybe people cry,” Kusano says. “But right after they cry I want to make them laugh. Because that’s what I did when I was a kid.”

      And if, between the laughs, Pretty Beast gets heavy, that’s exactly what she’s after.

      “Making this piece was really therapeutic for me, but I want the show to be therapeutic to my audience as well—not just to me,” Kusano says. “People come up after the show to talk about things that happened to them, and their trauma can be overwhelming. But that tells me that the show is really doing something. I’m still dealing with my childhood, but it’s really helping.”