Women on the verge

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      The Vancouver Fringe Festival is proving the perfect platform for emerging female performers to dare to be different

      The Vancouver Fringe Festival is famous as a place where anything goes. Because the programming is unjuried, performers can try out work that is raw, experimental, or unconventional. It's also a good platform for newcomers to strut their stuff; and since the demise of the Women in View Festival eight years ago, the Fringe is arguably the best showcase for emerging female talent. Not content with the roles that have been handed to them, a new crop of daring women is creating work that revels in self-expression. The Straight talked to the artists behind three shows that break new ground for their creators””and for audiences.

      Vancouver's Sarah Hayward has spent the past eight years acting primarily in local television and film, but she's always dreamed of creating a solo show. Stripes: The Mystery Circus originated four years ago, when Hayward began writing songs with the help of her vocal coach, Marguerite Witvoet. On the phone from Edmonton, where she's just finished a performance, Hayward describes Stripes as “an empowering story about an overenthusiastic people pleaser who runs away from home to audition for the circus, only to discover she's not interested in fitting into the mould. She shows her stripes and discovers what she's always wanted to do.” 

      Hayward says touring the Fringe circuit solo has been a lot of hard work but is also liberating. “Getting to do my own work without making compromises, without having to answer to anybody, is a different experience for an actor who's going out for auditions and is always at the mercy of the decision maker,”  she observes. “That's why this is a great venue. Because it's just an open door.” 

      Vancouver will be Hayward's third stop. “Going across the country is like taking the temperature of the country,”  she says. “In Toronto, they like sitcoms. In Edmonton, they like nudity and sex. And in Vancouver, I'm hoping they like empowering theatre.

      “It's so funny,”  she continues. “If you have one really enthusiastic person in the audience, it sort of buoys up the audience. 'Cause you can have a frightened audience””and then it's sort of like dentistry.” 

      Frightened audiences are nothing new to Colette Kendall, creator of Tippi Seagram's Happy Hour. Tippi, Kendall's glamorous, cocktail-swilling, outspoken alter ego, makes plenty of direct contact with her viewers, no matter where in the house they're sitting. “There is no safe spot,”  Kendall says on a break between shows at the Victoria Fringe. “But I also try to be gentle with everybody, so that they know I'm your friend, I'm not coming out to embarrass you or belittle you, because I really don't like that myself in comedy.” 

      When I saw the show in Victoria, audience members might have been nervous, but they also laughed readily at Tippi's outrageous comments on everything from nipple hair (“the lazy man's dental floss” ) to animal-rights activists.

      Even for the Fringe, where diversity rules, Ken?dall is unusual. She has a degree in biochemistry and ran a craft business from her home in Hamilton, Ontario, while raising her three kids. When the youngest started kindergarten, Kendall decided it was time to get a job, but her boyfriend suggested she try standup comedy instead. Tippi grew out of a five-minute sketch that Kendall performed as part of a show she wrote to mark her 40th birthday. “She was just in there wanting to come out,”  she says, “and I thought 'Okay, I have to do more of her.'?”  She wrote Tippi's first full-length show in three days.

      Kendall had never heard of the Fringe until she started working with an improv group in Hamilton three years ago. Last year she took Tippi to festivals in Montreal and Ontario, and this year she headed west. She's envisioning at least three more Tippi shows, and earlier this summer took part in a panel discussion at the Calgary Fringe, where participants debated whether the Fringe has become too mainstream. “My response was that I'm not an actor at all, I'm kind of like an impostor, sneaking in among you actors. And the Fringe is allowing me to have a voice,”  she says. “I think that's pretty fringy.” 

      Like Hayward and Kendall, San Francisco–based performer Jane Chen thought she was creating a solo show with The Chinese Clown Cabaret until the day she brought her mother, Tair Chen, to fill in as a stagehand at an important rehearsal. The mother and daughter take turns telling the story when we meet after their first performance in Victoria. “I was really nervous about this one rehearsal,”  Jane recounts, “and my mom ended up coming to it.” 

      “Of course, I knew nothing, so I was messing up,”  Tair says.

      “I was yelling at her,”  Jane continues, “and she was yelling back, and the director was sitting there laughing. So she asked my mother, 'What do you think, Mrs. Chen, of being in the show with your daughter?'?”  Recalling the question, Tair makes an incredulous face. But the software engineer had been laid off after 18 years and was at loose ends. “It was all by accident, and we've been working together two years now,”  Jane says.

      “When it comes to mother-daughter stuff, she's the one that has more power, but when it comes to theatre, I'm the authority,”  adds Jane, a graduate of Yale University and the California-based Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre. That push-pull is part of what makes their work so charming. It's a low-budget cabaret in which mother and daughter sing, dance, and goof around. Tair repeatedly exhorts Jane to practise, while Jane makes frequent impatient and bossy asides to her mother.

      Working and travelling together””they've been on the road for most of this past summer””is challenging at times. “It's hard being around each other all the time,”  Jane acknowledges, “especially when we get stressed-out. But the thing is that we really enjoy performing together. We're really working as peers now, which I never experienced with my mother before.” 

      Jane calls her mother “a natural” , but Tair has been studying clowning so that she can continue to contribute to their collaboration.

      On the Fringe, new performers come from the unlikeliest places.